I need to know about the history of English literature. I know that in Shakespeare's time few topics were hot in literature i-e
Religion, Politics, Greek and Roman mythology, and magic. I know much about religion and its influence but when it comes to Greek and Roman mythology and magic, I really do not have any idea how much of it I should know to understand the Literature of that time and any resource that can aid me in learning about it.
Please help me with some good ideas.
Along with the Bible, a knowledge of history is intrinsic to the understanding of many of the works of literature and such movements as the Enlightenment, the Transcendental and Romantic movements, Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, etc. Certainly, it is important to place authors in their historical context. Also, do not neglect the study of schism in the Catholic Church with Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the formation of the Anglican Church in England during the reign of Henry VIII.
Truly, familiarizing oneself with the Greek dramas and poetry is absolutely essential. Also in studying the predecessors of Shakespeare, do not neglect the Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem Beowulf.
Another assessable source over information on mythology is Edith Hamilton's Mythology. It is considered an "oldy, but a goody" in regards to its presentation of general myth information. It provides an overview of the 12 major Olympians and then recounts related myth stories about those gods and other of the minor gods and important mortals. It could be read on the whole, or used a reference book.
Harold Bloom, literary critic extraordinaire, says that the King James Bible is the cornerstone of the Western Cannon and the best central reference text for English literature.
This doesn't mean you should read the Bible, but a familiarity with some characters and stories could help in understanding English literature at large.
Looking at Shakespeare's plays will give you a good insight into what was hot in his time. He was playing for customers, of course. For example, he wrote a lot of history plays. This is because his audience was interested in learning about Cleopatra and Henry VI. He also wrote about kings and nobles. The common people love to see nobles suffer!
One of the best books you could possibly read on this topic is a good, annotated edition of Arthur Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid. Golding lived in the 1500s, and Shakespeare was thoroughly familiar with his translation of Ovid. Ovid's poem, in turn, is a superb introduction to classical mythology. I believe that Penguin books has an annotated edition of Golding's translation.
If you want information on classical mythology, then the best thing you can do is to read an introduction of Greek and Roman tales. This is important, because Shakespeare and the Western tradition is steeped with classical references. Also it would be good to have a book on mythology. The best work, in my opinion, is Timothy Gantz's Greek Mythology. It is a two volume work, which gives you the many variations of myths.
Classical references were common in Shakespeare's and his conteporaries' works, but the other source for many references was the Bible. It was easily the most widely-read book among literate people during Shakespeare's time- in fact, it was during Shakespeare's life that the King James translation was compiled. Hamlet in particular is full of biblical allusions and references, so many that phrases from the play like "neither a borrower nor a lendor be" are sometimes popularly mistaken for Biblical phrases. If you want to understand English literature, and really western literature in general, the Bible is in many ways the place to begin.
I think that you can look up allusions to Greek and Roman mythology as you come to them in the plays. It's going to be very hard to go and just try to absorb all the mythology that you can in order to be ready if you do find an allusion.
If you want to study something in general to understand Shakespeare, you should study history. You should look at the issues that were important to people in Shakespeare's time. Then you can look for places where it seems that Shakespeare is addressing such issues in his plays.
It is a good idea to have a basic knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology in order to better understand English literature. If you are not studying mythology in particular, you would not need to know every story or every character in mythology. However, a basic understanding of the general gods and goddesses as well as a few key stories would be good. Many pieces of literature reference (or make allusions to) classic mythology. Even Shakespeare uses the ideas of mythology. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare compares Juliet to the sun and the moon. This idea comes from mythology.
As others have said here: Greek and Roman mythology, the Old Testament, and a general knowledge of Western history. Incidentally, my professor for Early Shakespeare mentioned the other day that she would like to see mythology and Bible classes be mandatory for all English students. So much literature alludes to them - especially older literature - it's insane.
Also, you may want to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, just to have that under your belt. It's the oldest surviving narrative in the world, and the flood story from Genesis is taken almost directly from it.