Early seventeenth century literary scene


The 1590s were a tremendously creative time in English literature. It was a first flowering of the English Renaissance. Several theatres opened in London and were supplied with plays by a crop of brilliant dramatists: Thomas Dekker, Christopher Marlowe, and the great William Shakespeare, who straddled the divide between Tudor and Stuart.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, another group of dramatists emerged: Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, John Ford, and many others. Some though not all are referred to as the Jacobean dramatists.

The population of London was still closely knit enough for the theatre of Shakespeare's day to have a profound impact on the whole of society, much as television drama does today. It was a powerful medium to entertain, and to unite popular sentiment and provoke thought, something that ‘everybody talked about'.

Women barred

In Shakespeare's day, women were not allowed to act on the stage in England. All the female roles in Shakespeare's plays were played by adolescent boys whose voices had not broken – including such famous romantic leads as Cleopatra and Juliet.

This situation did not change until after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, who had spent many years in France where customs were different.

In several of his plays, such as The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, Cymbeline, and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has female characters disguise themselves in boys' clothing, which must have been more comfortable for the boy actors.


The Faerie QueenIn poetry, the last of the great Elizabethans were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Spenser's Faerie Queene is one of the great English epic poems. John Donne, like Shakespeare, straddles both centuries. Following him came the Metaphysical poets, Ben Jonson, and then the second great epic poet, John Milton, whose Paradise Lost was not published till 1667.

Emblem poems


Though the novel barely existed as such, there were also great prose writers. For example:

  • Francis Bacon on science

  • Thomas Hobbes the philosopher

  • Richard Hooker the theologian-lawyer.

Lancelot Andrewes (1555 - 1625), was Bishop of Winchester and a much admired preacher. The publication of his sermons was followed by those of Donne. Jeremy Taylor was another in the growing tradition of Anglican religious writers.

Sir Thomas Browne was another prose writer of some repute, as was Izaak Walton, who wrote on both fishing and poets. Even Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a history of England while in prison. The printing presses were even busier during the period leading to the Civil War, including the production of Milton's greatest prose work, the Areopagitica, the first great defence of free speech in English.

It is an exciting period to study.

Emblem pictureEach page of an Emblem Book had a woodcut or crude print of a scene or subject. Underneath would be a ‘motto' or sentence suggesting the subject matter of the print. Then would follow a poem which acted as an explanation of the picture, usually a moral or religious explication. An emblem poem is thus an allegorical or symbolic poem explaining a visual object.

In general, the subjects in Emblem Books would be everyday ones – town or country scenes or objects. The system works well for a poet who wants to teach religious truths through everyday objects. In this way, they are not unlike the parables that Jesus told in the Gospels. They are at the other extreme of Metaphysical poetry to the intellectual and scholarly conceits of John Donne, whose audience would have been well-educated men like himself.

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