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The literary flowering in the Elizabethan age, under the impelling influence of the Renaissance, no doubt, mainly took place in the realm of poetry and drama. But English prose, too, found inspiration from the Renaissance, and grew in stature and quality in the great Elizabethan age. The English prose of the Elizabethan age, however, is found much under the influence of poetry. The bulk of the prose writings of the age is not argumentative or instructive. This is rather imaginative and impulsive. It is a sort of poetical prose, and this forms the best and bulk materials of Elizabethan prose writings. 

Fictional Prose : Elizabethan Romances

Romances or romantic stories are in the form of verse in medieval literature. Prose fiction is, however, one of the grand gifts of the Elizabethan age to English literature. In fact, the most remarkable element in Elizabethan prose is found expressed in the literary romances of Sir Philip Sidney and the University Wits. Those romances are found to play particularly a very significant role in the development of English prose. In them may be traced the germs of the English novel which is today a great literary force. 

Of course, such romances appear to have their inspiration mainly from the tales of the great classical masters, like Boccaccio, Cinthio, Bandello, and so on. They represent the impact of the Renaissance on the English mind, caused by the contact with classical literature. At the same time, they appear to be an obvious continuation of medieval romances, no doubt written in verses. Foreign inspirations and native resources are found here equally potent. 

Of the Elizabethan romances, Lyly’s Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel Euphues and his England (1580), and Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1594) deserve first mention. Lybly’s romances together form an extensive moral treatise and incidentally the first English prose novel. The first romance treats the fickleness of youth, and this is shown as the action of the anatomy of youth. The hero of the romance, a young Athenian youth, Euphues, proves false to his friend, by falling in love with his betrothed lady only to be rebuffed by her and to learn his bitter lesson. The episode is well exploited to moralize on the follies of youth, the frailties of the world, the quality of friendship and on marriage, education, atheism and travel. The other romance shifts the scene of action from Italy to England, contains the eulogization of England and English women and moralization on diverse subjects. The romances are, however, not much remarkable for their themes, but they are rich in technique. 

Lyly’s style is full of grace, wit and splendour, with carefully shaped and balanced sentences. This is well remembered as Euphuism. English prose in Lyly’s hand is found to have made a great advance on the mechanical, formless prose of previous ages and seems to move towards the graceful diction of verse. The Euphuistic style was widely popular in the Elizabethan world, and ied to both appreciative and parodic imitations in subsequent literature.

Sidney’s Arcadia is a pastoral romance. This is illustrative much of his imaginative power and lyrical prose-style. The romance, like Lyly's works, is rather a loose narrative, but its chief glory lies in its rich, gorgeous, well cultivated style. This style runs parallel to Lyly’s Euphuistic style, and is popularly known as the Arcadian style. This is a sort of picturesque prose, and, as such, it is definitely artificial, but not much extravagant. It has little of Lyly’s balance and conciseness, but bears a poetical grace, and is more appealing in the dramatic aspect of the story. 

What is more, Sidney’s romance has a better story-element and more fictional interests. It centres round the theme of love in all seriousness, and has nothing of Lyly’s satiric strictures or moral observations. This is a pure romance of love and adventure, ending in the happy marriage. Like Lyly’s works, this proves to be an immensely inspiring literary work of its age. 

Among the other noted authors of romances, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe and George Peele need be mentioned next. They are all included in the University Wits. They are found to follow, in the main, the Euphuistic or Arcadian style. 

Robert Greene, who was inspired both by Sidney’s Arcadia and by Lyly’s Euphues, tried to combine romance with artifice, idealism with morality. His principal romances include Peremides, The Blacksmith, Gwydonius, Pandosto, Arbasto, Philomela and Menaphon. Greene’s tales are pleasing, and his female characters, attractive particularly, while his style is picturesque and pleasing. He is deemed as the second great romancer. 

Thomas Lodge is mainly noted as the author of Euphuistic romances. To him belongs the most pleasing of all those romances — Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie. For romantic situations, lively dialogue and chivalrous idealism, the work has stood above most of Elizabethan romances. This is also found to be the literary source of Shakespeare’s great comedy ‘As You Like It’. His other romances include Forbonius and Presceria and Margarite of America. 

Thomas Nashe and George Peele are also found to carry on the tradition of the Euphuistic novel. The former is noted particularly for his satirical, mock heroic style, in which fun and farce abound. His picaresque novel ‘The Unfortunate Traveller’ or ‘The Life of Jack Wilton’, which is a pseudo historical romance, is his most remarkable work. This may be taken as the first historical tale in English. This may also be taken as the earliest specimen of the picaresque novel. Lodge's ‘The Life and Death of William Longbeard is a continuation of this picaresque fashion. 

Thomas Delony and Thomas Dekker are two other popular romance writers. Delony’s works are romantic, sentimental, but, at the same time, colloquial and realistic. Thomas Dekker was, in general, a follower of the University Wits, although he was immensely influenced by Delony’s comical sense and rich humour. His style is free, clear, and picturesque. Delony’s three important narratives include Thomas of Reading, Jack of Newbury and The Gentle Craft. Dekker’s narratives are more of social studies as seen in his The Belman of London, The Seven Deadly Sins of London and News from Hell, brought by the Devil’s Carrier. 

