Jacobean Age

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Jacobean Age


Jacobean Age

In the Jacobean Age under the reign of James I, various facets of his rule and the cultural milieu are evident. James, previously James VI of Scotland, ascended to the English throne as James I. He staunchly believed in the Divine Right of Kings, leading to anti-Parliamentary decisions and a propensity for making private decisions in foreign affairs. His rule was marked by extravagance, and he favored certain individuals, such as Buckingham, among his favorites.

The religious landscape saw oppression of both Catholics and Puritans, with the latter group, known as the Pilgrim Fathers, eventually fleeing to America. England experienced a rising population and the emergence of a wealthier middle class during this period. Colonies were established in North America and the West Indies, contributing to England’s global influence.

James I

James I, the son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, established the Stuart dynasty in England. He was Protestant, raised in the Scottish court with French court influences. Despite his Protestant background, he had little interest in women and preferred male company. His marriage to Anne of Denmark in 1589 coincided with a visit to Denmark, potentially sparking his obsession with witchcraft. James persecuted witches and wrote “Daemonologie” in 1597, opposing witchcraft, which later served as a source for Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, also known as Jesuit Treason, was a Catholic conspiracy against James I, aiming to blow up the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on November 5th, commemorates the thwarting of this plot.

James I conducted the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 to address Puritans’ concerns, leading to the Authorized Version of the Bible, commonly known as the King James Bible. This version, published in 1611, was a revision respecting earlier translations, such as Tyndale’s and the Wycliff Bible of 1384. It greatly influenced British and American writers and societies, earning the moniker “the Miracle of English prose.”

In the realm of literature, the Elizabethan legacy continued into the 17th century. Shakespeare’s most creative period occurred during this time, marked by great tragedies, dark comedies, and romances. However, the Jacobean age witnessed a shift towards a decadent spirit with a growing taste for spectacle, artificiality, and improbable plots. Corruption in court and political intrigues became prevalent, contrasting with the Elizabethan sensibility characterized by a belief in providential justice and the ultimate triumph of moral harmony.

Ben Jonson

Among the literary figures of the time, Ben Jonson, an early neo-classical writer, stood out. He emphasized the need for poets to provide a high ethical ideal for society and wrote masques for James I’s court. Jonson’s influence extended to the Cavalier poets, who were later dubbed the “Sons of Ben” or “The Tribe of Ben.” After Shakespeare’s death, Jonson faced a decline in his artistic success, notably with the failure of his play “The New Inn, or The Light Heart.” This setback deeply affected him, leading to the composition of “Ode to Himself,” where he contemplated leaving the stage and the seemingly loathsome age in which he lived.

John Donne by Isaac Oliver scaled

In the Jacobean Age, the literary landscape featured notable figures such as Francis Bacon and John Donne, both of whom left a lasting impact on the period. Bacon, who rose to prominence under James I’s favor, reached the pinnacle of his career but faced public disgrace due to his influence on the king that antagonized Parliament. Despite his fall from grace, Bacon’s scientific and philosophical writings continued to shape the thoughts of 17th-century scholars, including Sir Thomas Browne.

John Donne


John Donne, a poet born around 1572, rebelled against Petrarchan conventions in poetry. His collection of Holy Sonnets, written between 1609-1610, portrayed the physical struggle of believers seeking union with God. Donne’s own soul-searching journey, marked by his conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism and subsequent ordination as a priest in 1615, deeply influenced his devotional verse.

 The Metaphysical Poets

Donne’s impact extended to a group of 17th-century poets known as The Metaphysical Poets. George Herbert (1593-1633), one of Donne’s contemporaries, avoided the confrontational elements of the Holy Sonnets, exploring the musical qualities of language with a refined tone and less egotistical speakers. Another poet influenced by Donne was Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), whose works featured extreme rhetorical conceits influenced by Baroque art.

