Histoire Littéraire Jaeck

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UFR des Pays Anglophones
Annee Universitaire 2008 -2009
1er semestre
Programme A et B
A history of British Literature

Auteur : Nathalie JAECK
Annee de creation : 2002

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A History of British Literature
Obviously enough, the order I have chosen to introduce you to British literature is a
chronological order, trying to give an overall and discursive vision of the development of British
literature from the origins to nowadays.
The first remark I would like to make as an introduction is that although the evolution is
chronological, literature did not evolve in a linear or continuous way. The history of literature is
made of major shifts or breaks, be they internal, or external. The history of literature is clearly not
to be seen as an independent area: it was constantly very much influenced by a whole series of
different things: historical events (the First World War had a considerable influence on the birth of
modernism, it triggered the need to invent a new form to speak of the new world that was
emerging), changes in religion, upheavals in the English language due to several invasions of the
country (above all of course before the XVth century), but also the evolution of other forms of art
(i.e. the role of impressionism in the development of modernism), the development of new
sciences (the development of astronomy had a major influence, the invention of photography for
example brought about a whole new set of ideas about realism and naturalism), techniques (the
development of printing changed the nature of literature), disciplines (the emergence of
psychoanalysis clearly had an influence on writers' conception of the self, and brought about new
experiments in literary form - we may quote the development of the stream of consciousness
here, a phrase coined by William James, a psychologist and the brother of Henry James), but also
the development of literature in other countries (Stevenson for example reacted against Zola's
naturalism), and of literary criticism.
The following course is thus to be considered as a necessarily simplified, "didactic" survey
of the History of British literature, concentrating on the "major" movements and authors, and
leaving aside many side phenomena. You can go to other sources for further information.
Short bibliography: Sanders, Andrew, The Short Oxford History of English Literature,
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Barber, John, Survey of English Literature, Paris: Dunod, 1992 (4
vol). Angel-Perez, Elisabeth, Histoire de la litterature anglaise, Paris: Hachette, 1994. Raimond,
Jean, La litterature anglaise, Paris : PUF (coll. Que sais-je ?), 1986.
The literature of the middle-ages: the birth of a literature in English. (Vth-XVth
A-A few historical landmarks.
The dominant aspect of this period is probably the fact that English did not exist at the time:
the whole period is remarkable for its progressive constitution of the English language. Any
consideration on British literature should thus begin by describing the genesis of the English
tongue, a genesis that was much linked with historical events, and particularly with a/ the
successive waves of invasions, and with b/ the process of re-Christianisation.
About two thousand years ago, Great-Britain was peopled with Celts. Invaded by Caesar in
55 before JC, Great Britain was Romanised until 407, when the growing threat of the Barbarians
over the Empire led the Romans to withdraw their army from the Island. The Germanic peoples,
known as the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes took over the Romans during the Vth and VIth
centuries, and brought with them their language, their paganism, and their warrior traditions. The
first centuries were dominated by incessant conflicts between the different Anglo-Saxon
Kingdoms, but the necessity to fight against Scandinavian invasion brought about an alliance, at
the end of the IXth century under the authority of Anglo-Saxon King Alfred.

Another element of importance for the constitution of the English language was the process
of re-Chri began in the late XIth century. In the South of England, the mission was entrusted to a
group of Benedictines sent from Rome in 596 by Pope Gregory the Great, a mission led by
Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury. This was of much importance to the future
development of English culture. The written word was of crucial importance to the Church for its
services depended on the reading of the Holy Scriptures. The old German alphabet was gradually
replaced by German letters, and all this newly-imposed written literature was all in Latin.
Another date of paramount importance was the conquest of England by the French
Normans, in 1066, as it is recorded in the Bayeux tapestry. William the Bastard, Duke of
Normandy, became King of England. He conquered England when King, Nobleman and peasant
spoke English, and where an educated clergy employed Latin. He left England trilingual, with a
literate clergy still refined by Latin, but with Norman French defining the new ruling class and with
English now largely confined to the ruled.
B-Literature in the Middle Ages.
Art remained quite rudimentary until the arrival of the Normans, apart from a few Celtic
monuments, a number of Anglo-Saxon churches. In the same way, until the arrival of the
Normans, it was "another" literature, the Anglo-Saxon literature, that is barely known, save from a
few manuscripts. The first two centuries of the Anglo-Norman period are interesting for the
formation of the tongue, but contain very few works. It was in the XIVth and XVth centuries that a
real literature was born, dominated by the personality of Chaucer. Moreover, the spreading of
printing, just after that period, contributed to make written literature public.
a-The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Literature.
Anglo-Saxon, or rather Old English was born from the fusion of the many German dialects,
that supplanted Latin, that had gradually supplanted the previous Celtic dialects. There are now
only a few traces of Celt in English (Avon=river; down=dune). The VIth century evangelisation
brought about other Latin additions. Between the VIIth and the XIth century, the frequent Viking
invasions brought about Scandinavian borrowings. (husbondi=husband; felagi=fellow). The result
was Old English, and three major literary lines were followed during this period: profane poetry,
religious poetry, and religious prose.
Profane poetry, that relied deeply on alliteration and tonic accent. The riddle was one of the
favourite forms of the scops (trouveres).
The whole period was dominated by Beowulf, that was probably written in the VIIIth
century, but that we know from a manuscript dating back from the Xth century. Beowulf can
properly be called an "epic poem" [an epic poem: a long narrative poem, describing the actions of
a heroic figure, whose deeds can change the future of a nation or a race. Mock-epic: a comic
poem that parodies an epic. A light or low subject treated in an exalted way.], in the sense that it
celebrates the achievements of a hero in narrative verse. The anonymous poet-narrator
recognizes that his story is a Pagan one in a pre-Christian world-view. It refers back to an age of
heroic Monster slayings in Scandinavia, it is build around three encounters with the other-worldly
but it also interprets them as struggles between good and evil. Grendel, the first monster of the
poem is seen as "the enemy of God".

Religious poetry. The period was also remarkable for a set of Biblical poems (Genesis,
Exodus, Daniel and Judith), based on paraphrases of the Bible, and on Latin Saints' lives, with
two main writers Caedmon and Cynewulf, although none of the surviving poem may be safely
attributed to any named poet. To many modern readers, the most sophisticated of these poems is
The Dream of the Rood: its "subject" is the shifts in the narrator's vision of Christ's cross, that
becomes a supernatural, speaking cross (The Rood).
Religious prose. One name, that of Bede (673-735), the first great English historian:
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731) (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), in
Latin, and for an international audience. It was translated into English by King Alfred. The
Scriptures, only available in Latin, were also subjected to many attempts at translation into old
b- The Anglo-Norman Literature (1066-XIVth century) - Early Middle-English.
The Conquest resulted in the supplanting of Old English by French as an administrative and
literary language, although the old idiom remained that of the people. William and his Norman,
Angevin and Plantagenet successors forced the English language into a subservient position from
which it gradually re-emerged as a tongue simplified in structure, and with its spelling, vocabulary
and literary expression deeply influenced by Norman French. One of the major results for
literature was the complete renewal of prosody that became open to rime, and was no longer
restricted to the simpler effects of alliteration and tonic accent. In spite of the linguistic process of
assimilation, the period saw the coexistence of two literatures, one in French, one in English.
In French: two dominant names: Geoffrey de Monmouth (1100?-1154) who wrote in Latin a
history of the British kings: Historia Regum Britanniae, and Wace, an apologist for the Norman
hegemony in England, who wrote in French octosyllabics, and celebrated the achievements and
conquests of the dukes of Normandy in his Roman de Rou. In the Roman de Brut, a
transformation of G. de Monmouth's Latin history, he demonstrated a patriotic intent and an
interest for the King Arthur legends.
In English: Layamon (around 1200) adapted in English verse Wace's Brut, relying on the
traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry (syllabically irregular, alliterative verse of his ancestors). We
must also quote the anonymous The Owl and the Nightingale, an intellectual jeu d'esprit, taking
the form of an argument between two birds in spirited four-stressed rhyming couplets. They score
intellectual points off one another, and develop irreconcilable philosophies. The arguments are
based on the form of contemporary legal debate, and they need an arbiter, and they agree on the
choice of a human arbiter, a clerk in Dorset, Master Nicholas of Guildford. As they fly to Dorset,
the poem is abruptly ended by the narrator: `As to how their case went, I can tell you nothing
more. There is no more to this tale.'
c-The XIVth and XVth centuries. *** The Bible: At the beginning of the
XIVth century, religious literature was marked by two very long poems. Cursor Mundi (around
1320) is another paraphrase of the Saints' History. The Pricke of Conscience, by Richard Rolle, a
mystic, (around 1340) is an edifying treaty pleading for strict obedience to Roman discipline. But
the dominant feature is the work of Deacon John Wiclif (or Wyclif), an Oxford Theologian (by the
way, the universities of oxford and Cambridge date back from the early XIIIth century) who fights
such discipline, and is hostile to Popery. He is considered to be the precursor of English
Protestantism. He wrote in English, and not in Latin, and was the principal author of a translation
of The Bible that was completed in 1400. It was the basis of all the following translations, and
definitely made English the national idiom.

