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Characteristics Of Elizabethan Age

What are the characteristics of the Elizabethan Age, particularly in literature?

The Elizabethan Age was characterized by a renewed spirit of adventure and discovery and a renewed attention to older sources of knowledge. In literature, the Petrarchan sonnet was imported and modified by Shakespeare (creating what is now called the Elizabethan sonnet), and the genre of tragicomedy was born.

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Queen Elizabeth I ruled over England from 1558 to 1603. Her era was a dynamic one, filled with a thirst for adventure, the development of new ideas, and the flourishing of literature, prose, poetry, and drama. Let's look at some of the characteristics of that literature.

First, Elizabethans were prolific in their writing. Plays, poems, pamphlets, treatises, and other works were created in abundance, widely circulated, and freely read and discussed. Just think of Shakespeare's work alone to illustrate this point. This great dramatist and poet wrote thirty-seven plays and 154 sonnets, as well as other works including The Phoenix and the Turtle.

Second, Elizabethans returned with gusto to the classics of Greek and Latin and made them their own. As part of the Renaissance movement, Elizabethan writers delved into the history and mythology of the classical past and created new works that explored and adapted classic themes. Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar is a fine example of this new classicism.

Third, at the same time, Elizabethans dared to reach out in new directions, into the world of romanticism, where they plunged into the adventures, wonders, and beauties of the supernatural and the natural world. Think again of Shakespeare here and his play A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which fairies abound and all sorts of fantastic events occur.

Fourth, Elizabethans developed their scholarly side as well. Many of them, including the queen herself, worked on translating the classics of Greek and Latin into English to make them more widely accessible (and probably to show off a bit as well).

Fifth, the Elizabethans were an independent lot. They may have borrowed from the classics, but they used what they borrowed in new and creative ways. Shakespeare and Spenser, for instance, developed sonnet forms of their own. The stage exploded with diverse plays that pushed boundaries. Prose works expanded as writers adapted the English language to a wide variety of needs. Indeed, the Elizabethans exhibited a scope of imagination and ingenuity that has keep us fascinated with their works for generations.

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The arts, including literature, and nationalism thrived during the Elizabethan Age. This was the time of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and of Shakespeare.

The Elizabethan Age can be identified by the following characteristics:

  1. This was a period of great literary creativity and prolific writing. The works included a variety of prose and verse with topics ranging from Platonic idealism, to romance, to repulsive realism.
  2. Romance dominated all types of literature including drama and plays that were of utmost importance during this time.
  3. This was a time of great experimentation that resulted in wonderful new discoveries and imposing failures that often became literary topics in both drama and prose. Science, theology, and the geography were topics of poetry and literature in general.
  4. Literature in Elizabethan England was heavily influenced by that of Italy, and to a lesser extent by that of Spain and France.
  5. Authors during this era came from all of the classes including distinguished courtiers to poor poets who hung out in local taverns, but invariably all were male.

Some of the most famous and prolific writers of this period include Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Roger Ascham, Richard Hooker, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare.

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The Elizabethan Age (1558 - 1603) refers to the period of Elizabeth 1's reign and is characterized by vigorous intellectual thinking, an age of adventure and discovery, a time in which new ideas and new experiences were sought after. The period revolutionized many aspects of English life, most significantly literature. This new approach to things found its genesis in the italian Renaissance and was also much influenced by the development of intellectual thought in France and other European nations. It was a time of discovery, when sailors journeyed far and wide and were introduced to many new cultures and civilizations. All this impacted on the way people thought. The world, as it were, had been 'opened up' to them.

These influences had a marked effect on English literature and many new styles of writing were introduced. This was the period in which the sonnet was popularized after its introduction by Thomas Wyatt early in the 16th century. Wyatt had brought to attention the beauty and artfulness of the Petrarchan sonnet. Shakespeare made significant changes to the Italian model and introduced his own style, now known as the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet.

The Elizabethan Age is considered the Golden Age of English literature. English writers were intrigued and heavily influenced by Italian Renaissance writing and readily adopted this model. This period also saw the introduction of a new genre in English theatre, the tragicomedy, which became very popular. The era is also considered the era of sonnets. The works of writers such as Shakespeare, Wyatt and Thomas Campion became very popular as printed literature and was widely distributed in households. Drama, under Elizabeth's reign, became a unifying influence, drawing people of different social classes together, since watching a play became a common  experience and was not exclusively restricted to the gentry or upper class. Commoners and royalty could enjoy the same performance in each other's company, albeit in separate seating arrangements. 

Elizabethan Literature has so deeply stamped its authority on all future literate endeavors and developments, that we, almost half a millennium later, still study it and admire its exceptional beauty and greatness.  

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The number of literary characteristics of the Elizabethan Age are so numerous one answer can't begin to fully cover the question, but I can get you started.  The Elizabethan Age is part of the English Renaissance.  As such, ideas, forms, themes, etc., from the Italian Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome lead to what becomes Elizabethan literature.  Poetry, for instance, comes to be dominated by the sonnet.  Poetry moves away from the narrative to the lyric, specifically the lyrical sonnet.  Drama imitates and builds on Greek and Roman tragedy, particularly in the person of Shakespeare. 

Whether you're dealing with poetry or drama, one characteristic of Elizabethan literature is that it is highly stylized, though not as much so as some of the poets that would write later.  Iambic pentameter dominates poetry and Shakespeare's drama.

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