In the realm of drama during the Jacobean period, notable playwrights like Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were at the height of their creativity. Jacobean drama reflected the era’s characteristics, portraying metropolitan life, exploring the nature of political authority, and expressing intellectual doubt. The plays exhibited a spirit of decadence, featuring improbable plots and a taste for spectacle and artificiality.

Contextually, Jacobean drama took on a darker and more ambiguous tone, reflecting the social and philosophical transitions of the time. The period was marked by spiritual uncertainty, influenced in part by the spread of Machiavellian materialism and the skepticism arising from the Scientific Revolution, particularly in astronomy. This skepticism challenged the ideals of Christian humanism, leading to a growing tendency to focus on sensory and practical experiences and limit knowledge to the non-spiritual world.

However, as the Jacobean period progressed, the decline of drama became apparent. The end of patronage meant that only members of the royal family could support playwrights, bringing drama under the direct subordination of the court. Playwrights were compelled to align with royalist sentiments, and the popular, diverse character of theaters was lost.

In terms of genres, the Jacobean dramatists departed from the Elizabethan sense of moral order. Depictions of corruption and violence did not necessarily suggest divine retribution or the ultimate triumph of good. Genres in this period reflected spiritual discord and materialism.

One notable genre that flourished during the Jacobean period was Revenge Tragedy. This genre continued into the Caroline period and included notable works such as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (1601), Middleton’s “The Revenger’s Tragedy” (1606), attributed to Cyril Tourneur, and Webster’s “The White Devil” (1612) and “The Duchess of Malfi” (1614). Additionally, Middleton and Rowley collaborated on “The Changeling” (1622), and John Ford wrote ” ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” (1633). These plays were characterized by their exploration of themes related to revenge, often featuring intricate plots and intense emotions.

Francis Bacon’s perspective on revenge, as articulated in his essay “Of Revenge,” finds resonance in Jacobean revenge tragedy. He contends that revenge is a form of wild justice, and the more human nature inclines towards it, the more imperative it becomes for the law to eliminate this inclination. Bacon emphasizes that while the initial wrong merely offends the law, seeking revenge displaces the law from its rightful role.

In the realm of drama, particularly in revenge tragedies, this philosophy is reflected in the complex and often violent narratives that explore themes of retribution. Bacon’s insights are evident in the genre’s exploration of the consequences of seeking revenge, blurring the lines between justice and personal vendettas.

City comedy emerged as a notable genre in the Jacobean period, shifting away from romantic and humoural comedy. It featured satirical comedies based on London life, with primary plot elements revolving around greed and sexual intrigue. These plays, such as Jonson’s “Bartholomew Fair” (1614) and Middleton’s “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside” (1611-13), satirized social habits, including the popularity of romance literature.

Tragicomedy, a reaction to the excesses of Jacobean tragedy, became prominent. Marked by improbable and complicated plots, it often featured characters of high social class or nobility. Love was a central theme, with contrasts between pure and gross love. Rapid action, contrasts of deep villainy and exalted virtue, penitent villains, and elements like disguises and surprises characterized tragicomedies. Examples include Shakespeare’s romances, Fletcher’s “The Faithful Shepherdess” (1607-08), and Beaumont & Fletcher’s “Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding” (1608-09).

Masques, courtly entertainments performed by aristocratic amateurs, became symbolic of the majesty of the king and aristocracy. Ben Jonson, a pioneer in this genre, created works like “The Masque of Beauty” and “The Masque of Blackness.” Inigo Jones, a notable stage designer, contributed to the visual spectacle of masques.

Ben Jonson also introduced Anti-Masques, comic and disruptive performances featuring professional actors. These pieces were critical of royal policies, and one such example is the “Masque of Queens.”

George Chapman,

George Chapman, known for his translation of Homer, published in a folio volume in 1616, was more renowned for this work than for his plays. His five tragedies, influenced by Stoic philosophy, include “The Blind Beggar of Alexandria” (1595-6), which draws on the commedia dell’arte tradition of Italy. The play employs heavy disguise, and the protagonist Cleanthes, a shepherd turned king, is considered a parody of Tamburlaine.

