Riassunto esame Cultura e Letteratura Inglese I, prof Polopoli, libro consigliato English Literature. A short history, Bertinetti
Beowulf is set in the pagan world of sixth-century Scandinavia, but it also contains some echoes of
Christian tradition, because the poet knew that Christianity was a recent addition to English culture,
so he didn’t stress too much on this subject.
The poem must have been passed down orally over many generations, and modified by each
successive bard, until the existing copy was made at an unknown location in Anglo-Saxon England.
Some critics think that it may have been composed as an elegy for a king died in the seventh
The poem has a legendary tone, typical of the epic and it contains the values of the Germanic
warrior world. These values are positive and derive from the archaic society in which honour,
obligations to lord and to guest and bond between the lord and his people are important.
• Christian Poetry and Prose: much of this religious poetry is anonymous; the first two
poets to write in Old English are Caedmon (670 A.C.) and Cynewulf (also spelled Cynwulf
or Kynewulf) – late eighth or early ninth century. The only great prose writer of the Anglo-
Saxon period is King Alfred (849-901) who translated the works of Pope Gregory the
Great, Bede, Boethius from Latin into English, establishing the latter as a literary language.
His most important contribution was the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which
constitutes one of the most important historical, cultural, and literary works of the Early
Middle English. It begins with his reigns and records even the Danish invasions.
The Norman Conquest (1066) was the invasion of the kingdom of England by William the
Conqueror, Duke of Normandy (1066-1087) in 1066 at the battle of Hastings and the subsequent
Norman control of England.
Edward the Confessor was the last king of the Anglo-Saxon royal line. The Norman Conquest
resulted in profound political, administrative, social, and cultural changes in the British Isles. Also,
their habits were strikingly different from the ones of the Anglo-Saxon tribes, and the consequences
of the Norman Conquest were:
• The feudal system;
• A new military system;
• The Doomsday Book (the book in which there is written the number of people living in a
specific land; some sort of census);
• Middle English (1100-1450). The language spoken by the Normans was Latin-based. They
established the Norman French, which became the language of the court until the 14
century. Also, the clergy wrote in Latin and spoke in English, but however the literary
production in Old English died out. The influence of the Norman invasion completely
transformed both the structure and the vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon English: words were
accented in different ways, prepositions were introduced, the plural of nouns was marked by
the ‘s’ ending. The Conquest linked England more closely to the European continent. At first
three languages were spoken: the French-influenced language of the court, the Latin spoken
by clerks and the language of the people. With the growth of hostility between the French
and the English, from the XIII century onwards, and the Hundred’s years’ war, French
became the language of the enemy and English regained its importance but by now it was a
completely different language in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The
language of poetry changed definitively. For convenience, the written and spoken English
used between 1100 and 1400 is referred to as Middle English, but no standard literary
language existed at all.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a verse romance of 2500 lines, preserved in a manuscript,
copied in about 1400, which also contains three religious poems. The story begins with a challenge
issued by a Green Knight, who presents himself at King Arthur’s court. Sir Gawain accepts the
challenge and a year later he achieved it, after many adventures. The poem is written in alliterative
verses and is a compendium of the chivalric vision proper to romance. In the same manuscript as Sir
Gawain, there is Pearl, a dream poem. It narrates the dream of the narrator who sees a beautiful
woman, the pearl he has mislaid and also the daughter she lost. She then transforms into the bride of
Christ and reveals to him the Heavenly City. Piers Plowman is a dream poem, in which there’s
Will’s quest for salvation in a corrupted world by government, church, and society. The solution is
to create society in which everyone acts for the common good.
From Anglo-Norman to Middle English: the old metrical system based on alliteration was
replaced by regular lines made up of a precise number of syllables and provide with end-rhymes.
The Norman introduced the metrical romances, tales in verse dealing with love, chivalry and
religion. The Norman nobles liked the deeds of the paladins of the court of Charlemagne, which
were celebrated by William’s minstrel, Taillefer. From this derived the expression “chansons de
geste” or songs of deeds. Song because it was the form in which the stories were presented; deeds
because they celebrated the acts of a character or a lineage in feudal warfare. The most popular was
the Chanson de Roland which was about Roland’s epic fight against the Saracens at Roncesvalles.
The values these songs promoted were: heroism, love for the country, loyalty to the king and faith.
The Chansons the Roland and the other chansons narrating the deeds of French lords against
Saracens, constitute the ‘matter of France’.
In Historia Regum Britanniae are told the adventures of Brutus, descendant of Aeneas and of his
successors, in particular of King Arthur and his knights and the Round Table. The Arthurian legends
were told in a new genre, known as romance, and they constitute the ‘matter of Britain’. The term
romance derived from the word romanz, which meant vernacular, the language in which these
pomes were written. The themes were those of love stories and chivalric adventures and the knight
soon meant bravery, honour, and faith in God.
Anonymous ballads (oral compositions versified in very simple language) also flourished,
accompanied by music and dances.
The age of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 – 1400) Geoffrey Chaucer was born between 1340 and 1345,
probably in London. His father was a prosperous wine merchant who had connections with the
Court of Edward III. We do not know any details of his early life and education. He soon met the
royal family, he became a member of the Parliament and was frequently employed on important
diplomatic missions and travelled from England to France. In Italy, he became interested in Dante,
Petrarch and Boccaccio. The many ups and downs of his life never prevented him from writing. He
was an omnivorous reader: his influences were classical and his wide readings probably gave him
plots and ideas (even though the most important source of information was his social experience).
Chaucer is credited with having set the style for Middle English literature. Earlier Anglo-Saxon
poetry, such as ‘Beowulf’, had been succeeded by a taste for French literature. Even by Chaucer’s
day, the royal court was still bilingual. He blended French, Italian and classical influences into a
truly English style in his C.T.
He wrote using Middle English (he’s been the first poet who used it), because he wanted to write a
book which could be understood by everybody, even the unlettered.
In the Canterbury Tales, there is a great number of characters, described in a very meticulous way:
the great importance given to the details (even the linguistic ones) made his characters sound real.
He could reproduce the language of every social class.
The Canterbury Tales was enormously popular in medieval England because it was written in
Middle English, a language understood by everybody and that gradually became standard English.
It is a long narrative poem written in verse. Chaucer probably began to work on it in 1386. His long
poem follows the journey of a group of pilgrims, 31 including Chaucer himself, from the Tabard Inn
in Southwark (London) to St. Thomas à Becket’s shire (reliquary) at Canterbury Cathedral. The
narrative strategy (the frame) used by Chaucer to make his pilgrims narrate his stories is that the
host at the inn suggests each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way out and two on the way home
(The original plan consisted of 120 tales) to help pass time on the road. The best storyteller is to be
rewarded with a free supper on their return. The work consists of a General Prologue, which
introduces the pilgrims, and 24 tales (some of these tales have their own prologue). The completed
tales are grouped into ten Fragments. The most numerous group is made up of the Fabliaux, comic
tales in a popular setting, centred around a love triangle. Other tales are close to the romance genre,
while others are of a religious character. Each tale focuses on a pilgrim; it is usually preceded by a
prologue which introduces the theme of the tale and is sometimes followed by an epilogue.
Chaucer conducts 2 fictions simultaneously, that of the tale and that of the pilgrim to whom he has
assigned it: we are given at once a story and a drama (reference to the subject). On the one hand, it
introduces the characters, but it also establishes the set and it creates the conditions for the
pilgrimage. On the other hand, the prologue – while introducing characters – gives us sketches of
intents regarding the pilgrims (the portraits of his society are characterised by a mixture of realism
and satire). These features give formal complexity to the Canterbury Tales, and they also make the
poem quite like Boccaccio’s Decameron (even though in the Decameron we don’t see such a
connection between the character and the story he narrates).
