In brief, Elizabeth’s reign was remarkable for the rise of the middle classes, for the growth of manufactures, for the appearance of English ships in almost all parts of the world, for the extension of commerce, for greater freedom of thought and action, for what the world now calls Elizabethan literature, and for the ascendancy of a great mental and moral movement to which we must next call attention.
Culmination of the Renaissance and the Reformation.—We have seen that the Renaissance began in Italy in the fourteenth century and influenced the work of Chaucer. In the same century, Wycliffe’s influence helped the cause of the Reformation. Elizabethan England alone had the good fortune to experience the culmination of these two movements at one and the same time. At no other period and in no other country have two forces, like the Renaissance and the Reformation, combined at the height of their ascendancy to stimulate the human mind. One result of these two mighty influences was the work of William Shakespeare, which speaks to the ear of all time.
The Renaissance, having opened the gates of knowledge, inspired the Elizabethans with the hope of learning every secret of nature and of surmounting all difficulties. The Reformation gave man new freedom, imposed on him the gravest individual responsibilities, made him realize the importance of every act of his own will, and emphasized afresh the idea of the stewardship of this present life, for which he would be held accountable. In Elizabethan days, these two forces cooeperated; in the following Puritan age they were at war.
Some Characteristics of Elizabethan Life.—It became an ambition to have as many different experiences as possible, to search for that variety craved by youth and by a youthful age. Sir Walter Raleigh was a courtier, a writer, a warden of the tin mines, a vice admiral, a captain of the guard, a colonizer, a country gentleman, and a pirate. Sir Philip Sidney, who died at the age of thirty-two, was an envoy to a foreign court, a writer of romances, an officer in the army, a poet and a courtier. Shakespeare left the little town where he was born, to plunge into the more complex life of London. The poet, Edmund Spenser, went to turbulent Ireland, where he had enough experiences to suggest the conflicts in the Faerie Queene.
The greater freedom and initiative of the individual and the remarkable extension of trade with all parts of the world naturally led to the rise of the middle class. The nobility were no longer the sole leaders in England’s rapid progress. Many of Elizabeth’s councilors were said to have sprung from the masses, but no reign could boast of wiser ministers. It was then customary for the various classes to mingle much more freely than they do now. There was absence of that overspecialization which today keeps people in such sharply separated groups. This mingling was further aided by the tendency to try many different