Initiative and Love of Action.—The Elizabethans were distinguished for their initiative. This term implies the possession of two qualities: (1) ingenuity or fertility in ideas, and (2) ability to pass at once from an idea to its suggested action. Never did action habitually follow more quickly on the heels of thought. The age loved to translate everything into action, because the spirit of the Renaissance demanded the exercise of youthful activity to its fullest capacity in order that the power which the new knowledge promised could be acquired and enjoyed before death. As the Elizabethans felt that real life meant activity in exploring a new and interesting world, both physical and mental, they demanded that their literature should present this life of action. Hence, all their greatest poets, with the exception of Spenser, were dramatists. Even Spenser’s Faerie Queene, with its abstractions, is a poem of action, for the virtues fight with the vices.
Variety in the Prose.—The imaginative spirit of the Elizabethans craved poetry, and all the greatest authors of this age, with the exception of Francis Bacon, were poets. If, however, an Elizabethan had been so peculiarly constituted as to wish to stock his library with contemporary prose only, he could have secured good works in many different fields. He could, for instance, have obtained (1) an excellent book on education, the Scholemaster of Roger Ascham (1515-1568); (2) interesting volumes of travel, such as the Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616); and The Discovery of Guiana, by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618); (3) history, in the important Chronicles of England, Ireland, and Scotland (1578), by Raphael Holinshed; the Chronicle (Annals of England) and Survey of London, by John Stow (1525-1604); and the Brittania, by William Camden (1551-1623); (4) biography, in the excellent translation of Plutarch’s Lives, by Sir Thomas North (1535-1601?); (5) criticism, in The Apologie for Poetrie, by Sir Philip Sidney; (6) essays on varied subjects by Francis Bacon; (7) works dealing with religion and faith: (a) John Foxe’s (1516-1587) Book of Martyrs, which told in simple prose thrilling stories of martyrs and served as a textbook of the Reformation; (b) Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a treatise on theology; (8) fiction, in John Lyly’s Euphues (1579), Robert Greene’s Pandosto (1588), Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcardia (1590), Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590), Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler (1594), and Thomas Deloney’s The Gentle Craft (1597).