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Jacobean Age

The Jacobean Age or Era was a period in English and Scottish history, from 1603-1625. It corresponds with the reign of James VI of Scotland.

He inherited the English crown in 1603 and was named James I. The era followed the Elizabethan and came before what’s known as the Caroline era. The term “Jacobean” can be used to describe everything from literature to art, architecture, decorative arts, and more. James ruled from 1567 (in Scotland) and 1603 (in England) to 1625. Any literature written during that time period can be considered Jacobean. 

Jacobean pronunciation: jay-coh-bee-in
Jacobean Age definition and history

Definition of the Jacobean Age 

The Jacobean Age lasted from 1603 to 1625 in England and from 1567 to 1625 in Scotland. It is defined by the reign of King James I/VI and includes some of the greatest poetry, drama, and essays produced in the English language. Authors working during this period are explored below, as are a few examples of their best-known works. During this period, the sonnet form flourished, as did metaphysical poetry and the power of the conceit. Tragedies and comedies were written in equal measure and playwrights like William Shakespeare created some of their best-known works. 

Important Writers of the Jacobean Age 

  • Ben Jonson: an English playwright and poet. He had a powerful influence on English poetry and comedy.
  • Francis Bacon: an English philosopher and statesman who also wrote essays. He’s often regarded as the father of empiricism. 
  • Robert Burton: English writer who is best-known for his Anatomy of Melancholy. 
  • William Shakespeare: although mainly associated with the Elizabethan era, a few of Shakespeare’s best-known plays were written after the Queen’s death in the Jacobean era. These include Macbeth and The Tempest. 
  • John Donne: is one of the most important English poets of his time. He was the best of the metaphysical poets and is remembered for his skill with conceits. 
  • Francis Beaumont: a renaissance Dramatist who is best-known for his work with John Fletcher. Their plays were written jointly. But, alone he wrote The Knight of Burning Pestle and The Masque of the Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn. 

Examples of Literature from the Jacobean Age

The Tempest by William Shakespeare 

The Tempest, like King Lear and Macbeth, was written during the Jacobean era. It was written in 1610, only a few years before the Bard’s death. Shakespeare enjoyed James’ patronage, as well as that of his wife, Anne of Denmark. The play, which is today one of the poet’s most famous, follows an island-based tragicomedy feature Prospero, a sorcerer, his daughter Miranda, Caliban, and Ariel. The latter is a spirit and the former is a monstrous, much-maligned figure. The play is filled with music and song and explores themes of betrayal, family, and revenge. Here is a famous quote: 

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

The play features characteristics of a tragedy and a comedy and has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations. Some, believe that Prospero represents Shakespeare and that when the former gives up magic, it was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to the stage. 

Discover William Shakespeare’s poetry.

On My First Son by Ben Jonson 

‘On My First Son’ is certainly one of Jonson’s best-known poems. It was written in 1616 and laments the death of the poet’s first-born child. He lost his son at seven years old in 1603 and this poem is written in his own. He examines his loss and how it changed him, as well as how he’s tried to move away from the tragedy. The first few lines discuss the high expectations he had for his first son, something that he feels was repaid by his son’s death. Here is an excerpt: 

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;

My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.

Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,

Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.

He continues on to say that death is something that helps men escape “world’s and flesh’s rage”. It shouldn’t be feared and hated as it is. Finally, he accepts that he cares for his son and that the emotion isn’t going to go away. His attempts to ignore the grieving process are pointless. 

Explore more Ben Jonson poems.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne

‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ is a well-loved poem written during the Jacobean era. It was penned by the poet for his wife, Anne, in either 1611 or 1612 before he famously left on a trip for Europe. The poem deals primarily with the theme of separated lovers and the power of love to unite two people over distances. It was first published posthumously in 1633 in Songs and Sonnets. Here are a few lines from this famous piece of poetry: 

Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so 

As stiff twin compasses are two; 

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show 

To move, but doth, if the other do. 

At the heart of this poem is a skilled conceit comparing the lovers to a compass. One, the woman, in this case, stays steady in the middle, while the husband roams in the distance. But, because of the nature of the device, he stays attached to her and in the end, her “firmness” makes his “circle just” and makes him end where he “begun.” 

Read more John Donne poems.


When was the Jacobean Age? 

The Jacobean Age lasted from 1603 to 1625 in England and from 1567 to 1625 in Scotland. It is defined by the reign of King James I of England and VI of Scotland. It came after the Elizabethan age and before the Caroline age. 

What are the characteristics of the Jacobean Age? 

Literature written during this period was often dark, tended to question the social order, and included some of the best tragedies in the English language. Poets wrote sonnets, used conceits, and the metaphysical poetry movement flourished. The cavalier poets also wrote during this time period.

Why is the Jacobean Age important? 

The Jacobean age is important because it played host to some of the most influential poets and playwrights in the English language. This included William Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and more. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verse 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.
  • Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics. 
  • Lake Poets: a group of English poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District during the nineteenth century.

Other Resources 

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