*** Popular literature. It is in the people that from the XIIIth to the XVth century, the oral traditions
that were to become the Ballads were born; role of the menstrels. That was when the cycle of
Robin Hood the Outlaw was born. On the other hand, religious celebrations are the occasions for
the development of popular drama. First came the Miracles, big collective shows, and then the
Farce, that was the improvised ancestor of comedy. In the XVth century the Moral Plays
appeared. So that Medieval English theatre was quite dynamic and endowed with a great variety
of tones. Miracle play: a medieval form of drama based on the life of a saint or on a miracle that
he/she performed. Mystery play: a medieval play based on the Bible. They were first liturgical
plays, performed outside churches on movable scaffolds, often presented during the Corpus
Christi. Morality play: a form of poetic drama which showed allegorical figures (virtue, vice, charity,
conscience) usually struggling for a human soul, who stood for humanity. ***The epic and
adventure. The idea of knighthood continued to flourish. Looking back nostalgically to the reign of
the largely mythical Arthur, King Edward III of England founded the Order of the Garter in 1344.
25 members, and Edward presided as a pseudo-Arthur at a mock Round Table, and devised a
now famous motto: Honi soit qui mal y pense. Arthur's fabled court was consistently reinvented as
a fixed point to which a whole variety of legends, Celtic myths, and religious or moral concepts
could be attached. The Arthur cycle was revived by the anonymous "romance", Sir Gawayne and
the Grene Knight (XIVth century) that staged a prototype of the loyal, pious and chaste knight,
Gawayne, who takes up the challenge of courage and righteousness put up by the Green knight;
The point is no more to celebrate mere courage and strength, but to highlight the rules of chivalry.
One century later, the whole of Arthurian traditions were taken up in prose by Thomas Malory
(1413?-1471) in Morte d'Arthur (pub. 1485). He worked from a considerable variety of English and
French sources in both verse and prose. He translated them all into a prose epic written in a
vigorous, alliterative English, and the Morte Darthur, an elegy to the dying age of aristocratic
chivalry, and also the first book to have been published on William Caxton's (1422?-1491) printing
machine, exercised a profound influence over English writers from the age of Spenser (a poet
who saw himself as the heir to the last chivalrous enchantments of the Middle Ages) to that of
Tennyson (a poet much inclined to Malory's melancholy cadences). ***Allegorical and moral
poetry. Two major writers there, William Langland (1330?1400?), who wrote The Vision of Pierce
Plowman, a long allegorical poem, and John Gower (1325-1408), Chaucer's contemporary and
friend, whom he called "the moral Gower". John Gower's poem, the Confessio Amantis, suggests
a relaxation of Gower's formal moral stance, it is a mixture of pleasure and instruction, concerned
with the power of love. ***Geoffrey Chaucer. Two masterpieces, Troilus and Criseyde (mid-
1380's), and The Canterbury Tales (around 1387). The main characteristic of Chaucer's poetry is
that it embodies and expresses a strong sense of order, be it in his reflections on the nature and
the workings of the Cosmos, or in his orthodox Christian belief in divine involvement in human
affairs. He believed, like most of his European contemporaries that the natural and human worlds
were interrelated in the divine scheme of things, and ordered in hierarchies. The question of
degree, and of the social perceptions conditioned by rank, also determines the human world that
Chaucer delineates in The Canterbury Tales. The prologue sets out the circumstances which
bring the pilgrims together at the Tabard Inn before they set off for Canterbury. The knight is
placed first, followed by the Squire, the yeoman, and the several representatives of the Church.
The structure of the book is defined by the host of the Tabard, who proposes that each of the
pilgrims should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury, and two on the return journey. Again, the
knight is the first story-teller.

In spite of Chaucer's taste for order, the modern reader may notice two dissident features,
a literary one, and an ideological one. First in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer modestly placed
himself last in the list of the pilgrims, and cast himself in the role of an incompetent story-teller.
Ironical self-deprecation, and first question of the role of the narrator. Moreover, Chaucer
subverted certain received ideas of degree. Most crucially, he undermined the commonly held
medieval idea of the natural inferiority of women.
Indeed Chaucer is clearly an important landmark in English literature. From a linguistic
point of view, one of the first vernacular texts to be published by Caxton, and remarkable for the
interpenetration of the different sources to modern English. Technically, he is also the poet who
invented the iambic pentameter and the heroic couplet (distique heroique a rimes plates). From a
literary point of view, he was the first poet in English to display and make use of a particular
narrative issue which Keats later defined as "negative capability". Chaucer's Tales are also at the
origin of one of the most successful traditions of English literature, that of the tale, the novel, the
short-story, i.e. modern narration. Chaucer is thus to be seen as an ancestor to Defoe, Fielding or
Smollett. Chaucer went away from the traditional epic, and aimed at representing and even
typifying through humour and more particularly satire, his contemporaries. Before Chaucer, we
could generalise and say that the aim of literature was always to instruct, it had a didactic
purpose; but Chaucer wanted to be a narrative poet, with an aim to entertain and please his
Conclusion: literature still was strongly influenced by the Bible, and displayed a conception of the
world ruled by divine law and order. Such faith in order was to be shaken throughout the XVIth
The XVIth century. The English Renaissance. From reformation to restoration
(1603: James I, Stuart dynasty).
A-Short introduction
Definition of Renaissance: The Renaissance was a movement of cultural and artistic revival or
renewal that took place in Europe in the XVth and XVIth century. In England, it was rather late,
notably because of the permanence and vivacity of the English Middle Ages (in architecture for
example the Gothic will never really die, and will permeate the more classical Tudor style), and
because at the beginning of Elisabeth's reign, the language still was in a state of flux.
Nevertheless, the end of the War of the Roses in 1485 can be considered as the beginning of a
new era, since it inaugurated an unprecedented period of peace that was favourable to the
development of culture. Moreover, the Anglican schism of 1534 that initiated the spreading of
Protestantism as the national religion, the long Elizabethan reign, a dynamic foreign policy that
made England the greatest power in the world, and the development of printing favoured the
growing tide of humanism that looked to Greece and Rome to revitalize the fossilised and
decadent world of the later Middle Ages. The return to classical models became the literary norm,
especially for drama. Indeed the typical five act Shakespeare play owes hardly anything to the
Miracle and Mystery plays that came before. In both its form and ideas, the model is classical,
Roman, even if of course, Shakespeare and his contemporaries enlarged on the classical model
so that by the end of the XVIth century, it had become barely recognisable. The Religious
background: it is indeed very important to understand that at the time, religion was a burning
issue, and that its influence permeated contemporary literature.

