Elizabethan literature – Important writers and works of the period

Queen Elizabeth reined England from the year 1558 A.D to 1603 A.D and this period is considered as the golden age for English literature. This is the period when the influence of Renaissance was slowly spreading to England. Amidst victories over Spain, colonization missions, moderating the religious fervour, improvement in science and technology – the theatre along with other poetry and prose flourished during the period. There were many writers and poets who made this era as the golden age with their contributions to Elizabethan literature and English literature.

George Gascoigne [1535 – 1577] – Elizabethan Literature

Gascoigne was the first ever poet to portray Queen Elizabeth as a deity. She is shown by him as virgin goddess who rules over England. His most notable work is A Discourse of the Adventures of Master FJ. Further, George Gascoigne has introduced many writing forms to English literature through his works.

George Gascoigne - Elizabethan literature

The Supposes is the first English comedy and fiction written in prose.

The Steel Glass is the English satire written in regular verse.

Jocasta is the first ever translation of a Greek work into English.

Notes of Instruction is the first ever critical essay.

Edmund Spenser [1552 – 1599] – Elizabethan Literature

The entry of Edmund Spencer through The Shepherd’s Calendar marked the beginning of a new era in English poetry. He produced poetry that could touch every aspect of life and interest. The above poem deals with each month of the year in the form of pastoral poems. The Epithalamion deals with the wedding of Spenser and is completely subjective. However, it consists of great imagination and rhythm making it appropriate for the reader. He has written eighty nine sonnets under the title Amoretti and dedicated an elegy titled Astrophel for the death of his dear friend Sir Philip Sidney.

Edmund Spenser - Elizabethan era

Spenserian stanza is still in use and this is introduced to English literature through his most notable work – The Faery Queen. The rhyme scheme of Spenserian stanza is aba bbc bcc. His contributions made him the poet’s poet of English poetry.

Sir Philip Sidney [1554- 1586] – Elizabethan Literature

No work of Sidney was published during his lifetime; yet, he has a unique place in Elizabethan literature and world literature as well. He was a free flowing poet who often followed the tradition of Petrarch. Astrophel and Stella is a work that shows his poetic abilities through eleven songs of love and hundred and eight sonnets. He wrote other poems for the amusement of his sister under the title Arcadia.

Sir Philip Sidney - Elizabethan literature

Sidney is well known for his critical discussion of nature of poetry, its possibilities, functions and future through his works Defence of Poesie and Apologie for Poetrie. The many objections posed by the puritans of the Elizabethan age about imaginative poetry were analysed and answered by Sidney through these works.

The University Wits – Elizabethan Literature

Elizabethan literature would have been incomplete without the contributions made by group of writers who belonged to Oxford and Cambridge. They were radical in their approach and had no intentions to follow the norms set by the Church. It resulted in ambitious works that motivated drama and other forms in a great deal.

S. No Name Important Works Notable Achievements
1 John Lyly

[1553 – 1606]

Eupheus Euphuism, a literary prose style started because of John Lyly’s work – Eupheus.
Mother Bombie
The Woman in the Moon
2 George Peele

[1556 -1596]

The Arraignment of Paris
Old Wives’ Tale
The Battle of Alcazar
3 Robert Greene


A Groatsworth of Wit Robert Greene is said to have written his plays in the form of “Romantic Comedy”. The first English writer to do so.
The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
George a green, or The Pinner of Wakefield
Orlando Furioso
Looking Glass for London and England Looking Glass for London and England was written in collaboration with Thomas Lodge.
4 Thomas Lodge

[1558 – 1625]

Rosalynde Rosalynde is considered as a source for Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
The Wounds of Civil War
5 Thomas Nashe

[1567 – 1601]

Summer’s Last Will and Testament
The Isle of Dogs The Isle of Dogs is written in collaboration with Ben Jonson.
The Unfortunate Traveller, or the Life of Jack Wilton Life of Jack Wilton is considered as the first English historical novel.
The Anatomy of Absurdity
Lenten Stuffe
Pierce Penniless
6 Thomas Kyd

[1558 – 1594]

The Spanish Tragedy Founder of the genre Romantic Tragedy.
Ur Hamlet
7 Christopher Marlowe

[1564 – 1593]

Tamburlaine the Great Father of English Drama
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus The Morning Star of the English Drama
The Jew of Malta
Edward the Second
Hero and Leander [poetry] The poem was unfinished because of the sudden death of Marlowe. George Chapman completed the work.


William Shakespeare [1564 – 1616] – Elizabethan Literature

The Bard of Avon, the greatest playwright of English literature, the man who could mirror life with few words, so on and so forth – William Shakespeare needs no introduction anywhere in the world. He has written thirty eight plays and 154 sonnets in his lifetime. Most of his works are published in Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies commonly referred to as First Folio [1623]. It was published by his colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell. The book contained thirty six plays, which are original to the writings of Shakespeare.