The characters. Chaucer wanted to give a portrait of English society. The pilgrims belong to almost
all the social classes of the time and can be divided into 3 groups: the first one connected to the
declining feudal world (a knight, a squire, a pardoner), the second one associated with religious
life (a prioress, a monk, a nun, a friar), a third group including townspeople (a wife from Bath, a
merchant, a lower, a cook, a student from Oxford, a carpenter). There’s no hierarchy at all in
Chaucer’s presentation of the characters, but Chaucer selects the details of his characters he wants
the reader to know in a very careful way: this is because he wants to give us an integrated sketch of
the figures he describes. He pretends to let the features of each character be noticed by the reader –
we have the illusion of being the ones to notice the details of the characters. The narrator describes
them, including their defects, with good humour and irony, which is vast and subtle and works as
the filter through which Chaucer offers us his picture of the society of his time.
A careful examination of his writing reveals that he wants to imitate life, and the way our mind
perceives the world. His images convey the impression that these characters are real (he achieves
roundness in his characters).
There is a relationship between the characters and their stories: the character itself grows and is
revealed by the story and the story takes on overtones (extra information) from what readers have
learned from its tellers. There are also links and interchanges among the various stories.
The style of The Canterbury Tales is characterised by rhyming couplets (two consecutive lines
rhyming together AABB). That means that every two lines rhyme with each other. It’s also in
iambic pentameter (the same style as Shakespeare), meaning that in each line there are ten
syllables, and a heavily emphasized (stressed) syllable follows a less emphasized (unstressed)
syllable. There is no repetition of the same rhyme (AABBCC AABBCC…) because Chaucer feels
the need to keep the narration moving.
The original title of the book was The Tales of Canterbury, but some later publishers called it The
Canterbury Tales. The narrative voice opens the prologue with the description of the return of the
spring, in March. From the beginning Chaucer describes with a lot of details the time of the year in
which the pilgrimage takes place. The ‘sweet showers’ give life to the flowers; it’s interesting that
we have a new way of looking at nature. March is a particularly wet month, but he describes it as
dry: he invented the set of his poem so that he could underline the beauty of spring (the season of
pilgrimages, but also of love).
Fouls (?): various kinds of birds – he wants to describe the rebirth of nature (new harmony between
man and nature). The pilgrimage is also a symbolic journey towards salvation.
The Prioress, G. Chaucer
The Prioress is a good example of a round character, characterised by paradoxes. Through the
physical and psychological description of the Prioress, Chaucer gives us information about her way
of being. So, among the other pilgrims there is a nun. From line 1 to line 24, Chaucer focuses on the
good manners of the Prioress from an external point of view. He also describes her nose (line 7) and
her education (line 9), telling us that she is a well-educated woman.
The name of this prioress is Madame Eglantine (line 5), and she spoke gracefully in French. The
fact that the prioress can speak French and comes from the school of Stratford-at-the-Bowe gives us
a portrait of her high culture background. She is not a common pilgrim. She not only knows French,
but also the Paris Style: this contribute to underline, once again, the social status of the prioress, and
the fact that the status of the prioress is reflected by the language and her manners, and the physical
From line 10 Chaucer describes the Prioress' manners at table, so we have information about her
behaviour in that context: obviously, it is perfect.
Line 15: we have to remember that the world depicted by Chaucer is connected to the chivalry
world. When Chaucer writes, this world he depicts suffers of the recent past and the feudal system,
and from the literary point of view the French world and the feudal system are represented by
courtly literature, so the reference is clear, even though the main one should have been the Bible.
She seems to belong to a social status quite far from the typical world of prioresses and nuns. In
other words, these references are quite strange, because we imagine nuns as readers of holy texts
and the Bible, not courtly literature. In the description of the Prioress, in fact, there is a strong
contrast between the appearance of the nun as, in fact, a nun and, on the other hand, the fact that she
is a lady of high social status.
From line 15 to line 19, Chaucer seems to insist on the description of the outward behaviour of the
Prioress. This description has an inner meaning: in fact, it goes beyond appearance, so that the
result is not only a physical one: readers have both a physical portrait of the Prioress, but also a
psychological one. It is also interesting to notice that this description is not based on open
comments, but it is based on Chaucer's use of simple words that gives us information about the
psychological and inner world of the Prioress herself. She wants others to respect her social
position. The result is that the portrait is very realistic, but the figure of the prioress at the same time
lacks the religious spirit, which should be typical of nuns.
From line 25 to line 33 Chaucer describes her physical emotions. The result is ambiguous: at first
sight, the stress seems to be on her good feelings, but then we discover something else. For
example, line 25 (she used to cry in front of a trapped mouse), line 30 (the food is for her animals;
she's not interested in poor people - instead of giving other people the food they can't afford, she
wants to give it to her dogs only).
From line 35 to 40 Chaucer describes her clothes and jewellery. The way she uses the veil reveals
that she is not indifferent to the fashion of her time, in a sense that she goes against the monastic
rules. In fact, monastic rules usually require nuns to cover their forehead with the veil - she doesn't.
From line 40 to the end, Chaucer describes her jewellery and, in doing this, he uses just simple
sentences - even though the description is quite accurate. There are Latin words in one of her
ornaments, saying: "AMOR VINCIT OMNIA". These words don't seem to belong to the religious
fear, but on the contrary to real love between men and women.
In other words, the character that emerges from this portrait mixes religious aspects and aspects
related to the real world. In the last two lies, we read that she was not alone: thanks to her social
status, she is accompanied in her journey by some people who take care of her. The real character,
then, is a rich and charming lady.
Italian and English Renaissance
The ideals of Humanism or New Learning (it comes from a Latin expression studia humanitatis,
which refers to the program adopted during that period in some Italian university; according to this
program the study of phyllophyte, grammar, Greek, Latin, and classical author in general, was very
important.) swept through Europe in the second half of the XV century. From Italy, it gradually
spread to other countries. Humanism is the philosophy of Renaissance. Its ideals focused their
attention on man rather than on God and emphasised individualism. Man, aware of himself, realised
he could mould his own life and destiny. In the Middle Ages, God was placed at the centre of the
universe. Nevertheless, there are differences between Italian and English Renaissance – in Italy it
advocated independence and freedom of thought, the man was made at the centre of the universe
(the human’s dimension was emphasised – he doesn’t depend on a god anymore), and – from a
literary point of view – this period represented the study of classical authors.
In England, Renaissance had different features – it was more meditative and less brilliant than the
Italian model. The Renaissance is considered the ‘golden age’ of poetry because of the flourishing
of sonnets and songs that were the result of experimentations that also showed an aristocratic tone
and a high craftsman.
The new ideals regarding the figure of men are best expressed by poetry, and the sonnet. The sonnet
came from Italy and its invention is attributed to Jacopo da Lentini (1304-74), but it’s Petrarca who
became the model for all the European Renaissance poets. He is considered the father of
Humanism. His sonnets in his Rime Sparse or Canzoniere were very popular. Sir Thomas Wyatt
(1503 – 1542) introduced the Petrarchan sonnet into England. In both cases the sonnet is made by
The Petrarchan sonnet was later modified by the Earl of Surrey (1517 – 1547), who was the first to
use blank verse in his translation of Virgil (also called the iambic pentameter).
Surrey also contributed to the alteration of the shape of the sonnet, he established the basic form of
the most successful rhyme pattern used in the sonnets written in England: the rhyme scheme used
by Shakespeare. Surrey is said to have been the first to use iambic pentameter. The sequence used
by Shakespeare is abab cdcd efef gg.
Surrey abandoned Wyatt’s form (the different musicality of the English language made the use of
the original Italian scheme quite difficult), introducing the one which was later used by
Shakespeare. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameters with a carefully patterned
rhyme scheme. The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet consists of an octave usually rhyming ABAB
ABAB, and a sestet which usually rhymes CDE CDE or CDC CDC. The Shakespearean Sonnet
consists of three quatrains and a couplet rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
Italian sonnet (Petrarca) English Sonnett (Wyatt)
B 4+4=8 B
B B c
B B 4+4+4=12 lines
C c C
D d D
E c 3+3=6 C
D d E
E c E 2 lines
Henry VII came to throne in 1509; he had a dispute with the Church of Rome which refused to
annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. In response, with the help of the Archbishop of
Canterbury, in 1533 he declared his own marriage annulled and married Anne Boleyn. In 1534 the
Act of Supremacy had proclaimed him the Head of The Church of England. In 1536 Anne Boleyn
was executed and Henry married Jane Seymour, who gave him a son, Edward, who succeeded his
father in 1547. When he died in 1553, he was succeeded by Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry and
Catherine. She was a fervent catholic and lead some persecutions against the Protestant.
When she died, the throne passed to Elizabeth, daughter of Henry and Anne. She acted with
prudence and decision at the same time, facing a complex political, social, and religious situation.
She stabilised the schism, consolidating the Anglican Church, proclaiming herself the Supreme
Governor. She was able to consolidate the image of a nation reunited under her crown.
The origins of Elizabethan drama can be traced back to the tradition of the so-called Miracle and
Morality plays which were typical of the Middle Ages and they were connected to religious
celebrations; at first, they took place inside the churches but later they moved outside. The Church
had an interest in communicating the teachings of religion in a simple and attractive form to all the
faithful. In England, the idea was to put together different episodes, covering different moment of
the annual cycle of services. Each episode was given to one of the guilds present in town and the
representation was often performed on carts and mobile platforms (pageant wagons) which moved
through the town streets with agreed stopping point. Four complete cycles survive: from York,
Wakefield, Chester, and an unknown town.
Religious and moral teachings also take place in the theatre with the morality plays, which staged
conflicts between Good and Evil as they tried to steal the soul of the character, which represented
humanity. They were focused on human virtues and vices and the stories were not taken from the
Bible, as in the Miracle plays. They were called this way because they had a didact and moral
The Queen loved the theatre and recommended it, while the Protestants declared it was the most
diabolical form of imitation of reality and even a play based on sacred texts was a sacrilege. While
the Protestants opposed it on a religious ground, city authorities thought it was a vehicle of
infection, drunken disorders, and distraction from work. The result was that it was banished to the
areas outside London. Authorities were also concerned with people who left their native district in
search of jobs; they were masterless and called vagrants. Even actors were included and with the
Vagrancy Act, only those who were servants of any Baron could continue their profession.
Companies of actors began to rise, such as The Lord Admiral’s Men in 1576, followed by the
Queen’s Men in 1583.
The Chamberlain’s Men (1594) was a London acting company under the patronage of Henry
Carey, Lord Chamberlain of England. Shakespeare joined Burbage’s playing company at the
Theatre in Shoreditch in 1592. The company was organized hierarchically: there were shareholders
(sharers), actors, hired man and apprentices.
Sharers split the profits after the costs.
Other company members took constant inventory, selected routes for provincial travel. Hired man
worked behind the stage, played silent roles, took tickets.
Boy apprentices received room, board, and clothing.
The playing company helped the local economy hiring a workforce, by paying taxes.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men became The King’s Men following the ascension of James I in
1603. The King’s Men ceased to exist when the outbreak of the Civil War closed the playhouses in
The theatrical companies were small but they were able to stage plays with a large number of
characters with the practice of doubling, by which an actor had several roles in the same play. Also,
girls’ roles were performed by young actors because women were not allowed on stage; due to this,
playwright had to limit the number of female roles in plays.
Up to 1576 plays were acted above all in the inns’s yard on platforms surrounded by galleries.
Performances usually started at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and lasted at least 2 hours.
In 1576 James Burbage, an actor and a carpenter decided to build the first public playhouse in
Shoreditch, outside the town walls which he called The Theatre. The first theatres had a roughly
circular shape, which was the wooden O, more like a polygon with eight or more sides. Surrounding
and arena into which the stage jutted, rose three levels of gallery.
Over the stage, supported by two columns, there was a canopy, while the stage itself contained a
trapdoor, or “the hell”, from which a devil or a witch might appear. The back wall had two doors
through which the actors entered and exited.
A gallery could be used by musicians. The pit at ground level was standing room only and
spectators paid one penny for entrance. The play was performed in daylight, in front of a fixed
backcloth, with no scene changes and no possibility to create the time and space of the action. This
theatrical space had the public on three sides and it was by its nature a space that encouraged a
direct relationship between the public and the actor.
There were two kinds of theatres: public houses which were outdoor and could contain a lot of
people; there were private theatres which were indoor and which were frequented by a smaller
audience, usually aristocracy. These were modelled on the great halls in the houses of the nobility.
The structure remained the same: a platform on the short side of the room with two or three doors at
the rear and above a balcony.
The theatrical genres were comedy, tragedy, history play and tragicomedy.
The comedy of the Elizabethan period was romantic comedy, it had a plot motivated by love
initially misdirected but eventually focused on the right object.
Ben Johnson was the first who rejected this kind of romantic comedy and preferred taking his
characters from the contemporary world around him, shifting the emphasis from love to money.
Marlowe’s use of blank verse was crucial because it would have become the perfect vehicle for
dramatic communication and the preferred form for plays of all kinds.
The Elizabethan theatre was the product of a perfect fusion of traditional and classical elements
with new ones borrowed from past traditions.
Traditional elements came from Greek drama, as the focus on man, but some of these changed,
because the needs were different, so thus:
• There was no observance of the three classical unities of time, place, and action.
• There was a mixture of tragic and comic elements, thanks to the influence of interludes.
• The chorus disappeared.
• Fate which dominated men’s actions in Greek plays was replaced by free will and personal
• A deep conflict between good and evil.
Christopher Marlowe is one of the most suggestive figure of the English Renaissance and the
greatest of Shakespeare’s predecessor in English drama. He was one of the University Wits, and he
lived in the same years as Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare never attended university, so he
never took part to the University Wits. If we consider that when he died he was only 29, we can
only be astonished at the bulk and variety of the works he wrote in such a short life: Tamburlaine
the Great (1586-87), Doctor Faustus (1588-89), The Jew of Malta (1590), Edward II (1591), Dido,
Queen and Carthage (1593), The Massacre of Paris (1593). The Queen’s Counsel intervened on his
behalf when he was accused of being absent at the University (they didn’t want to give him his
degrees); the Queen’s Counsel said that he was absent due to some services to the Queen. We,
however, don’t know what those services consisted of – some critics think he was a secret agent, a
spy. Moreover, when he left Cambridge after his graduation, he moved to London and there he
established himself as the most important playwright of the period. But, once in London, he was
accused of homicide and, then, imprisoned. It’s clear that he had a dissolute life. Even his death was
mysterious because he was killed in a London tavern during a quarrel – we don’t know whether his
death was accidental or it was all planned because of political reasons.
Marlowe’s plays are the first embodiment of the true spirit of the Renaissance concentrating on man
as opposed to God. The man becomes free to decide of his own destiny – in the past the man could
not be conceived without God, he had been created by God.
