The "dark" Middle Ages were followed by a time known
in art and literature as the Renaissance. The word "renaissance"
means "rebirth" in French and was used to denote a phaze in
the cultural development of Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The wave of progress reached the shores of England only in the
16th century. The ideas of the Renaissance came to England together with the
ideas of the Reformation (the establishment of the national Church) and were
called the "New Learning". Every year numbers of new books were
brought out, and these books were sold openly, but few people could read and
enjoy them. The universities were lacking in teachers to spread the ideas of
modern thought. So, many English scholars began to go to Italy, where they
learned to understand the ancient classics, and when they came home they
adapted their classical learning to the needs of the country. Grammar schools
(primary schools) increased in number. The new point of view passed from the
schools to the home and to the market place.
Many of the learned men in Italy came from the great city of
Constantinopole. It was besieged and taken by Turks in 1453. All the
great libraries and schools in Constanstinople had been broken up and
destroyed. The Latin and Greek scholars were driven out of the city, glad to
escape with their lives and with such books as they could carry away with
them. Being learned men, many of them found a welcome in the cities and
towns in which they stopped. They began to teach the people how to read
the Latin and Greek books which they had brought with them and also taught them
to read the Latin and Greek books which were kept in many towns of Europe, but
which few people at that time were able to read.
Foreign scholars and artists began to teach in England
during the reign of Henry VIII. In painting and music the first period of
the Renaissance was one of imitation. Painting was represented by German
artist Holbein, and music by Italians and French men. With literature the
case was different. The English poets and dramatists popularized much of
the new learning. The freedom of thought of English humanists
revealed itself in antifeudal and even antibourgeois ideas, showing the life of
their own people as it really was. Such a writer was the humanist Thomas
Thomas More (1478-1535)
Thomas More, the first English humanist of the
Renaissance, was born in London in 1478. Educated at Oxford, he could
write a most beautiful Latin. It was not the Latin of the Church but the
original classical Latin. At Oxford More met a foreign humanist, and made
friends with him. Erasmus believed in the common sense of a man and
taught that men ought to think for themselves, and not merely to believe things
to be true because their fathers, or the priest had said they were true.
Later, Thomas More wrote many letters to Erasmus and received many letters from
Thomas More began life as a lawyer. During the reign of
Henry VII he became a member of Parliament. He was an active-minded man
and kept a keen eye on the events of his time. The rich landowners at the
time were concentrating on sheep-raising because it was very profitable.
Small holders were not allowed to till the soil and were driven off their
lands. The commons (public ground) were enclosed and fields converted
into pastures. The mass of the agricultural population were doomed to
poverty. Thomas More set to work to find the reason of this evil.
He was the first great writer on social and political subjects in England.
Fourteen years after Henry VIII came to the throne, More was
made Speaker of the House of Commons. The Tudor monarchy was an absolute
monarchy, and Parliament had very little power to resist the king. There
was, however, one matter on which Parliament was very determined. That
was the right to vote or to refuse to vote for the money. Once when the
King wanted money and asked Parliament to vote him 800.000, the members sat
silent. Twice the King's messengers called, and twice they had to leave
without an answer. When Parliament was called together again, Thomas More
spoke up and urged that the request be refused. After a long discussion a sum
less then half the amount requested by the King was voted, and that sum was to
be spread over a period of four years.
Thomas More was an earnest Catholic, but he was not liked by the
priests and the Pope on account of his writings and the ideas he taught. After
Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope he gathered around himself all the enemies
of the Pope, and so in 1529 More was made Lord Chancellor (highest judge to the
House of Lords). He had not wanted the post because he was as much against the
king's absolute power in England as he was against the Pope. More soon fell a
victim to the King's anger. He refused to swear that he would obey Henry as the
head of the English Church, and was thrown into the Tower. Parliament, to
please the King, declared More guilty of treason, and he was beheaded in the
Tower in 1535.
Works of Thomas More
Thomas More wrote in English and in Latin. The humanists of al1
European countries communicated in the Latin language, and their best works
were written in Latin. The English writings of Thomas More include:
* Discussions and political subjects.
His style is simple, colloquial end has an unaffected ease. The
work by which he is best remembered today is "Utopia" which was
written in Latin in the year 1516. It has now been translated into all European
(which in Greek means "nowhere") is the name of a non-existent
island. This work is divided into two books.
