Henry VII’s defeat of Richard III and marriage to a member of the House of York ended the thirty-year civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. Although religious and political conflicts divided England under the Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—by the late 1500s, a burst of creative energy had brought a golden age to England.
As England became an economic and naval power, it was also influenced by a cultural movement known as the Renaissance. Beginning in Italy in the fourteenth century, the Renaissance (“rebirth” in French) later swept into France, Holland, and the other nations of Western Europe, including England. This period marked the transition between the Middle Ages and the modern world and was characterized by a renewed interest in science, art, and all the learning that had flourished in ancient Greece and Rome.
During the Middle Ages, many pre-Christian literary masterpieces gathered dust in monastery libraries, largely unnoticed. In the early Renaissance, however, scholars such as the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (pe' trärk) rediscovered these classical works. Dazzled by what he found, Petrarch was angry at earlier generations who had permitted . . . the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect.”
An era of intellectual inquiry and artistic activity, the Renaissance produced a new movement called humanism. In general, humanists relished new ideas and shared a lively interest in the affairs of this world, not the afterlife. Political and scientific questions intrigued them, as did philosophical and religious ones. People painted, sculpted, and composed music as never before. The act of reading classical works emphasized the ability of the individual to think independently, without guidance from higher authorities.
The French writer Michel de Montaigne (mon tan') exemplified the new humanistic ideal. In 1571 he retired from public life to devote himself to reading and reflection on subjects that piqued his curiosity. Modeling his skeptical, independent quest for truth on that of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, Montaigne took as his motto the question “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”). To explore that question, he wrote brief prose discussions, which he called essais , or “attempts.”
The Protestant Reformation
During the early 1500s, a religious revolution that had begun in central Europe was spreading across the continent. It was called the Protestant Reformation and was a protest against the powerful Roman Catholic Church that significantly influenced the social, political, and economic structure of sixteenth-century Europe. In 1517 the German monk Martin Luther helped spur on this movement by protesting against the sale of indulgences and certain other perceived abuses of the Roman Catholic Church. His protests helped trigger a widespread rejection of the pope’s authority in Europe.
In 1530 Henry VIII had reasons to align himself and England with the Protestants. He wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled because she had not given him a male heir. When the pope in Rome refused, Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, proclaiming himself the sole head of the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. This split led to bitter and long-lasting conflicts among religious factions in England that lasted until the end of the 1600s. When Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter,
Mary I, became queen, she executed Protestants; later, Henry VIII’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth I, executed Catholics. In an attempted invasion in 1588 launched by Philip II, the Catholic monarch of Spain, Elizabeth I’s navy defeated the Spanish Armada. England thus remained Protestant under Elizabeth I and her cousin, James I.
Humanism in England
Living up to its name, humanism depended more on personal contact than on systematic instruction at schools and universities. The friendships formed by humanists—in private study with one another, in the royal courts where they served as political advisers, and in their personal correspondence—inspired many significant works in this period. Reading humanist works often seems like overhearing a conversation between friends. Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of England, and Desiderius Erasmus of Holland shared one of the most remarkable of these friendships. Whenever he visited London, Erasmus lived in More’s home. There, he wrote his best-known work, The Praise of Folly , which he dedicated to his English friend. Erasmus considered More, with his cultivated intellect, sparkling wit, deep learning, and broad culture, to be the ideal humanist, calling him omnium horarum homo , which is usually translated “a man for all seasons.” More’s most celebrated work, his satire Utopia (1516), presents his vision of an ideal society, freed from convention and ruled by reason. More coined the title of this work from Greek words that mean “no place.”
Elizabeth I and Her Court
Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s second daughter, came to the throne in 1558. Famous for her wit and eloquence, she knew Greek, Latin, and several modern languages and loved music, dancing, and the theater. Her long reign of forty-five years was marked by religious conflicts, political intrigue, and threats of war. She turned England into a great sea power capable of defeating the feared Spanish Armada. With a nimble intelligence and strong personality, she also supported a flourishing period of cultural achievement. Elizabeth’s court served as a forum for daring displays of wit that the queen greatly admired—and in which she skillfully participated. Her favorites, privileged members of the court, exemplified the qualities she most admired. Sir Walter Raleigh, for example, combined many occupations: soldier and sailor, explorer of Virginia and Guiana, poet and scientist, possible spy. He began to write his History of the World while imprisoned in the Tower of London by Elizabeth’s successor, her cousin James I.
The Court of James I
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, the throne passed peacefully to her cousin James, king of Scotland and a member of the Stuart family that would rule England through most of the 1600s. Thus James VI of Scotland became James I of England; all of Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales) was at last ruled by one monarch. Elizabeth I had been worldly and practical; James I, however, was theological and disputatious. He commissioned the translation of the Bible into English, still known as the King James Bible, a masterpiece of English prose. He wrote on a variety of subjects, including witchcraft and government, and argued for the divine right of kings. Like Elizabeth I, James I enjoyed theatrical performances. In fact, he admired one troupe of players so much that he gave it his patronage, commissioning it to give special performances at court. Formerly known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the King’s Men included William Shakespeare, whose tragedy Macbeth was first performed before the king in 1605.
William Shakespeare, poet and playwright, is said to be the world’s favorite author. No other playwright’s works have been produced so often and read so widely in so many different countries. On the one hand, little is known about Shakespeare as a person. He left behind no letters or manuscripts to provide clues about his personality or the inner workings of his mind. On the other hand, Shakespeare imbued the characters in his plays with such rich humanity that they live on the page and on the stage, still inspiring readers and theater audiences more than four hundred years after their creation.
No one knows when Shakespeare first arrived in London, but his name first appears in London theatrical records as an actor and a playwright. His career in the theater proved profitable for him. Around 1610, he had earned enough money to leave London and retire to an estate in the small country town of Stratford-upon-Avon, where he had grown up. His fortune, however, did not come directly from his plays. An astute businessman, Shakespeare was a shareholder, or part owner, in one of London’s most popular acting companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
In 1599 the company built the Globe Theatre, the most famous of Elizabethan theaters.Located on the disreputable south bank of the river Thames, the Globe was designed to provide inexpensive entertainment for approximately three thousand spectators. Built roughly in the shape of an O, this playhouse was open to the air. Galleries of seats and areas for standing ringed three-quarters of the platform stage.
Alluding to Shakespeare’s lack of higher learning, Ben Jonson wrote that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek.” In fact, while there is no indication that Shakespeare knew any Greek at all, Latin works by the poet Ovid and the playwrights Plautus and Seneca, which he read at the local grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, deeply influenced him. Shakespeare imaginatively incorporated much of what he read into his plays.
Shakespeare’s ability to absorb and transform different kinds of material—from political issues of the day to events from Roman and English history—reflects a humanistic ideal. His characters, seeking to fulfill their potential, are constantly probing and striving, demonstrating their wit at court, displaying their courage on the battlefield, falling in love and writing poetry, or devising plots to bring about their deepest desires, whether loving or vengeful. No other writer has seen more deeply into the many manifestations of human nature. In an uncanny way, Shakespeare understands why people behave the way they do. Young and old, women and men, good and evil, beggars and kings—all live in his plays.