William Painter [1540 – 1595] – Elizabethan Literature

Painter is a least known author of the Elizabethan age with little contribution to the theatre or English literature. However, his most important work is translation of tales and novels that belonged to French Italian and other classic writers. He took his sources from Boccaccio, Giovanni Battista Giraldi, Herodotus, Plutarch, Queen Marguerite de Navarre, Matteo Bandello, etc. Through his work – The Palace of Pleasure, he compiled one hundred and one tales of great writers. These tales were an inspiration to writers like William Shakespeare, John Webster, James Shirley, Beaumont and Fletcher.

George Chapman [1559-1634] – Elizabethan Literature

A great scholar who is known for his translations of Iliad, Odyssey and the Hymns; he has done many other translations of the classic writers like Petrarch, Hesiod and Juvenal. He is considered as the rival poet of Shakespeare for his remarkable use of words and flow of sentences.  Some of his important dramatic works are All Fools’, The Gentleman Usher and The Blind Beggar of Alexandria. George Chapman has also written two tragedy plays in French – The Admiral of France and Bussy D’ Ambois.

Sir Francis Bacon [1561 – 1626] – Elizabethan Literature

Bacon is a polymath who worked on philosophy, science, literature, oration, jury, etc. He is considered as the father of empiricism. During his lifetime, he has served in high ranking positions like Lord Chancellor and Attorney General. He always preached the importance of science over religion. His works The Advancement of Learning, The Novum Organum and The New Atlantis speak in one way of the other about the systems in the society and the requirement of change. However, his greatest achievements are his Essays that are fifty eight in number. Every essay is a masterpiece reflecting human knowledge and how man fears everything.

Sir Francis Bacon - English literature

Michael Drayton [1563 – 1631] – Elizabethan Literature

Drayton was gifted with versatility and he was able to penetrate into every side of poetry with ease. He started his literary life with a sacred work titled Harmony of the Church. It was a bit of a disappointment and he reappears with pastoral verse titled Shepherd’s Garland. After that he wrote on patriotism through Polyolbion. It gained him great attention and applause while his masterpiece was yet to come. His Ballad of Agincourt describes about the battle fought at Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. It has wonderful elements unique to the Elizabethan age.

Thomas Heywood [1575 – 1641] – Elizabethan Literature

Thomas Heywood has contributed to both Elizabethan literature and Jacobean literature. He is said to have involvement in over two hundred plays and he has authored more than twenty plays. Heywood is known for his domestic comedy where normal families suffer a tragedy because of high passions and lust. Charles Lamb describes Thomas Heywood as “prose Shakespeare”. Heywood is well known for his works A Woman Killed with Kindness, The Pleasant Comedy and The English Traveller.

Ben Jonson [1572 – 1637] – Elizabethan Literature

Jonson is a controversial figure of Elizabethan age and English literature in common. He is known to slay an actor, quarrels with other dramatists and rivalry with Shakespeare. However, all of these could not mask the fact that he remains one of the greatest playwrights of all time. Ben Jonson popularized through his plays – comedy of humours. His famous plays include Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour, Volpone or The Fox, Epicoene or The Silent Woman, Bartholomew Fair, The Devil is an Ass, The Sad Shepherd or A Tale of Robin Hood and A Tale of a Tub.

Ben Jonson

Other Important figures of Elizabethan literature

S. No Name Important Works Notable Achievements
1 John Webster

[1580 – 1634]

The White Devil
The Duchess of Malfi
The Devil’s Law Case
Appius and Virginia
2 Cyril Tourneur

[1575 – 1626]

The Atheist’s Tragedy
The Revenger’s Tragedy The Revenger’s Tragedy has an ambiguity as some scholars believe it to be written by Thomas Middleton.
3 John Marston

[1576 – 1634]

Antonio and Mellida Marston is known for his violent melodramatic tragedies.
Antonio’s Revenge
The Malcontent
The Scourge of Villany
4 Thomas Middleton

[1580 – 1627]

A Game at Chess He has written mostly during the Jacobean period than the Elizabethan period.
Women Beware Women
The Changeling
A mad world, my Masters
5 Thomas Dekker

[1572 – 1632]

The Honest Whore
The Shoe-Maker’s Holiday
6 John Day

[1574 –  1638]

The Parliament of Bees
The Isle of Gulls
Humour out of Breath
Law Tricks
7 Beaumont and Fletcher

[1584 -1616] [1579 – 1625]

Maid’s Tragedy They are called as twin souls of the drama.
The Knight of the Burning Pestle


During the Elizabethan era, English literature has metamorphosed from a shell into a wonderful being with creativity, imagination and limitless stories. It was not about miracle plays or mystery plays and the poetry was not about religion and the principles preached in the Church. Subjectivity increased and scrutinizing different aspects of life increased with the flourish of numerous authors. As a result, Elizabethan literature laid a great foundation for English literature and influenced hundreds and thousands of writers of the following literary periods. It is for this reason, Elizabethan era is considered as the golden age of English literature.

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