LITERARY MOVEMENTS IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
FRANCE AND ENGLAND
In the literature of northern Europe, the sixteenth century marks the flowering of the Renaissance. In some countries, such as England, the literary Renaissance continued well into the following century. This chapter will deal with some of the important currents and authors in French and English literature of the sixteenth century.
In the reign of Francis I (1515-47), it was already said in France that letters were being reborn. Many poets and scholars welcomed the great cultural change they saw taking place. They spoke of a return of the Golden Age and of the coming of the light and the banishing of Gothic darkness; letters had returned from exile and had been restored to possession of their rights. This restoration referred to the cultivation of the literature of classical antiquity, which was the chief influence on French literature in the sixteenth century. In this pursuit of the antique, the French were following the lead of Italy, and the Italian influence took its place alongside that of the ancients.
The French Renaissance felt strongly the effect of Plato and Petrarch. The Platonic influence is most readily apparent in the exalted conception of love, stemming from Ficino's circle, that can be found in much of the French prose and poetry of the period. It was the theme that we have encountered in Castiglione and Michelangelo a love for ideal beauty, above the deceptions of the senses and leading to the love of God. Petrarch's impact on French literature is shown in the adoption of the sonnet form, introduced into French by Clment Marot, and in the type of love poetry that was written, in which the Italian poet's celebration of Laura served as a model for numerous other poetic lovers.
The Italian and Platonic influences first made themselves felt in the city of Lyon, whose most famous poet was Maurice Scve (died c.1563). Humanist and jurist, he became well known for his supposed and erroneous discovery in Avignon in 1533 of the tomb of Laura. His poems, inspired by both Petrarchism and Platonism, had also an element of numeric symbolism reminiscent of both antiquity and the Middle Ages. Yet he is more than an imitator; his poetry speaks out of a depth of experience and feeling, and his technical skill is considerable.
One of the most interesting writers of the reign of Francis I was Marguerite d'Angoulme, or Marguerite of Navarre (1492 1549), Francis's older sister and by her second marriage queen of Navarre. The future king Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) was her grandson. She and her brother were deeply devoted to each other. At times in Francis's reign, his sister was called on to take an active part in state affairs and diplomatic negotiations. As queen of Navarre, she was required at times to govern that country during her husband's absences.
We have already seen something of her importance in the current of religious reform that preceded the Reformation in France. She was also a patron of literature. Marot was a protg of hers; and Rabelais, at the beginning of the third book of his great work, Gargantua and Pantagruel, addresses an appreciative poem to her spirit. She was herself a writer of importance, chiefly because of her Heptamron.
This collection of stories, which she worked on from 1542 to the end of her life, was modeled on the Decameron of Boccaccio. Her plan was apparently to write one hundred stories. Between seventy and eighty are known to exist today, either because she did not finish the book or because some of the stories have been lost. (The present title of the book was not given to it by the author.) One constant theme of the stories is the contrast between true and false religion. The false kind is represented particularly by the Franciscans, or Cordeliers, who appear frequently and who are normally treacherous, wicked, hypocritical, and lascivious. In one story, they are referred to as "these fine fathers who preach chastity to us and then want to take it away from our wives!" The secular clergy are not spared, however; the first story of the entire collection, apparently based like many of the others on an actual incident, concerns a bishop who pursues a married woman.
True religion, on the other hand, involves devotion to the reading of the Bible, where one finds "the true and perfect joy of the spirit, from which proceeds the repose and health of the body." Scriptural religion is a religion of faith, of the spirit, and of love, and is opposed to "superstition" and sham piety. In short, Marguerite's religious ideal is Erasmian.
The most pervasive theme is love, love in all its varieties carnal and Platonic, connubial and extramarital, licit and illicit. Marguerite's own opinion may appear in a statement made after the nineteenth story by a member of the storytelling company who represents Marguerite herself. It is her opinion that "no man will ever love God perfectly unless he has loved perfectly some creature in this world." Perfect lovers are "those who seek, in what they love, some perfection, whether beauty, goodness, or grace, always tending towards virtue." She goes on in this passage to celebrate, in the Platonic manner familiar in Renaissance literature, the soul's search, starting with the objects of the senses, for a perfection beyond the senses, a perfection that can be found only in the divine.
Marguerite's admirer, Franois Rabelais (c.1494 1553), was the greatest French prose writer of the first half of the sixteenth century. From 1532 to 1552, he brought out the four books of his great work, the fabulous history of Gargantua and Pantagruel. A fifth book, published after his death, may or may not have been written by him.
In his restless and varied career, Rabelais was a priest and a friar, a physician, and the father of at least three illegitimate children by at least two mothers. He became interested at an early date in humanistic studies, and was a devoted follower of the ideas of Erasmus.
The four books of Gargantua and Pantagruel are a comic narrative in which the chief characters are Gargantua and Pantagruel, respectively father and son, who are kings and giants. Few stories have ever been told with such gusto and good humor. The size of the giants gives opportunities for humor based on wild exaggeration as when Pantagruel, leading an army in defense of his homeland (which is named Utopia), shields his troops from a heavy rain by sticking out his tongue and covering them with it. This same sort of exuberance shows itself in Rabelais's long lists of books, plants, animals, and games.
In spite of its humor, which never flags, it is a serious book. The author presents his ideas on education, which mark him as a firm adherent of the Renaissance outlook on the subject. He believes in experience, relies on the classical authors, and with rollicking satire, mocks and rejects scholastic methods and the content of scholastic education. Gargantua, for example, starts his education under the supervision of a learned scholastic doctor, who teaches him the alphabet so thoroughly that he can say it backwards by heart. This takes five years and three months. After more of this, the boy's father switches to another teacher, who leads his pupil in a curriculum that would have satisfied the Italian humanistic teachers and writers on education. It is even more broad, however, including the study of nature to a greater extent, for instance, and observing the practitioners of numerous trades and professions.
Rabelais also expounds his ideas on religion, where the influence of Erasmus is most noticeable. He is opposed to formalism and excessive ceremony, and heaps scorn on ignorant, lazy, and useless monks. He is likewise opposed to superstitious beliefs and practices, and regards pilgrimages as useless. Popes and the canon law are the objects of sharp comments. True religion, on the other hand, is based on the Gospel, trusts in God, and dedicates itself to His service.
Toward the end of Book One, Gargantua builds an abbey, which is named Thlme, from the Greek for free will. The only rule of the house is "Do what you will." It is open to both men and women, who live entirely as they wish and are free to leave at any time. This freedom is possible "because people who are free, well-bred, and easy in honest company have a natural spur and instinct which drives them to virtuous deeds and deflects them from vice; and this they called honour."
In short, Rabelais is not an atheist or a Protestant. He is an Erasmian humanist and a Christian. He is also a scholar with a great zest for learning, which matches his zest for life and experience.
John Calvin also has an important place in the development of French prose. The first French edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1541, is the earliest work in the language in the field of theology, for which Latin had been considered the appropriate medium; Calvin had originally published the Institutes in Latin. His French translation, therefore, was written not for professional theologians but for laymen; and his aim was, as he put it, to teach in the simplest possible form. He was remarkably successful, achieving a simplicity and clarity that are especially noteworthy in a subject that lends itself to obscurity. Calvin took particular satisfaction in the brevity and precision of his style. At the same time, he achieved a distinctive pithy flavor, which does not always come through in English translation, and he enhanced this quality by the use of popular and idiomatic expressions. His writing has force and movement, sometimes humor, and sometimes eloquence and grandeur. He is one of the greatest French stylists of the century.