The beginning of the period was still marked by the medieval assumption of a Christian universe.
Both the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans inherited the medieval belief of the four humours and
the four elements along with the belief that the macrocosm and the microcosm were built along
the same model. Although they did know of the Copernican system, the Elizabethans believed
that the universe was geocentric, i.e. that the earth was motionless and that the sun and the other
planets revolved around the earth in nine concentric spheres. In the same way they believed that
human beings were organised into a hierarchy, forming "the great chain of being". In XVIth
century literature, man is never considered out of the cosmic order, he is seen as a cosmos in
reduction. Yet, this very hierarchical conception began to be questioned in the XVIth century.
Other thinkers like Erasmus, Montaigne, or Machiavel forced writers to reconsider the
almightiness of divine, and thus social order. So in this period of self confidence and discovery,
pertinent questions were being asked and there was ample room for speculation.
1534: break with The Catholic Church, and foundation of the Anglican religion. From a
literary point of view, this brought about the birth of new religious texts that were of paramount
importance since they were adopted by everyone and influenced literature -because of
borrowings, quotations, etc... 1525: translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale, who
was burnt alive for heresy in the Netherlands. 1535: Miles Coverdale completed the translation.
1549: the archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote for the Anglican church its Book of Common Prayer,
and this very poetic text strongly influenced literary work.
B-Controversial literature: politics and philosophy.

Thomas More (1478-1535), Utopia, written in Latin, in 1516. A Catholic humanist, the
adversary of Tyndale, and a Renaissance man because he returned to antique philosophy while
he proposed another vision of the world, no longer concerned with the ideal of chivalry. In Utopia,
written as a dialogue, a from inherited from Plato, he presented an unreal, ideal republic, a society
ruled by reason, governed by an elected monarch who governs with the consent of the great and
good. Personal property, money and crime have been abolished, while several religions cohabit
and tolerate one another.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), at the other extremity of the century, a brilliant philosopher
and statesman, The Essays (1597-1612-1625). An important turning point since he emancipated
ideological prose was from a purely religious debate: his Essays play about the same role as
Montaigne's Essais in France, and constitute the first monument of classical prose, although they
are very different both in inspiration and content. They express practical wisdom, and give advice
to succeed in the world, in a very classical, Latinised style and a strict architecture.

***Edmund Spenser (1552-1599): the son of a London Bourgeois, he studied ancient and modern
literature in Cambridge, and was the leader of a group of young humanists and poets. His epitaph
in Westminster Abbey is "Prince of poets in his time". He experimented on the various tendencies
of contemporary poetry: a Platonic inspiration in the Four Hymns, a satirical one as in Mother
Hubbard's Tales, a bucolic one in the Shepherd's Calendar (1579). Spenser's masterpiece was
The Faerie Queene, a long, though unfinished, allegorical epic (6 books). Spenser was a great
innovator in English language, even if his work owes much to a multiplicity of sources: through
linguistic experimentation he was able to exploit the natural cadences and forces of the English
tongue. This is best illustrated in the invention of a form that later came to be known as the
Spenserian Stanza (eight decasyllables and one alexandrine: a b a bb c b c c+ (the

