Elizabethan Prose Fiction Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Elizabethan Prose Fiction

The Elizabethan period is primarily known for its drama and poetry rather than its prose fiction, particularly since the advent of the English novel proper does not occur for another century. However, critics have increasingly stressed the importance of prose fiction in the seventeenth century and its role in the development of the novel. Several factors have played an important role in the emergence of the Elizabethan romance. One of the most significant factors in the development of the romance—the most popular form of prose fiction in this period—was the translation of ancient Greek romances into the vernacular. The popularity of these stories influenced members of the university-educated class to create their own stories, albeit with the same Greek plots, pastoral settings, and emphasis on literary wit. The first important milestone of the age was John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578). In this work Lyly developed euphuism, a style of writing which emphasizes rhythm over content and makes extensive use of alliteration, assonance, metaphor, and classical allusion. Many lesser authors imitated this style, which became a defining element of the period. In contrast to Lyly, Sir Philip Sidney in The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1590), generally thought of as one of the most significant and well-written romances of the time, attempted to create more natural dialogue. Despite this difference, for his plot, style, and setting Sidney is also indebted to Greek literature. Robert Greene, one of the most prolific writers of the period, took his plots directly from Greek romance as well. Sometimes basing his stories in part on his own experiences, Greene wrote more than twenty popular romances including Card of Fancy (1584). Thomas Nashe was influenced by a different source, the picaresque novels of Spain. In these stories the hero, or picaro, is a man of no social standing who is free to travel and engage in adventures. Nashe's most famous works are The Unfortunate Travelor or the Life of Jack Wilton (1594) and The Terrors of the Night (1594). Elizabethan society itself underwent numerous and significant developments during this period, including changes in the social structure of London, a rapid rise in literacy rates, a growing middle class, and the emergence of literate bourgeois tradesmen. These changes are reflected in the content and quantity of prose fiction that was produced during the seventeenth century. Aiming at the growing middle-class audience, many writers imitated best-selling authors and turned out formula romances. The works of the former tradesman Thomas Deloney, including The Pleasant History of John Winchomb in his Younger Years Called Jack of Newbury (1597), for example, were more realistic in plot and setting than other works of the period and probably, according to scholars, created a sense of familiarity among his readers. This focus on the emerging bourgeois class, both as an audience for and a subject of fiction, played a significant role in the emergence of the English novel in the eighteenth century.