In the first, the author gives a profound and truthful
picture of the people's sufferings and points out the socia1 evils existing, in
England at the time.
In the second book More presents his ideal of what the
future society should be like.
The word "utopia" has become a byword and is used in
Modern English to denote an unattainable ideal, usually in social and political
matters. But the writer H.G. Wells, who wrote an introduction to the latest
edition, said that the use of the word "utopia" was far from More's
essentia1 quality, whose mind abounded in sound, practical ideas. The book is
in reality a very unimaginative work.
"Utopia" describes a perfect social system built
on communist principles.
First book While on business in Flanders, the author makes the
acquaintance of a certain Raphael Hythloday, a sailor who has travelled with
the famous explorer Amerigo Vespucci. He has much to tell about his voyages,
Thomas More, Raphael Hythloday and a cardinal meet together in a garden and
discuss many problems. Raphael has been to England too and expresses his
surprise at the cruelty of English laws and at the poverty of the population.
Then they talk about crime in general, and Raphael says:
"There is another cause of stealing which I suppose
is proper and peculiar to you Englishmen alone."
"What is that?" asked the Cardinal.
"Oh, my lord," said Raphael, "your sheep
that used to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, have now become so great
devourers and so wild that they eat up and swallow down the very men
themselves. The peasants are driven out of their land. Away they go finding no
place to rest in. And when all is spent, what can they do but steal and then be
The disastrous state of things in England puts Raphael Hythloday
in mind of a commonwealth (a republic) he has seen on an unknown island in an
unknown sea. A description of "Utopia" follows, and Raphael speaks
"of all the good laws and orders of this same island."
There is no private property in Utopia. The people own
everything in common and enjoy complete economic equality. Everyone cares for
his neighbour's good, and each has a clean and healthy house to live in. Labour
is the most essential feature of life in Utopia, but no one is overworked.
Everybody is engaged in usefu1 work nine hours a day. After work, they indulge
in sport and games and spend much time in "improving their minds"
(learning)-All teaching is free, and the parents do not have to pay any schoo1
fees. (More wrote about things unknown in any country at that time, though they
are natural with us in our days.)
For magistrates the Utopians choose men whom they think to be
most fit to protect the welfare of the population. When electing their
government, the people give their voices secretly. There are few laws and no
lawyers at all, but these few laws must be strictly obeyed. "Virtue,"
says Thomas More, "lives according to Nature." The greatest of all
pleasures is perfect health. Man must be healthy and wise.
Thomas More's "Utopia" was the first literary work in
which the ideas of Cornmunism appeared. It was highly esteemed by all the
humanists of Europe in More's time and again grew very popular with the
socialists of the 19th century. After More, a tendency began in literature to
write fantastic novels on social reforms, and many such works appeared in
period of the renaissance.
predecessors of shakespeare
The most significant period of the Renaissance in England falls
to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. England's success in commerce brought
prosperity to the nation and gave a chance to many persons of talent to develop
their abilities. Explorers, men of letters, philosophers, poets and famous
actors and dramatists appeared in rapid succession. The great men of the
so-called "Elizabethan Era" distinguished themselves by their
activities in many fields and displayed an insatiable thirst for knowledge.
They were often called "the Elizabethans", but of course the Queen had
no hand in assisting them when they began literary work; the poets and
dramatists had to push on through great difficulties before they became well
Towards the middle of the 16th century common people were
already striving for knowledge and the sons of many common citizens managed to
get an education. The universities began to breed many learned men who refused
to become churchmen and wrote for the stage. These were called the
"University Wits", because under the influence of their classical
education they wrote after Greek and Latin models. Among the "University
Wits" were Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Sackville, John Lyly, George Peele,
Roberk Greene, Thomas Kyd and Thqmas Nashe; Christopher Marlowe being the
most distinguished of them. The new method of teaching classical literature at
the universities was to perform Roman plays in Latin, Later the graduates
translated these plays into English and then they wrote plays of their own.
Some wrote plays for the court, others for the public theatres. But
the plays were not mere imitations. Ancient literature had taught the
playwrights to seek new forms and to bring in new progressive ideas. The new
drama represented real characters and real human problems which satisfied the
demands of the common people and they expected ever new plays. Under such
favourable circumstances there was a sudden rise of the drama. The great plays
were written in verse.