Now, on the contrary, the man becomes the true protagonist of his own life – he’s the one who has
power and control over his life. In this sense, all the characters are the embodiment of the spirit and
the ideals of the time. His Renaissance characters are ambitious, they draw their strength from the
heavens, they feel a strong desire to transgress the most fundamental laws of a restrictive culture
and religion, they aspire to surpass all human limitations to reach the conditions of supermen, they
are proud rebels against human limits, they show fierce and passionate exaltation. But the problem
is that Marlowe pushes these ideals to the extreme, so that his characters are self-destructive:
they’re all marked by an excessive thirst of power, and their ambition is always limitless. They want
to achieve an unlimited knowledge or an immense wealth.
The protagonist’s obsessions bring them to their final failure and destruction. Their unlimited
ambition means that they have no sense of morality at all – it leads them to a final sense of solitude.
Almost all Marlowe’s characters are solitary, tragic heroes. When these characters realise that
unlimited power is unobtainable they’re overcome by a sense of failure and solitude.
Almost all his plays are concentrated on a single hero: this method of ordering a story around a
single personality gives unity and coherence to the play.
For example, Tamburlaine The Great (1587) presents the heroic and cruel story of a Scythian
shepherd who rises to become emperor by destroying whoever stands in his way. The Jew of Malta
(1592) is obsessed with money and wealth.
Doctor Faustus (1590) wants to acquire forbidden knowledge (going beyond human limits) – he
even makes a pact with the devil, selling his soul to him.
The themes which recur in Marlowe’s plays are: ambition, desire, fate, free will, solitude, power,
Marlowe gave form and unity to the drama; he improved the blank verse and his language was rich
in hyperboles and too luxuriant. We must remember he was also poet: the decasyllabic line of the
blank verse gives stability to poetic expression. In Marlowe’s hands the blank verse showed its
flexibility – that’s why he was usually defined as “the poet of the line”. The absence of rhyme gives
flexibility to the blank verse, and it is a good mean of expression for long works such as plays.
Marlowe was the first playwright able to make the blank verse an effective medium for drama.
Doctor Faustus takes its protagonist from a German tale based on the life of an actor, astronomer
and necromancer. This play tells the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for 24
years of power and knowledge – a legend that began in Germany in the 1500s. Written sometime
between 1588 and 1592, but first published in 1604, the play was extremely controversial at the
time, as it explores the paths human beings can take when they allow the devil into their lives.
Faustus seeks the power that comes from knowledge and to get this power he makes a bargain with
the devil. He is in search of the power that comes from black magic but in exchange he will receive
the eternal damnation of his soul. During the 24 years, the devil must serve him and give him
whatever he wants but at the end of that period the devil takes his soul. He aspires to be more than a
man: he wants to become a man-demigod. His fall is caused by the same pride and ambition that
caused the fall of the angels in heavens.
About the monologue
This monologue take place during Faustus’ last hour. It’s the most dramatic episode of the play –
taken from the last act of the tragedy. Faustus realises that the period of his unlimited knowledge
has come to an end. Now he must pay the price of his contract with the devil. That’s way he is
obsessed with the passing time – he fears the eternal damnation. The monologue begins when the
clock strikes the eleven – Faustus has only an hour before his eternal punishment begins: he wishes
that time would stand still so that midnight would never come, or the sun would rise again and
make the day everlasting (line 6). He wants to stop time because he knows that if time doesn’t stop
he would die – or, better, he would be dead forever. “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of
heaven” (line 4): he wants the planets to stop. He comes from wanting to stop time to wanting his
last hour to be stretched out (line B8 so that he may save his soul. Faustus explores various
strategies to avoid damnation. He tries to command the universe’s motion to stand still. From the
very first lines we are aware of the inexorable passing of time, and we are emotionally involved in
Faustus’ frantic attempt to stop time.
Faustus asks God for help but if He doesn’t help him, he wants to disappear inside the earth. At this
point, Faustus tries to command the stars to draw him up like a foggy mist. He begs God to set a
limit on his suffering. He hopes to be turned into an animal because it would mean being without a
soul and thus without any suffering. He even commends his body to turn to air, thus dissolving;
finally, he offers to burn his books of magic.
The language used in this monologue is marked by irony; he uses lots of imperative such as ‘Stand
still’ ‘Raise again’, but he has no real power. He struggles to find an escape. He uses the imagery of
his time to prevent midnight to come.
Faustus even thinks that he can leap up to God, but God doesn’t accept his demands.
At this point, Faustus desperation increases and that is why he uses images of dissolution. Now he
understands that his end comes nearer.
From line 34 to 38 he asks God to forgive him.
From line 40 to 47 he wonders whether Pitagora’s theories are right and so his soul would be
turned into an animal, instead of suffering.
From line 48 to 54 he wishes his body would be turned into air and at the same time his soul would
be transformed into drops of water that can fall into the ocean.
From line 55 to 58 he is ready to burn the books of black magic that had given him 28 years of
power in life, but now are giving to him only eternal damnation. In his last hours, he searches an
escape to avoid eternal damnation so that is last moment of life are spent in vain hopes and that is
the punishment he deserves for his rebellion.
"University wits" was a group of young men with university education from Oxford and
Cambridge, that's why they are defined as "wits" (they were, for example, Christopher Marlowe, R.
Greene, John Lyly, T. Lodge). Their duty was to revolutionise staging techniques, transforming the
old medieval play into new forms. All of them played a significant role for the development of
English drama. They were all actors as well as dramatists: it was common during those times being
both, and this condition gave them the opportunity to know well both the stage and the audience.
And this was important to write plays that could satisfy the audience, because a play was the result
of the taste of the audience.
Shakespeare's universality is beyond dispute. His plays are known around the world for their
universal themes and insight into the human condition. His works go beyond time; they are always
modern. He is considered both local and universal: he is the product of the time in which he lived,
in fact through his works he gives life to the Elizabethan Age.
The first document related to his life comes from Stratford-upon-Avon and even if we know that he
is Christian thanks to the date of Christening, we don't know his exact date of birth. Critics
supposed that he was born 3 days before his Christening because it was a common thing to baptize a
baby three days after the birth.
The information about Shakespeare come from various legal and church documents that have
survived from Elizabethan times and mostly from his works.
None of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survive and we only know his works from printed
editions. In life, as in work, Shakespeare seems to have adopted a motto that creeps into Hamlet:
“The play's the thing”.
We tend to identify the age of Shakespeare (1564-1611) with the reign of queen Elizabeth I (1558-
1603) (Tudor) but he lived on well during the Stuart period and went on writing after James’
ascension to the throne. So, it would be more correct to divide the age of Shakespeare into an
Elizabethan age and a Jacobean age.
William Shakespeare's life
William Shakespeare was born on 23rd April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, in Warwickshire. His
father belonged to the corporation of glovers and his mother came from a country family of some
importance. In his youth, he probably attended Stratford's grammar school and learnt Latin, Greek
and rhetoric. He didn't attend university. When he was eighteen he married Anne Hathaway and in a
few years, they had three children. The young poet found himself with a large family and no
income. It is probably now that he decided to go to London to work for the theatre.
By 1592 Shakespeare was already active in London as an actor and playwright. He quickly won
himself a reputation as a poet for his long mythological works: Venus and Adonis and the rape of
Lucrece. Shakespeare's poems, together with his sonnets (1609) show his knowledge of classical
themes. Anyway, he is better known as a lyrical poet.
Shakespeare became at first a member and a sharer in the "Lord Chamberlain's Men", one of
London's leading companies of players. He was the most successful playwright of his time and he
excelled in all the dramatic genres then in vogue: comedies, tragedies, and historical plays.
