Characteristics Of Elizabethan Age

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

Expert Answers
andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.  

beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.