Chapman’s historical tragedies, such as “Bussy D’Ambois” (1604) and “The Revenge of Bussy D’Ambois” (c.1610), explore courtly intrigue and the betrayal of an old soldier. Stoic philosophy influences all his tragic heroes, who are ultimately destroyed by their own passions. Among his comedies, “All Fools” stands out, influenced by Ben Jonson and adapted from Terence. The plot revolves around the comedic elements of mistaken identity and the folly of human nature.

Eastward Ho!” (1605) is a city comedy penned collaboratively by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston, created after the conclusion of the War of the Theatres. This genre of drama explores bourgeois morality and social issues within urban settings. The play was a response to the earlier satire “Westward Ho!” by Dekker and Webster, which led to Jonson and Chapman’s arrest due to its perceived anti-Scottish content. “Eastward Ho!” revolves around the lives of two apprentices, virtuous Golding and the ambitious Quicksilver, employed by a city goldsmith. The plot unfolds with the goldsmith’s two daughters, one characterized as sweet and modest, and the other as foolish and worldly.

Thomas Heywood (1573-1641), a prolific playwright with involvement in approximately 220 plays, has been likened to a “sort of prose Shakespeare.” His works often delved into historical and patriotic themes, celebrating London citizenry and apprentices. Among his notable works are “A Woman Killed with Kindness” (1603), portraying a disrupted marriage restored through repentance, and “The English Traveller” (c.1604), where chastely in love characters face seduction and eventual repentance. Heywood’s “The Four Prentices of London” celebrates the heroic exploits of four apprentices.

Thomas Dekker (c.1572-c.1632)

Thomas Dekker (c.1572-c.1632), a literary hack, pamphleteer, and playwright, collaborated on numerous plays for Philip Henslowe, although many of his works have been lost to time. Some surviving works include “The Old Fortunatus” (1599), a morality play based on a German legend, and “Satiromastix” (1601), a satirical work. Dekker contributed to tragedies like “Lust’s Dominion” (1600) and “The Witch of Edmonton” (1621).

Among his famous works is “The Honest Whore” (1630), co-written with Middleton, portraying the redemption of a prostitute, Bellafront. “The Roaring Girl,” another collaborative work with Middleton, provides a fanciful biography of Mary Frith, a notorious pickpocket in London’s underworld. Dekker also collaborated with Webster on “Westward Ho” and “Northward Ho.”

The relationship between Dekker and Jonson was marked by tension, with Jonson considering Dekker a hack writer. This tension played out in satirical works, such as Jonson’s portrayal of Dekker as Demetrius Fannius in “Poetaster” and Anaides in “Cynthia’s Revels.” In response, Dekker satirized Jonson as an affected and hypocritical Horace in “Satiromastix.”

The Shoemaker’s Holiday, or The Gentle Craft” (1599) is one of Dekker’s notable works, characterized as a boisterous comedy of London life. Belonging to the “citizen comedy” or “city comedy” genre, it is set in London, providing a snapshot of everyday life in the middle classes. The main plot follows Rowland Lacy, who, in love with Rose, the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London, disguises himself as a shoemaker. The play introduces the famous character Simon Eyre, an eccentric shoemaker who eventually becomes the lord mayor of London.

John Marston (c. 1576-1634) began his literary career as a writer of violent and coarse verse satires before transitioning to drama. He worked for the theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe and his Admiral’s Men, crafting plays characterized by extravagant language, melodramatic tragedies centered on love and revenge, and cynical comedies blending bitter exposure of human folly with farce. Marston’s works often featured violent and melodramatic Senecan tragedies with exaggerated and excessive speeches. Notably, his twin plays, “Antonio and Mellida” and “Antonio’s Revenge,” set in Italy, were ridiculed by Ben Jonson in “The Poetaster.”

