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Publisher logo Source: ProQuest Period Pages
Publisher: ProQuest
Date of publication: 2005
See a Table of Contents for this publication.

Elizabethan Period (1558–1603)

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603): The Pelican Portrait, c.1574

© www.bridgeman.co.uk

The reign of Queen Elizabeth in England marks a unique period within the wider European Renaissance. The influence of classical Greek and Roman philosophy, art, literature, and science that had taken root in fourteenth-century Italy finally spread to England. Explorations and foreign trade were making England rich and powerful. A wealthy middle class resulted, transforming London into a hub of commerce and culture. Use of the printing press allowed the increasingly literate population greater access to knowledge, not only about the past but also about current religious debates at home and exciting discoveries throughout the world.

During Elizabeth's reign, drama became the ideal means to capture and convey the diverse interests of the time. Stories of history, politics, love, adventure, and fantasy were enacted for eager audiences of both the wealthy and well educated and the poor and illiterate. Because of the beauty of his verse and the depth of his thought, William Shakespeare emerged as not only the greatest Elizabethan playwright, but perhaps the greatest dramatist ever. Many of his plays, such as Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, are widely recognized—and frequently read and performed—throughout the world today.

Shakespeare and other dramatists of the time, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, used blank verse (iambic pentameter poetry) for much of the dialogue between characters, elevating drama to new poetic heights. The English sonnet, a derivative of the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, was another literary innovation of the time. Shakespeare's sonnets, particularly his sequence of love sonnets, exemplify the language and emotion of that poetic form. Edmund Spenser's highly imaginative work The Faerie Queene is one of the great narrative poems of the period. Highly expressive and emotional lyric poems, such as Ben Jonson's "To Celia," were also popular and were often integrated into theatrical performances as songs. By the end of the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and his contemporaries had provided the world with some of the greatest literature of all time.

Image Gallery

Elizabethan Writers
Links to Author Pages

About the Elizabethan Period
Dictionary and encyclopedia articles about the Elizabethan period

Criticism about the Elizabethan Period
Critical essays on Elizabethan culture, literature, and history

Study guides for select works of literature from the Elizabethan Period

National Public Radio Interview Transcripts
Scholars and others discuss Elizabethan personalities and culture.

Audio Clips


Select Study Questions

  • Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene deals on one level with the ongoing conflict between those aligned with the Catholic Church and those who adhered to the Anglican Church of England, supported by Queen Elizabeth. Consulting the resources provided, discuss Spenser's treatment of this conflict in his famous poem. Using the text of the poem, demonstrate how Spenser is biased in favor of the Anglican or Protestant church.
  • Romeo and Juliet is considered one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, and is, among his plays, one that is most read and studied by students. Throughout history, critics have debated Shakespeare's treatment of his hero and heroine: Does he condemn their reckless love and final suicide? Or does he blame the feud between the two families and, in essence, society for the young lovers' deaths? Write a short essay supporting one view or the other; make sure you cite examples from the play to support your point of view.
  • Using the resources provided on Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, write a short essay on the central moral dilemma in Marlowe's play: Is the quest for unlimited human power morally legitimate? Or is it an immoral act, in that it seeks to put human beings above God? In answering this question, briefly compare Faustus's story with the desire of many scientists today to pursue genetic engineering as a legitimate effort.

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