Shakespeare also became co-owner of the "Globe Theatre" in 1599. The Globe, an open air public
theatre, was used in summer while in winter the company acted in the indoor private "Blackfriars
Theatre". Thanks to his great success, Shakespeare earned enough to be able to retire in Stratford in
his later years. He died in Stratford in 1616.
The lost years: 1585-1592
All known records of Shakespeare disappear from 1585 until 1592, when he appears in London as
an actor. In these seven years he is also said to have studied law: preparing him for the staging of
Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn, one of the Inns of Court (or law schools) in London; to have
become a professional writer; or to have travelled in northern Italy since he set some of his plays in
Verona, Padua and Venice; or to have served in the military in Flanders since he shows some
knowledge of military life in the Henriad and elsewhere; or even to have sailed with sir Francis
Drake since a number of plays concern sea voyages.
All these are speculations only: they cannot be proved or dismissed. Since playing companies often
worked on the model of guilds and actors were expected to apprentice for seven years, perhaps that
is where he was, playing and travelling with some of them.
Those who have attacked Shakespeare saying that he was illiterate have accused him of copying his
texts. But this theory doesn't work at all. (Greene)
Greene described Shakespeare in a very negative way accusing him of plagiarism. In those days, it
was a normal habit to copy and be influenced by other’s work.
In 1598, Love’s Labour’s Lost was Shakespeare’s first work published with his name on the title
page; this was important because during those times the names on the books were only those of the
actors. That year the author Francis Meres singled him out from a group of English writers as the
most excellent in both comedy and tragedy. His work attracted royal attention; he acted in several
performances before Queen Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare First Folio
The First Folio is the first collected edition of William Shakespeare’s plays, collated and published
in 1623, seven years after his death. The text was collated by two of his actors and friends, John
Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. To produce a text as
authoritative as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled it from the good quartos and from
manuscripts now lost, such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts).
There exist the legal editions of his works, and for some of them there were pirate editions, the so-
called bad quartos (the expression in-quarto identifies a volume in small format where each page
corresponds to a quarter of the large sheet of paper used for the press). Then, there is the First Folio
(a large format volume where two pages correspond to a single sheet) which offered a corrective to
the bad quartos (full of gaps, mistakes and they were usually reconstructed from memories by
authors). In the First Folio edition plays are not grouped in a chronological order, because it’s not
simple to determinate the date of each play.
What critics do to determine the date of each play is focusing on three aspects;
• Internal references, such as, mentions to historical events or contemporary scandals;
• External references, which are references to Shakespeare plays contained in plays written by
other authors. Or a mention of a first performance in a contemporary document.
• Literary evidence, which is the style, writing and characterisation. The aim of literary
evidence is to recognise sort of development of his writings; it refers to the literary devices
He was a man of considerable culture with a brilliant memory and an ability to connect the
situations, the circumstances, and sensations of his characters with the inspirations coming from the
culture of his time. In Shakespeare’s works even if the situation is highly marked by fantasy, there is
always the solidity of life, its concrete reality.
He was an amazing storyteller and he was able to prove it not through the form of narrative (where
everything exists in the mind) but through drama, which is characterized by a physical setting. The
theatrical conventions in the Elizabethan theatre were essential, because the fixed stage and the
possibility to create time and space through action, gave Shakespeare great freedom. The result was
an organization of the staged events which was free to engage in continuous changes of the place
and time of the action.
Also, the language stands at the very centre of his art. His characters spoke with the words of
everyday speech, but suddenly they will come out with unexpected locutions or hidden rhetorical
figures which appear natural. To the Elizabethan spectators this appeared normal, because the
theatrical conventions required that whatever was said on the stage should be assumed to be true.
Also, Shakespeare had the ability to raise to the level of poetry everything that was said.
At the beginnings of his career he wrote three interlinked historical dramas about the reign of Henry
VI and a sequel about Richard III in order to deal with a set of crucial political problems. The
themes were those of responsibilities of the King, the disasters cause by opposing forces within the
nation, the necessity of a national unity and the legitimacy of the kingship. When they were first
staged, they had an important educational value for the majority of people.
His father, the king of Denmark has been dead for two months but his mother, Queen Gertrude, has
married her brother in law, Claudius, who has now become a king. In a dark night, a ghost
resembling the late king of Denmark has appeared to Hamlet telling him he has been murdered by
Claudius and asking Hamlet to avenge his but to leave his mother’s punishment to heaven.
There are three versions of the play, printed between 1593 and 1623. Hamlet is Shakespeare
greatest tragedy because it explores the tragic hero experience deeply. Hamlet’s main themes are:
• His relationship with his mother and father;
• Love relationships;
• Appearance vs reality
; Hamlet is surrounded by people who are not what they appear, what
they seem to be.
• Faith and destiny
; Hamlet has the illusion of controlling destiny but he must accept the idea
of being a victim of destiny.
Polonius, the king’s counsellor, thinks Hamlet’s madness is caused by his love for his daughter
Ophelia. Hamlet arranges for a troupe of actors to performe a play whose story is similar to the one
revealed by the ghost (The Murder of Gonzago). As a proof of his guilt, the king during the play
rises and rushes away. The king decides to send Hamlet in England and get rid of him.
Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself. Her brother Laertes wants revenge and the king plots
Hamlet’s death in a duel with Laertes. The duel follows, the queen drinks some poisoned wine and
dies, Laertes and the king die too. Military honours are given to Hamlet.
The play is very ambiguous: the language Hamlet uses has to do with the unconscious, his emotions
and feelings. The play has a psychological dimension, which is conveyed through metaphors,
wordplay, puns (play of words). Shakespeare explores in depth Hamlet’s psychology. Hamlet is
often defined as the tragedy of revenge, because the idea of revenge lies at the heart of the play, but
also at the heart of the plot. Elizabethan theatre and Age was against revenge – but it accepted it in
The play also stages a play within a play: during the play, Hamlet decides to stage a play describing
his own story.
Hamlet’s monologue sums up the conflict that apparently seems to be tearing Hamlet apart. These
words are ambiguous because they are open to various interpretations: they can be interpreted as
whether be a man or not, whether to continue living or to die, whether to act and kill or to give up.
Yet, Hamlet’s words do not refer to any particular event or circumstance because these words
assume a general, even universal meaning. We can say that these words stand for all conflicts, not
just for Hamlet’s one, and for natural shock.
The first line – with all its philosophical implications – is repeated throughout the monologue. The
meaning of the entire monologue refers to human conflicts. The impossibility to find a solution
seems to invite Hamlet and the reader to the idea of suicide. But the idea of suicide involves fear –
fear and death are closely connected and linked in the monologue. Hamlet tries to soften his fears
by comparing his fear to sleep (lines 8, 9). To describe his fears, he uses metaphors such as ‘this
mortal coil’ (line 12), ‘weary life’ (line 22), ‘the dread of something after death’ (line 23) – all these
words are symbols of his conflict. Hamlet looks for suicide as an escape: on the one hand, he seems
to refuse death, but on the other hand he seems to become an ambassador of death.
Even stronger than his refusal to death is his refusal to love: apparently, he seems to refuse it even
though we know that he loved Ophelia (although he tells her he doesn’t). Indeed, when – after the
monologue – Ophelia appears, Hamlet pretends to be mad: Ophelia is shocked by Hamlet’s words –
she doesn’t understand the truth behind his words. Line 47: Hamlet tells Ophelia ‘are you honest?’ –
he doesn’t understand whether Ophelia is honest or not, and then attacks women in general.
