[Click on image to enlarge] Literary works in sixteenth-century England were rarely if ever created in isolation from other currents in the social and cultural world. The boundaries that divided the texts we now regard as aesthetic from other texts were porous and constantly shifting. It is perfectly acceptable, of course, for the purposes of reading to redraw these boundaries more decisively, treating Renaissance texts as if they were islands of the autonomous literary imagination. One of the greatest writers of the period, Sir Philip Sidney, defended poetry in just such terms; the poet, Sidney writes in The Defence of Poetry (NAEL 8, 1.953–74), is not constrained by nature or history but freely ranges "only within the zodiac of his own wit." But Sidney knew well, and from painful personal experience, how much this vision of golden autonomy was contracted by the pressures, perils, and longings of the brazen world. And only a few pages after he imagines the poet orbiting entirely within the constellations of his own intellect, he advances a very different vision, one in which the poet's words not only imitate reality but also actively change it.

We have no way of knowing to what extent, if at all, this dream of literary power was ever realized in the world. We do know that many sixteenth-century artists, such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, brooded on the magical, transforming power of art. This power could be associated with civility and virtue, as Sidney claims, but it could also have the demonic qualities manifested by the "pleasing words" of Spenser's enchanter, Archimago (NAEL 8, 1.714–902), or by the incantations of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (NAEL 8, 1.1022–1057). It is significant that Marlowe's great play was written at a time in which the possibility of sorcery was not merely a theatrical fantasy but a widely shared fear, a fear upon which the state could act — as the case of Doctor Fian vividly shows — with horrendous ferocity. Marlowe was himself the object of suspicion and hostility, as indicated by the strange report filed by a secret agent, Richard Baines, professing to list Marlowe's wildly heretical opinions, and by the gleeful (and factually inaccurate) report by the Puritan Thomas Beard of Marlowe's death.

[Click on image to enlarge] Marlowe's tragedy emerges not only from a culture in which bargains with the devil are imaginable as real events but also from a world in which many of the most fundamental assumptions about spiritual life were being called into question by the movement known as the Reformation. Catholic and Protestant voices struggled to articulate the precise beliefs and practices thought necessary for the soul's salvation. One key site of conflict was the Bible, with Catholic authorities trying unsuccessfully to stop the circulation of the unauthorized Protestant translation of Scripture by William Tyndale, a translation in which doctrines and institutional structures central to the Roman Catholic church were directly challenged. Those doctrines and structures, above all the interpretation of the central ritual of the eucharist, or Lord's Supper, were contested with murderous ferocity, as the fates of the Protestant martyr Anne Askew and the Catholic martyr Robert Aske make painfully clear. The Reformation is closely linked to many of the texts printed in the sixteenth-century section of the Norton Anthology: Book 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene (NAEL 8, 1.719–856), for example, in which a staunchly Protestant knight of Holiness struggles against the satanic forces of Roman Catholicism, or the Protestant propagandist Foxe's account of Lady Jane Grey's execution (NAEL 8, 1.674-75), or the Catholic Robert Southwell's moving religious lyric, "The Burning Babe" (NAEL 8, 1.640-41).

[Click on image to enlarge] If these windows on the Reformation offer a revealing glimpse of the inner lives of men and women in Tudor England, the subsection entitled "The Wider World" provides a glimpse of the huge world that lay beyond the boundaries of the kingdom, a world that the English were feverishly attempting to explore and exploit. Ruthless military expeditions and English settlers (including the poet Edmund Spenser) struggled to subdue and colonize nearby Ireland, but with very limited success. Farther afield, merchants from cities such as London and Bristol established profitable trading links to markets in North Africa, Turkey, and Russia. And daring seamen such as Drake and Cavendish commanded voyages to still more distant lands. The texts collected here, which supplement the selections from Ralegh's Discoverie of Guiana (NAEL 8, 1.923-26) and Hariot's Brief and True Report (NAEL 1.938-43) in the Norton Anthology, are fascinating, disturbing records of intense human curiosity, greed, fear, wonder, and intelligence. And lest we imagine that the English were only the observers of the world and never the observed, "The Wider World" includes a sample of a foreign tourist's description of London. The tourist, Thomas Platter, had the good sense to go to the theater and to see, as so many thousands of visitors to England have done since, a play by Shakespeare.


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