Literature Of The Elizabethan Age - Tragedy, Poetry, Comedy, And Drama

Literature Of The Elizabethan Age – Tragedy, Poetry, Comedy, And Drama

“Drama during the Elizabethan to Jacobean period was marked by key features such as a notable degree of religious tolerance, societal satisfaction, intellectual freedom, unwavering patriotism, and domestic and international peace. This era captivated the imagination and intellect, leading literature to naturally gravitate towards theatrical expression.”

Elizabethan Age

  • The Elizabethan Age is named after Queen Elizabeth I, the last Tudor Monarch of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603.
  • It extends beyond Elizabeth’s reign, with literary characteristics continuing for some years after her death in 1603.
  • According to WH Hudson, the Elizabethan Age spans from the beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign to the death of James I in 1625, though the period from 1603 to 1625 is sometimes considered the Jacobean period.
  • Elizabeth I’s 45-year reign is often regarded as one of the most glorious periods in English history.
  • Nationalism in England rose during Elizabeth’s reign, influencing writers to focus on English-language literary and dramatic works.
  • The period witnessed significant cultural development, partly attributed to Queen Elizabeth’s patronage of the arts and the flourishing court atmosphere.
  • England achieved notable advancements in navigation and exploration during this era, including Walter Raleigh’s excursions to the Atlantic shore and the establishment of the Roanoke colony.
  • Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580 was a significant achievement of the Elizabethan Age.

Literature Of The Elizabethan Age

The Elizabethan era in England witnessed a remarkable surge in artistic and literary expression, fueled by Renaissance humanism, Protestant fervour, and discoveries in geography and science. The dominant literary genre during this period was drama, with William Shakespeare emerging as its most influential playwright. Often referred to as the ‘Age of Shakespeare,’ his extensive body of work includes a diverse range of comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, and sonnets.

In the 1550-60s, the Elizabethan Age saw the emergence of the first English comedy, exemplified by Nicholas Udall’s “Ralph Roister Doister” (circa 1553), and the first blank verse tragedy, showcased in the 1562 play “Gorboduc.” This groundbreaking period laid the foundation for enduring art forms that continue to be studied today.

The establishment of “The Theatre” in 1576 marked the inception of the earliest known theafter, followed closely by others like “The Rose,” “The Swan,” and the highly popular “The Globe,” built in 1599. Elizabethan drama departed from the religious themes predominant in medieval mystery and morality plays. Instead, it embraced poetical meter, notably the five-foot iambic pentameter, for its dialogue.

Beyond drama, the Elizabethan Age also witnessed a flourishing of poetry, including the sonnet and the Spenserian stanza, along with inspiring prose by writers like Francis Bacon. The literary landscape of the era encompassed various forms such as tragedy, comedy, poetry, drama, and chronicles, each contributing to the rich tapestry of Elizabethan literature.


  1. Definition of Tragedy:
    • Tragedy is a type of drama that deals with serious and sorrowful events involving a heroic individual, often approached with a dignified style.
    • The term can also be used for serious literary works like novels.
  2. Specific Meaning of Tragedy:
    • Despite the common use of “tragedy” for any disaster, it specifically refers to artistic works that seriously explore questions about humanity’s role in the universe.
    • The ancient Greeks in Attica, particularly in the 5th century BCE, were the first to use the term to describe a particular kind of play presented at festivals in Greece.
  3. Historical Periods of Tragedy:
    • Tragedy of a high order has been historically created in four specific periods and places.
    • These include Attica in Greece (5th century BCE), England during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I (1558-1625), 17th-century France and Europe, and America during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
  4. Development of Tragedy:
    • Each historical period led to the development of a distinct style and emphasis, shaping the orientation of tragic theatre.
    • In the modern era, roughly from the mid-19th century, tragedy has also found expression in a few novels.

First English Tragedy: Gorboduc

  1. First English Tragedy – Gorboduc:
    • Gorboduc, also known as ‘The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex,’ is considered the very first tragedy written in English.
    • It’s also thought to be the earliest English tragic play in a style called blank verse.
  2. Authors and First Performance:
    • The play was written by Thomas Norton (1532-1584) and Thomas Sackville (1536-1608).
    • It had its first performance in 1561, with Norton handling the first three acts and Sackville contributing the last two.
  3. Story Source:
    • The storyline of Gorboduc is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historie Regum Britanniae (1135-38), which tells the story of a conflict between Gorboduc’s two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, regarding who should inherit the throne.
  4. Tragic Influence and Imitations:
    • The play follows the sophisticated tragic style inspired by Seneca, an ancient Roman playwright.
    • Other works imitated Gorboduc, such as Gascoigne and Kinwelmersh’s Jocasta and Gismond of Salem, created by five gentlemen of the Inner Temple.


  1. Definition of Comedy:
    • Comedy is a type of literature and drama that aims to be funny and satirical, typically ending on a cheerful note.
    • The main theme involves overcoming difficulties through humor, leading to a happy or successful conclusion.
  2. Purpose of Comedy:
    • The primary goal of comedy is to entertain the audience, making them laugh and enjoy the performance.
  3. Comedic Elements:
    • Comedy includes various sub-genres based on where the humor comes from, the context of dialogues, and how they are delivered.
    • Examples of comedic styles include farce, satire, and burlesque.
  4. Contrast with Tragedy:
    • In contrast to comedy, tragedy focuses on sad and tragic events in a story, presenting a different emotional experience for the audience.

First English Comedy: Ralph Roister Doister

  1. First English Comedy – Ralph Roister Doister:
    • Ralph Roister Doister is recognized as the first English comedy, written by Nicholas Udall, a playwright from England, probably between 1551 and 1553.
  2. Main Character – Ralph Roister Doister:
    • The play revolves around the character Ralph Roister Doister, a wealthy but foolish young man.
    • Despite boasting about his bravery, he behaves like a coward when faced with action.
  3. Romantic Pursuit Plot:
    • Ralph’s attempts to court a wealthy widow named Christian Custance do not go well, forming a central plot element in the comedy.
  4. Classical Influences:
    • The play reflects the influence of classical playwrights Plautus and Terence in its comedic style and structure.


  • The Elizabethan age marked a significant era in English literature, particularly for poetry.
  • Poetry became an integral part of education among the educated class during this period, leading to the emergence of numerous poetry books by various writers.


  1. Drama in the Elizabethan Age:
    • The Elizabethan Age was renowned for its remarkable contributions to literature, with drama taking center stage.
    • Initially, the quality of these dramas was not consistently high, though comedies tended to fare better than tragedies.
  2. Earliest English Comedy – Ralph Roister Doister:
    • Ralph Roister Doister is acknowledged as the first official English comedy, characterized as a rough verse farce, and crafted by Nicholas Udall.
  3. Advancements in Comedy:
    • Another notable comedy, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle,” was performed at Cambridge University in 1566, contributing to the evolution of comedic works.
    • John Lyly further refined comedy with prose works like “Compaspe” and “Endymion.”
  4. First Regular Tragedy – Gorboduc:
    • “Gorboduc,” written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, is regarded as the first regular tragedy, even though it was criticized for its dullness and poor use of blank verse.
  5. Tragedy Advancements – The Spanish Tragedy:
    • Thomas Kyd played a pivotal role in improving tragedy with his work, “The Spanish Tragedy,” characterized by themes of blood and revenge.

Final Words

I hope that you found this article about Elizabethan age’s literature helpful. You can also check our our other articles like Romanticism In English Literature – All Important Romantic Writers or Characteristics Of The Romantic Period In English Literature.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *