Elizabethan period in English literature

The period in which Queen Elizabeth I was reigning from 1558-1603. We also saw how the Tudor dynasty came into being and how Elizabeth I came into power through the various marriages of Henry VIII and through the process of reformation.

We also notice that there are various ways in which this age was getting referred to. It was known as the Elizabethan era after the reigning queen, it was also the golden age because of how the period began to flourish in terms of literature, language, trade, commerce and almost everything and this is also the English Renaissance. In fact, what had been happening in Italy found replication in the British world only from the reign of Queen Elizabeth onwards, so this period is also known as the English Renaissance.

This is also the age of Shakespeare following the name of the most important literary figure of the period and this was also the time when the British Empire inaugurated all it is a colonial journey. So it is also the beginning of the British Empire. And we need to give a general background to this period. 

In fact, Henry Hudson points out that every breeze was dusty with the pollen of Greece, Rome and Italy, this is how the general ambience of the British world was during the Elizabethan period. The implications of renaissance, reformation and of the invention of the printing press had begun to take a very positive impact in British life during the period and we have seen in many numbers of ways how renaissance and reformation had begun to impact the social, political and religious life of a Briton in general. And in addition to this and because of how the very conducive atmosphere was getting forged we also find that there is a discovery of new worlds during this period and we find explorers and adventurers getting a lot of excitement through this new voyages that they began to undertake to the worlds unknown.

In fact, Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America was could be termed as a turning point in this new voyage towards newer worlds. And this also leads to an expansion of trade, the accumulation of wealth and we find this point of time that not just a geographical expansion is bound to happen, we also find an intellectual revival and an intellectual expansion at this point in time and there are general prosperity and internal peace that we witness during the Elizabethan times and this not just because of the political stability of the period, it is also due to the various additional factors which we would see in a short while and if you remember during the reformation time there was hostility between the Catholics and the Protestants. 
The Golden Age of English Literature

The Golden Age of English Literature

We find this considerably diminishing during the Elizabethan times and we do notice that the Elizabethan court is more secular in nature and compared to all the other reigning monarchs of England, she is the first one to begin to practise a kind of religious moderation within Britain and her attitude, in general, is considered more tolerant but that aside it is important for us to also remember that she during her reign also due to her the advice of her council and due to a lot of political needs she is also seen to be persecuting some of the Catholics and maybe not in so very blatant ways as Mary be the First did to the Protestants, but we do find that the Protestants enjoy a lot of good favour during Elizabeth’s reign compared to that of the Catholics. 

Many of the Catholics lose their positions, that's very difficult to, it was then very difficult to hold office if you belong to the Catholic faith. So there is an active encouragement to pursue protestant faith but in general, the court promoted a lot of religious motivation and a sense of secular spirit. And we also find that England as against Europe, it had become a safe haven for the Protestants. We find a lot of people belonging to the protestants faith migrating to London hoping for a better life and for a better safe future.

And at this time we also realize that the wealth of the clergy had begun to considerably decrease, the clergy loses almost all the position that they held in Britain and church also loses, the Catholic church primarily loses most of the land which they had occupied in Britain and their general economic conditions begin to plummet during this time. And overall we find that there is a sense of peace, there is a sense of prosperity, there is more political stability. This also led to a cosmopolitan way of thinking among the people and we find that there is they all dare to question thanks to reformation, there is also a sense of self-awareness, thanks to the many ideas of a renaissance which was getting flourished during this period. 

It is important to notice the kind of transition which was happening. We begin to see that in the earlier period when during the middle ages and even in the early Tudor period, the entire socio-political world of Britain was getting framed within the ideals of Roman Catholicism and of medieval theology. So whether it is the church or the ideas of faith, order, truth, God, the ideas of sacred, the notion of social morality and all this were getting framed within how the church was an envisioning all of these ideas to be. And soon after the reformation and through the course of renaissance we find it there is a transition towards a different mode of thinking the the the value system entirely undergoes a change, the socio-political and economic awareness undergoes a change. 

Even how the common people are getting the position, their value systems, etc, all of that undergoes a drastic change during this period and this period incidentally becomes the inaugural period of Elizabethan age also. So we find that there is an increased sense of reason, there is primary importance accorded to rationality and to culture as against nature and also a lot of scientific discoveries and expeditions take place during this period and scepticism in fact which was looked down upon in the earlier times; in medieval theology to be a sceptic or to raise any sceptical point was equivalent to blasphemy, one could even run the risk of getting executed. But in the Elizabethan period, we realise it scepticism had become something of a fashionable trade. In fact, many of the intellectual many of the educative class they had to begin to display trait are of scepticism for being a bit fashionable intellectually fashionable during the time. It was quite a trendy thing then and we also find a lot of travel happening in the Elizabethan period. 