An important French poet, whose path crossed that of Calvin, was Clment Marot (1496 1544). He was a member of the circle of Marguerite of Navarre and absorbed the liberal sentiments of that environment. He even approached Protestantism, though he cannot be said to have become a Protestant. At least, if he did, it was not for long. He spent much of his life in court circles in the service of the French crown and of Marguerite. He was fortunate in finding in Marguerite a friend and protector, since he had a knack for getting into trouble with the church and the law and needed her help in extricating himself. For example, he was more than once imprisoned for eating meat during Lent. In 1535 he lived for a while at the court of Ferrara, which its duchess, Rene of France, had made a refuge for holders of advanced religious views; Calvin himself was there at the time of Marot's sojourn. One of the poems that Marot later addressed to Rene was probably the first sonnet written in French.
Marot wrote in a number of forms. Translation from Virgil shows the influence of humanism. He was a master of satire, as shown in his answer to an attack by a mediocre poet named Sagon. His wit is revealed in his poetic letters to King Francis I begging for pardon or money. His French translations of some of the Psalms were very skillful and were adopted for use in church by many Protestant congregations. In fact, Calvin himself encouraged the work.
Calvin's encouragement came at a time when Marot was in Geneva, where he took refuge in 1542, having once more been forced to flee France because of his outspokenness on matters of church and state. In 1544 he fled from Geneva. He never returned to France, dying at Turin.
Marot was a poet of transition; his early work was in the medieval manner, and something of the Middle Ages always remained in his work. Later he came under the influence of the Renaissance, and by 1525 he was celebrating the rebirth of letters, formerly withered by "the cold wind of Ignorance." Francis I, he said, had made arts and letters shine more brightly than in the days of the Caesars. He became an adherent of humanism, reading the works of the Latin poets, departing more and more from the traditional poetic forms, and adapting his style to the new influences. These included not only the classics but also the modern Italian writers, particularly Petrarch.
He was for some time the French court poet, and much of his work consequently is of an official character. He was very adept at writing light and witty verses about small happenings at court, but his best work is of a more personal character. This is shown in his epistles, his best and most famous poems. In these he covered a wide range of subjects. Some of them, such as his letters to the king, which have already been mentioned, are masterpieces. Marot stands as the first of modern French poets.
The new age in French poetry was even more clearly announced in 1549, by the Defense and Illustration of the French Language, written by Joachim du Bellay (1522 60). This manifesto was originally the preface to the first published collection of Du Bellay's poems. The ideas contained in it were not his alone, but those of a group of young students and poets from one of the Paris colleges, led by Pierre de Ronsard. The purpose of the book, like that of Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, is to prove that the vernacular is suited, as Du Bellay puts it, for "all good letters and learning." The French, he asserts patriotically, are in no way inferior to the Greeks and Romans. He thanks the late king, Francis I, who has restored "all the good arts and sciences in their ancient dignity" in France. Because the French language has been neglected, he admits, it still suffers from poverty and needs to be enriched. For this purpose, French writers should imitate the best Greek and Roman authors. He also recommends that French poets should learn from Italians, Spaniards, and others. He urges Frenchmen to write in their mother tongue, to march against the Greeks and Romans and despoil them.
The group of young poets whose ideas found expression in Du Bellay's manifesto were known at first as the Brigade and later by the more famous name of the Pliade. They introduced a new poetry into France. Du Bellay was himself a member of the group and an important poet in his own right. He belonged to one of the most distinguished families in France. In his tragically short life he was distracted from his writing by poor health, family problems, and duties that were often tedious and always unrelated to poetry; yet he managed to write the works that have made him one of the great French poets. In about 1547, he met Ronsard, and this momentous meeting brought together the two future leaders of the Pliade.
Du Bellay acknowledged without jealousy that the first place among contemporary French poets belonged to Ronsard, but he himself ranked second. He published the first substantial French sonnet collection, named Olive for the lady to whom the sonnets are addressed. Petrarchan influences are prominent in these poems. Other works show the effect of his reading of Horace. Some of his themes, in addition to love, are the fragility of worldly things, the inconstancy of fortune, and the fleeting character of man and of earthly existence. In his later poetry there is a Platonic note and a turning to religious subjects, together with a renunciation of his earlier Petrarchan manner.
He spent several years in Rome, and what he saw there inspired him to write poems celebrating the grandeur of the city and lamenting its decay. Beholding the ruins of what was once greatest in the world, the poet philosophizes on the themes of greatness and decline, and concludes that everything accomplished by man rises and falls, defeated by time. But from the ruins rises a new and regenerated life. Other poems from his Roman sojourn attack the abuses and immorality he saw there, the corruption of the papal court as well as the crowds of courtesans, which afflicted the city. In some of these poems he shows himself to be one of the great satirists.
In his last years, after his return to France, he wrote patriotic poetry, no doubt sincere but also prompted by his desire to become the official poet of the king. He died at the height of his powers, and his influence on later poets was profound. He even had an effect on English poetry and received a handsome tribute from Edmund Spenser.
The greatest French lyric poet of the Renaissance was Pierre de Ronsard (1524 85). He hoped originally for a career in military and diplomatic service, but an illness of 1540, which left him partially deaf, put an end to his youthful hopes. He turned, therefore, to a career in the church and to the writing of poetry. Though he never became a priest, he did receive the tonsure and was eligible to hold benefices. His education included study of Greek and Latin in Paris under Jean Dorat, an accomplished classical scholar who was also the teacher of Du Bellay and other members of the Pliade. Through the favor of the royal court, Ronsard held church livings, which served to support him. His standing was especially high with King Charles IX, who once honored the poet by paying him a visit. After the death of Charles, Ronsard lost much of his prestige at court to a younger poet, Desportes. During the Wars of Religion, he wrote against the Huguenots, and in doing so became the founder in France of political poetic satire.
Ronsard's work is the supreme example of the Renaissance spirit in French poetry. Rejecting with scorn all previous poetry in his native tongue, he turned to the ancients for his inspiration. His first poems were in Latin, but he soon turned to French and took up the challenge of learning the lessons of the classical poets and then rivaling them in French. They taught him not only form; something of their spirit entered his poetry. He always had a deep feeling for nature; the forests and streams for him were full of nymphs and dryads and satyrs. He frankly accepted and loved earthly beauties and pleasures; there is a large group of women whom he loved and immortalized by his poetry. He regarded the office of poet as a holy priesthood, and strove for imperishable fame. To the end there is something pagan in his poetry, although in his own way he was a sincere Christian. Certainly his sensual nature helps to explain his antagonism for the austerities of Geneva.
Like Du Bellay, he was affected by Petrarch for a while, and with this influence came Platonic elements: the love of heavenly beauty as contrasted with the sensual, for example. This Platonism does not consort very well with Ronsard's earthy nature: With him, as with Du Bellay, the Petrarchan phase was only temporary.
Ronsard achieved grandeur and sublimity, but also simplicity and directness. He has been called the creator of modern French poetic language. Not until the nineteenth century did France produce lyric poetry to compare with his.
We may close our brief discussion of French literature of the Renaissance with Michel de Montaigne (1533 92). He came from a family that had prospered in trade and had, thereby, been able to gain a place among the nobility. The castle of Montaigne, where he was born, is in the region of Bordeaux, where members of the family had been prominent in government and in the church. His mother was descended from the Marranos, the converted Jews of Spain. Among her relatives there were some who died at the hands of the Inquisition, and it has been suggested that this heritage may have had something to do with Montaigne's tolerance and hatred of torture.
His education was humanistic, and he may also have studied law, because from 1557 to 1570 he was a member of the Parlement of Bordeaux. During these years he also spent much time at the royal court. At the parlement he met Etienne de La Botie, who became his closest friend, and whose early death in 1563 at the age of thirty-two left him desolate. Montaigne's marriage in 1565 does not seem to have involved deep affection; marriage he called "a bargain to which only the entrance is free." Of the six children of this marriage all girls only one survived.
