The Elizabethan Age

The Renaissance, which began in Italy in the late 14th century, reache England during the reign of ELIZABETH I (1558–1603) and JAMES I (1603–1625). The scholars of the Renaissance who studied the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome were called Humanists.

The Renaissance was accompanied by radical changes in various fields of life and formed the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age.
The following diagram shows the changes influencing the Elizabethan age:


WILLIAM CAXTON brought printing from Germany and Flanders to England. He published England´s first printed books in 1477. The invention of the printing press made books available to a growing audience. Literature and ideas began to spread rapidly; however, the public performance of plays was still the main method of reaching the illiterate masses.

Protestantism was established in England during the reign of HENRY VIII. Instead of the Pope, the King or Queen became the sole authority in religious matters in England. The Catholic monasteries were dissolved; churches were robbed of their wealth. The Reformation had consequences for the poor, for the stability of the social system and for foreign trade. Cut off from the countries of Catholic Europe – Spain, France, Germany –, England had to look for new markets and turned to overseas trade. Coincidentally, the defeat of the Spanish Armada by Sir Francis Drake in 1588 suddenly made England a sea-power. In spite of this victory, Queen ELIZABETH went on waging war against Spain until her death in 1603.

New Perspectives in a Changing World

In 1492 COLUMBUS'S discovery of the new continent, America, finally proved that the planet earth was a globe. Between 1577 an 1580 Sir FRANCIS DRAKE (1545–1596) circumnavigated the world between, becoming the second man to do so. The discovery of America heralded the beginnig of economic colonization and exploitation in the “new world”. England, the Netherlands and France entered on their competition for colonies in Asia. In the middle of the 16th century the “London Company of Merchant Adventurers” started overseas commerce and inofficially raided Spanish ships for gold. The East India Company was founded in 1600, trading between England and Asia, and thus laid the foundation of the future British colonial empire in India.

In 1543 COPERNICUS published his theory of a heliocentric system of the planets: neither the earth nor the other planets were stationary; they revolved in orbit around the sun.
The Renaissance stands for the discovery of man and the development of his individuality in art, thought and religion. Perspective and spatial composition began to play a role in the paintings of that period. DA VINCI'S paintings show psychological insight. DA VINCI (1452–1519) and MICHELANGELO (1475–1564), Italian painters and sculptors, studied the variety of movement and expression the human body is capable of.

However strong all these modern and new influences were, in many aspects of life and in the world view of the Elizabethan writers medieval ideas stayed alive in a simplified way. The ordinary educated Elizabethan man could not get used to the new idea of man and his position in the universe. He went on thinking earth as the centre of the universe (Ptolemaic geocentric world view; cf. Bild 2). People did not give up their belief in the existence of demons and spirits and in the power of witchcraft and magic on man. The idea of an ordered universe, the Chain of Being, still pertained. It was a fixed system of hierarchy, in which all forms of existence, i. e. the elements, the planets, the parts of the body, animals, plants and the social hierarchy were divided into classes and arranged in both vertical and horizontal order. The Elizabethans feared the consequences of a violation of this order, which would inevitably lead to disorder in nature and to a return to global chaos.

The political and religious changes were accompanied by a deeply felt sense of loss about the demise of the old political and religious order that had given each being its due position in the universe as well as in society. This was the reason why order or the loss of order were common themes in Elizabethan literature – CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE (Dr Faustus), JOHN DONNE (An Anatomy of the World), and WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (Hamlet; Macbeth) whose stage imagery plays on the Elizabethan idea of life as a role play:

“All the world´s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant(…).”

(William Shakespeare, As You Like It, II, vii)

“Life´s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.”

(William Shakespeare, Macbeth, V, v)

Stand: 2010
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