Its one of the most important periods in English literature, playing host to a few of the most influential writers of all time, including William Shakespeare. New forms, like blank verse and multiple sonnets, and the first English novel appeared during this era. London flourished as the cultural center of the country during the Elizabethan Era.
Elizabethan Era pronunciation: eh-leeh-zeh-bee-than er-uh
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Definition of Elizabethan Era
The Elizabethan Era was an incredibly important period in English literature. During the years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, prose, poetry, drama, and other literary forms took important strides. Some of the best-known and most important authors of the period are listed below, along with a few examples of their work.
Important Writers from the Elizabethan Era
- William Shakespeare: is considered to be one of, if not the, most important English-language writers of all time. His plays and poems are read all over the world. Some of the best remembered and most commonly performed and read are Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Othello.
- Sir Walter Raleigh: an explorer and writer who befriended Edmund Spenser and whose life is somewhat shrouded in mystery.
- Ben Johnson: a poet and playwright who had a long-lasting impact on English theatre. He popularized the comedy of humours.
- Christopher Marlowe: also known as Kit Marlowe, was a poet, translator, and playwright during the Elizabethan Era. He’s known for his Hero and Leander, Edward the Second, and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.
- Edmund Spenser: the famed author of The Faerie Queene, one of the most important pieces of English poetry. Spenser also has a particular style of verse named after him.
- Philip Sidney: a poet and courtier who is remembered for his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella.
- John Lyly: prose writer is known for Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit. He is remembered today for his influence on the plays of William Shakespeare.
- Thomas Nashe: an important Elizabethan prose writer and satirist. He is known for his novel The Unfortunate Traveller and for pamphlets like Pierce Penniless.
Examples of Elizabethan Era Poetry
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
‘The Faerie Queene’ is one of the best-loved English-language epic poems ever written. It is over 36,000 lines and over 4,000 stanzas long. It was published in 1590 and is the source of what is known today as the Spenserian stanza. The poem follows knights, examines virtues, and uses allegory intensely. Here are a few lines:
A Gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many’ a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.
These lines from Book I follow the Redcrosse Knight and the woman he loves, Una, as they travel to fight Errour, a monster. There are tricks, entrapments, and numerous reminders about how to live a morally righteous life.
Read more of Edmund Spenser’s poetry.
Sonnet 130’ is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. In this piece, the speaker takes a realistic tone and satirizes the tradition of praising the beauty of one’s affection by comparing it to beautiful things, typically in a hyperbolic manner. The first lines read:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
He says his mistress’ eyes are not like the sun or like coral. Her lips are redder, and her eyes are brighter. She is more beautiful than roses and more striking than the white snow. He’s making a point that those who compare their loves to nature are not truly appreciating their beauty. They’re simply idolizing them.
Read more William Shakespeare poems.
Sonnet 1 by Philip Sidney
One of the 108 sonnets and 11 songs featured in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sequence narrates the love story between the two. It was the first sonnet sequence written in the English language. The first sonnet resembles a Petrarchan sonnet. Here are a few lines:
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
The speaker believes that if his loved one reads the sonnets, she will return his affection. He also focuses on the difficulties of writing.
Explore Philip Sidney’s poems.
On My First Daughter by Ben Jonson
This piece is an elegy. That is, a poem written in memory of someone who has recently died. It was published in 1616 after the death of Jonson’s first child, Mary. Scholars believe that the poem was a personal representation of the poet’s own feelings about her passing. The poet begins the piece by addressing his daughter in her grave, an example of what is known as an apostrophe. Despite the fact that her life and death have brought him and his wife much sorrow, he takes some comfort in knowing that she’s safe in heaven now. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Here lies, to each her parents’ ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven’s gifts being heaven’s due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months’ end she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven’s queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother’s tears,
His daughter was only six months old when she died, and when she did so, she was in the “safety of her innocence.” She was young and knew no sin when she passed away. God would’ve received her, the speaker thinks, with open arms.
Discover more of Ben Jonson’s poetry.
It’s often described as the “golden era” of English literature. It was a renaissance of all the arts and was inspired by national pride. Theatre, poetry, and prose all flourished and expanded under Queen Elizabeth, and some of the best writers in the history of the English language came into their own.
William Shakespeare is often cited as the most important poet of the era. Along with writers like Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and Ben Jonson, he changed how English-language poetry and drama were understood.
Related Literary Terms
- Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verses inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
- Cavalier Poets: a group of writers from the 17th century in England.
- Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
- Graveyard Poets: also known as the Churchyard Poets, were a group of writers in England during the 18th century.
- Lake Poets: a group of English poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District during the nineteenth century.
- Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics.