The Elizabethan era, often hailed as a golden age for English literature, spanned Queen Elizabeth’s long reign from 1558 to 1603. This period saw many poetic luminaries rise to prominence, including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare and Elizabeth herself. Elizabethan poetry is notable for many features, including the sonnet form, blank verse, the use of classical material, and double entendres.
Perhaps the best-known innovation of Elizabethan poetry is the Elizabethan, or English, sonnet. Thomas Wyatt, a court poet for Henry VIII, introduced the Italian sonnet to England, but Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, reworked it into its typical English form. Elizabethan sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and consist of 14 lines, often divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The lines rhyme using a scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. The first eight lines are called the “octet” and the final six lines are the “sestet.” Elizabethan sonnets often feature a turn, or “volta,” between the octet and sestet, where the material introduced in the octet is seen from a different perspective in the sestet. In some sonnets, this turn comes in the final couplet, such as in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, “My Mistress’ Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun.” Elizabethan sonnets also appear in the drama of the time, such as at the beginning of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Although iambic pentameter had been used in English poetry since the Middle Ages, the Earl of Surrey used it in a new way in his translation of Virgil’s “Aeneid”: He left the lines unrhymed. This poetic form, called “blank verse,” has the advantage of freeing poets from the burden of rephrasing thoughts so that they rhyme and was held by some to be the purest approximation of natural human speech. In the Elizabethan era proper, blank verse was Shakespeare’s and Christopher Marlowe’s meter of choice for drama; it gave speech a serious, elevated tone, while leaving prose to be used for those with lower social rankings and for comedy. Blank verse persisted in popularity far past the Elizabethan era, used by such notable works as John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and William Wordsworth’s “Prelude.”
Shaping the Present With the Past
Although the term “Renaissance” wasn’t used until the 19th century, it accurately describes at least one feature of Elizabethan literature: It often perceived itself as giving “rebirth” to classical matter to usher in a new era of literature in English. This quality is perhaps most easily seen in its appropriation of the past. Sir Philip Sidney employs the conventions of classical poetry in his sonnets, such as his invocation to the muse in “Astrophil and Stella”: “Fool, said my Muse to me, looke in thy heart, and write.” Similarly looking backwards, Edmund Spenser’s greatest work, the epic “Faerie Queene,” is full of archaisms -- intentionally old-looking spelling or syntax, such as “yclept” for “called.” He uses these to create the sense of an earlier, less spoiled realm in which he can set his allegorical history of England.
This discussion wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Elizabethan poetry’s great love of double entendres: words or phrases that have a benign literal meaning but also have a second connotation -- usually a sexual one. In Act 3, Scene 1 of “Hamlet,” for instance, Hamlet directs a polemical diatribe at Ophelia, and tells her, “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a / breeder of sinners?” On a literal level, playgoers could interpret this line kindly: Hamlet is worried about Ophelia and wants to shelter her from the world and from men. But in Elizabethan slang, “nunnery” meant “brothel.” So Hamlet simultaneously insults Ophelia. This ambiguity is in keeping with Hamlet’s madness -- whether feigned or not.