The English language had almost no prestige abroad at the beginning of the sixteenth century. One of the earliest sixteenth-century works of English literature, Thomas More's Utopia, was written in Latin for an international intellectual community. It was only translated into English during the 1550s, nearly a half-century after its original publication in Britain. By 1600, though English remained somewhat peripheral on the continent, it had been transformed into an immensely powerful expressive medium, as employed by Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the translators of the Bible.
The development of the English language is linked to the consolidation and strengthening of the English state. The Wars of the Roses ended with Henry VII’s establishment of the Tudor dynasty that would rule England from 1485 to 1603. The Tudors imposed a much stronger central authority on the nation. The royal court was a center of culture as well as power, finding expression in theater, masques, fashion, and taste in painting, music, and poetry. The court fostered paranoia, and in this anxious atmosphere courtiers became highly practiced at crafting and deciphering graceful words with double or triple meanings. For advice on the cultivation and display of the self, they turned to Castiglione's Il Cortigiano (The Courtier). Beyond the court, London was the largest and fastest-growing city in Europe, and literacy increased throughout the century, in part due to the influence of Protestantism as well as the rise of the printing press. Freedom of the press did not exist, and much literature, especially poetry, still circulated in manuscript.
The movement now known as the Renaissance unleashed new ideas and new social, political and economic forces that gradually displaced the spiritual and communal values of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance came to England through the spiritual and intellectual orientation known as humanism. Humanism, whose adherents included Sir Thomas More, John Colet, Roger Ascham, and Sir Thomas Elyot, was bound up with struggles over the purposes of education and curriculum reform. Education was still ordered according to the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astrology, and music), and it emphasized Latin, the language of diplomacy, professions, and higher learning. But the focus of education shifted from training for the Church to the general acquisition of “literature,” in the sense both of literacy and of cultural knowledge.
Officially at least, England in the early sixteenth century had a single religion, Catholicism. The Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on the authority of scripture (sola scriptura) and salvation by faith alone (sola fide), came to England as a result of Henry VIII’s insistence on divorcing his wife, Catherine of Aragon, against the wishes of the Pope. Henry declared himself supreme head of the Church of England (through the Act of Supremacy). Those like Thomas More who refused the oath acknowledging the king’s supremacy were held guilty of treason and executed. Henry was an equal-opportunity persecutor, hostile to Catholics and zealous reformers alike. His son Edward VI was more firmly Protestant, whilst Mary I was a Catholic. Elizabeth I, though a Protestant, was cautiously conservative, determined to hold religious zealotry in check.
A female monarch in a male world, Elizabeth ruled through a combination of adroit political maneuvering and imperious command, enhancing her authority by means of an extraordinary cult of love. The court moved in an atmosphere of romance, with music, dancing, plays, and masques. Leading artists like the poet Edmund Spenser and the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard celebrated Elizabeth’s mystery and likened her to various classical goddesses. A source of intense anxiety was Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic with a plausible claim to the English throne, whom Elizabeth eventually had executed. When England faced an invasion from Catholic Spain in 1588, Elizabeth appeared in person before her troops wearing a white gown and a silver breastplate; the incident testifies to her self-consciously theatrical command of the grand public occasion as well as her strategic appropriation of masculine qualities. By the 1590s, virtually everyone was aware that Elizabeth’s life was nearing an end, and there was great anxiety surrounding the succession to the throne.
Renaissance literature is the product of a rhetorical culture, a culture steeped in the arts of persuasion and trained to process complex verbal signals. Aesthetically, Elizabethan literature reveals a delight in order and pattern conjoined with a profound interest in the mind and heart. In his Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney argued that poetry’s magical power to create perfect worlds was also a moral power, encouraging readers to virtue. The major literary modes of the Elizabethan period included pastoral, as exemplified in Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, andheroic/epic, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queene.
A permanent, freestanding public theater in England dates only from 1567. There was, however, a rich and vital theatrical tradition, including interludes and mystery and morality plays. Around 1590, an extraordinary change came over English drama, pioneered by Marlowe’s mastery of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. The theaters had many enemies; moralists warned that they were nests of sedition, and Puritans charged that theatrical transvestism excited illicit sexual desires, both heterosexual and homosexual. Nonetheless, the playing companies had powerful allies, including Queen Elizabeth, and continuing popular support.