English Literature History

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Alliterative verse: 8th - 14th century AD
The story of English literature begins with the Germanic
tradition of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. Beowulf stands at its head.
This epic poem of the 8th century is in Anglo-Saxon, now more
usually described as Old English. It is incomprehensible to a reader familiar
only with modern English. Even so, there is a continuous linguistic
development between the two. The most significant turning point, from
about 1100, is the development of Middle English - differing from Old
English in the addition of a French vocabulary after the Norman conquest.
French and Germanic influences subsequently compete for the mainstream
role in English literature.
The French poetic tradition inclines to lines of a regular metrical
length, usually linked by rhyme into couplets or stanzas. German poetry
depends more on rhythm and stress, with repeated consonants
(alliteration) to bind the phrases. Elegant or subtle rhymes have a courtly
flavour. The hammer blows of alliteration are a type of verbal athleticism
more likely to draw applause in a hall full of warriors.
Both traditions achieve a magnificent flowering in England in
the late 14th century, towards the end of the Middle English period. Piers
Plowman and Sir Gawain are masterpieces which look back to Old English.
By contrast Chaucer, a poet of the court, ushers in a new era of English
literature. Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain: 14th century AD Of these two
great English alliterative poems, the second is entirely anonymous and the
first virtually so. The narrator of Piers Plowman calls himself Will;
occasional references in the text suggest that his name may be Langland.
Nothing else, apart from this poem, is known of him. Piers Plowman exists
in three versions, the longest amounting to more than 7000 lines. It is
considered probable that all three are by the same author. If so he spends

some twenty years, from about 1367, adjusting and refining his epic
creation. Piers the ploughman is one of a group of characters searching for
Christian truth in the complex setting of a dream. Though mainly a spiritual
quest, the work also has a political element. It contains sharply observed
details of a corrupt and materialistic age (Wycliffe is among Langland's
English contemporaries). Where Piers Plowman is tough and gritty, Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight (dating from the same period) is more
polished in its manner and more courtly in its content. The characters
derive partly from Arthurian legend. A mysterious green knight arrives one
Christmas at the court of King Arthur. He invites any knight to strike him
with an axe and to receive the blow back a year later. Gawain accepts the
challenge. He cuts off the head of the green knight, who rides away with it.
The rest of the poem concerns Gawain, a year later, at the green knight's
castle. In a tale of love (for the green knight's wife) and subsequent deceit,
Gawain emerges with little honour. The green knight spares his life but
sends him home to Arthur's court wearing the wife's girdle as a badge of
Geoffrey Chaucer at court: AD 1367-1400!
In 1367 one of four new 'yeomen of the chamber' in the
household of Edward III is Geoffrey Chaucer, then aged about twenty-
seven. The young man's wife, Philippa, is already a lady-in-waiting to the
queen. A few years later Chaucer becomes one of the king's esquires, with
duties which include entertaining the court with stories and music. There
can rarely have been a more inspired appointment. Chaucer's poems are
designed to be read aloud, in the first instance by himself Their range, from
high romance to bawdy comedy, is well calculated to hold the listeners
spellbound. Courtly circles in England are his first audience. Chaucer's
public career is one of almost unbroken success in two consecutive reigns.
He undertakes diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of the king; he is given
administrative posts, such as controlling the customs, which bring lodgings
and handsome stipends. Even occasional disasters (such as being robbed
twice in four days in 1390 and losing £20 of Richard II's money) do him no

lasting harm. A measure of Chaucer's skill as a courtier is that during the
1390s, when he is in the employment of Richard II, he also receives gifts at
Christmas from Richard's rival, Bolingbroke. When Bolingbroke unseats
Richard II in 1399, taking his place on the throne as Henry IV, Chaucer
combines diplomacy and wit to secure his position. Having lost his royal
appointments, he reminds the new king of his predicament in a poem
entitled 'The Complaint of Chaucer to his Empty Purse'. The last line of each
verse begs the purse to 'be heavy again, or else must I die'. Henry IV hears
the message. The court poet is given a new annuity. Henry is certainly
aware that he is keeping in his royal circle a poet of great distinction.
Chaucer's reputation is such that, when he dies in the following year, he is
granted the very unusual honour - for a commoner - of being buried in
Westminster abbey.
Troilus and Criseyde: AD 1385
Chaucer's first masterpiece is his subtle account of the wooing
of Criseyde by Troilus, with the active encouragement of Criseyde's uncle
Pandarus. The tender joys of their love affair are followed by Criseyde's
betrayal and Troilus's death in battle. Chaucer adapts to his own purposes
the more conventionally dramatic account of this legendary affair written
some fifty years earlier by Boccaccio (probably read by Chaucer when on a
mission to Florence in 1373). His own very long poem (8239 lines) is
written in the early 1380s and is complete by 1385. Chaucer's tone is
delicate, subtle, oblique - though this does not prevent him from
introducing and gently satirising many vivid details of life at court, as he
guides the reader through the long psychological intrigue by which
Pandarus eventually delivers Troilus into Criseyde's bed. The charm and
detail of the poem, giving an intimate glimpse of a courtly world, is akin to
the delightful miniatures which illustrate books of hours of this period in the
style known as International Gothic. Yet this delicacy is only one side of
Chaucer's abundant talent - as he soon proves in The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales: AD 1387-1400

