Elizabethan literature

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Elizabethan literature refers to English literature produced during the reign of Elizabeth I, 1558–1603, but the term is often extended to cover all the writings of authors who were initially active during her reign.


When Sir Philip Sidney wrote his An Apology for Poetry (alternative title A Defence of Poesie) some time between 1579 and his death in 1586, he claimed to be attempting to raise the status of poetry, "the laughing stock of children", though his account of its low status was probably exaggerated. Sidney belonged to the Protestant wing of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, but he seems to have wanted to defend his art against the more extreme puritans because he particularly emphasised poetry as the nourisher of virtue. His Apology was circulated among his circle in slightly different texts (hence the alternative titles), and at the time he wrote the only poetry of note published in Elizabeth's reign was Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender. The end of the reign, however, had seen the publication of narrative poems by Shakespeare and Marlowe, sonnet sequences by Daniel and Drayton, all of Spenser's remaining poetry, and much else.

Sidney himself published none of his own poetry, and this was in keeping with the tradition of the aristocracy in which he belonged (maintained also by Ralegh). It was instead circulated privately among friends and acquaintances. In the year before Elizabeth's accession, a hard-headed[1] printer called Tottell (Tottel, Tothill) had published Songes and Sonettes, gathering up poems from such privately circulated manuscripts, mostly by Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey. This publication, commonly called Tottel's Miscellany, was very successful, being reprinted at least eight times between 1857 and 1600, showing that there was an appetite for verse that extended beyond the ballad literature. This appetite clearly continued, with Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, for instance, being reprinted at least 15 times before 1640.

Ovid was a major source and influence for the poetry of this period.

Broadside ballads were very popular during the Tudor and early Stuart period, and Sidney even defended them.[2]


The Elizabethans produced no prose writers comparable with Malory before or Bunyan later. Most of what was written is now read only by specialists in the field.

At this time English works identifiable as romances were still being published, including Greene's Card of Fancie, and Lyly's Euphues, whose elaborate and involved style gave rise to the adjective "euphuistic". Alongside them were other fictional works produced by such as Thomas Deloney, whose books were just collections of tales centred on a particular person. His works and others continued to be sold as chapbooks until well into the 17th century. Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, which is more of a whole, has some claim to be the first English novel, in the picaresque genre.


Mystery plays based on the Bible continued to be acted into Elizabeth's reign, as did the Morality plays and the so-called Interludes which developed from them; but a secular and popular theatre soon began to overwhelm them. Although some plays, such as Gorboduc, used a classical model based on Seneca, a type later continued by Jonson, the stronger English tendency was for sprawling drama spread over time and space, with mingled verse and prose. This came from playwrights such as Greene, Marlowe and Shakespeare. The first playhouse built specifically for professional performances was the Theatre, constructed in 1576.

The texts of plays were part of a company's stock-in-trade, so it was not in their interest to have them published. The copies which did appear may have been pirated by hired actors.


  1. Tottell had a monopoly on printing law books, which he fully exploited.
  2. See Ballad literature