Abrams, M. H., and Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume 1. New York: Norton, 2000.

The Sixteenth Century, 1485-1603

The social and economic health of the nation had been severely damaged by the so-called Wars of the Roses, a vicious, decades-long struggle for royal power between the noble houses of York and Lancaster. The struggle was resolved by the establishment of the Tudor dynasty that ruled England from 1485 to 1603. 470

The court was a center of culture as well as power: court entertainments such as theater and masque (a sumptuous, elaborately costumed performance of dance, song, and poetry); court fashions in dress and speech; court tastes in painting, music, and poetry—all shaped the taste and imagination / of the country as a whole. Culture and power were not, in any case, easily separable in Tudor England. In a society with no freedom of speech as we understand it and with relatively limited means of mass communication, important public issues were often aired indirectly, through what we might now regard as entertainment, while lyrics that to us seem slight and nonchalant could serve as carefully crafted manifestations of rhetorical agility by aspiring courtiers. 470-471

Festive evenings with the likes of the ruthless Henry VIII were not occasions for relaxation. The court fostered paranoia—the principal character in John Skelton’s poem about court life is aptly named “Dread”—and an attendant obsession with secrecy, spying, duplicity, and betrayal. Courtiers were highly gifted at crafting and deciphering graceful words with double or triple meanings. Sixteenth-century poets had much to learn from courtiers, the Elizabethan critic George Puttenham observed; indeed many of the best poets in the period, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh, and others, were courtiers. 471

If court culture fostered performances for a small coterie audience, other forces in Tudor England pulled toward a more public sphere. Markets expanded significantly, international trade flourished, and cities throughout the realm experienced a rapid surge in size and importance. London’s population in particular soared, from 60,000 in 1520 to 120,000 in 1550 to 375,000 a century later, making it the largest and fastest-growing city not only in England but in all of Europe. 471

The greater availability of books may also have reinforced the trend toward silent reading, a trend that gradually transformed what had been a communal experience into a more intimate encounter with a text. 472

Yet it would be a mistake to imagine these changes as sudden and dramatic. Manuscripts retained considerable prestige among the elite; throughout the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth centuries court poets in particular were wary of the “stigma of print” that might mark their verse as less exclusive. 472

During the fifteenth-century a few English clerics and government officials had journeyed to Italy and had seen something of the extraordinary cultural and intellectual movement flourishing in the city-states there. That movement, generally known as the Renaissance, involved a rebirth of letters and arts stimulated by the recovery of texts and artifacts from classical antiquity, the development of techniques such as linear perspective, and the creation of powerful new aesthetic norms based on classical models. 472

In the brilliant, intensely competitive, and vital world of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the submission of the human spirit to penitential discipline gave way to unleashed curiosity, individual self-assertion, and a powerful conviction that man was the measure of all things. To Renaissance intellectuals, the achievements of the pagan philosophers of antiquity came to seem more compelling than the subtle distinctions drawn by the Christian theologians of the Middle Ages. 472

The perception spurred an impossibly ambitious attempt to assert the underlying unity of the truth found in all philosophical systems, along with an emphasis on the worth of life in this world and the remarkable malleability of the individual. 472

This flowering, when it occurred, came not, as in Italy, in the visual arts and architecture. It came rather in the spiritual and intellectual orientation known as humanism. 473

That education—predominately male and conducted by tutors in wealthy families or in grammar schools—was ordered according to the subjects of the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), but its focus shifted from training for the church to the general acquisition of “literature,” in the sense both of literacy and of cultural knowledge. For some of the more intellectually ambitious humanists, that knowledge extended to ancient Greek, whose enthusiastic adherents began to challenge the entrenched prestige of Latin. 473

Still, at the core of the curriculum remained the study of Latin, the mastery of which was in effect a prolonged male puberty rite involving pain as well as pleasure. 473

The purpose was to train the sons of the nobility and gentry to speak and write good Latin, the language of diplomacy, of the professions, and of all higher learning. Their sisters were always educated at home or in other noble houses. 473

from the Sententia Pueriles (Maxims for Children) for beginners on up through the dramatists Terence, Plautus, and Seneca, the poets Virgil and Orace, and the orator Cicero, the classics were also studied for the moral, political, and philosophical truths they contained. Though originating in pagan times, those truths could, in the opinion of many humanists, be reconciled to the moral vision of Christianity. 473

But throughout Europe nationalism and the expansion of the reading public were steadily strengthening the power and allure of the vernacular. 474

There had long been serious ideological and institutional tensions in the religious life of England, but officially at least England in the early sixteenth century had a single religion, Catholocism, whose acknowledged head was the pope in Rome. 474