Of the remaining prose works of a romantic kind, nothing has any singularity or significance. These are found more or less the poor imitation of the romances of the University Wits. Emanuel Ford’s Parismus and its sequel Parismenos, Nicholas Breton’s Strange Fortunes of Two Excellent Princes and Anthony Munday’s translations of Spanish romances have nothing remarkable to remember. 

Non-fictional Prose : Prose of the Theatre

The development of prose literature in the Elizabethan age owed much to the theatre. Although the drama in the age is found mainly written in poetry, the use of prose is also seen, as a predominant feature, in a good many plays, particularly in comedies. The use of prose is found an easy way for the Elizabethan dramatists, most of whom were eminent prose writers, to impress the vulgar and popular audience of the age. 

John Lyly was the pioneer for the introduction of prose into the theatre. He employed his artificial Euphuistic style in his comedies. Other University Wits, including Greene and Marlowe, also used prose freely in their plays. Even Shakespeare resorted to the occasional use of prose in his plays, including tragedies. In serious scenes as well as farcical, his prose is found to have admirable effects. In Ben Jonson, another great name in the Elizabethan theatre, prose is seen as a more congenial medium of expression for his great comedies of humour. Two of his principal comedies Epicoene and The Bartholomew Fair are entirely written in prose, and this prose is quite precise, simple and lucid. It reveals how prose can rival verse in the realm of the theatre in the hand of a master playwright. 

Literary Criticism

By the side of romances and the prose of the theatre, grew up another wing of prose writings in the Elizabethan age. That was literary criticism, not profuse in number, but quite serious and worthy in quality. Those works of literary criticism played a significant role in the march of English literature. They laid the foundation of English criticism and today criticism is one of the most valued elements in English prose writings. 

Literary criticism is found to flourish in a number of works. Of these works of criticism, Stephen Gosson’s The School of Abuse, Sir Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetrie, William Webbe’s Discourse Of English Poetrie and Daniel’s A Defence of Ryme are the most illustrative works, Sidney's An Apology for Poetrie, not published till 1595, after his death, is a considerable work. Written as a polite reply to Gosson’s charge of sinfulness of poetry in general in The School of Abuse, Sidney’s work is both a defence of the poetic art and an apology for it. 

Webbe’s book is far below Sidney’s in scholarships and literary aptitude, but in sympathy with the poetic spirit, Daniel’s A Defence of Ryme (1603) is one of the best critical works of the age. The Arte of English Poesie by some anonymous author and Campion’s Observations in the Art of English Poesie are, perhaps, the most systematic treatises of the time. George Gascoigne’s work of literary criticism Certayne Notes of Instruction Concerning the Making of Verse or Rhyme in English may also be referred to in this connection. 

Religious Prose

Elizabethan prose also includes a good number of religious works of much significance and value. Hooker is the greatest name in the religious prose of the age, noted particularly for his mammoth Anglican prose work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. The first five books were published between 1594 and 1597 and the remaining three books, posthumously. He is a great master in English prose and his majestic style has remained a source of inspiration and guidance for many prose writers in the ages to come. This is a prelude to the monumental work, The Authorised Version of the Bible, published in 1611. 

Chronicles and Translations

Elizabethan prose also includes several chronicles, representing England and the antiquity of the English race. These chronicles and antiquaries are, no doubt, various and different in their themes as well as techniques. Yet, they all breathe the same spirit of nationality. The first of the chroniclers to be mentioned is Edward Hall, 2 thorough scholar of Cambridge. His Chronicle, published first in1542 and burnt by Queen Mary’s order, was reprinted in 1548 and 1550. This is held in a high esteem as an authentic record of the age. Yet, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, published in 1577, is the most important work in this respect. The Chronicles of John Stowe and Fabyan, Description of England by William Harrison and Survey of London by John Stowe may be specifically mentioned here also. William Camden’s Britannia, published in 1582, is a grand portrait of antique Britain. Similar chronicles include Sir George Buck’s History of the Life and Reign of Richard IIT, George Cavendish’s Life and Death of Thomas Woolsey, John Haywood’s Lives of the Three Norman Kings of England, and so on. 

A chronicler of a different breed from the conventional historians was Richard Hakluyt, author of Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (published in 1589). It is a compendious collection of different explorations, navigations, discoveries and adventurous travels, written with much imagination and poetic grace. John Leland’s The Laborious Journey and Search of John Leland (1546) may also be mentioned here. 

Lastly, there are the translations of classical masters, such as Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes (1599) to enrich the English prose of the Elizabethan age. Of course, the translation works were made on poetical literature also. Elizabethan prose literature is found to have manifested itself in various directions. Solidity, competency and variety are the constituents of this prose literature which proves inspiring for the subsequent development of English prose literature in various forms and types. 


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