The second period of the Renaissance was characterised by the
splendour of its poetry.
Lyrical poetry also became wide-spread in England. The country
was called a nest of singing birds. Lyrical poetry was very emotional. The
poets introduced blank verse and the Italian sonnet. The sonnet is a poem
consisting of fourteen lines. The lines are divided into two groups: the first
group of eight lines (the octave), and the second group of six lines (the
sestet). The foremost poet of the time was Edmund Spenser. He wrote in a new,
English, form: the nine-line stanza.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552. Though his
parents descended from a noble House, the family was poor. His father was a
free journeyman for a merchant's company. When Edmund came of age he
entered the University of Cambridge as a "sizar" (a student who paid
less for his education than others and had to wait on (to serve) the wealthier
students at mealtimes).
Spenser was learned in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. His
generation was one of the first to study also their mother tongue seriously.
While at college, he acted in the tragedies of the ancient masters and this
inspired him to write poetry.
Spenser began his literary work at the age of seventeen.
Once a fellow-student introduced him to the famous Sir Philip Sidney, who
encouraged him to write (Sidney was the author of an allegorical romance in
prose called "Arcadia" that had become very popular as light reading
among the court-ladies of Queen Elizabeth). At the age of twenty-three, Spenser
took his M.A. (Master of Arts) degree.
Before returning to London he lived for a while in the
wilderness of Lancashire where he fell in love with a "fair widow's
daughter". His love was not returned but he clung to this early passion;
she became the Rosalind of his poem the "Shepherd s Calendar".
Spenser's disappointment in love drove him southward - he accepted the
invitation of Sir Philip Sidney to visit him at his estate. There he finished
writing his "Shepherd's Calendar". The poem was written in 12
eclogues. "Eclogue" is a Greek word meaning a poem about ideal
shepherd life. Each eclogue is dedicated to one of the months of the year, the
whole making up a sort of calendar.
The publication of this work made Spenser the first poet of his
day. His poetry was so musical and colourful that he was called the
Philip Sidney introduced the poet to the illustrious courtier,
the Earl of Leicester, who, in his turn, brought him to the notice of the
Queen. Spenser was given royal favour and appointed as secretary to the new
Lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Thus he had to leave England for good.
The suppression of Ireland provoked many rebellions against the
English. English military governors were sent confiscate the lands of the
rebels and to put English people on them. Spenser was sent to such a place near
Cork. He felt an exile in the, lonely castle of Kilcolman, yet he could not
help admiring the, changeful beauty of the place.
The castle stood by a deep lake into which flowed a river (the
Mulla). Soft woodlands stretched towards mountain ranges in the distance. The
beauty of his surroundings inspired Spenser to write his great epic poem the
"Faerie Queen" ("Fairy Queen"), in which Queen Elizabeth is
Sir Walter Raleigh who was captain of the Queen's guard, came to
visit Spenser at Kilcolman. He was greatly delighted with the poem, and Spenser
decided to publish the first three parts. Raleigh and Spenser returned to
England together. At court Spenser presented his "simple song" to the
Queen. It was published in 1591. The success of the poem was great. The Queen
rewarded him with a pension of 50 pounds, but his position remained unchanged.
Poetry was regarded as a noble pastime but not a profession; and Edmund Spenser
had to go back to Ireland.
The end of his life was sorrowful. When the next rebellion broke
out, the insurgents attacked the castle so suddenly and so furiously that
Spenser and his wife and children had to flee for their lives. Their youngest
child was burnt to death in the blazing ruins of the castle. Ruined and
heart-broken Spenser went to England and there he died in a London tavern three
months later, in 1599.
The poem is an allegory representing ihe court of Queen
Elizabeth. The whole is an interweaving of Greek myths and English legends.
Spenser planned to divide his epic poem into twelve books. The
12 books were to tell of the warfare of 12 knights. But only six books of the
"Fairy Queen" were finished. The first two books are the best and the
most interesting. The allegory is not so clear in the rest.Prince Arthur is the
hero of the poem. In a vision he sees Gloriana, the Fairy Queen. She is so
beautiful that he falls in love with her. Armed by Merlin he sets out to seek
her in Fairy Land. She is supposed to hold her annual 12-day feast during which
12 adventures are to be achieved by 12 knights. Each knight
represents a certain virtue: Holiness, Temperance, Friendship, Justice,
Courtesy, Constancy, etc., which are opposed to Falsehood, Hypocrisy and others
in the form of witches, wizards and monsters.