One of Marston’s most famous plays is “The Malcontent” (1604), dedicated to Ben Jonson. The play revolves around a deposed duke who returns to his dukedom in disguise as Malevole, a discontented parasite. Malevole cynically assists his usurper, and the unexpectedly happy ending sees the kingdom returned to “the Malcontent,” who then contemptuously pardons everyone involved. The play features a metatheatrical Induction in which the actors and onstage spectators comment on the drama that follows.

Other notable works by Marston include “Histriomastix” (1599), regarded as his first play, and “The Scourge of Villanie,” a satire publicly burned in 1599 following the Bishops’ Ban. He also contributed to romantic comedies like “Jack Drum’s Entertainment” (c. 1600) and “What You Will” (1601), as well as the satirical “The Dutch Courtezan” (1605), which critiques lust and hypocrisy.

Marston was involved in a notable literary feud with Ben Jonson, initiating the War of the Theatres. In “Histriomastix” (1599), Marston satirized Jonson’s pride, leading to a series of satirical responses from both writers. Jonson satirized Marston as Clove in “Every Man Out of His Humour,” Crispinus in “Poetaster,” and Hedon in “Cynthia’s Revels.” In turn, Marston satirized Jonson as the complacent Brabant Senior in “Jack Drum’s Entertainment” and the envious, misanthropic Lampatho Doria in “What You Will.”

Cyril Tourneur (c. 1575-1626) achieved fame through two revenge tragedies: “The Revenger’s Tragedy” (c. 1607) and “The Atheist’s Tragedy” (1611). The former explores the corrupting power of revenge and the transformation of injured innocence into monstrosity, echoing themes from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The latter, subtitled “The Honest Man’s Revenge,” presents a highly melodramatic depiction of a court governed by lechery and cruelty, with characters symbolizing vices.

John Webster (c. 1578-c. 1638) led an obscure life, with major collaborations believed to include William Rowley, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, John Ford, and perhaps Philip Massinger. His collaborations with Dekker produced two city comedies, “Westward Ho” (1604) and “Northward Ho” (1605). Webster is best known for his macabre revenge tragedies, “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi.”

The White Devil” (1609-1612) tells the story of Duke Brachiano, urged by the Machiavellian Flamineo, to fall in love with Flamineo’s sister, Vittoria Corombona. The ensuing plot involves murder, a famous trial scene, and tragic consequences for the main characters. “The Duchess of Malfi” (pub. 1623, written c. 1612) narrates the tragic tale of the widowed Duchess secretly marrying her steward, Antonio, and the deadly consequences of her brothers’ malicious interference. The play explores themes of incest, betrayal, and revenge, culminating in a tragic and violent end for the characters involved.

The Duchess of Malfi” unfolds in the 16th century, with Antonio returning home from France at the play’s outset. Key characters include the Duchess, her maid Cariola, Antonio’s friend Delio, and the Duchess’s brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. The Duchess’s decision to marry her steward Antonio challenges traditional gender roles and class distinctions. The plot involves various schemes, including the Duchess falsely accusing Antonio of theft to protect him.

Significant scenes include a mime at the Shrine of Our Lady of Loretto, where the Cardinal relinquishes his cardinal’s hat for a soldier’s life, leading to the banishment of Antonio, the Duchess, and their children. Ferdinand presents wax corpses to the Duchess, inducing despair. The Duchess is later strangled, dying fearlessly, while Ferdinand succumbs to lycanthropia, believing himself a wolf.

Julia, the Cardinal’s mistress, expresses obsessive love to Bosola, leading to her demise through a poisoned Bible. An eerie echo from the Duchess’s tomb seemingly repeats words spoken by Antonio and Delio, adding an inevitable tone to Antonio’s fate.

The Duchess of Malfi” is a complex revenge tragedy with no clear avenger. The Duchess, Antonio, and Bosola play unconventional roles, and the villainous brothers may be seeking revenge on their sister. Bosola, initially a villain, becomes a victim, manipulated like a puppet.

