GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH PROSE IN THE ELIZABETHAN AGE
Although the Elizabethan age is called The Golden Age of English poetry and drama, it should also be regarded as a glorious age of English prose, for English prose was set on the track of glory by such great prose writers as Lyly, Greene, Lodge, Nashe, Deloney and Dekker with Sir Philip Sidney on the forefront.
At the outset, the Elizabethan prose turned to be translation of foreign books, especially the Italian Novella or Short romantic stories like Palace of Pleasure by William, Tragical Discourses by Geoffrey Fenton. Petite Palace by George Petite, an original writing published in 1576, was a collection of legendary tales. The most interesting of the early Elizabethan prose fiction was The Adventures of Master FJ by George Gascoigne. It was published in 1573.
Of the original prose writers of the Elizabethan age, John Lyly was the most famous. In 1578, the publication of his curious book, Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit and its sequel entitled Euphues and his England in 1580 created a sensation. Although the books contained love stories with thin plots, they were intended to be read as books of conduct for aristocratic youths. Through these two books Lyly introduced an inimitable and unique style known as Euphuism marks him as a pioneer. The beauty of the style lies in the perfect use of balanced phrases, intricate alliteration, classical allusion, and ornate epithets.
Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, the first pastoral romance in English, was modeled on the Spanish pastoral Romance. Sidney’s Arcadia may better be called a piece of poetry in the form of prose. However, it could exert great influence upon the drama of the age.
In imitation of Lyly, Robert Greene wrote short novels --- Mamillia (1583), The Mirror of Modesty and The Card of Fancy. His most popular romance Pandosto provided Shakespeare with the plot of The Winter’s Tale. Pandosto is marked by better narratives, shorter soliloquies and lesser Euphuism than other books. Greene modeled his Menaphon (1589) on Sidney’s Arcadia. Perhaps the best of Greene’s Euphuistic romance is To His Love published in 1589.
Thomas Lodge became famous for his euphuistic romance Rosalinde, the source of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Although Lodge imitated Greene’s style of romantic tale, he surpassed his master by introducing masculine material borrowed from Chaucer.
Thomas Dekker was famous for his realistic portrayal of contemporary life. His prose works include Bellman of London; Lantern and Candlelight; The Seven Deadly Sins of London; News from Hell brought by the Devil’s Carrier, all published between 1606 and 1608. We should note that Dekker’s characters are all idealized vagabonds.
Thomas Nash should be regarded as the first writer of what is called travelogue for his famous book The Unfortunate Traveler or The Life of Jack Wilton. The story relates the life of Jack Wilton, a page in the reign of Henry VIII who becomes an adventurer.
Thomas Deloney is remembered for his famous prose work Gentle Craft, Jack of Newbery and Thomas of Reading. These books tell the stories of weavers and shoemakers of his time.
As the age was intellectually very sound, it inspired a number of scholars to write non-fictional prose, Raphael Holinshed wrote his famous Chronicles which is a compilation of English, Scottish, and Irish history deriving from a variety of earlier sources. Thomas North published his scholarly translation of Plutarch’s Lives. Both the books were the source of Shakespeare’s history plays. In this age Richard Hakluyt published his Principal Navigations, Voyages, (Traffiques) and Discoveries of the English Nation.
There was another great scholar who contributed a great deal to the enrichment of English prose. He was Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He was the first to introduce in English the literary genre, known as the Essay, innovated by the French philosopher Montaigne. Bacon was both a scholar and a creative genius with a unique style of his own. Bacon was the first to introduce the intellectual, impersonal, reflective essays in a style which is inimitable. Brevity is the soul of Bacon’s essay. The words chosen by him are crisp and pithy. His sentences though small, speak volumes. It may be said that the Elizabethan intellectual prose finds its culmination in Bacon.
Richard Hooker's masterly work Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy is one of the greatest of the non-fictional prose works of the Elizabethan age. It began appearing volume by volume in 1594 and continued till the author's death. It was the first book in England which used English for a serious philosophic discussion. Hooker was a Protestant who combined the piety of a saint with the simplicity of a child. His purpose in writing the book was to defend the Church of England and to support certain principles of Church government.
A basic characteristic common to almost all Elizabethan prose is the nearness of their prose to poetry. It is colourful, blazing, rhythmic, indirect, prolix, and convoluted. The Renaissance spirit of humanism, liberalism and romanticism found full play in the growth and development of English prose in the Elizabethan Age.