Hamlet’s words against Ophelia have been interpreted by some critics (according to psychoanalysis)
as related to Oedipus’ complex: Hamlet considers sex as a dirty thing because of his mother’s
incest, and therefore he can’t live his own love for Ophelia. Line 22 (?): he considers women as
prostitutes who make up their faces – therefore he invites Ophelia to go to a convent. Hamlet’s
words and his way of speaking are illogical – or, at least, apparently illogical, made up of
contradictions, double meanings, unpredictable questions. This is because he plays the fool, he
pretends to be mad.
Shakespeare produced also sonnets; he wrote most of his sonnets in a period from 1592 to 1594
when the theatres were closed because of the plague. Shakespeare’s collections of sonnets is usually
divided into two parts:
• Sonnets from number 1 to 126; all the sonnets of the first group are dedicated to a fair youth,
who is probably his patron and friend;
• The sonnets of the second group are addressed to an unknown lady.
The sonnet form he used is made up of three quatrains and the final couplets.
The theme of the sonnet Shall I Compare Thee is the power of poetry that gives immortality thanks
to the ability to go beyond time. The first quatrain revolves around the comparison between his
beloved young friend and a summer’s day. The poet comparing his friend with a summer’s day,
realizes that his friend his more lovely and temperate (constant; not overwhelmed by passions). In
fact, a summer’s day can be shaken by rough winds or sudden storms (weather can be moody in
summer), meaning that it’s not temperate, but is changeable. (Buds: gemme) The sweetness of his
friend lasts longer than a summer’s day. The poet realizes that his temper is not burnt by a
temperature climate too high. (Eye of heaven: sun.) The beautiful face of his friend doesn’t lack in
brightness, which doesn’t decline. On the contrary the beauty of summer, quickly vanishes. Every
beautiful thing in nature is destined to decline, by chance or by the course of nature itself. His friend
is an eternal summer; he should never lose his beauty. He will be remembered by everybody thanks
to the power of his line, because poetry makes him immortal. The comparison between man’s
beauty and the beauty of nature is a classical theme. There are more literary conventions than true
emotions. ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
James I and Charles I
At the death of Elizabeth in 1603, James Stuart, son of Queen Mary of Scots, became King,
advocating royal absolutism, and neglecting the rights of the Parliament. His conflicts with the
Parliament made him unpopular but he is also known for being a cultivated person and for the new
translation of the Bible, the so-called King James Bible.
When he died in 1625, his son Charles became King. He was a patron of arts and believed in the
absolute power of the monarch and couldn’t find an agreement with the House of Commons,
leading to the Civil War in 1642. It ended with the defeat of King.
Jacobean and Caroline Drama
In the first years of 17 century, theatre began to lose its unitary and new forms developed, together
with a diversified public. James and his court favoured an elitist genre, the masque, based on Italian
models. Its power was not in the words, but in the spectacular costumes, dancing, sets and special
effects provided by new machines. This new genre could only be performed at court or in palaces of
His influences were classical and he wrote comedies and tragedies that respected the unities of time
and place. Comedy of Humours is an expression used to define his form of comedy. According to
the theory of humours, the four cardinal ones were blood, phlegm, choler and melancholy which
had to be balanced. A humour, according to Johnson, was a bias of disposition and some quality
could possess man and make him act in particular ways. In his comedies, the characters were ruled
by a dominant passion and the comic effect was produced by the excesses of a single character and
the interaction with the passions of others. His texts also presented the contrast between good and
evil, vice and virtue, and the king was the point of reference, the incarnation of moral virtues.
The term metaphysical refers to something obscure, not supernatural.
Metaphysical poets never considered them as a group or a school, the definition was given by
critics. In this period, there was uncertainty and anxiety and these ideas were later reflected into
poetry, which became more obscure and complex. All the metaphysical poets were men of learning
which gave birth to an intellectual poetry characterized by the use of startling metaphors, imagery
and an obscure language, rich hyperboles, and paradoxes. Metric irregularities and complex
analogies also marked it.
The metaphysical poetry of the English Renaissance sought to describe a time of startling progress,
scientific discovery, unrivalled exploration, and deep religious uncertainty.
The rediscovery was due to the essay published by T.S. Eliot, in which he indicated some traits in
common to those poets.
The father of the metaphysical poets is John Donne. Feature of this poetry are:
• Frequent obscurity;
• Obscure interpretation; Donne goes against the fashion of the time, the sonnet.
• Intellect and reason are the true protagonists of this kind of poetry. Even when this poetry
combines passion and intellect, it’s the last one which always dominate.
• Since the versification is irregular, the rhythm is very complex and rhyme is often absent.
• This poetry is dramatic in its tone. The reader struggles to understand the meaning. Their
lines are full of details and this poetry has been defined as too analytic and fragmentary,
which is the result of its being obscure. It was also defined as imperfect but metaphysical
poets were aware of those imperfections and they were proud, in a certain way. They didn’t
respect conventions and wanted to create something striking.
He was born in 1572 into a Catholic family and had been educated at Hart Hall, Oxford, and
Cambridge. He travelled to Spain, and Italy. He frequented social circles and theatres in London.
After the death of his wife, the religious dimension became central to his life and writings. He was
Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, publishing sermons, religious writings, and hymns. The main theme is
love, which sometimes assume an erotic tone and give bring Donne’s poetry to its highest. In Songs
and Sonnets none of the poems uses the sonnet form, but different lyrics, whose form is functional
to the message he has to communicate. The beloved and the lover aren’t at the centre of the poem,
rather there is the relationship that the lover wishes to establish. The woman is not a distant image,
but a real woman who is being asked to accept the love’s proposal. The poet addresses the beloved
by means of a discourse which is always based on a psychologically concrete datum, often hidden
under a rhetorical web of artifice.
Cavalier Poets (Carew, Suckling, Lovelace)
They are a group of lyric poets whose poems about love and loyalty to King Charles I were
characterised by a lightness of tone, a graceful wit, and a controlled form. The Cavalier Poets often
imagined pastoral worlds in which escape and find a response to the major social conflict of the
time. Also, they sang of love as free and happy sensual satisfaction. But in the reality love was
subject to social constraints and they didn’t live in Arcadia, but in a court soon destined to be
overthrown by the Civil War.
He was a politician and an author of philosophical and scientific texts. He wrote The New Atlantis,
the story of the discovery of a remote island, called Bensalem, which is the home of a kind of ideal
state, where great importance is given to a college of sciences. Bacon’s hope was that James I
would create the same institution in England. His proposal was taken up in 1650s and was
instrumental in the foundation of the Royal Society, whose aims and programmes were very similar
to those of Bacon.
Also, he wrote Advancement of Learning, in which he criticised methods of education based on the
Aristotelian structures of knowledge and he said that study should be based not on theory but on
experiment and observation. His style was polished and simple, using clarity of expression with
some rhetorical devices.
The wise, moderate policies of Queen Elizabeth had appealed to all sections of society and
Puritanism could not make much headway. But conditions changed with the coming of James I to
the throne. Several causes led to widespread discontent and the emergence of the Puritans as a
strong national force. James I aimed at despotic powers and his immorality and dissipation fed the
flames of discontent. He left behind him serious problems for his son Charles I (1625 to 1649)
whose absolutism roused the apprehensions of the people. In 1640 he summoned Parliament to
finance his war against Scotland, but after two years during which the conflict between King and
Parliament intensified, he fled to the North, leaving London to be the centre of the Protestant’s
The first phase of the Civil War broke out in 1642 and lasted until 1646 with the defeat of the
Royalist. During the second phase of the war, the King and his troops were defeated by Oliver
Cromwell, general and leader of the Parliamentary forces. Eventually, Charles I was sentenced to
death and executed on 30 January 1649. After that, Britain was a Republic governed by Cromwell
as Chairman of the Council of State. After dissolving Parliament in 1653, he became Lord
When he died, in 1658, his son Richard was declared Lord Protector, but he was immediately
dismissed by Parliament. In 1660, Charles, son of the later King, became Charles II. He was then
succeeded by his brother, James II, catholic and hostile to Parliament, which deposed him in 1688.