Webster’s tragedies feature pre-Gothic horror, a dark view of human nature, and depictions of Renaissance Italy’s sinister world. The 20th century saw various interpretations of Webster’s work, with Rupert Brooke, T.S. Eliot, Antonin Artaud, and Bertolt Brecht acknowledging his unique vision. In the film “Shakespeare In Love,” Webster is portrayed as a street urchin cruelly taunting a cat with a live mouse.

Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) and John Fletcher (1579-1625) excelled in comedies, particularly tragicomedies of London life. Jointly writing 52 plays, their works were superficial with spectacular incidents and stage effects. Beaumont was a friend of Ben Jonson and a poet.

One of their tragicomedies, “Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding” (c.1610), centers on Philaster, the heir to the Sicilian throne, in love with the usurper’s daughter, Arethusa. The play involves courtship, boastful suitors, and reveals reminiscent of Twelfth Night and Sidney’s Arcadia. Another work, “A King and No King” (1611), explores the theme of incest, only to reveal at the end that the pair involved is not truly siblings. Dryden considered it their best work.

Beaumont and Fletcher’s tragedies include “The Maid’s Tragedy” (c. 1611), considered their best in this genre. It explores a sensational sex tragedy where a husband discovers on his wedding night that his wife, Evadne, is the king’s mistress. The marriage is a mere cover for her affair, leading to Evadne murdering the king. However, her husband rejects her, and she ultimately stabs herself.

Fletcher’s plays include “The Faithful Shepherdess” (1608-09), adapting Guarini’s tragicomedy. It falls under the genre of “pastoral tragicomedy,” depicting the shepherdess Clorin remaining loyal to her deceased lover’s memory.

Beaumont’s “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” (1608) is a satirical farce mocking the popularity of Spanish romances and chivalric works in London. It incorporates a play-within-a-play, breaking the “fourth wall” and addressing the common people’s dissatisfaction with noble-centric plots. The main plot involves a merchant’s apprentice, Jasper Merrythought, in love with his master’s daughter, Luce.

Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) achieved success in both comedy and tragedy. His comedies include “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside” (c.1613), a city comedy and his comic masterpiece, featuring three plots centered around the marriage of Moll Yellowhammer. “A Game at Chess” (perf. 1624) has an anti-Spanish tone, leading to its closure after nine performances due to diplomatic outrage.

Middleton’s tragedies, “Women Beware Women” and “The Changeling,” are considered masterpieces. “The Changeling” (written 1622, pub. 1653) is a tragedy written with William Rowley. It features a main plot involving Beatrice-Joanna, Alonzo, and Alsemero, exploring themes of murder, betrayal, and mercy. The comic sub-plot involves an old, jealous doctor and his young wife Isabella, adding complexity to the narrative. The title “The Changeling” refers to both Beatrice and Antonio, symbolizing their transformations in the course of the play.

Women Beware Women” (written 1620-27, pub. 1657) is the only tragedy that Middleton wrote independently. The play features two plots, with the main plot loosely based on the life of the historical Bianca Cappello, who became the mistress and consort of Francesco de’ Medici, the 2nd grand duke of Tuscany. The sub-plot involves the guilty love of Hippolito for his niece, Isabella. The play concludes with a bloody masque, resembling a comedy, where everyone is killed. A notable device used is a game of chess, symbolizing stages in seduction. The play alludes to this in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

Philip Massinger (1583-1640), John Fletcher’s assistant, had many collaborations and was inspired by Fletcher and Jonson. “A New Way to Pay Old Debts” (pub. 1633) depicts Sir Giles Overreach, a heartless extortioner, caught in his own trap, emphasizing themes of miserliness, cruelty, and lust for power. “The City Madam” (1632) mocks the social pretensions of Lady Frugal, subjecting her to suitable punishment.