We also see that the court also had funded a lot of sea adventures to discover new worlds, to establish newer kinds of trades, so on and so forth. And we do see that there is a more secular understanding of art, literature, religion, morality, culture, everything in fact and whatever secularism was getting practice within the court within Elizabethan court it gets translated into the streets as well. There is a way in which people are freer to express and this kind of freedom in expression, we find it getting directly translated into the literature of the times. We later when we begin to look at the drama of the Elizabethan times we will see that the Elizabethans had dared to question and move away from the classic forms of literature and to practice their own kinds of performances, their own kinds of poetry so on and so forth. So this transition was very significant not just in the political and social or religious life of England but it had begun to frame how English literature was being understood as well. At this point let us take a closer look at how the society of the Elizabethan times was getting framed. 

This is a useful acronym and which could be used to understand the various factors which would frame the nation’s events. Politics, economics, religion, society, intellectual influences and artistic trends. This acronym PERSIA is useful for us to recollect and remember how various events are getting framed. In fact, we have already taken a look at the politics of the Elizabethan period and we saw how various dynasties were getting changed and we saw the wars, we saw the important events like reformation, shaping the country politically and we have seen a little bit of how the economics of a nation was getting framed. We will also see in some of the latest sessions how a nationalist economy was getting to emerge during that period. We have seen the various effects of religion and how that had influenced the dynastical changes and also the emergent trend in society. 

Elizabethan Age Society

We will be primarily looking at how the society of the Elizabethan times was getting framed. when we take a look a detailed look at the literature and art of the time we will also see the intellectual influences and the artistic trends in greater detail. So coming back to how society was getting formed during that time, we need to understand how England was during the Elizabethan times. It was a very different time altogether. England was undergoing a going period of transition. So it is useful to recollect that though this is seen as a golden age and though a lot of peace, internal prosperity, political stability etc. were the dominant features of the times, we have to notice that this is not an easy life for the Elizabethans during that period. During this transition politically and religiously they also had to encounter a lot of other problems which especially the common people were facing. 

Life in Elizabethan times was not so promising in terms of life expectancy, in fact, the life expectancy was barely 40 years during that time and it is said that historians from a lot of records they have to unearth it are generally assumed that 5 per cent of the children died within a week, 40 per cent were just lucky they made it to their 15 birthday and 1 in every 100 women they lost their lives after childbirth. So the general health conditions were not so promising, especially among the common people. So there was a lot of challenge to even to keep themselves alive during this period. And the other feature was that of patriarchy. 

Incidentally, though England was ruled by a monarch who is a female, England for the first time had a queen and Queen Elizabeth I despite that the patriarchal conditions of the society did not change much. This is a very ironical fact that historians do note because within the court there is a predominant of a female power that we find but outside the court, things remain pretty much the same for women and this was the implication of this and the reflection of this was found primarily in two things, in education and also in-laws of inheritance. Girls hardly got any kind of education, formal education was restricted to boys alone and the very few wealthy lucky boys and men got to go to the university for formal education. And the women were the most required to stay at home and they were getting trained to become wives or mothers. So this was the kind of education that the women during the time received and their lives were not very better within the household either because the head of the house was always the husband or the father. 

So the women were generally considered as the property of their husbands or of their fathers. So there was no amount of power which was getting transferred from the courtly power to any of these women during that period. They continued to live a life which was perhaps slightly better than that of the medieval times and some of the wealthy girls and young women enjoyed a bit of an education because they were getting trained in languages such as Latin and French and also some kind of exposure into the dominant kinds of art and literature of the period. And Queen Elizabeth I, she is said to have received a very good education at a young age and which had reflected in how she was promoting all of these arts as well. So the other thing was that of inheritance.

