The Elizabethan period (1558 to 1603) in poetry is characterized by a number of frequently overlapping developments. The introduction and adaptation of themes, models and verse forms from other European traditions and classical literature, the Elizabethan song tradition, the emergence of a courtly poetry often centred around the figure of the monarch and the growth of a verse-based drama are among the most important of these developments.A wide range of Elizabethan poets wrote songs, including Nicholas Grimald, Thomas Nashe and Robert Southwell. There are also a large number of extant anonymous songs from the period. Perhaps the greatest of all the songwriters was Thomas Campion. Campion is also notable because of his experiments with metres based on counting syllables rather than stresses. These quantitative metres were based on classical models and should be viewed as part of the wider Renaissance revival of Greek and Roman artistic methods.
The songs were generally printed either in miscellanies or anthologies such as Richard Tottel's 1557 Songs and Sonnets or in songbooks that included printed music to enable performance. These performances formed an integral part of both public and private entertainment. By the end of the 16th century, a new generation of composers, including John Dowland, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Morley were helping to bring the art of Elizabethan song to an extremely high musical level.
With the consolidation of Elizabeth's power, a genuine court sympathetic to poetry and the arts in general emerged. This encouraged the emergence of a poetry aimed at, and often set in, an idealised version of the courtly world.
Among the best known examples of this are Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, which is effectively an extended hymn of praise to the queen, and Philip Sidney's Arcadia. This courtly trend can also be seen in Spenser's Shepheardes Calender. This poem marks the introduction into an English context of the classical pastoral, a mode of poetry that assumes an aristocratic audience with a certain kind of attitude to the land and peasants. The explorations of love found in the sonnets of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Walter Raleigh and others also implies a courtly audience.Elizabethan verse drama is widely considered to be one of the major achievements of literature in English, and its most famous exponent, William Shakespeare, is revered as the greatest poet in the language. This drama, which served both as courtly masque and popular entertainment, deals with all the major themes of contemporary literature and life.
There are plays on European, classical, and religious themes reflecting the importance of humanism and the Reformation. There are also a number of plays dealing with English history that may be read as part of an effort to strengthen the British national myth and as artistic underpinnings for Elizabeth's resistance to the Spanish and other foreign threats. A number of the comic works for the stage also use bucolic themes connected with the pastoral genre.
In addition to Shakespeare, other notable dramatists of the period include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson.
The Elizabethan era saw a great flourishing of literature, especially in the field of drama. The Italian Renaissance had rediscovered the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, and this was instrumental in the development of the new drama, which was then beginning to evolve apart from the old mystery and miracle plays of the Middle Ages. The Italians were particularly inspired by Seneca (a major tragic playwright and philosopher, the tutor of Nero) and Plautus (its comic clichés, especially that of the boasting soldier had a powerful influence on the Renaissance and after). However, the Italian tragedies embraced a principle contrary to Seneca's ethics: showing blood and violence on the stage. In Seneca's plays such scenes were only acted by the characters. But the English playwrights were intrigued by Italian model: a conspicuous community of Italian actors had settled in London and Giovanni Florio had brought much of the Italian language and culture to England. It is also true that the Elizabethan Era was a very violent age and that the high incidence of political assassinations in Renaissance Italy (embodied by Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince) did little to calm fears of popish plots. As a result, representing that kind of violence on the stage was probably more cathartic for the Elizabethan spectator. Following earlier Elizabethan plays such as Gorboduc by Sackville & Norton and The Spanish Tragedy by Kyd that was to provide much material for Hamlet, William Shakespeare stands out in this period as a poet and playwright as yet unsurpassed. Shakespeare was not a man of letters by profession, and probably had only some grammar school education. He was neither a lawyer, nor an aristocrat as the "university wits" that had monopolised the English stage when he started writing. But he was very gifted and incredibly versatile, and he surpassed "professionals" as Robert Greene who mocked this "shake-scene" of low origins. Though most dramas met with great success, it is in his later years (marked by the early reign of James I) that he wrote what have been considered his greatest plays: Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, a tragicomedy that inscribes within the main drama a brilliant pageant to the new king. Shakespeare also popularized the English sonnet which made significant changes to Petrarch's model.
