The predecessors of shakespeare
The most significant period of the Renaissance in England falls to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. England's success in commerce brought prosperity to the nation and gave a chance to many persons of talent to develop their abilities. Explorers, men of letters, philosophers, poets and famous actors and dramatists appeared in rapid succession. The great men of the so-called "Elizabethan Era" distinguished themselves by their activities in many fields and displayed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. They were often called "the Elizabethans", but of course the Queen had no hand in assisting them when they began literary work; the poets and dramatists had to push on through great difficulties before they became well known.
Towards the middle of the 16th century common people were already striving for knowledge and the sons of many common citizens managed to get an education. The universities began to breed many learned men who refused to become churchmen and wrote for the stage. These were called the "University Wits", because under the influence of their classical education they wrote after Greek and Latin models. Among the "University Wits" were Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Sackville, John Lyly, George Peele, Roberk Greene, Thomas Kyd and Thqmas Nashe; Christopher Marlowe being the most distinguished of them. The new method of teaching classical literature at the universities was to perform Roman plays in Latin, Later the graduates translated these plays into English and then they wrote plays of their own.
Some wrote plays for the court, others for the public theatres. But the plays were not mere imitations. Ancient literature had taught the playwrights to seek new forms and to bring in new progressive ideas. The new drama represented real characters and real human problems which satisfied the demands of the common people and they expected ever new plays. Under such favourable circumstances there was a sudden rise of the drama. The great plays were written in verse.
The second period of the Renaissance was characterised by the splendour of its poetry.
Lyrical poetry also became wide-spread in England. The country was called a nest of singing birds. Lyrical poetry was very emotional. The poets introduced blank verse and the Italian sonnet. The sonnet is a poem consisting of fourteen lines. The lines are divided into two groups: the first group of eight lines (the octave), and the second group of six lines (the sestet). The foremost poet of the time was Edmund Spenser. He wrote in a new, English, form: the nine-line stanza.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552. Though his parents descended from a noble House, the family was poor. His father was a free journeyman for a merchant's company. When Edmund came of age he entered the University of Cambridge as a "sizar" (a student who paid less for his education than others and had to wait on (to serve) the wealthier students at mealtimes).
Spenser was learned in Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French. His generation was one of the first to study also their mother tongue seriously. While at college, he acted in the tragedies of the ancient masters and this inspired him to write poetry.
Spenser began his literary work at the age of seventeen. Once a fellow-student introduced him to the famous Sir Philip Sidney, who encouraged him to write (Sidney was the author of an allegorical romance in prose called "Arcadia" that had become very popular as light reading among the court-ladies of Queen Elizabeth). At the age of twenty-three, Spenser took his M.A. (Master of Arts) degree.
Before returning to London he lived for a while in the wilderness of Lancashire where he fell in love with a "fair widow's daughter". His love was not returned but he clung to this early passion; she became the Rosalind of his poem the "Shepherd s Calendar". Spenser's disappointment in love drove him southward - he accepted the invitation of Sir Philip Sidney to visit him at his estate. There he finished writing his "Shepherd's Calendar". The poem was written in 12 eclogues. "Eclogue" is a Greek word meaning a poem about ideal shepherd life. Each eclogue is dedicated to one of the months of the year, the whole making up a sort of calendar.
The publication of this work made Spenser the first poet of his day. His poetry was so musical and colourful that he was called the poet-painter.
Philip Sidney introduced the poet to the illustrious courtier, the Earl of Leicester, who, in his turn, brought him to the notice of the Queen. Spenser was given royal favour and appointed as secretary to the new Lord-lieutenant of Ireland. Thus he had to leave England for good.
The suppression of Ireland provoked many rebellions against the English. English military governors were sent confiscate the lands of the rebels and to put English people on them. Spenser was sent to such a place near Cork. He felt an exile in the, lonely castle of Kilcolman, yet he could not help admiring the, changeful beauty of the place.
The castle stood by a deep lake into which flowed a river (the Mulla). Soft woodlands stretched towards mountain ranges in the distance. The beauty of his surroundings inspired Spenser to write his great epic poem the "Faerie Queen" ("Fairy Queen"), in which Queen Elizabeth is idealised.
Sir Walter Raleigh who was captain of the Queen's guard, came to visit Spenser at Kilcolman. He was greatly delighted with the poem, and Spenser decided to publish the first three parts. Raleigh and Spenser returned to England together. At court Spenser presented his "simple song" to the Queen. It was published in 1591. The success of the poem was great. The Queen rewarded him with a pension of 50 pounds, but his position remained unchanged. Poetry was regarded as a noble pastime but not a profession; and Edmund Spenser had to go back to Ireland.
The end of his life was sorrowful. When the next rebellion broke out, the insurgents attacked the castle so suddenly and so furiously that Spenser and his wife and children had to flee for their lives. Their youngest child was burnt to death in the blazing ruins of the castle. Ruined and heart-broken Spenser went to England and there he died in a London tavern three months later, in 1599.
The "fairy queen"
The poem is an allegory representing ihe court of Queen Elizabeth. The whole is an interweaving of Greek myths and English legends.
Spenser planned to divide his epic poem into twelve books. The 12 books were to tell of the warfare of 12 knights. But only six books of the "Fairy Queen" were finished. The first two books are the best and the most interesting. The allegory is not so clear in the rest.Prince Arthur is the hero of the poem. In a vision he sees Gloriana, the Fairy Queen. She is so beautiful that he falls in love with her. Armed by Merlin he sets out to seek her in Fairy Land. She is supposed to hold her annual 12-day feast during which
12 adventures are to be achieved by 12 knights. Each knight represents a certain virtue: Holiness, Temperance, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, Constancy, etc., which are opposed to Falsehood, Hypocrisy and others in the form of witches, wizards and monsters.
Spenser imitated antique verse. One of the features of those verses was the use of "Y" before the past participle, as "Yclad" instead of "clad" ("dressed"). He was the first to use the nine-line stanza. In this verse each line but the last has 10 syllables, the last line has 12 syllables. The rhymed lines are arranged in the following way: a b a b b c b c c.
A gentle knight was pricking on the plain, a
Yclad in mighty arms and silver shield, b
Wherein old dints of deep wounds did remain, a
The cruel marks of many a bloody field; b
Yet arms till that time did he never wield; b
His angry steed did chide his foamy bit, c
As much disdaining to the curb to yield; b
Full jolly knight he seemed, and fair did sit, c
As one for knightly jousts and fierce encounters fit. c