In 1570 he resigned his post in the parlement and retired to the castle of Montaigne to spend the rest of his days in "freedom, tranquillity, and leisure." To this decision we owe the Essays. He did not, however, find complete quiet. The religious wars invaded his retreat, and even endangered his life. Furthermore, his activity in the world of affairs was by no means over. Because he was trusted by both sides in the civil strife, he appears to have been employed as a go-between, though his activities remain mysterious. In 1573 he was made gentleman-in-ordinary of the king's chamber, and must have spent some time at court. In 1580 81, he made a trip of seventeen months to several countries; his Travel Journal from this trip survives.
His travels were cut short by the news, which he received in September 1581, that he had been elected mayor of Bordeaux. He was reelected at the end of his two-year term and served another two years. His job was not an easy one. He had to keep Bordeaux loyal to the king, although in the city there were extreme Catholics, opponents of the royal policy, while around Bordeaux were sites held by the Huguenots. Nevertheless, he seems to have succeeded in this task, and to have kept the esteem of the Protestant leader, Henry of Navarre, who was his guest for two days in December 1584.
Even after this he was involved in matters of state, in which his moderation exposed him to serious risks from extremists on both sides. He was robbed at one time, imprisoned at another, his home was pillaged, and he ran some risk of losing his life on a couple of occasions. When Henry III was murdered in 1589, Henry of Navarre, the new monarch, wanted Montaigne to join him. His ill health prevented this, and in 1592 Montaigne died in the castle where he was born.
His life's work is his Essays, which he worked on from the time of his retirement in 1570 to the end of his life. To read the three books of the Essays from the beginning is to become aware that there was a development in his thought. For one thing, it took a while for Montaigne to become aware of what his subject was. The earliest essays tend to be impersonal and to consist largely of quotations from classical writers. As time went on, he found himself as a writer by finding himself as his subject. By the time he published the first edition in 1580 he could say, in his Address to the Reader, "Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book." The uniqueness and attraction of the Essays arise largely from the fact that in them, perhaps for the first time, a man has attempted to set forth a complete self-portrait.
The great size and endless fascination of the book show what an inexhaustible subject a man is, and how the exploration of one individual's character, thoughts, and feelings can disclose whole continents and oceans, as interesting and instructive in their own way as the new lands and seas that were being opened up by the navigators of Montaigne's century. To be sure, the subject of Montaigne's explorings was a quite remarkable man, with a gift for striking and pithy expression of his thoughts.
He undertook to examine himself not out of vanity but because he was interested in man in general, and found that the best way to investigate man was to study the one man whom he knew best. "Each man," he declared (III, 2), "bears the entire form of man's estate." He is, as he points out in the same passage, a moral philosopher.
In an age of dogmatists, fanatics, and bigots, Montaigne was a skeptic. He confessed that he was sure of very little. His Essays (he invented the term) were, as the word implies, attempts attempts to find out what was going on in his own mind and to formulate his views; one of his mottoes was, "What do I know?" His skepticism helped to make him tolerant: "After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted because of them." (III, 11) He distrusts the powers of the human mind; it is too easily misled by custom, for instance. Even our religion is a matter of where we happen to have been born. Our imagination too affects our judgment; miracles and the like arise from it. Reason is especially unreliable in matters of religion. In general then, men know little; their ignorance far outweighs their knowledge.
But his generally low opinion of man and his powers, so contrary to the humanistic insistence on the dignity of man, was not merely negative in its implications. Not only did it help to make him tolerant, as we have seen, in matters of religion, but it also caused him to decry two of the most cruel and irrational practices of his age: the use of torture in criminal prosecutions and the trial and punishment of witches. Of torture, he says, "What would a man not say, what would a man not do, to escape such grievous pains?" (II, 5) As for the fantastic stories told about the behavior of witches, he says, "Truly, I would not believe my own self about this." (III, 11)
With all his skepticism and independence of thought, he considered himself to be, and no doubt was, a sincere Catholic, though his faith was hardly that of a St. Teresa of Avila, filled with mystic raptures and visions. Montaigne accepted the Roman church because it was based on long tradition and stood for stability and order, and he condemned the Huguenots, whom he blamed for the disorder and destruction that France was suffering in his time. He believed in the customary and settled ways of doing things, and he deplored innovation and its unsettling effects.
Yet he found much to criticize in his own society: the laws, medicine, education, for example. The Essays have much to say about education. Learning of itself has little value; it is wisdom and virtue that matter. "Even if we could be learned with other men's learning, at least wise we cannot be except by our own wisdom." (I, 25) But with all his doubt and disenchantment, he concludes his lifework in a mood of mellow acceptance. The important thing is to live well, and just to have lived is a great deal. "We are great fools. 'He has spent his life in idleness,' we say; 'I have done nothing today.' What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations." (III, 13) And so, though he refuses to glorify man, though he looks at things straight and sees them clearly, he is still a humanist and one of the most attractively human of them all.
In English literary history the Renaissance extends from the sixteenth century into the late seventeenth; John Milton (1608 74) is considered a Renaissance writer. Thus much of the English literary Renaissance must remain outside the scope of this book. We will discuss some of the chief aspects of English Renaissance literature to about the time of the death of William Shakespeare in 1616.
In the literature of sixteenth-century England there existed, together with new currents, many traditional elements. Thus in a period we are apt to think of as witnessing profound changes, writers continued to assume, and expect their readers to assume, certain views about the nature of things that had been accepted for centuries past.
This picture of the world, or the universe, was geocentric and anthropocentric. It derived ultimately from the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose ideas had been given a Christian interpretation. Dante's Divine Comedy illustrates the completed form of this interpretation as it appeared in medieval thought. The earth was fixed in the center of the physical universe, with the planets, including sun and moon, revolving around it in circular orbits. The planets were perfect bodies; the circle was a perfect form. Each of the planets was encased in a solid crystalline sphere. Beyond the spheres of the planets was the sphere of the fixed stars. Beyond this sphere was the sphere of the Primum Mobile, which imparted motion to all the other spheres, and outside all these spheres was God, the Unmoved Mover, who was everywhere.
The earth was composed of the four elements: earth, water, air, fire. These had their order of value: earth the lowest, then water, air, and finally fire, the highest in rank. To these elements corresponded the four humors which composed man's body: melancholy or black bile, cold and dry like earth; phlegm, cold and moist like water; blood, hot and moist like air; and choler or bile, hot and dry like fire. A person's complexion or temperament was based on the relationship of the humors to one another. Thus one could be melancholy, phlegmatic, sanguine, or choleric (bilious) depending on which of the humors predominated. As Tillyard points out, the words of Antony about Brutus at the end of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar show that the human ideal was a man in whom the humors (Shakespeare uses "elements" here) were in perfect balance:
"His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, 'This was a man!'" (act 5, scene 5) If the balance of the humors was too seriously disturbed, disorder and disease resulted; this explains the frequent practice of trying to cure sickness by bleeding the patient.
Earthly things and human bodies, composed of these imperfect elements and humors, could suffer from excess or deficiency, imbalance and disorder; not so the heavenly spheres. They were composed of ether, a perfect and imperishable element, the fifth element or quintessence. Everything beneath the moon that is, the sublunary realm was made up of the perishable and imperfect; the moon and all that was beyond it constituted the realm of the perfect and unchanging.
Yet there was a connection between the perfect and imperishable heavens and the corruptible and transitory beings who inhabited the earth, and this connection provided the basis of astrology. The heavens had a direct influence on human life, and an individual's nature reflected the planetary sign under which he was born. Those born under the influence of Saturn were saturnine, inclined to melancholy and they were "contemplative, meditating, brooding, solitary, creative." In the Renaissance artists were supposed to be of this character.he characteristic qualities of every realm of being, from the intelligence of the angels to the matter of inanimate objects, and by virtue of this, he became the bond that joined the universe together. All these views helped mold the thinking of English writers in the sixteenth century.