+ for an extra foot on the last line): a very meditative rhythm, dependent for its musical effect on a
constant process of repetition. Another feature of Spenser's poetry was the extensive use of
allegory (as was the tradition): the epic was to contain twelve books, each book exemplifying a
virtue. And so there is a constant return in FQ from the poetic world of imagination and the
senses, to the unpoetic didactic notions of duty and morality. ***Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586): he
was a brilliant gentleman, a courtesan, a diplomatist and a soldier, who lived part of his short life
in France and Italy, and died of a wound in the Netherlands. A real innovator in literature, for three
reasons. His main work, Arcadia, can be considered as the first English novel: it is a pastoral and
chivalric work written in poetic prose, and full of concetti, in which he imitated Spanish and Italian
models. As a poet, he was an innovator, since he wrote the first English sonnet cycle Astrophel
and Stella (though it is Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) who transposed this Italian form inherited
from Petrach into English) and in 1851, he wrote the first substantial piece of literary criticism, a
theoretical book about poetry, Apologie for Poetry, or The Defence of Poesie (1595), in which he
attempted to analyse the tendencies, possibilities and rules of new emerging literature. He
insisted on the transcendental role of poetry, defined it as the foremost of human arts, in its
search for the ideal and the universal., beyond the mere technicalities of form (though he
experimented on a multitude of rhyme schemes). In AS, words have a dual purpose: they tell the
story of the pursuit of the lover, but they also stress the limitations of words, the problems of
writing. This Arcadian tradition was followed up through the next generation of poets, George
Wither (1588-1667), The Shepherd's Hunting, and William Browne (1591-1634), Britannia's
Pastorals (1613), and The Shepherd's Pipe. ***The Elizabethan sonnet sequence. The sonnet,
inherited from its Italian form, was the essential Elizabethan form of poetry, initiated with the
publication in 1557 of the Tottel's Miscellany which contained sonnets by Wyatt and Surrey (Henry
Howard, Earl of Surrey, 1517-1547), and which was an important literary event (though none of
them published anything during their life-time). Indeed, because of its shortness, the sonnet ruled
out fiction and allegory in favour of the expression of personal feeling and lyricism: it brought
about the development of love poetry. We have already mentioned Spenser and Sidney, and
there was of course a third man, Shakespeare; the origin of Shakespeare's sonnets is to be found
in Wyatt and Surrey, who invented what came to be called the Shakespearian sonnet (three
quatrains followed by one distich, with rhymes organised along the following pattern abab cdcd
efef gg). Surrey also introduced into English the blank verse (i.e. the iambic pentameter without a
rhyme) that was to be much used in the following century. Shakespeare is here to be singled out.
His 154 sonnets were published in 1609, although they were probably written between 1594 and
1598. They are generally said to fall into three groups: the first 126 are addressed to an
anonymous "fair youth" and are haunted by time and mortality, the next 26 refer to "the black
lady", the last two are more erotic and deal with Cupid and the loss of his brand. The ambiguous
relation between the narrator, the young man, and the lady creates an emotional triangle
governed by the notion of torn love. Shakespeare reorders and also reinvents Petrarchan
conventions. He also rejects the courtliness and mythological material of the sonnet sequences of
the 1590's. With new metrical energy, they explore a new emotional range. They also suggest that
human faults lie not in the stars, but in ourselves.