What began in November 1517 as an academic disputation grew with amazing speed into a bitter, far-reaching, and bloody revolt that forever ruptured the unity of Western Christendom. When Luther rose up against the ancient church, he did so in the name of private conscience enlightened by a personal reading of the Scriptures. 475

Henry VIII, who had received from Pope Leo X the title Defender of the Faith for writing a book against Luther . . . 475

In 1533 Henry’s marriage to Catherine was officially declared null and void and Anne Boleyn was crowned queen. The king was promptly excommunicated by the pope, Clement VII. 475

The Act of Supremacy, passed later in the year, formally declared the king to be “Supreme Head of the Church in England” and again required an oath to this effect. 475

Protestants regarded Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine as invalid and hence deemed Mary illegitimate, so Catholics regarded his marriage to Anne Boleyn as invalid and hence deemed her daughter, Elizabeth, illegitimate. Henry VIII himself seemed to support both views, since only three years after divorcing Catherine, he beheaded Anne on charges of treason and adultery and urged Parliament to invalidate the marriage. Moreover, though during her sister’s reign Elizabeth outwardly complied with the official Catholic religious observance, Mary and her advisers suspected her of Protestant leanings, and the young princess’s life was in grave danger. Poised and circumspect, Elizabeth warily evaded the traps that were set for her. When she ascended the throne, her actions were scrutinized for some indication of the country’s future course. During her coronation procession, when a girl in an allegorical pageant presented her with a Bible in English translation—banned under Mary’s reign—Elizabeth kissed the book, held it up reverently, and laid it to her breast. England had returned to the Reformation. 477

Many English men and women, of all classes, remained loyal to the old Catholic faith, but English authorities under Elizabeth moved steadily, if cautiously, toward ensuring at least an outward conformity to the official Protestant settlement. 477

for the Protestant exiles who streamed back were eager not only to undo the damage Mary had done but also to carry the Reformation much further than it had gone. They sought to dismantle the church hierarchy, to purge the calendar of folk customs deemed pagan and the church service of ritual practices deemed superstitious, to dress the clergy in simple garb, and, at the extreme edge, to smash “idolatrous” statues, crucifixes, and altarpieces. Throughout her long reign, however, Elizabeth herself remained cautiously conservative and determined to hold religious zealotry in check. 477

In the space of a single lifetime, England had gone officially from Roman Catholicism, to Catholicism under the supreme headship of the England king, to a guarded Protestantism, to a more radical Protestantism, to a renewed and aggressive Roman Catholicism, and finally to Protestantism again. Each of these shifts was accompanied by danger, persecution, and death. It was enough to make people wary. Or skeptical. Or extremely agile. 477

Medieval England’s Jewish population, the recurrent object of persecution, extortion, and massacre, had been officially expelled by King Edward I in 1290, but Elizabethan England harbored a tiny number of Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity. They were the objects of suspicion and hostility. Elizabethans appear to have been fascinated by Jews and Judaism but quite uncertain whether the terms referred to a people, a foreign nation, a set of strange practices, a living faith, a defunct religion, a villainous conspiracy, or a messianic inheritance. 478

Jews were not officially permitted to resettle in England until the middle of the seventeenth century, and even then their legal status was ambiguous. 478

As the word “infection” suggests, Elizabethans frequently regarded blackness as a physical defect, though the black people who lived in England and Scotland throughout the sixteenth century were also treated as exotic curiosities. 478

Africans became increasingly popular as servants in aristocratic and gentle households in the last decades of the sixteenth century. 479

In the legal sphere, crown lawyers advanced the theory of “the king’s two bodies.” As England’s crowned head, Elizabeth’s person was mystically divided between her mortal “body natural” and the immortal “body politic.” While the queen’s natural body was inevitably subject to the failings of human flesh, the body politic was timeless and perfect. In political terms, therefore, Elizabeth’s sex was a matter of no consequence, a thing indifferent. 480

Elizabeth was drawn to the idea of royal absolutism, the theory that ultimate power was quite properly concentrated in her person and indeed that God had appointed her to be His deputy in the kingdom. Opposition to her rule, in this view, was not only a political act but also a kind of impiety, a blasphemous grudging against the will of God. 480

Apologists for absolutism contended that God commands obedience even to manifestly wicked rulers whom He has sent to punish the sinfulness of mankind. 480

Elizabeth ruled through a combination of adroit political maneuvering and imperious command, all the while enhancing her authority in the eyes of both court and country by means of an extraordinary cult of love. 480

Ambassadors, courtiers, and parliamentarians all submitted to Elizabeth’s cult of love, in which the queen’s gender was transformed from a potential liability into a significant asset. 480

