The Sixteenth Century 1485-1603

Points of note…

  • Beginning of 16th c. English language had almost no prestige abroad (More’s Utopia (1516) was written for serious international audience in Latin, not translated into English until 1550’s)
  • Development of language linked in part to the strengthening of English state
  • Court was center of both power and culture: communication of public issues through entertainment and lyric
  • Markets expanded, international trade flourished, cities grew in size and importance. literacy rates increased (Protestantism’s direct encounter with the Bible, which was easier and cheaper to print)
  • Printing and greater accessibility of books also may have reinforced trend toward silent reading – transformed a communal experience to a more intimate encounter
  • “stigma of print” among the elite where manuscripts retained prestige
  • 1485: accession of Henry VII inaugurates Tudor dynasty (brings state political stability)
  • 1509: accession of Henry VIII (allows flowering of English Renaissance)
  • English Renaissance (not in visual arts and architecture like Italy but) in spiritual and intellectual orientation known as humanism
    • bound up in education and curriculum reform
  • Emergent sense of national identity and English pride in the vernacular (allowed for  surge in translations of classical and international texts)
  • 1517: Martin Luther’s Wittenberg Theses in Germany; beginning of the Reformation
    • sola scriptura only the Scriptures (not the Church or tradition or the clerical hierarchy) have authority in matters of religion and should determine what an individual must believe and practice
    • sola fide only the faith of the individual (not good works or the scrupulous obervance of religious rituals) can effect a Christian’s salvation
  • Reformation in England began due to power struggle between Church and Henry VIII (wanted to divorce wife to marry Anne Boleyn in order to conceive son; Church refused; Henry was excommunicated and declared himself “Supreme Head of the Church in England”)
    • Thomas Cromwell – powerful secretary of state at this time, who directed the suppression of England’s monasteries and seized their wealth
    • Henry VIII succeeded by son Edward (10 years old) who was Protestant; 6 years later dies and Mary (Henry’s daughter with first wife) accedes to the throne
    • Mary is devout Catholic and restores relationship with Rome and initiates series of religious prosecutions earning her the nickname Bloody Mary
    • Mary dies childless (was married to Philip II, king of Spain) and younger half-sister Elizabeth accedes in 1588 (daughter of Henry with Anne Boleyn)  who returns England to Reformation
  • July 1588 Spanish Armada – Catholic Spain (under Philip II) to invade Elizabeth’s England after she signs death warrant of cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (Catholic) after an assassination plot in uncovered
  • Throughout Tudor era there was a rise in a English national identity
    • led to protests and riots of immigrants and refugees in London and elsewhere in 16th c
  • March 24, 1603 Elizabeth dies and names James VI (son of cousin Mary) successor, he becomes James I (first of Stuart kings)
  • 1557 Stationers’ Company received its charter and became responsible for the licensing of books
  • Wealthy patronage extended beyond financial support to the creation of lively literary and intellectual circles
  • Universities also attended by more laymen (less affluent students, Marlowe and Spenser attended Oxford and Cambridge on scholarship)
  • Women’s literacy increased but they were not necessarily taught to write
  • Renaissance literature is a product of the rhetorical culture steeped in the arts of persuasion and trained to process complex verbal signals and also the taste for elaborate ornament in language as is most other things
  • Verbal “richness” and “figures” or “schemes” (certain syntactic forms or patterns of words, aka, hyperbole, irony, etc) known mainly by their Greek and Latin names were shaped and repeated to heighten expressive power
    • “Euphuism” – John Lyly with character Euphues; multiplication of balanced rhetorical figures (Shakespeare ridiculed it for its formulaic excess)
  • Also emphasis on form, structure and highly patterned art
  • Syntax in the 16th c was looser and more flexible and punctuation less systematic
  • Poetry interested not in representational accuracy but in the magical power of exquisite workmanship to draw its readers into fabricated worlds
  • Sidney’s Defense of Poesy (most important work of literary criticism of the era) claims this magical power is also a moral power, thus poetry claims a didactic role with its unique persuasive force: the poet creating a superior world and life emulating it
  • Clusters of conventions that defined major literary modes (or to Sidney “kinds”, including pastoral, heroic, lyric, satiric, elegiac, tragic, and comic)  helped to shape subject matter, attitude, tone, and values in order to elicit particular audience responses and relate the words to other times, languages and cultures. These could be deployed in different genres.
    • Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is pastoral
    • Spenser’s Faerie Queene is heroic (heroic epics were the most prestigious kind of poetry) but also a generic hybrid of modes
  • General Elizabethan indifference to the generic purity admired by writers (principally on the Continent) who adhered to Aristotle’s Poetics
  • Despite Sidney’s endorsement of experimental intertwining of genres in both poetry and prose (Arcadia was pastoral and heroic) he found the same method absurd in theater
    • he condemned conjunction of high and low characters in”mongrel” tragicomedies as well as violations of “dramatic unities” (anticipates the achievements of Marlowe and Shakespeare)
  • Long tradition of English Theater in “mystery plays” at annual festivals and elsewhere before playhouses were created but because of their close links to popular Catholic piety, they were suppressed by Protestant authorities
  • As early as 15th c there were organized travelling companies with a noble’s patronage which continued in Shakespeare’s time
  • Before public theaters of playhouses, companies performed short plays called “interludes” that were staged dialogues on religious, moral, and political themes and demonstrated the general academic focus on argumentation and rhetoric
  • Also the morality plays continued from 15th c. These were dramatizations of the spiritual struggle of the Christian soul
  • 1561 First English tragedy in blank verse titled Gorboduc, or Ferrex and Porrex by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville closely modeled works of roman playwright Seneca
  • Senecan influence pervasive in Elizabethan period – violent plots, resounding rhetorical speeches, and ghosts thirsting for blood – gave rise to subgenre, the revenge tragedy
    • Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (1592)
    • Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  • Also the villain tragedy (wicked person is the hero of the tragedy)
    • Macbeth
    • Richard III
  • 1576 building of The Theater, the first permanent structure in England for the presentation of plays
  • Around 1590 extraordinary change came over English drama (mainly due to Marlowe who created and mastered a theatrical language in blank verse)


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