How can we understand the Elizabethan Englishman from the supposedly staid and silent Briton of our youth? Can it be that national character is a function of place and time and change? Puritanism and Methodism intervened between the two ages and types; centuries of Eton, Harrow, and Rugby; and reckless conquerors quiet down when they sit supreme.

All in all, the Elizabethan Englishman was a scion of the Renaissance. In Germany the Reformation overwhelmed the Renaissance; in France the Renaissance rejected the Reformation; in England the two movements merged. Under Elizabeth the Reformation triumphed; in Elizabeth, the Renaissance. There were some stolid—not speechless—Puritans there, but they did not set the key. The dominant man of the age was a charge of energy released from old dogmas and inhibitions and not yet bound to new; boundless in ambition, longing to develop his capacities, unshackled in humor, sensitive to literature if it breathed life, given to violence of action and speech, but struggling, amid his bombast, vices, and cruelties, to be a gentleman. His ideal hovered between the amiable courtesies of Castiglione’s Courtier and the ruthless immoralism of Machiavelli’s Prince. He admired Sidney, but he aspired to be Drake.

Meanwhile philosophy made its way through the cracks of crumbling faith, and the best minds of the age were the most disturbed. There were orthodox and conservative souls, timid and gentle souls, amid this undammed flux; there were good men like Roger Ascham, desperately preaching the virtues that had served the past. But their students were in a venturesome mood. Hear Gabriel Harvey on Cambridge:

The Gospel taught, not learned; Christian Key cold; nothing good but by imputation; the ceremonial law, in word abrogated; the judicial in effect disannulled; the moral indeed abandoned … All inquisitive after news, new books, new fashions, new laws … some after new heavens, and hells too … Every day fresh span new opinions: heresy in divinity, in philosophy, in humanity, in manners … The Devil not so hated as the pope.60

Copernicus had upset the world and sent the earth whirling dizzily through space. Giordano Bruno came to Oxford in 1583 and talked of the new astronomy and infinite worlds, the sun dying of its own heat, the planets decaying into atomic mist. Poets like John Donne felt the earth slipping beneath their feet.

In 1595 Florio began to publish his translation of Montaigne; after that nothing was certain, and doubt was the air men breathed; as Marlowe is Machiavelli, so Shakespeare is Montaigne. While wise men doubted, young men schemed. If heaven seemed lost in a philosophic cloud, youth could resolve to suck this life dry and sample all truth however lethal, all beauty however fleeting, all power however poisonous. So Marlowe conceived his Faust and Tamburlaine.

It was this plowing up of old ideas, this liberation of the mind for the impassioned utterance of new hopes and dreams, that made Elizabethan England memorable. What would we have cared for its political rivalries, its religious disputes, its martial triumphs, its thirst for gold, if its literature, confined to these passing things, had not voiced the longings, hesitations, and resolves of thoughtful souls in every age? All the influences of that exciting time came to the Elizabethan ecstasy: the voyages of conquest and discovery that expanded the globe, the market, and the mind; the wealth of the middle classes enlarging the scope and goals of enterprise; the revelation of pagan literature and art; the upheaval of the Reformation; the rejection of papal influence in England; the theological debates that unwittingly led men from dogma to reason; education and the widening audience for books and plays; the long and profitable peace, and then the arousing challenge and exhilarating victory over Spain; the great crescendo of confidence in human power and thought: all these were the stimuli that prodded England into greatness, these the germs that made her big with Shakespeare. Now, after almost two silent centuries since Chaucer, she burst into a passion of prose and poetry, drama and philosophy, and spoke out bravely to the world.

I. In Shakespeare’s time prat was already popular for “buttocks,” and duds for “clothes.”

II. Aubrey tells a tale that gives point to Ascham: “Sir Walter Raleigh, being invited to dinner with some great person … His son sat next to his father, and was very demure at least half dinner time. Then said he: ‘I, this morning, not having the fear of God before my eyes … went to a whore. I was very eager of her … and went to enjoy her, but she thrust me from her and vowed I should not, “For your father lay with me but an hour ago.” ‘ Sir Walt, being so strangely surprised … at so great a table, gives his son a damned blow over the face; his son, as rude as he was, would not strike his father, but strikes over the face of the gentleman that sat next to him, and said, ‘Box about, ‘twill come to my father anon.’ “—Brief Lives, 256.

III. From Gaelic uisque-beatha, “water of life,” eau-de-vie.

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