Skip to Main Site Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Back To Top
decorative element

The Early Modern Period

Special thanks to Eastern's own Catherine Allegretti for writing this helpful introduction!

The Early Modern Period of English literature began in roughly 1485, around the time the Tudor Dynasty came into control of England. Following a victory in the War of the Roses, Henry Tudor assumed the throne as Henry VII and married Elizabeth York. The introduction of the printing press in 1476 led to an emphasis on the English language and a focus on vernacular literature. This period saw a reformation movement as the struggle between political power and religion came center stage with Henry VIII. Often referred to as the Renaissance period in English literature, the second half of the period was an artistic and cultural celebration, with some of England’s finest playwrights and poets emerging during this time. Additionally, the Early Modern Period was marked by humanism, which stressed the potential for goodness in humans and placed importance of the human being over divine and supernatural matters. Metaphysical poetry and a stronger sense of national unity would also find their place among literary themes of the period. The period is also strongly characterized by the shift in readership. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, printing grew, readership increased, and people wanted to widen their intellectual horizons, leading to more demand for literature.

POETRY IN HENRY VIII’S COURT

While nationalist pride rose during this time, so did admiration of poetry. The poetry of this time reflected the religious turmoil and also the humanist ideas that were starting to appear more frequently in literature.

Two significant poets of Henry VIII’s age were Sir Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey. They were the first poets to introduce new forms of poetic meter and use humanist rhetoric. Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English language and literature and although he took some structure from Petrarch’s sonnet, his rhyme schemes are significantly different. This marks the beginning of the English use of three quatrains and a closing couplet. Very little of Wyatt’s poetry was printed during his time, but 15 years after his death, some of his poems were published in an anthology, Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), showing his moral and reflective voice. Included among his famous poems is “Whoso List to Hunt”. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was the counterpart of Wyatt and had a much more traditional and musical style to his writing. He was the first to publish in blank verse and the two friends are often linked together when discussing poetry of the time. Many of his poems appeared in the collection published in 1557, and his “Description of the Restless State” (1557) remains one of his most well-known of his contributions.

THE REFORMATION

The reformation began with Henry VIII’s severance from the Roman Catholic Church after it refused to grant his annulment to Catherine of Aragon. By creating an independent Church of England, Henry dissolved many religious communities and traditions within England. When he died and Edward VI became king, Church reform continued at an accelerated pace, something that his half-sister Mary attempted to stop when she took the throne. Elizabeth I gave the people of England solace and during her reign she worked to create a national Church. With her help, the English Bible was translated into a common language for the people, and religion was restored to the country.

Perhaps the most significant poet in English history, Edmund Spenser rose to prominence around this time with his poem The Shepheardes Calendar (1579). This poem consists of 12 eclogues, short pastoral poems in the form of a dialogue or soliloquy. Spenser’s piece was one of the first in the pastoral genre, which focuses on rural life and the responsibilities of shepherds. Unlike his predecessors, Spenser was not wealthy and grew up among the working class of England, something shown in his earlier works. Spenser was a devout Protestant and his attitudes about religion can be seen in what is considered his greatest work, The Faerie Queen. This incomplete epic poem was published in two parts and makes use of the Spenserian stanza, a form invented by Spenser that contains nine lines: eight in iambic pentameter and one final line in iambic hexameter. This poem was received favorably among royalty as it praised Elizabeth I and Spenser received yearly stipends after its release. The Faerie Queen (1590-1596) is an allegorical piece following several knights as they encounter different virtues and vices. Spenser’s goal was to write about individual moral qualities that would, when the epic was finished, show the ideal human being. Spenser’s epic has many layers of allegory and he also attributes many of the virtues to different historical figures, celebrating Queen Elizabeth, the Protestant faith, and the English nation.

BEGINNINGS OF DRAMA

The first examples of drama came from reenactments of the Old Testament and scenes from The Passion. Early plays were largely religious except for those that would be performed within the platform of higher education. Interludes and morality plays were some of the most common types of performances during the Early Modern Period. Interludes were short plays focused on teaching ethics and morality and were common shows within the court. Morality plays showed the protagonist meeting personifications of various morals who encourage him to choose a godly life. An example of this is Everyman (1510). The first large theatre was opened in 1576, giving permanence to the idea of drama as an artistic medium.

Christopher Marlowe is considered Shakespeare’s greatest predecessor and one of the first great playwrights in the English language. Famous for his alleged atheism and homosexuality, Marlowe was often the subject of controversy and trouble. Marlowe’s three major works are all tragedies, including Dr. Faustus (1592), which epitomizes his recurring theme of a hero who passionately seeks power. In this play, Faustus wants access to forbidden knowledge and makes a deal with Lucifer. There was an intense belief in the devil during this time, and Marlowe’s play would have served as a warning for audience members.

This focus on morality was a common theme for many writers. Ben Jonson wrote several satires against those hungry for money and power and through his plays showed that these desires could only lead to corruption. His most performed play, Volpone (1605), exposes and satirizes those with greed and lust. In the play, Volpone is a Venetian gentleman who pretends to be on his deathbed to trick others into giving him lavish gifts. By the end of the play everyone has become deceitful and all are punished.

SHAKESPEARE

Beginning as an actor and eventually transitioning to the role as one of the most talented and prolific playwrights throughout time, William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets during his lifetime (1564-1616). His ability to capture the psychological and moral struggles of human nature has made him a universal and timeless writer, with his works remaining relevant today.

