Light Bulb Moments: From Elizabethan to Enlightenment

How the Renaissance era gave way to Enlightenment values.

Elizabeth I
Henry VIII
The Shakespearean Sonnet
Edmund Spenser
René Descartes
Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Elizabeth Cary

Defining Elizabethan Literature

While the Renaissance occurred earlier in Italy than elsewhere (which is why it’s usually differentiated as the ‘Italian Renaissance’), for the rest of Europe the Renaissance is a period that lasted from around the 15th to the 17th century.

With increased contact between European powers and other cultures through trade and exploration, written languages became more regular, and life became fundamentally more stable, leaving room to think about ideas beyond basic survival and supplying the tools to record those ideas.

The Elizabethan age is a particular era of English history that occurred during the larger Renaissance era. It’s marked by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to 1603. This era is often called the ‘golden age’ of English history and the height of the English Renaissance. It is during this time that English poetry, theater, and music experienced some of its greatest creations.

Historical Context of the Elizabethan Age

The Elizabethan age marked a time of peace for the nation – in sharp contrast to what came before and after. In the previous century England experienced the Wars of the Roses, the result of which saw the Tudors installed in the monarchy. The Tudors reigned from 1485 to 1603, and England experienced a strengthening of prestige and power during this time, particularly under Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I.


Though religious reformation was sweeping across the rest of Europe, during Elizabeth’s reign, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement was arranged that effectively ended the English Reformation and laid the foundations for the future of the Anglican church. However, under the reign of Elizabeth’s successors, the Puritan movement continued to grow, eventually bringing about the English Civil War.

While art and literature were at a high point under Elizabeth I, many of these same creators fell under political and religious scrutiny before and after, as these lines continued to shift.

The Sonnet

A sonnet is a 14-line poem that follows a specific rhyme scheme and structure. It originated in Italy in the 13th century (the word ‘sonnet’ comes from the Italian word ‘sonneto’ meaning ‘little song’). During the Renaissance however, the sonnet spread across Europe and became the one of the most popular ways to express romantic love.

In English literature, the most popular style of sonnet is the English Sonnet, also known as the Shakespearean Sonnet.

The Shakespearean sonnet is written in iambic pentameter – meaning each line has five pairs of unstressed/stressed syllables – and it has three alternately rhymed quatrains ending in a final rhyming couplet (A quatrain is a stanza, or section of a poem, that is made up of four lines).

In a Shakespearean sonnet, the end of each line rhymes in an alternating pattern, for example ABAB. Each quatrain has a new set of rhymes, then, the final stanza is a couplet, or two lines, that rhyme with each other. All in all, the rhyme scheme of an English Sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

Drama in the time of Queen Elizabeth I

Under Elizabeth I, English theater flourished, supported by both the royal court and the common people. Early productions closely followed the template of Italian Renaissance tragedies and comedies, though English playwrights quickly began to experiment, borrowing elements to suit their own purposes.


Of course, the most famous of the Elizabethan playwrights is William Shakespeare. Though his artistry and prolific achievements are the highlight of an already illustrious era, there were others writing in the genre with a high level of skill and talent, including Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Dekker.

London was the center of English theater during the era, and the Globe – where Shakespeare’s plays were performed – was its heart. Plays were accessible to most people, with entry costing as little a penny – only a fraction of a day’s expenses. Women were not allowed to perform, though they could attend, and female roles were played by boys or young men.

The Epic’s Renaissance

During the Elizabethan era of literature and after, the epic poem also experienced a surge in popularity.

Under Queen Elizabeth I, one of the most notable poets was Edmund Spenser, who wrote both sonnets and epics. He’s probably best known for *The Faerie Queene*, an epic poem of fantasy and allegory that represented the Tudor dynasty and Elizabeth I. At over 36,000 lines, it is one of the longest poems in the English language!

A second notable English poet who helped solidify the English epic’s place in Western literature is John Milton, author of many works including the epic poems *Paradise Lost* and *Paradise Regained*. *Paradise Lost* is written in blank verse – meaning it uses meter (specifically iambic pentameter) but no rhyme scheme. Its 10,000+ lines tell the biblical story of the Fall of Man. Milton was born shortly after the death of Elizabeth I and wrote during the tumultuous times surrounding the English Civil War, which proved to be a dangerous era to be writing religious themes.