In England as in France, the literature of the Renaissance showed the influence both of classical antiquity and of the modern Italian writers. These influences helped to revive English writing, which in the fifteenth century had suffered a decline, along with scholarship and intellectual life in general. These influences can be seen in the work of two poets who helped introduce the new age Wyatt and Surrey. Both of these men came from the classes that ruled England, and their lives were largely spent in government service. They illustrate the great importance of the court in the culture of the period. It was the chief center and stimulus of literature. One of the avocations of courtiers was the writing of verse, which, as amateurs, they often disdained to publish, so that their views circulated in manuscript only. Both Wyatt and Surrey led rather turbulent lives. Both spent time in prison, and both died young. Surrey in fact was executed by Henry VIII, of whom he had at one time been a favorite. Wyatt survived imprisonment, but his son was executed in the reign of Queen Mary for leading an unsuccessful rebellion.
The poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 42) are firmly rooted in English tradition and at the same time exhibit the influence of Italy, which Wyatt visited in 1527 at a time when Petrarch's work was enjoying a revival of interest. The effects can be seen in his translations from Petrarch and in his use of the sonnet form, which he seems to have introduced into English. He used the tight Petrarchan rhyme scheme for his sonnets, which are often fairly uninspired. However, in some of his poetry he shows a genuine lyric gift. He writes much about love in the Petrarchan tradition, with the cruel unfeeling lady unmoved by her lover's devotion and suffering.
The following stanzas, the first and last of one of his poems (there are six stanzas in between) illustrate the grace and simplicity of which he was often capable:
My lute awake! perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And end that I have now begun;
For when this song is sung and past,
My lute be still, for I have done
Now cease, my lute: this is the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,
And ended is that we begun.
Now is this song both sung and past:
My lute be still, for I have done.
The references to his lute and to "this song" may serve to remind us that the lyric poetry of this period was meant to be sung, and that such poems were provided with musical settings; sometimes poets were also composers and wrote the music for their own poetry.
Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (1517 47), was the son of the duke of Norfolk, the greatest of the English nobles. He was related to both of the wives whom Henry VIII beheaded, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. He was a close friend of the duke of Richmond, the king's illegitimate son, and a bitter enemy of the Seymours, the relatives of Henry's third wife. The experiences of Anne and Catherine did not teach him prudence, which in someone so highly placed was an indispensable requirement for survival in Henry's reign. His arrogance and reckless pride cost him his life in the last days of Henry's reign.
Surrey shows both the classical and Italian influences in his translation of two books of Virgil's Aeneid. For his translation he used the meter that became known as blank verse unrhymed iambic pentameter, each line containing ten syllables with the stress on the even numbered syllables. He derived this form from the Italian. The opening of his translation of Book II will illustrate his use of this form: "They whisted all, with fixed face attent, / When prince Aeneas from the royal seat / Thus gan to speak...." This meter became the one used in the drama by Shakespeare and others, and by Milton in his great epics Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
In his sonnets Surrey used a looser rhyme scheme than the Petrarchan, with three quatrains using alternating rhymes and a rhyming couplet at the end. This was the form that was to be used by Shakespeare. Like Wyatt, Surrey is most important for his short lyric poems with their expression of personal feeling.
Turning from poetry to prose, we find a great body of work connected with the religious developments of the time. While much of the literature was still written in Latin, which had for centuries been the language of theology; there was now a great deal of work in English, both in the form of original writings and in translations. Religious controversy was sometimes carried on in English, and the writings of William Tyndale and Thomas More against one another's positions illustrate this. But the most important and enduring contributions to English prose during the years preceding the accession of Elizabeth and perhaps of the entire century are to be found in the area of Biblical translation and devotional literature.
William Tyndale (c.1490 1536), one of the earliest English Protestants, left England for the Continent to undertake a translation of the Bible, subsidized by sympathetic Englishmen. He translated the entire New Testament and some books of the Old before being taken and burned at the stake in the Low Countries in 1536. His translation was completed by Miles Coverdale (1488 1568). Coverdale was not so good a scholar as Tyndale; whereas Tyndale had based his translation on the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, Coverdale used the Latin Vulgate and Luther's German version. However, both translators had great gifts of language, and their work became the basis for later Protestant versions of Scripture, including the King James Bible (1611). Thus the simplicity, dignity, grandeur, and beauty of the most important of all books in English owes much to these two early Protestant translators.
Next to their work, the most significant prose achievement of the period was the Book of Common Prayer, of which the chief author was Thomas Cranmer. This book may in a sense also be classed with the translations because it was largely adapted from Latin service books already in use; nevertheless, it is a masterpiece of English prose. The stateliness of its rhythms and its dignity and nobility of phrase were especially important in the life of a newly founded church, which for many years had to struggle for acceptance and find a place in the minds and hearts of the English people.
The culmination of sixteenth-century literature in England came in the reign of Elizabeth I; the Elizabethan Age is one of the glories of English literature. Out of the great number of important writers of the period we shall turn our attention chiefly to four of the most outstanding, who are distinguished not only for their high level of achievement but also for the wide range of literary forms in which they exercised their talents. These writers are Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare.
Sir Philip Sidney (1554 86) came from a distinguished family devoted to public service, and he spent his tragically short life in court and government circles. He traveled widely on the Continent, and died in the Netherlands fighting for Dutch independence. He was a nephew of the earl of Leicester, and his sister Mary became countess of Pembroke. He was interested in classical and humanistic learning and also in politics and public affairs. His writings cover a variety of fields: literary criticism, pastoral romance, and a sonnet sequence, among other things. Most of his works were not published during his lifetime.
His sonnet sequence is entitled Astrophel and Stella. It is a large work, with 108 sonnets, and eleven songs interspersed among them. Like Petrarch's poems to Laura, they examine the various aspects of love. At their best, they are outstanding in clarity, passion, and grace.
Sidney's pastoral romance, the Arcadia, was written for his sister, the countess of Pembroke. The pastoral tradition, evoking the supposedly simple and blissful country life of nymphs and shepherds, goes back to Greece and Rome. It had been revived in Renaissance Italy by such authors as Boccaccio and Jacopo Sannazaro (1456 1530), whose Arcadia consisted of both prose and verse. Sannazaro's work was a great influence on Sidney.
Sidney's Arcadia has a very complicated pattern, containing a large number of interwoven stories. According to C. S. Lewis, the Arcadia is not a pastoral romance so much as an epic. It deals only in a secondary way with the loves of nymphs and shepherds and primarily with heroic adventures, battles, and affairs of state. In it Sidney is intent on teaching moral and political lessons, as well as discussing important issues of philosophy and theology. Though he writes in the chivalrous tradition, he points out the horror of war. Above all, he is concerned to set forth certain ideals of honor, loyalty, and friendship for the edification of his readers.
His Defence of Poesie or An Apologie for Poetrie is considered one of the most important English critical essays. By poetry Sidney means imaginative literature, or fiction, in general; "poetry" could be in prose form, not necessarily in verse. Answering contemporary criticisms of poetry, Sidney put a high value on the poet, whom he regarded as an inspired prophet, a creator, and a moral teacher. Poetry, he claimed, was superior to all other arts because while bound by a given subject matter, the poet "bringeth his own stuff, and doth not learn a conceit out of a matter, but maketh matter for a conceit...."
Perhaps most important, the poet combines moral teaching with delight. The philosopher does not have the same power to bring delight to his teaching, and the historian is bound by "the truth of a foolish world," and the truth is not always a stimulus to virtue. Thus poetry is the oldest, noblest, and most fruitful of all the branches of learning. So Sidney meets the criticisms of the detractors of poetry.
