Elizabethan literature

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Elizabeth I Armada Portrait British School
Title page of Euphues, by John Lyly
The epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser; titlepage, printed for William Ponsonby in 1590
William Shakespeare's Hamlet Q1 title page, 1603

Elizabethan literature refers to bodies of work produced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603), and is considered to be one of the most splendid ages of English literature.[1]

One of the most famous monarchs in European history, Queen Elizabeth I presided over a vigorous culture that saw notable accomplishments in the arts, voyages of discovery, the "Elizabethan Settlement" that created the Church of England, and the defeat of military threats from Spain. Her shrewd political mind helped sustain her country in a time of occasional famine, widespread poverty, intermittent plague, and deep religious and political divisions; she also, if sometimes reluctantly, supported the beginnings of an empire that would flourish over the next 350 years. Elizabeth was also a precocious writer, penning translations even in her childhood and later composing poetry and speeches.[2]

The Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the fields of poetry and drama.


The Italian Renaissance had rediscovered the ancient Greek and Roman theatre. This revival of interest was instrumental in the development of the new drama, which was then beginning to make apart from the old mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. The Italians were particularly inspired by Seneca (a major tragic playwright and philosopher, the tutor of Nero) and by Plautus (whose comic clichés, especially that of the boasting soldier, had a powerful influence during the Renaissance and thereafter). However, the Italian tragedies embraced a principle contrary to Seneca's ethics: showing blood and violence on the stage. In Seneca's plays such scenes were only acted by the characters. The English playwrights were intrigued by the Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London, and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England.

Earlier Elizabethan plays include the history play Gorboduc by Sackville and Norton, and The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd, which is thought to have been among the sources for Hamlet. William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright. Shakespeare was very gifted and incredibly versatile. He surpassed "professionals" such as Robert Greene who mocked this "shake-scene" of low origins. Though most dramas met with great success, it is in his later years (marked by the early reign of James I) that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, a tragicomedy that inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king.

Beaumont and Fletcher are less well known, but they may have helped Shakespeare write some of his best dramas by developing the tragicomedy in England,[3] and their plays were quite popular. In the late 16th century the city comedy genre developed. Major themes of Elizabethan drama are: revenge, sensationalism, melodrama and vengeance.


Shakespeare, also popularized the English sonnet, which made significant changes to Petrarch's model. The sonnet was first introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as those by Thomas Campion, became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households. See English Madrigal School.

In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. The most important poets of this era include Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a product of Renaissance humanism, produced occasional poems such as On Monsieur’s Departure and The Doubt of Future Foes.

List of writers[edit]

The following is an incomplete list of writers considered part of this period:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Elizabethan Literature", Encyclopædia Britannica .
  2. ^ "Elizabeth I, Queen of England 1533–1603", Anthology of British Literature A (concise ed.), Petersborough: Broadview, 2009, p. 683 .
  3. ^ McDonald, Russ (2001). The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, p. 107. Macmillan. Retrieved 3 May 2014.