Defining the Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment, also simply called ‘The Enlightenment,’ was an intellectual and philosophical movement that swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Enlightenment was preceded by the Scientific Revolution, and together these two important movements marked an age of intellectual pursuit centering on a wide range of values including reason, happiness, liberty, progress, and knowledge gained from the evidence of the senses. The central doctrines of the Enlightenment were individual liberty, religious tolerance, and a rejection of absolute monarchy and religious dogma.

René Descartes’ *Discourse on the Method*, was an important early work of the Enlightenment. It introduced his iconic dictum ‘cogito, ergo sum,’ or ‘I think, therefore I am.’

Although the Enlightenment influenced thought across Europe and there were many national variations, French thought and writing were at the heart of the movement. Prominent thinkers in the French Enlightenment included Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Diderot, to name a few.

The Enlightenment and the Dissemination of Information

The written works of the Enlightenment are largely nonfiction. Philosophers and scientists of the time would circulate their ideas in settings like scientific academy meetings, literary salons, and in coffeehouses, and through print publications including books, journals, and pamphlets.

One of the most influential publications of the Enlightenment was the *Encyclopédie* – or *Encyclopedia* – compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, along with a collection of 150 other scholars. The printing and successful sharing of this text helped to spread the ideas of the Enlightenment throughout Europe.

While the Enlightenment was a broad intellectual movement rather than a literary one, many of the movement’s thinkers were skilled writers, and their works continue to impact philosophy and reason today.

Critically important contributors include Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau in France, John Locke, David Hume, and Mary Wollstonecraft in Great Britain, and Immanuel Kant in Germany.

Key Figure: William Shakespeare

To attempt to sum up Shakespeare’s legacy in a few paragraphs is an exercise in futility. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s greatest dramatist. Though some of his works have been lost, 39 of his plays, 154 sonnets, and three narrative poems are still in existence. Such is his impact on the literary canon, he is often referred to simply as ‘the Bard.’

Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, and died at age 52 in 1616. He was married to Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children. The death of his son Hamnet inspired one of his greatest plays, *Hamlet*.

Shakespeare produced most of his works between 1589 and 1613; his early plays were mostly comedies and histories. Later he wrote some of the most impactful tragedies in Western literature including *Romeo and Juliet*, *Othello*, *King Lear*, and *Macbeth*.

Shakespeare was known for inventing words and phrases, many that we still use today! ‘Bandit,’ ‘critic,’ and ‘dwindle’ are just a few examples, as well as sayings like ‘fight fire with fire’ or ‘love is blind.’

Key Figure: John Donne

John Donne was an English poet and scholar who’s considered an iconic representation of the metaphysical poets, a name coined by the critic Samuel Johnson and given to an unaffiliated group of Baroque poets that utilized similar characters.

Donne lived from 1572 to 1631 and wrote in a wide variety of styles including sonnets, love poems, religious poems, elegies, songs, and satires. His works are known for their metaphorical and sensual style.

Stylistically, Donne utilized dramatic and everyday speech rhythms – instead of the traditional lyrical and smooth style of Elizabethan poetry. Writing at the end of the Elizabethan age, Donne’s work criticized popular Elizabethan topics through sharp satire.

Donne is also considered the preeminent writer of the ‘metaphysical conceit,’ an extended metaphor that brings together two completely opposite ideas into a single thought, usually through imagery. One example of this can be seen in his poem ‘A Valediction’, where he compares himself and his lover to a pair of compasses (the kind used for drawing circles). This unusual simile is used to suggest that she helps him to feel like a complete, perfect circle:

*“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.”*

Women Writers in Elizabeth I’s England


Today, there are no known commercial plays attributed to women writers during the Elizabethan era. This does not, however, mean that women did not write at this time or even write for profit. From the 16th and 17th centuries, more than half of the commercial plays we have today are unattributed to any author. Scholars believe that many of these could have been written by or in collaboration with women.

There are other examples of women writers during the era including the following:

Emilia Lanier was an Elizabethan poet and the first woman to assert herself as a professional poet. Her collection of poems *Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum* was only the fourth book of poems by an English woman to ever be published.

Jane Lumley, an English noblewoman, was the first person to translate Euripides into English, and this translation is considered the first known dramatic work by a woman in English.

The *Tragedy of Mariam* by Elizabeth Cary, also known as Lady Falkland, is considered the first original play by an Englishwoman.

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