John Ford (c.1586-c.1640) collaborated with Dekker and Rowley, exploring the psychology of frustrated and illicit love. His notable works include “The Broken Heart” (c.1629) and “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” (c.1631), delving into themes of incestuous love and revenge.

James Shirley (c.1586-c.1640), called “the last of a great race” by Charles Lamb, authored many tragedies and comedies. His best tragedy is considered to be “The Cardinal” (1641), while “The Lady of Pleasure” (pub. 1637) stands out as his most popular comedy.

The transition to early 17th-century poetry saw the emergence of Cavalier and Metaphysical Poets. Cavalier Poets, influenced by Jonson, embraced a light, witty tone. Metaphysical Poets, inspired by Donne, exhibited intellectual complexity, applying religious imagery to human love with elaborate metaphors and everyday language.

In the realm of Elizabethan poetry in the Jacobean period, Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621), was notable for her contributions. She was a literary patron, publishing Philip Sidney’s works, and her own works included “The Psalms of David” and “The Tragedy of Antonie” (1592).

Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), son of a music-master and patronized by the Countess of Pembroke, wrote poetry that Ben Jonson did not appreciate. Despite Jonson’s criticism, Daniel’s work, such as “Civil Wars,” left an imprint on the literary landscape.

Samuel Daniel’s notable works include “Delia” (1592), a sonnet-cycle addressed to Delia; “The Complaint of Rosamond” (1592), a romance; “Cleopatra” (1594), a classical-style tragedy; and “The Civil Wars” (8 books; 1595-1623), a historical poem covering the Wars of the Roses and regarded as an epic. Additionally, “Musophilus” (pub. 1599) is a long philosophical poem featuring a dialogue between a worldly courtier and a lover of the Muses.

   Michael Drayton (1563-1631), whose works spanned from 1591 to 1630, responded to pastoral trends with “Idea: The Shepherd’s Garland” (1593), containing nine eclogues. He also wrote historical poems like “Piers Gaveston,” “Matilda,” “The Barons’ Wars” (1603), and “Sir John Oldcastle,” capitalizing on the popularity of Henry IV plays. His collection “Poems Lyric and Pastoral” (1606) included Horacean odes. Drayton’s extensive “Poly-Olbion” (Two parts, 1612 and 1622) described the countryside, and he produced other works like “The Battle of Agincourt,” “The Miseries of Queen Margaret,” and the mock-heroic “Nimphidia.”

    Sir John Davies (1569-1626) achieved success with “Orchestra” (1596), a philosophical poem presenting dance as the principle of order in the universe. His “Nosce Teipsum” (1599) is a didactic poem discussing the vanity of human knowledge and the importance of cultivating the human soul.

    Thomas Campion (1567-1619) combined poetry with music and produced various lyrical verse collections, including “Book of Airs” (1601), a songbook. He also wrote “Observations in the Art of English Poesie” (1602), a critical tract attacking rhyme, a viewpoint countered by Samuel Daniel in “Defence of Rhyme” (1603).

Aemilia Lanier (1569-1645) was recognized as one of the earliest professional female poets in England. The fourth woman to publish a book of original poetry, she was the mistress of Henry Carey, the patron of Shakespeare’s acting company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Speculation suggests she could have been the “dark lady” mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum” (1611) is a collection of poems by Aemilia Lanier. It contains several short poems, each dedicated to different women, and a couple of long poems. Lanier’s works were considered radical by her contemporaries and are now viewed as “proto-feminist.” A significant poem in this collection is “Eve’s Apology in Defence of Women,” written from Pontius Pilate’s wife’s perspective, focusing on the crucifixion of Jesus.

    Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650), brother of poet Giles Fletcher, left behind various literary works. His poem “The Purple Island” (1633) is in 12 cantos and features a conventional pastoral opening, along with a tedious allegory of the human body. Another work, “Locusts, or Apollyonists” (1627), is an anti-Catholic poem.