The rule of primogeniture was quite prevalent in Britain during this time which meant that all the property and any kind of estate, wealth any kind of position, all of that were inherited by the oldest male of the family. The female had no power of inheritance. We find this same rule getting applied even within the court. In fact, if you remember King Henry VIII at the time of his death he had three surviving children. First one was Mary I, the second one was Elizabeth I and the third one was Edward VI but we find that the crown directly goes to the young teenage Edward VI overlooking both the older sisters and only after that first Elizabeth I, first Mary I and later Elizabeth I gets to assume the crown. So the rule of the primogeniture was pretty strong during that period that found it is way even within the court and we do find it the common people's life were fairly dominated by these rules so that marriages, relationships everything was getting dictated around how the estate and other kinds of properties would get inherited and who the oldest male was so on and so forth. And not having a male heir as an inheritance could lead to a lot of catastrophes as far as a family is concerned. 

We do know that England even changed its future, its religion, its political nature all of that because Henry VIII was desperately searching for a male heir. So this was the kind of power that this rule of this primogeniture had on Elizabethan England. And finally, we also see that there is a lot of migration happening from their rural hinterlands of England to the city of London because London was increasingly becoming the centre of power, the centre of commerce, the centre of courtly life, the centre of arts, centre of drama and everything that was happening to the country was getting implicated within the life of the city of London. And at this point it is useful to remember that England could be divided into two parts, the south and the east part of England was wealthier than the north and the western part and because of that there was a greater social divide between the classes in the north and the western parts and we also find that many of the good changes, the positive changes of the way the socio-political things happening to Britain were slow to arrive at the northern and the western part. 

It was mostly, all kinds of development, all kinds of prosperity, all kinds of finer things happening in terms of art, literature, drama, etc, they were happening in the south in the southern and eastern parts of England and everything was focused primarily in London. At this point, we need to take a look at how Elizabethan London during the Elizabethan period was getting fashioned. As we have noted there is a mass migration from the rural parts towards the city of London and this had made London, in fact, the breeding ground of all kinds of diseases. There was poor hygiene which prevailed in London, the sanitation was very poor in fact there was river Thames along with the city of by the city of London which actually had acted as a natural cleanser. 

Despite that, the poor sanitation had a lot of implications in the life of the commoners in London. There was no drainage system in place during the Elizabethan times. It had led to a lot of infestation of rats, diseases etc. The city was generally crowded because it was overpopulated due to this mass migration from the other parts of the country. It was filthy which was quite obvious and it was a breeding ground for all kinds of diseases, the most important one being black death, also known as the Bubonic plague. The plague had effected London even earlier, in fact, all of Europe was swept under the plague even in the 14th century and that was the plague which lasted for almost a year. We had noted in one of the previous sessions but it had struck again during the Elizabethan times. 

We first see the attack of plague in 1563 and this was after Queen Elizabeth had assumed her throne and the impact of plague was such that we find queen Elizabeth shifting her residence from London to Windsor castle. During this time she had even avoided all kinds of visits and visitors from London in 1563. There was a prohibition on the import of goods to prevent the spread of plague and it is said that she even executed all the visitors from London to Windsor Castle to keep her court safe from any kind of infection because once you were struck with the plague, death was quite certain and the death toll was also quite enormous. Except that in a month about in a week, about 1000 to 1800 deaths were getting reported and that is really a huge number and we also saw in one of the earlier sessions how this huge wipeout of the population had an impact on the way labour was getting fixed and in how the social classes were getting regulated as well. 

So the plague struck again and again in 1593, in 1603 and once after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1608. So we find that this had drastically changed the ways which Londoners were living and also the life was not considered as very promising because of the disease, because of the impending deaths of so on and so forth. But the important and the most positive thing for us to remember is that despite all these challenges England continues to go forward in terms of its artistic pursuit in terms of its commercial pursuit its political stability so on and so forth and that is what makes this golden age particularly important for us because this was not an age which was devoid of problems but this was an age where the English people were learning to overcome the problems and that too quite successfully. And at this point, it is important to see what the different social classes of Britain were like. So this is important for us to understand how the mobility of social classes was getting formed. 

This takes us to see how the social classes were getting forged during the time. In the social pyramid, if you could call that, we had the monarch at the top, followed by the nobility, the gentry, merchants, yeomen, labourers. So altogether there were six social classes in Britain during this time, during the Elizabethan time. Things have changed drastically from then on with an increase in sense of social mobility which we would see how and why. And at the top, as the monarch obviously, we had the king or the queen and the nobility included dukes, earls and barons. There were two ways in which one could attain a noble status. One was through birth and the other one was through court appointments.