He drew much of his material from ancient writers, especially Aristotle, whom he did not always interpret correctly. In discussing tragedy, for example, he invoked the authority of Aristotle for the doctrine that all the action should occur in the same place and within a span of one day. These so-called unities, which do not really represent Aristotle's thought, were to have a good deal of influence on European drama.
Edmund Spenser (1552-99) was, as his epitaph in Westminster Abbey declares, the "prince of poets in his time," the greatest writer of nondramatic poetry of his age. He was a learned poet, educated at the Merchant Taylors' School in London under its famous headmaster, Richard Mulcaster. Later Spenser attended Cambridge University and received his master's degree in 1576. He spent much of his life in government service in Ireland, where he became a good friend of Walter Raleigh.
Spenser's works show the range of influences to which he responded. His master, Mulcaster, was a strong advocate of the use of the vernacular, like Du Bellay and the Pliade in France. The chivalric epic tradition, as exemplified in the work of Ariosto in Italy, affected him, as did humanism. There are also allegorical elements, derived from the medieval tradition, in his work. He wrote both sonnets and pastoral poetry, thus displaying his awareness of the poetical currents of the time.
As a young man Spenser became acquainted with Sir Philip Sidney, for whom he developed an enormous admiration. Both men were Puritans, both were deeply interested in politics, and both had high moral principles, which they sought to inculcate in their readers through their works.
In 1579 Spenser published his Shepheardes Calendar, twelve eclogues, each for one month of the year. In it the poet combines two pastoral traditions: the classical, which came down from Theocritus and Virgil, and the English, of which Chaucer was the leading representative. The characters in the poem refer to real people known to Spenser. There are religious implications; Spenser seems to attack popery and defend the Protestant position.
In 1594 Spenser was married and in 1595 published a volume containing his Amoretti and Epithalamion. The Amoretti, a sonnet sequence, and the Epithalamion, a wedding hymn, celebrate his marriage and his bride. The sonnets are in the Petrarchan tradition; the lover addresses his lady in terms of extravagant praise and adoration and uses figures reminiscent of Petrarch's comparing her eyes to the sun, moon, stars and so forth. She is cruel, yet pure and heavenly, not made out of one of the four earthly elements, but of a fifth element, "the sky."
The Epithalamion (Greek word for a nuptial song) is filled, as the name would lead us to expect, with classical allusions. It is written in a very elaborate stanza form with a rigid rhyme scheme and a recurrent refrain in the last line of each stanza. In spite of all this, it is not artificial or stilted, but stately and majestic, with joy and dignity, a fitting celebration of marriage.
Among his many other works we can note only one, The Faerie Queene, which, even though he did not live to finish it, is his masterpiece. It was planned to be in twelve books, each representing one of the moral virtues. Six books were finished, and there also remain two cantos, known as the Mutabilitie Cantos, which might have formed part of the seventh. The plan of the poem shows its moral purpose. The heroes of the first two books the Red Cross Knight and Sir Guyon indicate that the poem is in form an epic of chivalry, telling of knightly adventures. The virtues holiness, chastity, friendship, justice, courtesy, and constancy present an interesting mixture of Christian, classic, and chivalrous ideals reminiscent of the ideals of Renaissance education found in the schools of Vittorino da Feltre and other Italian humanist educators.
The Faerie Queene is an allegory, with its numerous and intricately woven stories proceeding on many levels of meaning. As an allegory it is in the medieval tradition. One of the themes is the search of Prince Arthur for Gloriana, the Faerie Queene, whom he had seen only in a vision. This represents Magnanimity (Arthur) seeking glory, or honor (Gloriana). But this glory in turn represents the true, that is the divine, glory. Thus there is here both a Christian and a Platonic significance. In addition, Gloriana stands for Queen Elizabeth herself.
Though the poem was never finished, and though its structure is extraordinarily complicated and intricate, it is one of the great poems in the English language, for its numerous vivid images and the beauty and richness of its poetic diction. Just as it drew on many traditions of the past, it had great influence on the poetry of the ages that followed.
From Spenser, the greatest nondramatic poet of the Elizabethan Age, we can turn to the dramatic achievements of the period, which culminated in the plays of Marlowe and Shakespeare. By the end of the Middle Ages, England possessed a rich dramatic tradition. The surviving dramatic works from the medieval period are chiefly religious. A popular form was the miracle play, on a theme from the Bible or the lives of the saints, presented by guilds and acted in the streets of the towns. Morality plays, like the miracle plays, had the function of teaching church doctrine on a popular level. They presented allegorical figures representing virtues and vices, as well as other abstractions such as the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The morality tradition, representing abstract qualities by human characters, grows out of the medieval fondness for allegory and persisted well into the Tudor period. Such plays were being written and performed in the reign of Elizabeth.
The first purely secular English play still extant is a comedy, Fulgens and Lucrece by Henry Medwall, chaplain to Cardinal John Morton. The play was written to be performed in the household of Cardinal Morton; since Cardinal Morton died in 1500, the play must belong to the last years of the fifteenth century. It was based on a work by an Italian humanist that had been translated into English, possibly from a French version. Medwall did more than translate; he added a comic subplot, which serves as a parody to the serious main plot and is the forerunner of subplots in later plays.
Although the drama became increasingly secular in the sixteenth century, there continued to be plays on Biblical subjects, and even the secular drama often retained didactic elements. Such themes as the upbringing of the young and the corruptions in society were popular. The religious controversies of the Reformation called forth polemical plays.
Humanistic influences combined with the native tradition in English drama. This meant, among other things, that classical drama played a part. However, Greek drama the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes played a minor role. It was the Roman drama that came to be translated and imitated in England. The comedies of Terence and Plautus and the tragedies of Seneca had a great vogue.
Italian drama was slower in leaving its mark, but by Elizabeth's reign Italian plays were being adapted to the English stage. The first English prose comedy, Supposes, by George Gascoigne, was based on a play by the Italian writer Ariosto. English playwrights imported ideas from Italy not only through the medium of Italian plays but also by drawing on Italian courtesy books, such as Castiglione's Courtier, and on collections of stories, including Boccaccio's Decameron.
Plays were at first performed in a variety of settings. The households of great men in church and state were the scenes of some productions, as we have seen in the case of Archbishop Morton. Students in the Inns of Court and the universities presented plays. Very important were the companies consisting of choir boys, the two most outstanding being those connected with the Chapel Royal and with St. Paul's. These Children of the Chapel Royal and Children of Paul's gave many performances at court. Some of the grammar schools also put on plays.
By the last quarter of the sixteenth century, however, professional companies of adult actors came to dominate the stage. Great nobles sometimes patronized companies of actors, who were known by the names of their patrons. Such a patron was the earl of Leicester, who took a real interest in his company and looked out for its welfare. The most famous of the Elizabethan companies was the Lord Chamberlain's Company, of which Shakespeare was a member. With the accession of James I, this company was taken over by James himself and became the King's Company.
In the 1570s the adult companies were giving more performances at court than the children's companies, and in the same decade the first two permanent theaters in England were built and were used by them. These first two theaters, known as The Theatre and The Curtain, were public theaters to which anyone could gain admittance on payment of the required sum.
There were also private theaters, the first of which was established in 1576 and was called Blackfriars, since it made use of a building that had been part of a Dominican convent (the Dominicans were known in England as the Black Friars). It was used by the Children of the Chapel. Unlike the public theaters, it had a roof and provided seats for all members of the audience in the public theaters, the cheapest admission provided standing room. It also charged higher prices than the public theaters.
