Studium anglistiky na KAA UPOL

The Sixteenth Century British Literature

H i s t o r i c a l  B a c k g r o u n d

1455 - 85: Wars of the Roses, struggle for royal power between the noble houses of York and Lancaster

1485: Accession of Henry VII, beginning of Tudor dynasty

1509: Accession of Henry VIII

1517: Martin Luther's Wittenberg Theses; beginning of the Reformation

1534: Henry VIII declares himself head of the English church, beginning of Protestantism

1547: Accession of Protestant Edward VI, reign under the Regency Council because of the king's young age

1553: Accession of Catholic Mary I, nicknamed Bloody Mary for her persecution of Protestants

1558: Accession of Protestant Elizabeth I

1576: Building of The Theatre, the first permanent structure in England for the presentation of plays

1587: Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, for treason

1588: Defeat of the Catholic Spanish Armada

1599: Opening of the Globe Theatre

1603: Accession of James I, beginning of Stuart dynasty

R e n a i s s a n c e  a n d  H u m a n i s m

- Renaissance originated in Italy first as a movement in the visual arts and architecture

- in England the movement was manifested rather in the spiritual and intellectual orientation known as humanism

- introduced new aesthetic norms based on classical models

- emphasized interest in education, based on the study of the Latin language and classic Greek and Roman literature

- established contrary impulses: humanist reverence for the classics and English pride in the vernacular language

> produced notable translations, e.g. George Chapman's translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

T h e  R e f o r m a t i o n

- originally the only official religion was Roman Catholicism with a vast system of confession, pardons, penance, absolution, indulgences, sacred relics and ceremonies

- 14th century: John Wycliffe and his followers, known as Lollards, challenged some of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic church, but were suppressed

- 1517: Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, charged the pope and his hierarchy for being the servants of Satan and urged for direct access to God by means of vernacular translations of the Bible

- John Calvin, a French theologian in Geneva, formulates the principles of Calvinism, putting emphasis on the doctrine of predestination, i.e. the idea that God has elected a small number of believers for salvation, while the others are already by birth doomed for damnation

- 1534: Henry VIII craves a legitimate male heir to the throne, seeks divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, on the pope's refusal to grant him divorce declares himself the head of the English church

- England shifts from Protestantism under Henry VIII and Edward VI, through Catholicism under Mary I, again to Protestantism under Elizabeth I


L i t e r a t u r e

T h e  E n g l i s h  B i b l e

- Protestantism required direct access to the Bible for laity in vernacular translations, Roman Catholicism preferred that the populace encounter the Scriptures through the interpretations of the priests

> Tyndale's Translation (Protestant): a translation of the New Testament by the English Lutheran William Tyndale, printed on the Continent and smuggled into England in 1525

> The Great Bible (Protestant): based on the former version, with addition of the Hebrew Bible began by W. Tyndale and finished by his associate Miles Coverdale, becomes the first authorized version in English in 1539

> The Geneva Bible (Protestant): translated and extended with scholarly marginal notes by a group of English Protestant exiles in Calvin's Geneva during the reign of Mary I

> The Douay-Rheims Version (Catholic): a reaction to the former, a translation with marginal notes by English Catholic exiles during the reign of Elizabeth I

> King James Bible, also as The Authorized Version (Protestant): a revised translation undertaken by a group of almost fifty scholars during the reign of James I

C o u r t  C u l t u r e

- the court executed central authority, it was the centre of power as well as culture

- court fashions in dress and speech and tastes in painting, music and poetry shaped the taste of the whole country

- culture characteristic by ostentatiousness, wearing of costly costumes and display of artistic and social skills

- involved intrigue, secrecy and spying employed to get in closest possible proximity to the monarch

> many poets were courtiers and vice versa, e.g. Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Raleigh etc.


L i t e r a c y  a n d  W r i t i n g

- 1485: William Caxton introduces the printing press into England, printing makes books cheaper, literacy spreads

- at the beginning of the 16th century the English language had no prestige, the language of literacy was Latin

> e.g. Thomas More's Utopia (1516) is written in Latin for an international intellectual community

- by the end of the 16th century a succession of brilliant writers has established English linguistic self-confidence

> e.g. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, the translators of the Bible

- there was no author's copyright, no royalties paid to an author, no freedom of the press

- financial rewards for writing derived mostly on gifts from wealthy patrons, authors wrote to flatter their patrons and to comply with the official censorship

T u d o r  S t y l e

- Renaissance literature is the product of a rhetorical culture indulging in verbal self-display

- makes heavy use of figures, i.e. certain fixed syntactic forms and word patterns

- relies on the 16th century looser, more flexible syntax and less systemic punctuation

- admires elaborate ornament in language as well as in clothing, jewellery, furniture etc.

- creates complicated, intricate but perfectly regular design in poetry as well as in music, gardens, architecture etc.

- writing style was also formed by the flourishing vocal music, both madrigals (unaccompanied songs for two to eight voices) and airs (songs for solo voice accompanied by the lute)

- many 16th century poems were written to be set to musics, others aspire with their melody to the musical quality

- both poetry and prose reproduce the sense of wonder, as if the world were seen clearly for the first time

- sometimes this magical power of poetry was identified with its moral power, as in the major work of literary criticism of the period, P. Sidney's The Defence of Poesy (1595)

- authors wrote in one of the conventional modes: pastoral, heroic, lyric, satiric, elegiac, tragic, and comic

> the pastoral mode celebrates leisure, humility, and contentment, exalts the simply country life over the city: used with various genres, e.g. C. Marlowe's pastoral poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" (1590s)

> the heroic mode glorifies a nation or people, typically in the form of a long exalted poem based on a heroic story from the nation's distant past: chiefly used with the genre of the epic, e.g. E. Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590)

T h e  E l i z a b e t h a n  T h e a t r e

- since late Middle Ages there was a rich theatrical tradition of annual festivals held in several towns in England

- theatrical companies organized actors and travelled the country under noble patronage

> mystery plays: depicted biblical stories, represented the mysteries of the faith of the Catholic church

> interludes: short staged dialogues on religious, moral and political themes

> morality plays: allegories of spiritual struggle, typically featuring a person named Human or Mankind faced with a choice between a pious life in the company of e.g. Good Deeds and a dissolute life in the company of Mischief

- Elizabethan plays abandoned the classical rules, did not follow the unities of time, place, and action, and even featured villains as protagonists (e.g. Shakespeare's Macbeth)

- also frequently incorporated music and dance into plays

> revenge tragedy: an influential subgenre of the tragedy, featuring a wronged protagonist plotting and executing a revenge and destroying himself in the process (e.g. Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy)

> history play: both tragedies and comedies, picturing the great conspiracies, rebellions and wars of the nation (e.g. Shakespeare's Richard III)

> romantic comedy: follows noble characters in a plot in which love triumphs over potentially tragic obstacles (e.g. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night)

> city comedy: typically treats bourgeois characters in a London setting with a satirical streak (e.g. Thomas Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside)

> humour comedy: uses characters types created on the medical theory that the predominance of a particular fluid, or humour, in the body creates a specific temperament, e.g. melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric (e.g. Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour)


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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