Thirdly the gentry comprised of the knights, gentlemen, squires, they were also the ones who got to sit at the members of the parliament. Then some merchants were people who had began to amass a lot of wealth through the new kinds of trade which were emerging. They were also the ones who were getting appointed as the mayors of Various cities and the mayor of the city of London, in fact, is said to have exercised a lot of power and at times even over the power of the queen in certain extent in the sense that there is a historical document which shows how during one of the outbreaks of the plague, the mayor of London wanted to prohibit all kinds of performances to reduce the risk of the infection but the queen wanted the show to go on and to have all the playhouses open but at this point, we find that the mayor surpasses the queen's orders and orders the playhouses to be shut during that time.

So there was a way in which the merchant class had begun to enjoy some kind of power at par with the noble classes and they also began to rise to power with the accumulation of wealth. So at this point we find it apart from birth and the court appointments, there is also wealth which becomes a determinant of how one could climb up the social ladder and there were the common citizens known as the yeomen and the mostly landless labourers, there were carpenters, there were peasants and in fact, they lead a fairly unhealthy life during that time. Their economic conditions were very poor. In fact one of the first welfare scheme that Queen Elizabeth began to enact it was for the welfare of the labourers. So these were the six social classes and one significant thing is that if one belonged to one of those top classes of the nobility or the gentry there was this hostility between the Protestants and the Catholics and we find that most of the court appointments to any of the positions of importance it always used to be from the protestants faith.

In fact, only the old noble families belong to the Catholic faith and they were not given much importance in the social and the political order of the day. And Queen Elizabeth had a lot of reservations about making new court appointments. So at this period in Britain, we find that there were only about 55 noble families, so new court appointments were not being made and the queen did not encourage any new members getting admitted into this royal fold either. So social mobility was something that which distinguishes the social order of Elizabethan England. At a later at an earlier point during the medieval times, it was difficult for anyone to go up or down the ladder because this was more or less their social classes were more or less of rigid-fixed structure but from the Elizabethan times onwards, thanks to the ideals of renaissance reformation, the increase in intellectual awareness self-awareness so on and so forth, social mobility were more like a reality. One of how one could move up and down the social ladder was through marriage.

So this was mostly marriages of convenience. It was either to any of the family could rise up in in the social class through a prospect of marriage to a wealthy person or by marrying into a noble family and through court appointments as we have seen. And education and wealth were two new indicators of the social class, social merits, so on and so forth. It is during this time that the notions of merit are getting framed we begin to note. We need to note over here that even our own notion of merit, our notions of class etc are heavily mediated by how the social class of Britain was getting framed but this is not to say that everything was quite sound and fine because of social mobility. There was also sumptuary loss which was a loss for the regulation of consumption which indicated that only the nobility could buy and enjoy certain kinds of privileges, even certain kind of dress code was limited to certain classes. Not everyone with money could buy and enjoy or consume various kinds of things as and when they please. So despite all these things, social mobility was and it continues to be a distinctive factor of Elizabethan England.

We continue to seek how all of these things began to cause social tension as well as to who would be the ruling class of the times because there was a time in the middle English period when only the monarch could rule and there was no way other than by birth or by conquest one could be part of the ruling class but from the Elizabethan times onward the notions of hierarchy began to change and we find that many of them have begun to lay their claim upon what who and how the ruling class gets formed. We find that at this point we also find that wealth, classical education and liberal arts training becomes indicators of one’s merit or one’s entry into the ruling class. To make a smooth transition at this point, we find Thomas Elliot authoring a book named the Governor in 1531 which had the notions of a true gentleman, how to train statesman so on and so forth. So this important thing to note is that statesmanship, rulership is beginning to be seen as virtues into which one is not really born into but things into which one can be trained.

Also it is the highlight during the Elizabethan times that a merchant may be rich but if he has no education of manners he is disqualified to rule. This also rules out the possibility of anyone with a lot of wealth, anyone with a lot of resources coming into power only because he has got wealth and no others kind of virtue. This is the time when we also noticed a lot of debate around aristocratic privilege, the notion of commonness, how social hierarchy can be ordered or reordered, so on and so forth. This is the time when the nations begin to consolidate it like they had begun to do from the Middle English period onwards. It is said about the Elizabethan period politically that men lived intensely, thought intensely and wrote intensely. This had resulted in the united nation with intense patriotism. We find a keen interest in England’s past, pride in Queen’s greatness and the hatred of English enemies.