  Giles Fletcher (1585-1623), cousin of playwright John Fletcher, is best known for “Christ’s Victory and Triumph” (1610). This long allegorical poem in four cantos, written in Spenserian style, inspired Milton’s “Paradise Regained.”

Elizabeth Cary, or Lady Falkland (1585-1639), was a poet, translator, and dramatist. Her best-known work is “The Tragedy of Mariam, The Fair Queen of Jewry” (1613), the first-known play in English by a woman. Another work, “The History of Edward II” (pub. 1680), is the first-known English history play by a woman.

   Lady Mary Wroth (1587-c.1651), Philip Sidney’s niece, wrote “The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania” (1621), a romance inspired by Sidney’s “Arcadia.” She also wrote “Pamphilia to Amphilanthus” (1621), the first known sonnet sequence by a woman in English, reversing Petrarchan conventions and applying them to a female speaker.

In 17th-century prose, the King James Version of the Bible (1611) stands as a monumental achievement. Other significant figures include Francis Bacon, known for scientific and philosophical prose, Nicholas Breton, and the “Divines” like Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and John Donne. Robert Burton also made a substantial contribution to prose during this period. The era’s prose reflected uncertainty and change, influenced by science, inductive reasoning, and principles such as copia, reliance on authority, and the doctrine of imitation.

    Nicholas Breton (c.1545–c.1626) was a writer of various prose tracts, satires, and pastoral poetry. He was patronized by the Countess of Pembroke. One of his works is “Fantastics” (c.1604), a series of short prose pictures depicting the months, Christian festivals, and the hours.

In the early 17th century, a cultural and literary cult of melancholy emerged in England. This was influenced by religious uncertainties resulting from the English Reformation, focusing on issues of sin, damnation, and salvation. Melancholia was evident in various literary works, including Shakespeare’s tragedies, John Donne’s later works, Ben Jonson’s humoural comedies, Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” and Sir Thomas Browne’s “Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial,” along with Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Holy Dying.”


   Robert Burton (1577-1640) was a scholar at Oxford with knowledge spanning mathematics, astrology, and humoural physiology. His notable work is “The Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621, enlarged in 1651). Written under the pseudonym “Democritus Junior,” the book has a satirical, pessimistic, and misanthropic tone, addressing two kinds of melancholy: love melancholy and religious melancholy. Burton uses self-contradiction and quotes extensively from various sources while offering numerous cures for melancholy, concluding that the whole world, including himself, is mad.

Character writing, consisting of brief prose descriptions of a person or type, gained popularity with over 200 “characters” published between 1605 and 1700. This form, originating from the 3rd-century BC writer Theophrastus, includes two types: Theophrastan (type character) and historical character. Character writing features brevity, wit, irony, abstraction, and reductiveness and remained popular during the Restoration.

     Joseph Hall (1574-1656), Bishop of Norwich and devotional writer, authored the satire “Virgidemiarum” (1597) and “Characters of Vertues and Vices” (1608), which included examples like the wise man and valiant man. Nahum Tate later paraphrased some of these in verse.

Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), a Jacobean poet and essayist, had a close friendship with Robert Carr, James’s favorite. Overbury opposed Carr’s affair with Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. Overbury’s poem “A Wife,” depicting virtues that a young man should demand of a woman, was written during this time. Imprisoned in the Tower due to the affair, Overbury died there. The scandalous trial later revealed the involvement of Frances and likely Carr in his murder.

In later editions of Overbury’s poem “A Wife” (1614), characters and other prose works were added. Notably, John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and John Donne also wrote Overburian characters. Overbury’s influence extended to later writers like Addison, Steele, and other periodical essayists.

     John Earle (c.1601-1655), a Royalist and tutor to Prince Charles (Charles II), contributed significantly to the genre of character writing. His work “Microcosmographie” (1628), subtitled “A Piece of the World Discovered, in Essays and Characters,” was first published anonymously. This collection is characterized by its wit, humor, and insights into the manners of the time. John Earle’s influence continued with his Latin translation of “Eikon Basilike.”

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