As his successor, there is his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. During this
period, the Bill of Rights, in 1689, created the first constitutional monarchy, according to which the
king couldn’t be an absolute ruler and Parliament became the centre of national political life.
Government was the result of a social contract between the King and his people represented in
Parliament, mostly bourgeoisie. This section of society, whose economic importance was already
recognised, obtained a dominant role in political affairs and started to have a decisive role in social
and cultural life.
Puritanism and literature
For the Puritans, men should be free to worship according to their conscience and should enjoy full
civil rights. Moreover, the Puritans insisted on the purity of life, on the honesty and freedom of
men. Specifically, on matter of religion, the Puritans were stark, and didn’t accept the Anglican
church and its laws. They advocated church reforms and they were against external manifestation of
faith. Many Puritans were among the middle class and members of the Parliament. There’s a new
vision of the relationship between men and God where men are more powerful.
The Puritan Age comprises the first half of the XVII century (1603 to 1660). It follows the
Elizabethan Age and precedes the Neo-Classical Age. The dominant literary figure during this
period was John Milton, and the period is named after him. The literature of the age of Milton
presents a marked difference from the age of Elizabeth, which had unity in spirit and was full of
hope and vitality. On the contrary the Puritan Age speaks of sadness and pessimism, due to the
atmosphere of conflict, stress and strain which enveloped the Nation. Puritan Age poetry became
moral and religious. The fashion is toward short and small poems. There’s a marked decay in the
exalted poetical fervour of the previous age. In the new poetry, there is more of intellectual play
than of passion and profundity. The poetry of the period is largely lyrical and Donne and Ben
Jonson are the two most outstanding and original lyricists of the age. Milton who links up the
Puritan Age with the Restoration is a class by himself.
John Milton (1608-1647) The great master of artificial style.
He attended St Paul’s School and then went to Cambridge, where he took his BA in 1629. While at
university he wrote several poems and oratorical exercises in Latin, Italian and English. After taking
his MA in 1632, he continued his studies at home.
The parallel study of the classics and the sacred texts gave him the basis for the formation of the
intellectual, who had to be an active presence in the community, in order to guide it.
He was the greatest of all Puritan writers, the interpreter of his times and the voice able to illustrate
the divine message forged by the Protestant doctrine. Milton’s life embodied many of the strongest
currents of his age. His classical erudition and his humanist ideals had their roots in the
Renaissance; his protestant belief in freedom in religious matter had to do with Puritanism. His
republican and anti-clerical ideals, led him to support the revolutionary party in the Civil War. He
became Latin Secretary of Cromwell’s State. This new role required a lot of written work, so his
eyesight became worse, and eventually became blind. Moreover, after Cromwell’s death, Milton’s
life was in danger, for political reasons, he was even imprisoned, but no real punishment was
inflicted on him. He lived the rest of his life in London in poverty and disillusionment. Milton’s
career as a writer of prose and poetry spans three distinct eras: Stuart England; The Civil War (1642
to1648) and Interregnum, including the Commonwealth (1649 to 1653) and the Protectorate (1654
to1660); The Restoration.
Milton’s major themes are all connected with the Christian view of the world, with his interpretation
of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, in his minor poems he also deals with more personal themes
such as his political ambitions and hopes. He published several pamphlets, such as On Education
which advocated a reformation of the traditional education system; Areopagitica, sustaining the
freedom of the press; he wrote on divorce, arguing that adultery and incompatibility should be
considered legitimate ground for divorce.
During the years of Cromwell’s Protectorate, he wrote above all political pamphlets, together with
several sonnets, most of them on public themes. After the collapse of the Protectorate, he wrote the
defence of the Republican cause, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth.
For years, Milton had thought of writing a great epic poem but the public and political work he had
to do for Cromwell had prevented him from doing so.
Milton wanted to create a poetic language far from everyday speech, for this reason he used a very
complicated but musical language. He formed the diction of his verse on the model of classical
authors. The influence of Latin is evident especially on his use of the blank verse. His periods are
usually very long but very compact. The Renaissance was responsible for the rich and complex
texture of Milton’s style the multiplicity of its classical references.
Milton has been described as the great master of the artificial style in English because he wrote long
and involved sentences containing many subordinate clauses and the order of the words often
deviates the normal word order of English.
Paradise Lost (1667)
First published in 1667, Paradise Lost is considered Milton’s masterpiece. It is an epic poem in 12
books dealing with the fall of Adam, i.e. of Man and his consequent redemption through Christ. It
has been said that Paradise Lost contains many elements of autobiography, reflecting the events of
Milton’s life. He wrote the text towards the end of his life, when he became disillusioned because of
the distraction of his political ideals.
Metaphorically speaking, his position was similar to that of Adam and Eve after their expulsion
The plot of Paradise Lost is quite complex and though centred on the human drama of Adam and
Eve, it has a third great protagonist: Satan. The main theme, constantly present throughout the book
is the man’s first disobedience. The story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God is placed in a
larger context, and from that it emerged another hero: Satan. In this text, they’re showed two
different moral ways that people can decide to follow or not. The first one is that of rebellion and
increasing sin; the second one is the road to redemption. It’s true that Adam and Eve are the first
two humans to disobey God but there is no doubt that Satan remains the very first angel to rebel and
disobey. The text is also about hierarchy and the rebellion against God is the rebellion against
Paradise Lost plot
After being thrown down from Heaven to Hell together with his rebel angels, Satan decides to
tempt Adam and Eve. In the guise of a serpent, he convinces them to eat the forbidden fruit. Though
they eventually repent, they are driven from Paradise out into the world. On the way out of the
Garden of Eden, they are accompanied by Michael who shows them the future of the human race.
Comforted by the hope in the Messiah’s coming and in man’s consequent redemption, the couple
leave the garden while the doors of Heaven close behind them.
• God The father, God the Son.
• Satan; the powerful, proud angel who led an unsuccessful rebellion against God.
• Adam and Eve; the first human beings.
• Gabriel, Raphael; angels on the side of God
• Beelzebub and other rebellious angels; leaders in Satan’s Army.
Main theme is the story of man’s fall;
• Pride; it leads to Satan’s downfall
• Envy; coming from Satan’s pride
• Revenge; it makes Satan tempt Adam and Eve
• Infidelity Adam betrays God by siding with Eve
• Disobedience; Adam and Eve disobey God
• Repentance; that of Adam and Eve
• Redemption; man is granted eternal salvation thanks to the sacrifice of the Son of God.
A religious epic poem
Milton chose the epic genre for his masterpiece because of the greatness of his subject. Though he
follows many typical epic conventions, Paradise Lost differs significantly from the epic tradition of
Greco-Roman antiquity. Earlier epics developed ideas of heroism valour and revenge but in
Milton’s work, these ideas are embodied by Satan. In other words, Milton uses the epic form as a
critique of an earlier tradition of heroism and as a mean of advancing a new idea of Christian
heroism for which the crucial virtues are faith, patience and fortitude.
The text is full of epic conventions:
• The invocation of the muse; it is a precise statement of the theme of the epic. Since the poem
is a religious one, of course, the muse is a Holy Spirit.
• The intrusion of supernatural beings; the action takes place throughout the epic.
• The descent into the underworld; it occurs in the first book.
• The style; it follows the epic conventions. Metaphors are used.
• Satan has many of the characteristic of the epic hero; as for example, we can find courage
The books represent Milton’s design but each book has its specific features. In the first book, we
find the description of hell, which can be understood as another adaptation of Dante’s Inferno. The
second book describes what the rebel angels decides to do against God. The third book focuses on
man’s freedom. The fourth book present an important monologue by Satan who is described as the
prototype of the sinner and his degradation is evident because he is turned into different animals.
On the contrary, books five and six, focus their attention on Heaven. Books seven and eight
provide a narration of the universe. In the last books, we find Adam’s vision of the future, and in the
last one, this vision extent to human history. One common objection raised by the readers of the
poem, is that it contains little action. Indeed, Milton focuses not on heroic battles but on
conversations and contemplation of his characters. It can be defined as a biblical epic. At the end,
the positive values prevail. The text is a reference to Milton’s life and experience, and to the fact
that he had to fight against his blindness and the dissolution of the Protectorate.
These lines describe the consequence of the angel rebellion. After fighting for two days against
God, on the third day, they are finally defeated. Thus, Heaven opens its doors and they fall for nine
days and nights and finally land on Hell, where they lay on a burning lake for nine days and nights.
The fallen angels are totally defeated. Nevertheless, Satan stands up and revives them; his words are
strong and reflect his strength and culminates in the famous sentence in line 48 ‘Better to reign in
Hell than to serve in Heaven.’
Satan sums up the drama of hell which must be understood opposed to the human drama of Adam
and Eve. Satan is also sort of a heroic leader. He is the prototype of the proud rebel and he has been
defeated but he never submits. What Milton does is to first describe Hell, so that this dimension is
firstly described trough the angels’ feelings in line 6. They also prepare readers for the successive
and more detailed description of the place. Line 12 ‘dungeon’; line 22; Milton uses words that
involve other senses as in line 11, and 14. Line 18; line 22; Milton’s universe must be understood as
a hierarchy and indeed the vision of Hell is well organised even if Milton’s cosmological
conception differs from Dante’s. Satan is the King of this place and of course he masters the
elements. Line 26: the words convey Satan’s power and that even if he is not proud to be there, he
knows there is no escape. Satan’s words are full of pride. Even from these lines he emerges as a
dramatic figure, even if he remains the true hero of Hell. He represents, in a negative way, the
individualism, which even if it has to do with the Puritan spirit, Satan cannot be defined as a Puritan
He served in the Civil War and after his discharge, he worked as a tinker, and some years later he
became a Nonconformist Preacher. After the Restoration, he was arrested and spent 12 years in
prison, during which he wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a religious allegory, published in 1678,
which represent an important part of the formation of American culture.
He then wrote Second Part of the Pilgrim, in which the same pilgrimage is undertaken, but this time
by the wife and children of the original protagonist, Christian, who meanwhile entered the Celestial
City. The whole story appears as a dream. The protagonist’s journey takes him through a series of
symbolic places and he has to overcome difficulties while crossing the Valley of the Shadow of
Death. Eventually, he reaches the Celestial City.
Another pilgrim, Faithful, is put to death in Vanity Fair, a place where everything is for sale and
whose people cannot comprehend the behaviour of the pilgrims. He is sent to death because his
principles are completely opposite. The inhabitants of the city have the names of the vices and sins
that Puritans associated with aristocracy.
Both Milton and Bunyan emphasise on individual salvation and on the concept of life as a test of
one’s virtue. The principal difference is that Bunyan thanks to the realism and simplicity of his
work, could reach a more widespread public.
The puritans had closed the theatres in 1642, but with King Charles II they were opened again. New
theatres were built on the Italian and French model: there was a U-shaped stall area with benches,
surrounded by boxes and two tiers of galleries rising above. On the stage was introduced moveable
painted scene which could be slid on stage from each side and which could form a backscene or be
removed and changed; also, it was introduced the possibility for women to play roles.
The public was very different from that of the Elizabethan period, consisting of aristocrats,
gentlemen, merchants. The repertory for the plays was provided by earlier dramatist, but these were
revised and the excesses of language and action, typical of previous English tragedies, were
removed. The classic criteria were rediscovered, bringing new clarity, order, moderation. The metre
used was the heroic couplet, a pair of rhyming verses of ten syllables.
He was a poet, a playwright and essayist. His themes were political events and questions of politics
and religion. He should be seen as a moderate who spoke up for whoever could guarantee peace and
stability. He criticised the Anglican Church and illustrated his theological conviction that truth is
achievable only through faith. His first plays, written after the Restoration, were verse and prose
comedies, written in heroic couplet. The same metre was then used for the tragedy The Indian
Emperor, which focuses on love, honour, duty, loyalty, values that inspired the actions of the
characters. This type of tragedy, called Heroic Tragedy, was appreciated by the elite public of the
time because it coincided with the self-image which it wished to project to the world.
The first restoration comedies were varied and concerned political themes, Spanish influences,
imitations of Moliere. A new type of comedy, however, appeared, called the London Comedy,
whose subject matter was the world of the metropolitan high society and which features as its
heroes young gentlemen and ladies of that group. Ordinary citizens were instead, treated with scorn,
as they had supported the Puritan revolution and the regime of Cromwell. The comedy of manners
is a particular type of this new comedy and it’s characterised by satire on the customs and manners
of the day and mockery of the attitudes, behaviour, and values of London. The fop is the object of
ridicule, because even though his values are not different from those of others characters, he is
ridicule due to his lack of proportion, which is then used to show the limits and inconsistency of the
values shared by all. His defects are: affectation, a fanatical attention to dress, a studied indifference
to the love expressed by his lady friend, his exalted opinion of himself. He believes that he is a wit
(linguistic ability) and possess the virtue of the heroes and heroines of the comedy of manners. He
tries to enrich his discourse with brilliant images, but he sounds ridicule.
The point of reference to all these plays was London, with its witty and elegant characters and that
people from the countryside were shown as clumsy and ridiculous.
The Man of the Mode (sir Floping Flutter) is an exemplary comedy of manners. He is a fop full of
affectation and presumption who wants to impersonate the codes and values of high society,
unmasking its vain and superficial essence. The protagonist is Dorimant, the rake, whose behaviour
is motivated by eroticism. He repents at the end and his enables his past misdeed to be absolved and
him to be seen as a positive figure.
His masterpiece is The Country Wife, in which the rake-hero doesn’t become a reformed rake but
remains a libertine. He also used various episodes from Moliere’s comedies in his own plays; he
appreciated him for the philosophy under his satire and his theatre.
In The Country Wife, he attacks the forms which regulate social relations and elevate appearance to
the level of truth. The charm of the play lies in its clever construction, its dialogues, full of
witticisms and puns, but even more, it lies in the characters of Horner, in his exuberance and in the
triumph of his vitality. He is the bearer of a joyous sexuality which recognises the rights of desire.
He is the leading author of the Restoration theatre, and the creator of elegant dialogue, full of one-
liners (wit in its most subtle form) and brilliant linguistic inventions.
Love for Love is his best play. The satire is centred around Valentine, the protagonist, who,
pretending to be mad, can allow himself to throw back in the face of the various characters the
hypocrisy of the social conventions. The satire derives from the ridiculousness of their behaviour,
without them being aware of it.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had brought considerable changes. There was no more support
from the Court. The political and social power of the Protestant bourgeoisies had grown together
+1 anno fa
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher morreale.9 di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Cultura e letteratura inglese e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Catania - Unict o del prof Polopoli Valeria.
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