*** The origins:
The "miracle plays" of the Middle Ages, introduced by the Norman Conquest had religious
origins and a didactic purpose: they were at first performed within churches in order to educate
the illiterate people, though they gradually moved outside. The institution of the feast of the
Corpus Christi in the late Middle Ages caused the emergence of the "mystery plays". They were
based on Biblical episodes and performed by members of the trade guilds, often in cycles of over
forty or fifty plays in chronological order. Usually each guild would perform an episode in relation
to its craft, using a decorated cart, "a pageant", as a stage.
Another tradition was that of the "morality plays", which were allegorical representations of
human life staging such universal characters as Wisdom, Pleasure, Folly, Revenge etc. They
were usually performed by professional actors who travelled around the country and asked for
money to perform their moralizing entertainment. The most famous ones are The Castle of
Perseverance (early XVth century) and Everyman (early XVIth century). At the end of the XVth
century these morality plays developed into a new form, the "interlude", that was no longer played
in the streets but within private houses, or inns. Like the rest of literature, drama was getting away
from allegory, and began to invent characters with differenciated psychologies, or "types". The
interlude was a double landmark in the history of drama: it institutionalised theatre within doors,
and the creation of actual characters. The titles evolve in a telling way: from Everyman to King
Johan by John Bale, or the anonymous Gammer Gurton's Needle (1550?), recognised as the first
comedy. Theatre was given a satirical twist, fuelled by the spirit of reformation. They Sir David
Lindsay (1490-1555): A Pleasant Satire of the Three Estates, 1540. Farce developed too, notably
with John Heywood's Interludes, also satirical, but in favour of the Catholics.
From 1580, there was a huge development of drama, that invaded all the ranks of society
from the people to the court. Around London, some permanent theatres were opened, in which
wandering troupes were able to fix. The most famous of these theatres was The Globe, that
Shakespeare immortalised. One must bear in mind that in the XVIth century, theatres were very
rudimentary: at the back of noisy circular places (the wooden O), a mere stage, no curtain,
feminine roles played by young boys, signs to indicate where the action took place, minimal
furnishings. *** Before Shakespeare: -Historical tragedy and "murder plays": the period witnessed
the birth of many plays glorifying Elizabeth, as well as a tendency to bloody violence inherited
from Seneca's plays. The public was very fond of those "murder plays" with anecdotic or historic
plots, usually adapted from chronicles like Raphael Holinshed's (1577). Historical tragedy marked
the passage from the morality play to the Renaissance play: Gorboduc (1562), allegedly the first
tragedy, was written by two courtesans, Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton, and adopted the
blank verse for it allowed a greater freedom in dialogues. A very bloody story of chaos, that
inspired King Lear and The SpanishTtragedy by Thomas Kyd (1592).
-The "University wits" and Christopher Marlowe: a great number of writers that attended Oxford
and Cambridge (George Peele, Robert Greene or Thomas Nashe) gathered around Christopher
Marlowe, experimented on theatre and were very famous at the time.
Marlowe was unquestionably the most important English dramatist before Shakespeare,
and he was also a man of transition, both from a philosophical point of view, questioning the
prevailing concept of hierarchy, and from a technical point of view: he made theatre escape its
medieval frame, and characters were given individuality, psychological depth. He was an atheist,
had quite a fishy, mysterious reputation - a spy for the Queen, heretic and scandalous
declarations - and was murdered when he was twenty nine in a tavern brawl, so that his
production was very concentrated: six plays and a few poems, all between 1587 and 1592. His
most famous tragedies are Tamberlaine the Great (1587), The Tragical History of Dr Faustus
(1589) - inspired by an anonymous medieval German legend -, The Jew of Malta (1590), and
Edward II (1592). All those plays had in common that they presented the audience with
overreachers, conquering heroes, breakers of moulds, with distinctly Promethean overtones. Yet,
each of his heroes were also forced, to various degrees, to confront their own self-indulgence and

faults. Even if these plays mock religion as ineffective, and present characters who attempt to
break the static and fixed religious order of the world that ruled over the Elizabethan world, still
those who attempt to challenge God's authority are not successful, and even mocked at through
constant resort to deflation and black humour. In The Jew of Malta for example, the plight of the
overreacher, Barabas, is presented in a way that constantly threatens to topple into black comedy:
he is too cupid, too selfish, naively ingenuous, overly manipulative. It is through his own
miscalculations that he fails. Dr Faustus hangs on an even greater miscalculation. For Fautus,
knowledge is power: he lives in a new humanist world that has broken free from the stifling
certainties of medieval science and religion. Like Tamburlaine, and like Barabas, he rightfully sets
himself against conventions, but slips into an arrogant fantasy of his invincibility, so that his great
speeches constantly hover on the brink of caricature and parody. Dr Faustus remained a very
popular play right up to the closing of theatres in 1642, and the play was repeatedly printed at the