Important in the history of English drama was the play Gorboduc, or, as the title page of an early edition describes it, "The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex...shewed on stage before the Queen's Majesty...the 18th day of January 1561 [1562 by our reckoning] by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple." It was written by two young men, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, both at the time members of the Inner Temple. In some ways it foreshadows King Lear: It tells a story based on British legend, and it preaches the evils of divided rule and uncertain succession. Gorboduc, king of Britain, divides his rule between his sons Ferrex and Porrex; great evils follow that bring suffering, death, and devastation to the realm. The play was apparently intended to teach the royal spectator the importance of settling the succession question promptly. While it did not have the desired effect, it does not seem to have offended Elizabeth, because both the authors had prosperous and successful careers, though not primarily as writers.
Gorboduc is important as the first English tragedy; previous tragedies in the English language had been translations of Seneca. It is also important as the first play to be written in blank verse, which was to become the standard speech of English tragedy. This form was introduced, as we have seen, by Surrey. It has many advantages for dramatic use: It is close to everyday speech in its rhythm and yet adaptable to any dramatic or poetic purpose; and it is flexible, allowing for considerable variety by small departures from the strict pattern. Rhymed lines are sometimes found, especially at the end of an act. Much of the greatest English poetry, dramatic and nondramatic, was to be written in this medium.
To illustrate the nature of blank verse, the following lines from Gorboduc will serve, as they will also serve to show the sort of political lessons taught by the play: "Though kings forget to govern as they ought, / Yet subjects must obey as they are bound" (5.1.50 51).
It was Christopher Marlowe (1564 93) who first showed the enormous possibilities of blank verse and established it as the standard English dramatic language. There is something mysterious, even a little sinister, about Marlowe. As a student at Cambridge University, he was most irregular in his attendance, yet received his bachelor's and master's degrees there. It has been conjectured that his absences were caused by some sort of undercover work that he was doing for the government, and that his degrees, awarded at government orders, served as a partial recompense for this service. He was regarded with great suspicion by the orthodox, accused of "atheism" that comprehensive sixteenth-century term for all deviations from accepted views as well as Epicureanism and Machiavellianism, two equally opprobrious terms. He was murdered in a tavern, where he had been in the company of some dubious characters, as a result of a brawl that may have arisen out of a controversy over who was to pay the bill. He was killed with his own dagger.
This squalid and miserable death, before he had even reached the age of thirty, ended the career of an amazing dramatic genius. Nobody before him and hardly anyone since could invest blank verse with such thundering power and such soaring beauty. Passages from Tamburlaine the Great, Part I, will illustrate both the power and the beauty. In Act IV, Scene 2, Tamburlaine says to the dethroned sultan, Bajazet
The chiefest God, first mover of that sphere
Enchas'd with thousands ever-shining lamps,
Will sooner burn the glorious frame of heaven
Than it should so conspire my overthrow.
But, villain, thou that wishest this to me,
Fall prostrate on the low disdainful earth
And be the footstool of great Tamburlaine
That I may rise into my royal throne.
Thus Tamburlaine, the irresistible world conqueror, makes kings his footstools. These lines show Marlowe's capacity for mouth-filling rhetoric and illustrate the cosmic nature of his imagery. Nothing less than the whole universe would suffice to express the scope of his aspirations.
But Tamburlaine, speaking of the fair Zenocrate, can speak another language, the language of love and beauty:
If all the pens that ever poets held
Had fed the feeling of their masters' thoughts,
And every sweetness that inspir'd their hearts,
Their minds, and muses on admired themes;
If all the heavenly quintessence they still [distill]
From their immortal flowers of poesy,
Wherein as in a mirror we perceive
The highest reaches of a human wit;
If these had made one poem's period,
And all combin'd in beauty's worthiness,
Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.
[act 5, scene 1]
The thought that no virtue can digest into words is typical of Marlowe's heroes, striving to grasp the unattainable and express the inexpressible. Characteristic of these boundless yearnings are these words, also put into the mouth of Tamburlaine:
Nature that fram'd us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.
[act 2, scene 7]
Tamburlaine strives after power without end, and nothing can check his triumphant drive. He is utterly ruthless and without mercy to his enemies. The play was so popular that Marlowe felt called upon to write a sequel, Tamburlaine the Great, Part II. In this second part the conqueror loses his Zenocrate by death, and at the end yields to the only foe that could ever subdue him death itself.
Tamburlaine's boundless desires and stirrings set the pattern for Marlowe's other heroes. The Tragicall History of A Doctor Faustus is a retelling of the Faust story. Originating in Germany, it had become known in England through The Historie of the damnable Life and deserved Death of Dr. John Faustus, a translation of a German work published in 1592. The story has had a perennial fascination and has been told many times. Several operas have been written on the theme. The most famous literary version of it is that by Goethe. In more recent times it has been treated by Thomas Mann in his Doctor Faustus, and by the American writer John Hersey in a novel, Too Far To Walk.
The story of Faust is that of a man who agrees to bestow his soul on the Devil at the time of his death in return for certain gifts during his lifetime. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is a scholar who, having plumbed the depths of all human learning, finds himself dissatisfied. He longs for power over all things and seeks to attain it by magic. As a result of his spells, he is put in touch with the infernal powers, to whom he agrees to give his soul. In return he is given twenty-four years of boundless power.
Much of the action consists of Faustus making use of the powers diabolically bestowed on him. These exhibitions of power are disappointingly trivial, consisting largely of playing tricks on such figures as the emperor and the pope. There is also the famous scene in which his devilish helper Mephistopheles calls up Helen of Troy, whom Faustus greets in the speech beginning with the words: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" Later in the same speech he addresses her in this manner:
O, Thou art fairer than the evening's air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars.
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appeared to hapless Semele,
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa's azure arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour.
[act 5, scene 1]
During the play, Faustus has many opportunities to repent and be saved, but he never grasps them; and so at the end, in a horrifying scene, the devils carry away his soul to everlasting torment.
Like Tamburlaine, Faustus represents the striving after the boundless in a somewhat different form not in military conquest, but in the knowledge of the secrets of the universe and the power that comes from such knowledge. He is an example of the Renaissance magus, a type to be discussed at more length in a subsequent chapter. In The Jew of Malta, Marlowe presents another form of the aspiration after the limitless. Barabas, the Jew, is interested in wealth, and his fortune is immense. At the start of the play, he is found counting his riches, and he speaks of "Infinite riches in a little room." He is a monster of iniquity, who stops at nothing to vent his hatred of Christians. His acts of cruelty and his betrayal of Christians and Moslems are fittingly rewarded in the end when he dies in a boiling cauldron. His wickedness, like in Shakespeare's Shylock, must have appealed to the anti-Semitism of Marlowe's Elizabethan audience. Jews had been expelled from England by Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century and had not yet been readmitted, so the common prejudice was fed on hearsay and on such plays as those of Marlowe and Shakespeare. The Jew of Malta is based on no known literary source.
Barabas is represented as a disciple of "Machevill," who makes his first appearance on the Elizabethan stage in the prologue to the play. He announces some of the maxims associated with his name, for example, this one: "I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance." Henceforth, Machiavelli was to be referred to often on the Elizabethan stage as a representative of the blackest wickedness. Shakespeare's Richard III, a character as wicked as Barabas, promises to "set the murderous Machiavel to school." (Henry VI, Part III, 3.2.)
Until this time, the chief characters in Marlowe's plays had been dynamic protagonists, whose character and actions largely determined the course of events. They remained the same kinds of personalities throughout, showing little sign of development. In his greatest play, Edward the Second, this all changed. (It is possible that Edward the Second was not the last of Marlowe's plays, and that it was written earlier than Doctor Faustus. However, it differs sufficiently from the other plays to be discussed last.) Edward the Second is a real tragedy; most of his other works can more accurately be called melodramas. The chief character is the king who reigned in England from 1307 to 1327 and who was then deposed and murdered. Unlike the rest of Marlowe's heroes, he is weak and at the mercy of other forces. He is represented as dominated by his homosexual affection for Gaveston, his baseborn favorite. The queen, Isabella, has turned to young Mortimer, with whom she is having a love affair, while Mortimer plots to depose the king and take his place. The king is deposed and, at Mortimer's command, murdered. But the dead king's son and successor, Edward III, learns what has happened and avenges his father's murder by having Mortimer put to death instantly and Isabella sent to the Tower to await trial.
