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Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabethan Literature

Against the Spanish Armada

Elizabeth's Last Years


England prospered in the second half of Elizabeth's reign, and many of the great works of English literature were produced during these years: art, poetry, drama, and learning in general flourished as the confidence and nationalism Elizabeth inspired spilled from the economic sector to cultural achievements. Elizabeth's reign saw playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, poets like Edmund Spenser, and men of science and letters like Francis Bacon. The era also saw the beginning of William Shakespeare's work. Many of the writers, thinkers and artists of the day enjoyed the patronage of members of Elizabeth's court, and their works often involved or referred to the great Queen; indeed, she was the symbol of the day. The "Elizabethan Age," generally considered one of golden ages in English literature, was thus appropriately named: these cultural achievements did not just happen to be created while Elizabeth was on the throne; rather, Elizabeth's specific actions, her image, and the court atmosphere she nurtured significantly influenced--even inspired--great works of literature.

From the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth was always a major patron of the stage, and drama flourished under her support. In the 1560s, the first blank verse tragedies appeared, ultimately giving rise to an art form that remains heavily studied today. In 1562, one of the earliest of these blank verse plays, Gorboduc, was performed for the Queen.

Initially, a certain amount of class conflict arose over the production of plays, as the puritanical Elizabethan middle class tried to shut down the London theaters on the basis of their "immorality." Thus, under major pressure, the Mayor of London attempted to close all of the city's theaters in 1580. The Privy Council, citing Elizabeth's fondness for plays, prevented this measure from taking place, although they did allow the crowded theaters to be shut down in times of epidemics. Elizabeth, who liked to invite theater companies to her palaces, was against shutting down the theaters because she wanted them to have fully practiced their plays before bringing them to her. As a result, plays became more socially respectable, and by the 1570s and 1580s, exclusive boys' schools like St. Paul's and Merchant Taylor's integrated the performance of both English and Latin plays into their curriculum, initiating the custom of the school play. The Queen even watched some of these school plays herself. In 1595, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed at Greenwich palace during the marriage celebration of Burleigh's granddaughter. The play contained several references to Elizabeth and her court, especially to the water-pageant Leicester had put on for Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575. Then at Christmastime while Essex was gone on the campaign in Ireland, Elizabeth saw a performance of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Elizabeth herself was known for being a very good dancer and a particularly talented musician. Although she only played for her closest friends, she spent considerable time perfecting her renditions of several of the more difficult pieces of the day. Once her practicing was overheard by an envoy from Mary Queen of Scots who, much to Elizabeth's pleasure, admitted that Mary Stuart, though "good for a Queen", was not nearly the musician Elizabeth was.

Edmund Spenser, whose patron was none other than Leicester himself, often drew from the lives of the big celebrities of the day as subject matter for his poems. In a 1579 poem, for instance, he subtly hints at Leicester's secret marriage to Elizabeth's cousin, Lettice Knollys. Spenser's famous Faerie Queene contains multiple references to Elizabeth, who appears allegorically as several characters, including the Faerie Queene herself. Other international figures, including Philip II, Alencon, Mary Queen of Scots, and Leicester are represented as well.


It may seem odd that the Mayor of London so opposed the theater houses: in our own day, drama is considered a bastion of high culture; indeed, many people prefer TV or movies, as they contain more "action," more sensation and excitement; why would anyone want to ban the comparatively staid and civilized genre of theatrical drama? In the Elizabethan age, however, plays were the TV or movies of the time. In a day when there was not much entertainment, drama provided one of the few avenues of diversion and was wildly popular. Because the lower-class masses were illiterate, plays appealed especially to them. Thus, tension over the theaters revolved around a class conflict: the well-to-do middle class, obsessed with hard work and religion, hated plays, viewing them as a source of idleness. Moreover, because the lower classes often skipped church in order to arrive early to the theatres and secure a good view of the stage, the middle classes deemed the theatres ungodly. In fact, the situation regarding Elizabethan plays is not unlike the current state of affairs in the modern United States, where various groups busily blame many social ills on violence and other inappropriate behavior seen on TV. The Elizabethan middle classes and their religious spokespeople thought the violence and inappropriate behavior seen in the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare would twist the minds and behavior of the population, leading them to violence and vice. Today, of course, these plays are considered among the greatest literary works of all time.

The commoners, however, had an ally in Elizabeth and her court. The leisured aristocratic classes had plenty of free time to fill, and most found plays delightful. Elizabeth was particularly fond of inviting theater companies to perform at her palaces during holidays, and these performances increased the theatre companies' repute. The dramatic presentations before the royal court became an important social event, and Elizabeth even proudly brought ministers from other countries to see them, in order to show off the achievements of English culture. Elizabeth, never the religious fanatic, refused to listen to the Mayor of London's claims that playwrights and actors were God's enemies. Yet the middle class never warmed to the theatre, and this gave playwrights a unique audience with which to contend: rather than writing for people of a continuous spectrum of backgrounds, they were writing for two groups separated by a huge gulf, the lower-class commoners and aristocracy. The plays thus have plots that could be appreciated by the relatively unschooled "groundlings," (those who could not afford real seats stood on the ground in front of the stage), but also are filled with allusions and literary references to delight the well-educated aristocracy of Elizabeth's court. This complexity of audience is part of the reason for the depth and complexity of the Elizabethan plays.

Edmund Spenser's poetry today seems a description of impossible fantasy scenes. However, a major inspiration for these faerie realms was the glittering splendor he saw in Elizabeth's court. We might also think that his emphasis on knights and jousting is another manifestation of fantasy; yet these, too, had their basis in Elizabeth's court: although gunpowder had put an end to the era of armored knights carrying lances on horseback in real battles, jousting and tournaments were much alive as forms of entertainment for Elizabeth and her aristocracy.

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