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CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ELIZABETHAN
HE phrase “ literature of the age of Elizabeth” is
not confined to the literature produced in the reign of Elizabeth, but is a general name for an era in literature, commencing about the middle of her reign, in 1580, reaching its maturity in the reign of James I., between 1603 and 1626, and perceptibly declining during the reign of his son. It is called by the name of Elizabeth, because it was produced in connection with influences which originated or culminated in her time, and which did not altogether cease to act after her death ; and these influences give to its great works, whether published in her reign or in the reign of James, certain mental and moral characteristics in common. The most glorious of all the expressions of the English mind, it is, like every other outburst of national genius, essentially inexplicable in itself. It occurred, but why it occurred we can answer but loosely. We can trace some of the influences which operated on Spenser, Shakespeare, Bacon, Hooker, and Raleigh, but the
genesis of their genius is beyond our criticism. There was abundant reason, in the circumstances around them, why they should exercise creative power ; but the possession of the power is an ultimate fact, and defies explanation. Still, the appearance of so many eminent minds in one period indicates something in the circumstances of the period which aided and stimulated, if it did not cause, the marvel; and a consideration of these circumstances, though it may not enable us to penetrate the mystery of genius, may still shed some light on its character and direction.
The impulse given to the English mind in the age of Elizabeth was but one effect of that great movement of the European mind whose steps were marked by the revival of letters, the invention of printing, the study of the ancient classics, the rise of the middle class, the discovery of America, the Reformation, the formation of national literatures, and the general clash and conflict of the old with the new, the old existing in decaying institutions, the new in the ardent hopes and organizing genius by which institutions are created. If the mind was not always emancipated from error during the stir and tumult of this movement, it was still stung into activity, and compelled to think; for if authority, whether secular or sacerdotal, is questioned, authority no less than innovation instinctively frames reasons for
its existence. If power was thus driven to use the weapons of the brain, thought, in its attempt to become fact, was no less driven to use the weapons of force. Ideas and opinions were thus all the more directly perceived and tenaciously held, from the fact that they kindled strong passions, and frequently demanded, not merely the assent of the intellect, but the hazard of fortune and life.
At the time Elizabeth ascended the English throne, in 1558, the religious element of this movement had nearly spent its first force. There was a comparatively small band of intensely earnest Romanists, and perhaps a larger band of even more intensely earnest Puritans ; but the great majority of the people, though nominally Roman Catholics, were willing to acquiesce in the form given to the Protestant church by the Protestant state. To Elizabeth belongs the proud distinction of having been the head of the Protestant interest in Europe ; but the very word interest indicates a distinction between Protestantism as a policy and Protestantism as a faith ; and she did not hesitate to put down with a strong hand those of her subjects whose Protestantism most nearly agreed with the Protestantism she aided in France and Holland. The Puritan Reformers, though they represented most thoroughly the doctrines and spirit of Luther and Calvin, were thus opposed by the English
government, and were a minority of the English people. Had they succeeded in reforming the national Church, the national amusements, and the national taste, according to their ideas of reform, the history and the literature of the age of Elizabeth would have been essentially different; but they would have broken the continuity of the national life. English nature, with its basis of strong sense and strong sensuality, was hostile to their ascetic morality and to their practical belief in the all-excluding importance of religious con
Had they triumphed then, their very earnestness might have made them greater, though nobler, tyrants than the Tudors or the Stuarts ; for they would have used the arm of power to force evangelical faith and austere morality on a reluctant and resisting people. Sir Toby Belch would have had to fight hard for his cakes and ale ; and the nose of Bardolph would have been deprived of the fuel that fed its fire. The Puritans were a great force in politics, as they afterwards proved in the Parliaments of Charles and the Commonwealth; but in the time of Elizabeth they were politically but a faction, and a faction having at one time for its head the greatest scoundrel in England, the Earl of Leicester. They were a great force in literature, as they afterwards proved by Milton and Bunyan; but their position towards what is properly called
the literature of the age of Elizabeth was strictly antagonistical. The spirit of that literature, in its poetry, its drama, its philosophy, its divinity, was a spirit which they disliked in some of its forms, and abhorred in others. Their energies, though mighty, are therefore to be deducted from the mass of energies by which that literature was produced.
And this brings us to the first and most marked characteristic of this literature, namely, that it is intensely human. Human nature in its appetites, passions, imperfections, vices, virtues ; in its thoughts, aspirations, imaginations; in all the concrete forms of character in which it finds expression, in all the heights of ecstasy to which it soars, in all the depths of depravity to which it sinks, - this is what the Elizabethan literature represents or idealizes ; and the total effect of this exhibition of human life and exposition of human capacities, whether it be in the romance of Sidney, the poetry of Spenser, the drama of Shakespeare, the philosophy of Bacon, or the divinity of Hooker, is the wholesome and inspiring effect of beauty and cheer. This belief in human nature, and tacit assumption of its right to expression, could only have arisen in an age which stimulated human energies by affording fresh fields for their development, and in an age whose activity was impelled by a romantic and heroic, rather than a theological spirit.