England’s leading artists, such as the poet Spenser and the painter Nicholas Hilliard, enlisted themselves in the celebration of Elizabeth’s mystery, likening her to the goddesses of mythology and the heroines of the Bible: Diana, Astraea, Cynthia, Deborah. Her cult drew its power from cultural discourses that ranged from the secular (her courtiers could pine for her as the cruelly chaste mistress celebrated in Petrarchan love poetry) to the sacred (the veneration that under Catholicism had been due to the Virgin Mary could now be directed toward England’s semi-divine queen). 481

Pope Gregory XIII’s proclamation in 1580 that the assassination of the great heretic Elizabeth (who had been excommunicated a decade before) would not constitute a mortal sin. The immediate effect of the proclamation was to make life more difficult for English Catholics, most of whom were loyal to the queen but who fell under grave suspicion. 482

The career of professional writer in sixteenth-century England was almost impossible: there was no such thing as author’s copyright, no royalties paid to an author according to the sales of his book, and virtually no notion that anyone could make a decent living through the creation of works of literature. 483

Not surprisingly, therefore, literary texts sometimes bear traces of self-censorship and often deploy strategies of indirection designed to evade official scrutiny. 483

Fortunately, the system of state censorship was inefficient, and many men and women of the sixteenth century had a passionate determination to make themselves heard. 483

Elizabethan writers of exalted social standing, like the earl of Surrey or Sir Philip Sidney, thought of themselves as courtiers, statesmen, and landowners; poetry was for them an indispensable social grace and a deeply pleasurable, exalted form of play. 484

While Protestantism, with its emphasis on reading Scripture, certainly helped to improve female literacy in the sixteenth century, girls were rarely encouraged to pursue their studies. 485

Every piece of writing by a woman from this period is a triumph over nearly impossible odds. 485

Renaissance literature is the product of a rhetorical culture, a culture steeped in the arts of persuasion and trained to process complex verbal signals. (The contemporary equivalent would be the ease with which we deal with complex visual signals, effortlessly processing such devices as fade-out, montage, crosscutting, and morphing.) In 1512, Erasmus published a work called De copia that taught its readers how to cultivate “copiousness,” verbal richness, in discourse. The work obligingly provides, as a sample, a list of 144 different ways of saying “Thank you for your letter.” 485

Elizabethans had a taste for elaborate ornament in language as in clothing, jewelry, and furniture, and, if we are to appreciate their accomplishments, it helps to set aside the modern preference, particularly in prose, for unadorned simplicity and directness. 485

the succession of images in Shakespeare’s sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou seest the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west;

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self that seals up all in rest.

In me thou seest the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the deathbed whereon it must expire,

Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

What seems merely repetitious in Lyly here becomes a subtle, poignant amplification of the perception of decay, through the succession of images from winter (or late fall) to twilight to the last glow of a dying fire. Each of these images is in turn sensitively explored, so that, for example, the season is figured by bare boughs that shiver, as if they were human, and then these anthropomorphized tree branches in turn are figured as the ruined choirs of a church where services were once sung. No sooner is the image of singers in a church choir evoked than these singers are instantaneously transmuted back into the songbirds who, in an earlier season, had sat upon the boughs, while these sweet birds in turn conjure up the poet’s own vanished youth. And this nostalgic gaze extends, at least glancingly, to the chancels of the Catholic abbeys reduced to ruins by Proestant iconoclasm and the dissolution of the monasteries. All of this within the first four lines: here and elsewhere Shakespeare, along with other poets of his time, contrives to freight the small compass and tight formal constraints of the sonnet—fourteen lines of iambic pentameter in three-principal rhyming patters—with remarkable emotional intensity, psychological nuance, and imagistic complexity. The effect is what Christopher Marlowe called “infinite riches in a little room.” 486

But here and in other plain-style poetry, the somber, lapidary effect depends on a tacit recognition of the allure of the suppleness, grace, and sweet harmony that the dominant literary artists of the period so assiduously cultivated. 487

there is evidence of impressively widespread musical literacy . . . 487

In poetry and music, as in gardens, architecture, and dance, Elizabethans had a taste for elaborate, intricate, but perfectly regular designs. They admired form, valued the artist’s manifest control of the medium, and took pleasure in the highly patterned surfaces of things. Suspicion of surfaces, impatience with order, the desire to rip away the mask in order to discover a hidden core of experiential truth: these responses to art, highly characteristic of later periods, are far less in evidence in Renaissance aesthetics than is a delight in pattern. 487