At the start of the play, the sympathies of the audience or the reader are not with the king, but as the action progresses and disaster overtakes him and his character develops, he becomes unlike Barabas a more sympathetic figure, so that by the time of the ghastly scene in which he is murdered the audience has changed sides. Perhaps Marlowe himself was changing and growing, having compassion for life's victims, whereas earlier he seemed to side always with the conquerors. There is no way to know how far or in what directions his extraordinary talents would have developed.
William Shakespeare (1564 1616) was born in the same year as Marlowe. If he had died at the same age, he would be considered the lesser of the two writers, since his development was slower and his achievement by 1593 was less impressive. He lived to finish his work, however, and became the greatest playwright and the supreme writer in the English language, or perhaps in any language. His dramatic work passes through well-defined phases: first a period of patriotic history plays, "happy" comedies, and romantic tragedy (Romeo and Juliet); then the great and terrible tragedies and the "bitter" comedies; and finally a group of plays in which there predominates a note of peace and reconciliation, of faith in the ultimate goodness of the world and of man. This faith is not naive, but mature and without illusions.
Shakespeare was born in the Warwickshire market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. The extent of his schooling is uncertain. It may not have been great, though there is a later story that at one time he taught school himself. In any event, he had a capacious mind and was sensitive to the leading intellectual issues of his day. By 1592 he was established in London and making a reputation as a playwright. By 1612 he had virtually finished writing his plays and had retired to Stratford, where he died in 1616.
Shakespeare, in the words of Professor Gerald Bentley, was the most complete man of the theater of his time. He was not only a writer of plays but also an actor and theater owner. As already mentioned, he was a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Company, founded in 1593, which became the King's Company on the accession of James I in 1603. Along with other members of the company, he was part owner of the Globe theater and later of Blackfriars.
In addition to the plays, Shakespeare wrote two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both of which deal with subjects from antiquity and are largely erotic in content; a number of shorter poems; and the sonnets.
The sonnets were first published in 1609, possibly without his consent, and comprise a sequence of 154 poems. One common Renaissance theme that has found expression in Shakespeare's sonnets is the proud assurance of the poet's power to confer immortality on the subject of his verse.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rime;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war's quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
'Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.
Two persons figure prominently in the sonnets. One is a youth whom Shakespeare addresses in words of fervent love and adoration, as well as reproach and disillusionment. In some poems the poet himself is contrite, admitting that he has wronged the beloved. Sometimes he gives way to doubt, as when he refers to his "tongue-tied Muse" (No. LXXXV) or thinks of his advancing years and death. "No longer mourn for me when I am dead / Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell / Give warning to the world that I am fled / From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell...." (No. LXXI)
The other person who plays a leading part in the sonnets is a woman who is referred to by critics as the Dark Lady. In one sonnet Shakespeare says her eyes are "raven black," (No. CXXVII) though in another he tells her, "In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds." (No. CXXXI) This note of bitterness is constant in the sonnets that deal with her. "When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies." (No. CXXXVIII) The relationship is one that binds the poet in spite of himself and makes him ashamed of his bondage. To put the finishing touch on his bitterness, he finds that the two persons he loves have begun to love one another the good one, the Fair Youth, is being tempted by the bad one, the Dark Lady.
The sonnets are widely regarded as containing autobiographical references. The identity of the Dark Lady is not known, but two men are often suggested as the Fair Youth: Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, nephew of Sir Philip Sidney. Some critics have called Shakespeare's sonnets "the greatest love-poetry in the world."
Shakespeare wrote ten plays dealing with events in English history. With the exception of the late Henry VIII, which may not have been wholly written by him, all these plays appeared before 1600. Eight of them (all except King John) fall into two groups of four, often referred to as the two tetralogies. The earlier consists of Henry VI in three parts and Richard III, and deals with the conflict between Lancaster and York. The latter in terms of composition includes Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V. Taken as a whole, therefore, these eight plays cover the period of English history from the reign of Richard II, who was deposed in 1399, to the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor, Henry VII, on Bosworth Field in 1485.
English chronicle plays had existed since about 1580, and had become increasingly popular. Their patriotic tone is carried on in Shakespeare's plays, which also exhibit a clearly defined philosophy of history. This philosophy, which was held by educated and thoughtful people of the time, accepted the concept of the "Great Chain of Being" and of the importance of the cosmic order with the corollary of the wickedness of any disturbance to that order, including rebellion against the state and against the king.
Furthermore, history was seen as having a moral aspect. Wickedness is punished; goodness is rewarded. This fits in with a growing search for cause and effect in history. The reigns of kings are linked together by the results of sins working themselves out over the generations. Thus as we see in Shakespeare's two tetralogies, though Richard II was not a good king, his deposition and still more his murder, must be considered crimes; the usurper, Henry IV (Bolingbroke), is never allowed to forget his guilt. His reign is troubled by rebellious subjects, and in his sleepless nights he can complain:
O sleep! O gentle sleep!
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Canst thou, O partial sleep! give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.
[2 Henry IV, 3.1]
The death of Henry IV and the accession of Henry V mark a change. Henry V is the ideal king. His wayward youth, as Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, is now revealed as only a period of preparation for the burdens of kingship. He repudiates his disreputable companions, including Falstaff, and stands forth as the leader of his people, set apart from them by the splendor of his majesty yet linked to them by mutual affection and understanding and by the fact that the English, unlike the French, are free men. Thus in the play Henry V, the English and their king are able to win the glorious victory of Agincourt.
But the death of Henry V was followed by the civil struggle of Lancaster and York and the wicked reign of Richard III. The three Henry VI plays, although among Shakespeare's earliest works and hence immature, illustrate the doctrine of the evils of civil war and the damage that private rivalries can do to the public good. Only when Englishmen turn against one another can they expose themselves to the danger of foreign conquest.
The last play of the group, Richard III, pictures one of Shakespeare's most famous villains. Richard is a cripple whose physical deformity mirrors the depravity of his soul. But his wickedness finally catches up with him, and he is defeated and killed at Bosworth by the forces of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond and later Henry VII. Thus the play ends with a glorification of the Tudors, who are to restore peace and "smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days" to England.
In these eight plays Shakespeare has shown a unified conception of English history from the end of the fourteenth century to the coming of the Tudors, which is bound together by a chain of moral cause and effect that links the generations in a providential plan. Some notable expressions of English patriotism are found in the plays. Among them is the great speech of John of Gaunt in Richard II (Act II, Scene 1), which includes these lines:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England....
In the two parts of Henry IV and in Henry V, Shakespeare went beyond the confines of kings and nobles to produce a picture of English society in his day that has been called epic in scope. All sorts of social classes, from the country and from the town, are presented so vividly that Shakespeare must have seen them all and observed them closely. Such unforgettable characters as Fluellen, Pistol, Justice Shallow, and Mistress Quickly bear witness to the breadth of his genius and the depths of his human sympathies.
Of the English history plays, Richard II and Richard III are called tragedies. In addition to these, Shakespeare wrote ten other tragedies, from the early and bloody Titus Andronicus, about 1593 or 1594, to Timon of Athens, about 1607 or 1608, which may have been written only partly by him or, if entirely his, may never have been finished. From about 1600 to about 1608, he wrote his greatest tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. During this same period, the so-called comedies that he wrote have a tone of bitterness and disillusionment that shows their affinity to the tragedies. The only exception is The Merry Wives of Windsor, written early in this period.