Sonnets

Shakespeare’s sonnets were published posthumously and their intended order is often difficult to determine. Of his 154 sonnets, the first 126 of them are addressed to a beautiful young man, something that would have been considered strange during this time period. In “Sonnet 18,” one of his most widely read poems, Shakespeare compares his beloved to the summer season, arguing that his beloved is better. Many of the poems addressed to the man had romantic undertones, leaving historians to question Shakespeare’s relationship with him.

Tragedies

Shakespeare’s tragedies, including Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet, are some of his most successful plays. These are some of the finest examples of the genre and each share general characteristics classifying them as Shakespearean tragedy. For example, in many of these plays the protagonist is a tragic hero with one fatal flaw that leads to his eventual downfall.

In Othello, a Venetian Moor named Othello is driven to murder his beloved Desdemona when his unfaithful ensign, Iago, manipulates him. By planting doubt in Othello’s mind, Iago is able to convince him that Desdemona and Othello’s friend, Cassio, are having an affair.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches telling him that he will become the King of Scotland. Driven by ambition and his wife’s urging, he kills King Duncan and becomes a dictator, killing more and more to protect himself.

Hamlet tells a story of revenge. Early in the play the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, commanding Hamlet to avenge his death by killing Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s murderer.

King Lear shows the title character’s psychological decline after dividing his kingdom among his daughters. Lear disinherits his daughter Cordelia for her refusal to flatter him, but gives her sisters, Goneril and Regan, property. When Lear later decides to live with Goneril and Regan, madness begins and deception and murder run rampant in the kingdom.

Romeo and Juliet is a story of two star-crossed lovers, doomed as a result of their parents’ feud. Their forbidden love leads to tragic consequences for the couple.

Histories

Many of Shakespeare’s histories follow the same structure as a Shakespearean tragedy. His histories cover a large portion of English history and include Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VIII, Richard II, and Richard III. Most of his histories interpreted political concerns of the time, as in the case of Richard II. In this play, Shakespeare writes negatively of the ruler responsible for the War of the Roses. This would have resonated well among English citizens looking for someone to blame for that period of political instability.

Comedies

Shakespearean comedies are characterized by a happy ending, with a restoration of the social order and often a marriage. The tone of these plays is much more upbeat and playful. Usually, there is deception, wit, and multiple intersecting plots all aimed at creating laughter and connection to characters. Shakespeare authored several comedies, but The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are two of his most famous.

In The Merchant of Venice Bassanio, a young Venetian noble, strikes a deal with the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Bassanio needs the money to woo the wealthy heiress Portia, whose wit and status make her a desirable partner. Although a comedy, this play is better known for dramatic scenes like Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has four connecting plot lines: the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta, the adventures of four lovers, an amateur acting troupe, and the fairies who manipulate and control everyone. This play includes magic and mischief, often at the expense of mortals, but ends with laughter and happiness in each of the intersecting stories.

METAPHYSICAL POETRY

As the Renaissance period neared its end, a new group of poets arrived, known as metaphysical poets. Most of these poets had very different styles of writing, making their style difficult to generalize, but their use of metaphysical conceits, far-fetched similes and metaphors, makes it easier to identify. John Donne was one of the first of these metaphysical poets and his work reflected the relative foolishness of human activity and the intellectual challenges within humanity. He is the author of the finest collection of love lyrics entitled Songs and Sonnets (1633). Donne’s most famous work is “The Flea” (1633), an erotic metaphysical poem that sees the speaker likening the bite of a flea to sexual intercourse. Donne also wrote about religion and in his poem, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” (1633) he deals with feelings of unworthiness and unfaithfulness when considering God’s never-ending love. This was one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, published posthumously in his collection Songs and Sonnets. Donne’s Holy Sonnets focused heavily on his religious turmoil within the Catholic Church and also reflected his personal hardships throughout his life.

Andrew Marvell and George Herbert were also masters of metaphysical poetry, with Herbert excelling in lyrical poetry and Marvell using his wit and intellect to entice readers. In his poem, “To His Coy Mistress” he displays this intellect and skillfully uses stretched metaphors when he tries to convince a woman that although he would spend centuries wooing her, they should not have to wait that long.

Although not a metaphysical poet, Robert Herrick used sensuality and eroticism in his early poems as well. Later in his life he focused more on spirituality, but the sexual nature of his earlier poetry makes these poems his most famous. His poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is one of his carpe diem poems that, similar to Marvell’s piece, advises virgins not to wait to have sex.

WHERE ARE THE WOMEN WRITERS?

While writings by women during this period continue to be uncovered and analyzed, there were two women writers in the Early Modern Period whose works are studied today. Katherine Phillips wrote primarily about the intense and passionate friendships between women, leading some to characterize her as a lesbian writer. Her poem, “To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship” (1667), was published posthumously and is one of her more well known poems describing this same-sex friendship. Margaret Cavendish was an English aristocrat who rose to literary prominence with one of the first examples of science fiction. Her novel, The Blazing World (1666), is the only utopian novel written by a woman during the 17th century and in this semi-autobiographical account, Cavendish gives power to women and names herself the ruler of her imagined kingdom.

By the end of the Renaissance period, there was a collection of works and writing that would have a lasting impact on generations to come, but the Restoration of the monarchy would prove to bring changes both in the political and literary spectrum.

 

For this introduction I consulted: Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature, Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders’ The Short Oxford History of English Literature, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors (Vol. 1)