Such an emphasis on conspicuous pattern might seem to encourage an art as stiff as the starched ruffs that ladies and gentlemen wore around their necks, but the period’s fascination with order was conjoined with a profound interest in persuasively conveying the movements of the mind and heart. 487

In his Defense of Poesy, the most important work of literary criticism in sixteenth-century England, Sidney claims that this magical power is also a moral power. All other arts, he argues, are subjected to fallend, imperfect nature, but the poet alone is free to range “within the zodiac of his own wit” and create a second nature, superior to the one we are condemned to inhabit. 489

Among the most prominent of the clusters of conventions in the period were those that defined the major literary modes (or “inds,” as Sidney terms them): pastoral, heroic, lyric, satiric, elegiac, tragic, and comic. 489

The conventions of the pastoral mode present a world inhabited by shepherds / and shepherdesses who are chiefly concerned to tend their flocks, fall in love, and engage in friendly singing contests. 490

Probably the most famous pastoral poem of the period is Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, an erotic invitation whose promise of gold buckles, coral clasps, and amber studs serves to remind us that, however much it sings of naïve innocence, the mode is ineradicably sophisticated and urban. 490

With is rustic characters, simple concerns, and modest scope, the pastoral mode was regarded as situated at the opposite extreme from heroic, with is values of honor, martial courage, loyalty, leadership, and endurance and its glorification of a nation or people. 490

The spectacular mixing of genres in Spenser’s poem is only an extreme instance of a general Elizabethan indifference4 to the generic purity admired by writers, principally on the Continent, who adhered to Aristotle’s Poetics. Where such neoclassicists attempted to observe rigid stylistic boundaries, English poets tended to approach the different genres in the spirit of Sidney’s inclusivism: “if severed they be good, the conjunction cannot be hurtful.” 490

Several towns in late medieval England were the sites of annual festivals that mounted elaborate cycles of plays depicting the great biblical stories, from the creation of the world to Christ’s Passion and its miraculous aftermath. Many of these plays have been lost, but the surviving cycles, as the selection in this anthology demonstrates, include magnificent and complex works of art. They are sometimes called “mystery plays,” either because they were performed by the guilds of various crafts (known as “mysteries”) or, more likely, because they represented the mysteries of the faith. 491

Before the construction of the public theaters, the playing companies often performed short plays called “interludes” that were, in effect, staged dialogues on religious, moral, and political themes. 491

Some of Shakespeare’s amazing ability to look at critical issues from multiple perspectives may be traced back to this practice and the dramatic interludes it helped to inspire. 492

Another major form of theater that flourished in England in the fifteenth century and continued into the sixteenth was the morality play. Like the mysteries, moralities addressed questions of the ultimate fate of the soul. They did so, however, not by rehearsing scriptural stories but by dramatizing allegories of spiritual struggle. 492

Plays such as Mankind (ca. 1465-70) and Everyman (ca. 1495) show how powerful these unpromising-sounding dramas could be, in part because of the extraordinary comic vitality of the evil character, or Vice, and in part because of the poignancy and terror of an individual’s encounter with death. 492

If such plays sound more than a bit like sermons, it is because they were. The church was a profoundly different institution from the theater, but its professionals shared some of the same rhetorical skills. 492

Roman playwright Seneca, and Senecan influence—including violent plots, resounding rhetorical speeches, and ghosts thirsting for blood—remained pervasive in the Elizabethan period, giving rise to a subgenre of revenge tragedy. 492

A related but distinct kind is the villain tragedy in which the protagonist is blatantly evil: if Thomas Preston’s crude Cambyses, King of Persia (ca. 1560?) seems to bear out Aristotle’s strictures, in his Poetics, against attempting to use a wicked person as the hero of a tragedy, Shakespeare’s Richard III and Macbeth amply justify the general English indifference to classical rules. 492

The conventions of romantic comedy call for noble characters and a plot in which love triumphs over potentially tragic obstacles. 493

In the dismemberment with which Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus ends, the audience was witnessing the theatrical equivalent of the execution of criminals and traitors that they could have also watched in the flesh, as it were, nearby. 494

Moralists warned that the theaters were nests of sedition, and religious polemicists, especially Puritans, obsessively focusing on the use of boy actors to play the female parts, charged that theatrical transvestism excited illicit sexual desires, both heterosexual and homosexual. 495

It was at least plausible, as officially claimed, that in her dying breath, on March 24, 1603, Elizabeth designated James as her successor. A jittery nation that had feared a possible civil war lit bonfires to welcome its new king. But in a very few years, the English began to express nostalgia for the rule of “Good Queen Bess” and to look back on her reign as a magnificent high point in the history and culture of their nation. 496

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