Common to all great tragedy is what may be called the tragic view of life, which sees man borne down by forces of evil that all his good intentions and nobility of spirit cannot resist. His nobility lies not in triumph but in the dignity with which he bears his defeat. This does not mean that the wicked go unpunished, and in Shakespeare they do not. Evil may win a triumph over good, within the confines of the drama, but the human instruments of evil destroy themselves as well.
The range and richness of Shakespeare's tragedies are inexhaustible, and there can be room here for only a few comments. Romeo and Juliet, his tragedy of young love, comes from a period when the lyric element was very strong in Shakespeare's plays, and the result is some of his most eloquent love poetry. For example, Romeo's speech when he first sees Juliet: "O! she doth teach the torches to burn bright. / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear; / Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear! (Romeo and Juliet, 1.5)
Julius Caesar, which draws largely from Shakespeare's reading of Plutarch, contains more of his reflections on politics. Caesar is a great man, who bestrides "the narrow world like a Colossus." The conspirators, led by the noble but ineffectual Brutus, kill Caesar to avert tyranny, but are themselves defeated by another strong man, Mark Antony. The death of Caesar is foreshadowed by portents in the heavens and remarkable occurrences on the earth; as Caesar's wife says: "When beggars die there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." (Julius Caesar, 2.2) This also shows the correspondence between all the elements in the cosmic order: The heavens, the body politic, and the body and soul of man are bound together, and disorder in one sphere must bring corresponding disorder elsewhere. These correspondences underlie all of Shakespeare's tragedies.
With Hamlet (1600-01) the period of the greatest tragedies is ushered in. Hamlet is destroyed and carries others to destruction by his indecision, which prevents him from avenging his father's death. It is not yet agreed just why Hamlet does not do his duty. Is it the impotence of the man of reflection faced by the necessity of decisive action? Is it a paralysis of the will resulting from the realization of his mother's true character?
Hamlet is destroyed by the inability of his character to cope with the demands of the situation in which he finds himself. In Othello, on the other hand, the hero is ruined by the simplicity of his nature when exposed to the villainy of Iago, one of Shakespeare's most remarkable creations. Through Iago's machinations, Othello is roused to a frenzy of suspicion of his lovely wife, Desdemona, which leads him to murder her; and when he learns of his mistake, to kill himself. The great question is: What induces Iago to commit his unspeakable acts? He gives a number of reasons, but we feel that these are no more than pretexts. Iago appears to be pure unmotivated evil; he destroys Othello and Desdemona not to gain something for himself, not even because he bears them any particular ill will, but simply because of an affinity for wickedness. He symbolizes the faculties of reason perverted to destructive ends. If he were moved by passion, he would be less horrifying. It is his coldness and detachment that make him so appalling. Even at the end, Iago, though arrested and facing torture and probable death, seems unmoved and unbroken.
The same sort of unmotivated evil appears in Goneril and Regan, daughters of Lear. King Lear has often been called the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies. Its scope is cosmic; it deals not only with the relationships among humans, but with the nature of society and the state, and ultimately with the whole question of the government of the universe. Lear is a king; as we have seen, this places him at the head of one of the hierarchies that compose the Elizabethan conception of the cosmos, the hierarchy of the state or human society. When he is impelled, largely by foolish vanity, to divide up his kingdom among his daughters, he is interfering with the natural order of things. This disturbance is accompanied by or indeed, gives rise to every other kind of disorder. Lear's eventual insanity is one form of disorder; the terrible storm to which he is exposed in Act III is another.
There is even a subplot in Lear, which repeats the main plot. As Lear has turned against his faithful daughter Cordelia only to be betrayed by the two ungrateful ones, so Gloucester has relied on his treacherous bastard son Edmund and cast off the faithful Edgar, as a result of which he is blinded and becomes, like Lear, a homeless wanderer. Eventually retribution overtakes Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, but not without destroying Lear, Gloucester, and even the exquisite Cordelia. Evil has destroyed itself, but it has taken a terrible toll among those who have not deserved so harsh a fate.
While Shakespeare wrote no tragedies after about 1608, and while all his history plays (except Henry VIII) were written before 1600, he wrote comedies throughout his career. It is true, however, that in his case the word comedy is used to designate plays that vary strikingly in tone and outlook. The most lighthearted and amusing were written in his earlier days, from The Comedy of Errors (1592 93) to The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600 01). There is generally at least one love story, and the power of love is celebrated. One theme that appears more than once is that of people who scorn love at first but later fall in love and repent of their folly before finally gaining what they desire.
And yet, even in these joyous and seemingly carefree comedies, there appears an undertone of disillusionment and skepticism about the constancy of love, especially of the love of men for women. Shakespeare seems to have had an exceptionally sensitive appreciation of the feminine point of view. In one of his most enchanting comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream, the love of the young men seems remarkably fickle and changeable. Of course, this fickleness is partly due to the magical charms of fairies; it is not clear whether the action has all really happened or has been a dream. But the great enchanter is Shakespeare himself, and he seems to be deliberately leaving us in doubt as to the boundaries between dreams and wakefulness, between appearance and reality.
From about 1601 to 1605, at the beginning of the period when he wrote the great tragedies, Shakespeare wrote three comedies, which have been appropriately called "bitter": Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, and Measure for Measure. They are not comic, amusing, or lighthearted, and are classed as comedies simply because the chief characters are alive at the end of the play, and except in Troilus and Cressida lovers are united or reunited and wicked designs are foiled. But there is a spirit of disillusionment and even disgust about them that has led some students, like E. K. Chambers, to conclude that about 1601, "The poet lost his faith in the world."14 The theme of lust is prominent in them all, as it is in Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra, and is associated with human degradation.
Troilus and Cressida may illustrate the common characteristics of the three plays. The familiar story, set against the background of the Trojan War, gave Shakespeare the opportunity to show the seamy side of the ideal of knightly honor, which he had celebrated in Henry V, and the ideal of romantic love, which he had presented in Romeo and Juliet. The Greek heroes waste their time in petty bickering, and the greatest of them, Achilles, proves himself a coward. Cressida, who pledges eternal love to Troilus, is unfaithful to him the first chance she gets. Thersites's comment is appropriate: "Lechery, lechery; still, wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion." (Act V, scene 2) Thersites himself and Pandarus add to the general atmosphere of nastiness and decay that pervades the whole play.
One character, Ulysses, sees things clearly and without illusions. It is he who makes the famous speech on "degree" and order, which clearly describes the cosmic outlook of Shakespeare's age:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
O! when degree is shak'd
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick.
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! what discord follows;
[Act I, Scene 3]
With the exception of Henry VIII, Shakespeare's last plays are romantic comedies or tragicomedies: Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Although there appear in these plays the forces that make for tragedy, they are invariably foiled. The lost are found, the dead Hermione returns to life, wickedness is defeated, and virtue triumphs. Some of Shakespeare's noblest and most attractive feminine characters appear in these plays: Thaisa and Marina in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione and Perdita in The Winter's Tale, and Miranda in The Tempest. There is an air of serenity and acceptance of the world. It is as though Shakespeare had reached in these years an assurance. Evil is an inevitable part of human life, but it is not triumphant; the forces that shape man's destiny are moving in ways not always obvious to beneficent ends.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare may have been saying farewell to the stage. In Prospero the benevolent sorcerer, he may have embodied himself, and in Prospero's great speech in the first scene of Act IV he may (though we shall never be sure) be speaking for himself:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep....
And so, as Prospero abjures his magic, sets the spirits free, breaks his staff and drowns his book, the greatest poet of his nation turned his back on the stage, to spend his last years in the peace and comfort of his native town.