Spenser imitated antique verse. One of the features of those
verses was the use of "Y" before the past participle, as
"Yclad" instead of "clad" ("dressed"). He
was the first to use the nine-line stanza. In this verse each line but the last
has 10 syllables, the last line has 12 syllables. The rhymed lines are arranged
in the following way: a b a b b c b c c.
A gentle knight was pricking on the
Yclad in mighty arms and silver
Wherein old dints of deep wounds did
The cruel marks of many a bloody
Yet arms till that time did he never
His angry steed did chide his foamy
As much disdaining to the curb to
Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters
development of the drama.
theatres and actors
The development of the drama in England was in close connection
with the appearance and development of the theatre. Since ancient times there
existed in Europe two stages upon which dramatic art developed. The chief place
of performance was the church, and second to it was the market place where
clowns played their tricks.
The church exhibited Bible-stories, called
"Mysteries"; they also had "Miracles" which were about
supernatural events in the lives of saints. Both, the miracles and mysteries
were directed by the clergy and acted by boys of the choir on great holidays.
It has become a tradition since then to have men-actors for heroines on the
Early in the 15th century characters represented human
qualities, such as Mercy, Sin, Justice and Truth, began to be introduced into
the miracle plays. The plays were called "Moral plays" or
"Moralities". They were concerned with man's behaviour in this life.
The devil figured in every ply and he was the character always able to make the
audience laugh. Moralities were acted in town halls too.
It was about the time of King Henry VIII, when the Protestants
drove theatricals out of the church, that acting became a distinct profession
in England. Now the actors performed in inncourt yards, which were admirably
suited to dramatic performances consisting as they did of a large open court
surrounded by two galleries. A platform projected into the middle of the yard
with dressing rooms at the back, There was planty of standing room around the
stage, and people came running in crowds as soon as they heard the trumpets
announcing the beginning of a play. To make the audience pay for its
entertainment, the actors took advantage of the most thrilling moment of the
plot: this was the proper time to send the hat round for a collection.
The plays gradually changed; moralities now gave way to plays
where historical and actual characters appeared. The popular clowns from the
market-place never disappeared from the stage. They would shove in between the
parts of a play and talk the crowds into anything.
The regular drama from its very beginning was divided
into comedy and tragedy. Many companies of players had their own dramatists who
were actors too.
As plays became more complicated, special playhouses came into
existence. The first regular playhouse in London was built in what had been the
Blackfriars Monastery where miracle plays had been performed before the
Reformation. It was built by James
Burbage and was called "The Theatre" (a Greek word
never used in England before). Later, "The Rose", "The
Curtain", "The Swan" and many other playhouses appeared. These
playhouses did not belong to any company of players. Actors travelled from one
place to another and hired a building for their performances.
The actors and their station in life.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the laws against the poor
were very cruel. Peasants who had lost their lands and went from town to town
in search of work were put into prison as tramps. Actors were often accused of
being tramps, so trave1ling became impossible. The companies of players
had to find themselves a patron among the nobility and with the aid of obtain
rights to travel and to perform. Thus some players called themselves
"The Earl of Leicester's Servants", others-"The Lord
Chamberlain's Men", and in 1583 the Queen appointed certain actors
"Grooms of the Chamber" All their plays were censored lest there be
anything against the Church or the government.
But the worst enemies of the actors were the Puritans. They
formed a religious sect in England which wanted to purity the English Church
from some forms that the Church retained of roman Catholicism. The ideology of
the Puritans was the ideology of the smaller bourgeoisie who wished for a
"cheaper church" and who hoped they would become rich one day by
careful living. They led a modest and sober life. These principles, though
moral at first sight, resulted in a furious attack upon the stage. The
companies of players were actually locked out of the City because they thought
acting a menace to public morality.
The big merchants attacked the drama because players and
playgoers caused them a lot of trouble: the profits on beer went to proprietors
of the inns and not to the merchants; all sorts of people came to town, such as
gamblers and thieves, during the hot months of the year the plague was also
spread strolling actors. Often apprentices who were very much exploited by the
merchants used to gather at plays for the purpose of picking fights with their
Towards the end of the 16th century we find most of the
playhouses far from the city proper.