Collections of tales are a favourite literary convention of the
14th century. Boccaccio's Decameron is the best-known example before
Chaucer's time, but Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales outshines his
predecessors. He does so in the range and vitality of the stories in his
collection, from the courtly tone of 'The Knight's Tale' to the rough and
often obscene humour of those known technically as fabliaux. He does so
also in the detail and humour of the framework holding the stories
together. His account of the pilgrims as they ride from London to
Canterbury, with their constant bickering and rivalry, amounts to a comic
masterpiece in its own right. The pilgrims, thirty of them including Chaucer
himself, gather one spring day at the Tabard in Southwark. The host of the
inn, Harry Bailly, is a real contemporary of Chaucer's (his name features in
historical records). He will act as their guide on the route to Canterbury and
he proposes that they pass the time on their journey by telling stories.
Each pilgrim is to tell two on the way out and two on the way back.
Whoever is judged to have told the best tale will have a free supper at the
Tabard on their return. Of this ambitious total of 120 stories, Chaucer
completes only 24 by the time of his death. Even so the collection amounts
to some 17,000 lines - mainly of rhyming verse, but with some passages of
History of English Literature
The pilgrims represent all sections of society from gentry to
humble craftsmen (the only absentees are the labouring poor, unable to
afford a pilgrimage of this kind). There are respectable people from the
various classes - such as the knight, the parson and the yeoman - but the
emphasis falls mainly on characters who are pretentious, scurrilous,
mendacious, avaricious or lecherous. The pilgrims are vividly described,
one by one, in Chaucer's Prologue. The relationships between them evolve
in the linking passages between the tales, as Harry Bailly arranges who
shall speak next. The pilgrims for the most part tell tales closely related to
their station in life or to their personal character. Sometimes the anecdotes
even reflect mutual animosities. The miller gives a scurrilously comic
account of a carpenter being cuckolded. Everyone laughs heartily except

the reeve, who began his career as a carpenter. The reeve gets his own
back with an equally outrageous tale of the seduction of a miller's wife and
daughter. But the pilgrim who has most delighted six centuries of readers is
the five-times-married Wife of Bath, taking a lusty pleasure in her own
appetites and richly scorning the ideals of celibacy. Edmund Spenser: AD
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: AD 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
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
Marlowe: AD 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. The life of Shakespeare: AD
1564-1616 The mysterious death of Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, and
the brilliant subsequent career of Shakespeare, the grammar-school boy
from Stratford, have caused some to speculate that his secret service
activities make it prudent for Marlowe to vanish from the scene - and that
he uses the name of a lesser man, Shakespeare, to continue his stage
career. Others, similarly inclined to conspiracy theories, have convinced
themselves that Shakespeare's plays are the work of the statesman and
essayist Francis Bacon. Snobbery rather than scholarship seems to
underpin such arguments. Their proponents find it hard to accept that the
unknown boy from Stratford should have created the crowning
achievement of English literature. The truth is that William Shakespeare is
not such an unknown figure, and the education provided in England's
grammar schools of the time is among the best available. Shakespeare's
baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 (this is only
three days after St George's Day, making possible the tradition that
England's national poet is born, most fortunately, on England's national
saint's day).Shakespeare's father, John, is a leading citizen of the town and
for a while a justice of the peace. It is a safe assumption (though there is
no evidence) that Shakespeare is educated at Stratford's grammar school.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway.
Their first child, Susanna, is baptized in 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet
and Judith, in 1585. There is then a gap of several years in the
documentary record of Shakespeare's life, but he is involved in the London

theatre - as an actor trying his hand also as a playwright - by at least
1592, when he is attacked as an 'upstart crow' in a polemical pamphlet by
Robert Greeene. In 1593 he publishes a poem, Venus and Adonis, following
it in 1594 with The Rape of Lucrece. Meanwhile he has had performed the
three parts of Henry VI and, probably in the winter of 1592, Richard III.
The London theatres are closed for fear of the plague during 1592 and
1593 apart from brief midwinter seasons, but in 1594 things return to
normal and Shakespeare's career accelerates. He is now a leading member
of London's most successful company, run by the Burbage family at the
Theatre. Patronage at court gives them at first the title of the Lord
Chamberlain's Men. On the accession of James I in 1603 they are granted
direct royal favour, after which they are known as the King's Men.
Shakespeare's share in the profits of this company, operating from the
Globe on Bankside from 1599, makes him a wealthy man. Most of the
subsequent documentary references relate to purchases in his home tow of
Stratford. In 1597 Shakespeare pays £60 for a large house and garden,
New Place in Chapel Street. By 1602 he has enough money to purchase an
estate of 107 acres just outside Stratford, and he continues over the next
few years to make investments in and around the town. In about 1610 he
begins to spend less time in London and more in New Place, where he dies
in 1616. He is buried in the chancel of the Stratford parish church.
Shakespeare has shown little interest in publishing his plays, for like others
of his time he probably regards them as scripts for performance rather than
literature. After his death two of his colleagues, John Heminge and Henry
Condell, gather the texts of thirty-six plays which they publish in 1623 in
the edition known now as the First Folio. The plays before AD 1601 By
1600 Shakespeare has conclusively demonstrated his genius in every kind
of play except tragedy. In dramatizing English history he has progressed
from the fumbling beginnings of the three parts of Henry VI (1590-92) to
the magnificent melodrama of Richard III (1592), the subtle character
study of Richard II (1595), the jingoistic glories of Henry V (1600) and,
most successful of all, the superb pair of plays about Henry IV and his
wayward son Prince Hal. Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-8) present a rich