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HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE
 
 


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Edmund Spenser: 1579-1596

Edmund Spenser, who has the greatest lyric gift of any English poet in the two centuries since Chaucer, is a graduate of Cambridge and by inclination a humanist pedant. His inspiration comes largely from a desire to rival his classical and Renaissance predecessors.

His first important work, The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), consists of twelve eclogues - a form deriving from Virgil but imitated by many subsequent writers. With one for each month of the calendar, Spenser's eclogues cover a wide range of subjects in many metres and styles of poetry. But they are skilfully held together to form a convincing single poem within the pastoral framework.
 









Just as Virgil moved on from the pastoral themes of the Eclogues and Georgics to the patriotic epic of the Aeneid, so Spenser progresses to The Faerie Queene. In undertaking this ambitious project (he states in a letter to Walter Raleigh in 1590), his models have been ancient and modern poets alike - Homer and Virgil, Ariosto and Tasso.

The framework of the poem is an allegory in praise of the Faerie Queene or Gloriana (Elizabeth I), in whose interests the Red Cross knight (the Anglican church) fights to protect the virgin Una (the true religion) against the wiles of many hostile characters including the deceitful Duessa (variously the Roman Catholic church or Mary Queen of Scots).
 







It is evident from these details that the poem is deeply rooted in national politics of the late 16th century, and many of its allusions must have been of far greater interest to contemporary readers than to any generation since. Spenser himself is a close witness of the struggles of the time. From 1580 he is employed in the English government of Ireland. In 1588 he becomes an 'undertaker' in the first Elizabethan plantation, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.

Here he is visited in 1589 by Walter Raleigh, who is so impressed by Spenser's readings from The Faerie Queene that he persuades the poet to accompany him to London in the hope of interesting the real queen in it.
 







Publication of the first three books in 1590 is followed by Elizabeth's awarding the poet, in 1591, a pension of 50 a year. Spenser's original scheme is for twelve books, each consisting of an adventure on behalf of Gloriana by one of her knights. In the event he completes only six, the second group of three being published in 1596.

Spenser, spinning his elaborate allegory in rural Ireland, stands at the end of a long and retrospective poetic tradition - though others will soon develop less archaic versions of the epic (as in Paradise Lost). Meanwhile something much newer and more popular is taking place in London. When Spenser is there in 1590, Christopher Marlowe is the new excitement in the city's theatres.
 






London's theatres:1576-1599

The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.

In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch - just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.
 










Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.

In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while - Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe.
 








In about 1594 a fourth theatre, the Swan, is built close to the Hope. There are now two theatres to the north of the city and two south of the river. But soon the balance shifts decisively to Bankside.

James Burbage, builder of the original Theatre, dies in 1597. Two years later his two sons dismantle the building and carry the timber over the river to Bankside, where they use it as the basis for a theatre with a new name - the Globe. This name resounds in English theatrical history for two good reasons. It is where Richard, one of the Burbage brothers, develops into one of the first great actors of the English stage. And it is where many of Shakespeare's plays are first presented.
 







The structure of the Globe and the other London theatres has a significant influence on English drama at its greatest period, because of the audiences which these buildings accomodate. Ordinary Londoners, the groundlings, stand in the open pit to watch plays for a penny. Others pay a second penny to climb to a hard seat in the upper gallery. A third penny gives access to the two lower galleries and a seat with a cushion. A few places in the first gallery, to left and right of the stage, are reserved for gentlemen who can afford a shilling, or twelve pennies.

This is a cross-section of nearly all the people of London, and the audience is vast - with four theatres giving regular performances in a small city.
 







It has been calculated that during Shakespeare's time one Londoner in eight goes to the theatre each week. A city of 160,000 people is providing a weekly audience of about 21,000. There is only one comparable example of such a high level of attendance at places of entertainment - in cinemas in the 1930s.

The range of Shakespeare's audience is reflected in the plays, which can accomodate vulgar comedy and the heights of tragic poetry. The occasional performances in the Athenian drama festivals must have had something of this efffect, involving much of the community in a shared artistic experience. In Elizabethan and Jacobean London it happens almost every night.
 






Marlowe: 1587-1593

The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.

From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.
 









Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.

Marlowe's first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre. Tamburlaine the Great introduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
 







Marlowe's Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:

  'Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
  Usumcasane and Theridamas,
  Is it not passing brave to be a king,
  And ride in triumph through Persepolis?'
 







Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays include The Jew of Malta (a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated), Doctor Faustus (inspired by a recent biography of Faust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) and Edward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare's great achievements in this genre).

In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe's leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare's Burbage.
 







The dates of the plays after Tamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts of Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe's death.

What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe's death three years later only one of Shakespeare's undeniable masterpieces, Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater genius.
 






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