The sonnet was introduced into English by Thomas Wyatt in the early 16th century. Poems intended to be set to music as songs, such as by Thomas Campion, became popular as printed literature was disseminated more widely in households. See English Madrigal School. Other important figures in Elizabethan theatre include Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont. Had Marlowe (1564-1593) not been stabbed at twenty-nine in a tavern brawl, says Anthony Burgess, he might have rivalled, if not equalled Shakespeare himself for his poetic gifts. Remarkably, he was born only a few weeks before Shakespeare and must have known him well. Marlowe's subject matter, though, is different: it focuses more on the moral drama of the renaissance man than any other thing. Marlowe was fascinated and terrified by the new frontiers opened by modern science. Drawing on German lore, he introduced Dr. Faustus to England, a scientist and magician who is obsessed by the thirst of knowledge and the desire to push man's technological power to its limits. He acquires supernatural gifts that even allow him to go back in time and wed Helen of Troy, but at the end of his twenty-four years' covenant with the devil he has to surrender his soul to him. His dark heroes may have something of Marlowe himself, whose untimely death remains a mystery. He was known for being an atheist, leading a lawless life, keeping many mistresses, consorting with ruffians: living the 'high life' of London's underworld. But many suspect that this might have been a cover-up for his activities as a secret agent for Elizabeth I, hinting that the 'accidental stabbing' might have been a premeditated assassination by the enemies of The Crown. Beaumont and Fletcher are less-known, but it is almost sure that they helped Shakespeare write some of his best dramas, and were quite popular at the time. It is also at this time that the city comedy genre develops. In the later 16th century English poetry was characterised by elaboration of language and extensive allusion to classical myths. The most important poets of this era include Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Elizabeth herself, a product of Renaissance humanism, produced occasional poems such as On Monsieur’s Departure.
Queen Elizabeth I fancied music and also knew well how to play instruments. She could play the lute and virginal, a small form of a harpsichord. It was essential to understand the art of music.Queen Elizabeth encouraged composers and musicians, employing over seventy musicians and singers. In court life you were expected to be able to dance and play. Dancing was considered part of propriety by Queen Elizabeth.
Renaissance architecture arrived in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, having first spread through the Low countries where among other features it acquired versions of the Dutch gable, and Flemish strapwork in geometric designs adorning the walls. Both of these features can be seen on the towers of Wollaton Hall and again at Montacute House. It was also at this time that English houses adopted the Italian concept of a long gallery being the chief reception room. In England, the Renaissance tended to manifest itself in large square tall houses such as Longleat House. Often these buildings had symmetrical towers which hint at the evolution from medieval fortified architecture.
Hatfield House, built in its entirety by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, between 1607 and 1611, is a perfect example of the transition period from the gabled turreted style of the previous era. One can clearly see the turreted Tudor style wings at each end with their mullioned windows, however, the whole is achieving a symmetry and the two wings are linked by an Italianate Renaissance facade. This central facade, originally an open loggia, has been attributed to Inigo Jones himself, however, the central porch carries a heavier Jacobean influence than Jones would have used, so the attribution is probably false. Inside the house, the elaborately carved staircase demonstrates the Italian renaissance impression on English ornament.
During the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, many Italian artists came over who carried out various decorative features at Hampton Court, Layer Marney Tower, Essex (1522-1525), Sutton Place, Surrey (1529), Nonsuch Palace, and elsewhere. Later in the century, Flemish craftsmen succeeded the Italians, and the Royal Exchange in London (1566-1570) is one of the first important buildings designed by Henri de Paschen, an architect from Antwerp.