We find an extravagance loyal to be displayed to the queen which was hitherto not known thing in England because we find there is no factionalism in Elizabethan England during that time and there is an increased sense of loyalty to whatever the monarch does. The Queen enjoyed a lot of privilege and lot of popularity in that sense compared to many of her successors and her predecessors and when we find that she ruled almost without any kind of internal threat though there were a lot of attacks from the Catholic faction for a brief period. What really marks the beginning of and the consolidation of queen Elizabeth rule in England was the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 and this is important in international history as well. Spanish Armada, in fact, refers to the army of Spain and they invaded Britain in 1588. In fact, the Philips II of Spain was also the husband of Mary I.

Elizabethan age is the golden age of English literature

So there is a prior history to this in the sense that Philips II was ruling over England and Spain when he was married to Mary I who dies and then Elizabeth I succeeds. When Elizabeth I comes to power, Philips II had sent her his ambassadors to Elizabeth to with a marriage proposal but queen Elizabeth had rejected it and we know that she continued to remain a virgin Queen, an unmarried queen until the end of her life and due to these reasons Philips II did not have a lot of kind emotions towards the queen of England and in addition to this Philips II was an avid Catholic and we know that England had become Protestant and also was promoting a lot of Protestantism and had become a haven for Protestant believers in the Elizabethan times. And we find that he had this animosity also in his mind and with the support of the Roman Catholic church they called it the enterprise of England. 

We find the Spanish armada launching an attack on England in 1588 and when we talk about the Spanish Armada the enormity of that it is very important to note, we know that Spanish Armada was not any ordinary fleet. They had 130 ships, about 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen and 20,000 soldiers. So it was an enormous fleet that attacked coasts of England on 29 July 1588. So this had, in fact, many of the people during the period thought that the end of this is going to mark the end of the Elizabethan times but on the contrary what happened that was quite reverse. The storms were quite unfavourable for the Spanish fleet to reach the English coast, so they were they already had lost a lot of ships and in addition to that Sir Frances Drake, he launched an attack, a raid on the Spanish ships even before the ships reached the coastline of England and also Britain had also sent out fire ships to destroy the fleet of Spanish Armada.

This was a new technique to be used in the in naval attack as well. So we find that due to these various kinds of things Spanish armada loses out and they lose out all their resources, many of their ships are lost, they are forced to return to Spain empty-handed and almost in a state of collapse and this had marked the beginning of a new kind of Empire, the rise of the British Empire because until that point Spain was considered as the Empire on which the sun never sets. They were the leading nation in commerce, in trade, in all kinds of things which mattered to the world in that point of time and we find gradually Britain replacing Spain and taking over as the land on which the sun never sets. In fact in 1589, a year after the fall of the Spanish Armada, we find Britain launching an attack on Spain, an attack back on Spain but that's a failed attempt and in 1596 and in 1597 the Spanish armada tries to attack England over and again twice but again they have to go back because of the storms and the adverse conditions. So overall you know we find many things conspired together to make Britain into a global force during this period.

In 1604 there is an end to this all kinds of hostility between hostility ends between Britain and Spain because a new treaty is signed by Elizabeth, the successor of Elizabeth I and the successor of Philips II. So that marks an end to the on-going tussle between Spain and Britain but there were other economic implications of this event in the sense that as soon as the victory over Spanish armada was proclaimed, a lot of voyagers became interested in going for far-reaching sea adventure and many of them thought that they could travel as far as the east indies for trade and for a better life. So we find many of the merchants coming together and ensuring this trade with this voyage to the far distant lands and they had a group of merchants known as the later known as the East India company.

A group of merchants they begin to begin these voyages from Britain to far off lands from 88 onward so 1588 onwards they finally send a couple of successful ships and the queen then grants them a charter and this gets formed as the East India company. This we also know is the starting point of the British Empire and the British colonial period as well. And this instance which to call from the victory over Spanish Armada has a lot of impact on how the history of the sub-continent of India also gets written from the Elizabethan times onwards. So in many different ways, the Elizabethan times and the socio-political historical background of the period becomes important not in just shaping the life in future of Elizabethan times but also in redefining how many of the other nations begin to see themselves and their colonial relationship with Britain. With this we almost come to an end to this session taking a look at how Britain began begins to consolidate it as with London as the centre of commerce, drama and politics.

We soon see when we get to look at the various kinds of literature and performances that were prevalent in Britain and also Britain quite easily becomes the Empire on which the sun never sets replacing all other European competitors and also becoming the world leader in all of the things that matter during that time. And there is a growth in population, language becomes to evolve, Britain comes a long way from the middle ages striving toward a better colonial period as well. And this is the time when distinct features of English was also beginning to emerge.
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