From prehistoric time to 1066 B.C., various people wanted to invade
Great Britain, because it was rich in natural resources, such as gold
and tin, and it had more fertile soil good for agriculture.
It was very easy to invade because firstly, the east and the south
coasts were flat with navigable rivers and natural havens. Secondly,
the different people living there were not nations, they were organised
in tribes and they didn’t have fleet or army.
Everything changed after the Norman conquest in 1066.
The first habitants were the Iberians. Their name comes from Ibreus, a
river in Spain.
Actually people coming from that area have dark hair.
They were prehistoric iron-age people, they first had settled along the
eastern and southern coasts and after they spread.
The Iberians were hunters and fishermen, and they also skilled as
In fact these people are also known as “the Beaker
people”, because they put a beaker into the grave of the
They believed in life after death and the most important monuments they
left behind them, were the BARROWS which were mound graves (tumuli
Later they built the HENGES which were circles of slab stones
surrounded by ditches and earthen banks (terrapieni).
Stonehenge is the most popular henges built about 2000 before Christ.
Around 700 B. there were Celtic coming from north-west of Germany and
from the Nederland.
These people were sweeping throw Europe, the Valley of the Po, and they
also invaded Britain.
They had light skin, blue eyes and blond or red hair; they were tall.
They were organised in tribes and their economy was largely based on
hunting and fishing, but the agriculture began to develop.
They had many Gods and Goddesses and these were mainly natural elements
(as sun, moon, wind, water…).
The most influential figure in Celtic society was the Druid. The druids
were wise men and the most important people in the village because they
were judges, priests and also teachers, so they were responsible for
the education of the young.
Their temples were groves in the forest and mistletoe, a plant still
used to decorate British homes at Christmas.
They used a plant of indigo to paint and tattoo their body in blue; in
fact they were called “The blue painted Celtic”.
Even the Celtic believed in life after death: in fact they thought that
the death continues his life in caves and lakes. There was a strong
relation between the habitants and the habitats.
They left behind them burial sites (luoghi di sepoltura) and hill
forts. They built their villages on high place to defend themself from
The women in Celtic society were important; some women became the
chieftains of the tribes: Queen Boadicea was a Celtic queen who first
supported the Romans, but she still wanted to reign her people.
Boadicea and her solders slaughtered (massacrare) Romans in a church
because they killed her child in front of her.
From 55 to 54 B.C. Cesar tried to invade Britain twice, but he
He wants to invade it first for Britain’s natural resources
and then because the British Celts were helping Gauls who were against
Rome and Caesar wanted to subdue them (sottometterli).
Between 54 b.C and 43 a.d.
There were frequent contacts between Celtic and Romans. [The British
traders settled in Rome].
Between 43-47 a.D. The Romans eventually conquered Britain under
It wasn't a difficult conquest, because there were much divided tribes
and some of the chieftains of these tribes were already half Romanized,
so they offered their helps to the Romans. The Roman conquest was very
Romans were not interested in mingling with them, they tried to live
there on their own and have the same life-style had in Rome. They
didn’t conquest Ireland because they weren’t
interested in it. While they never conquest Scotland because of the
From 122 to 126 a.D. Romans had frequent raids (scorribande) from
people living in Scotland, so Emperor Hadrian had a wall built to
Romans left behind them a system of roads and some villas which still
Today some important cities takes the name from Roman’s army,
that have in its name “–chest” (from
castra), for example Winchester and Manchester were Roman military
London already existed before Romans, but it became an important Roman
city firstly because it was a good place to across the river and
secondly because it was the best landing place for trading gold, pearls
In 409 Imperator Honorius decided to withdraw (ritirare) Roman troupes.
He took this decision because Rome was attacked by Barbarians and
Romans needed all them soldiers to defend themselves. [When Romans
arrives, the Celtic went to Cornwall…]
As the Romans withdrew, Britain was invaded by other waves (ondate) of
invasion by Germanic tribes: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.
The name “England” comes from “the land
of the Angles”.
The Anglo-Saxons were warlike (bellicosi) tribes not interested in
civilizations. They destroyed all the villages they met in their way,
but they used the roads built by the Romans to invade Britain.
The Celtic withdrew to Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland; Celtic
languages are still spoken in these areas: Erse in Ireland, Gaelic in
Scotland, Welsh in Wales.
The Anglo-Saxons weren’t interested in recording (registrare)
events; they used only the runic alphabet, used in small inscriptions.
We have no records of this period but there are many legends. The most
famous was the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
By the 6th there were 7 Anglo-Saxons kingdoms (regni), called
Heptarchy; the most important were Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. They
were organized in family groups called clans and they lived in
fortified villages; when they had free time they gathered (riunirsi) in
the village hall where they listened to the scop, a sort of bard
He sang and narrated the deeds (gesta) of their ancestors (antenati)
and he exhorted the values of freedom, loyalty (lealtà) and
A very important chapter (capitolo) in development of British culture
is Christianization of England; the first to bring Christian religion
was the Romans, but when they withdrew and British moved to Wales,
Scotland and Ireland, the Christians confined to (limitato a)
Anglo-Saxons believed in magic; they adored natural elements but they
were tolerant with the others religions.
Pope Gregory I the Great sent the monk Augustine (monaco) to Canterbury
who later became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Monasteries became the most important centres of learning.
The greatest place of learning was the monastery in Jarrow, in which
the Venerable Bade wrote in Latin “the Ecclesiastical History
of the English people”. For the first time in British
history, King Alfred, an Anglo-Saxons king who was called Arthur the
Great, had “the Ecclesiastical History of the English
people” translated in old English. He also began writing
“the Anglo-Saxons chronicle” that was a year by
year report (testimonianza) of the most important events in Britain.
Old English is the language spoken between 450 and 1150. It changed
during the time and according to (a seconda di) the place it was
spoken. The one we know was spoken in Wessex. It was inflected and had
a very complicate system of declensions (declinazioni). –AN
was the ending infinitive (gogan=>go; bringan=>bring). ).
From the complicated system of inflection derived “the Saxons
genitive” and from the declensions the irregular verbs.
King Alfred besides (inoltre) united the Anglo-Saxons for the first
time in the History. He was a learned king, who started public schools,
and he founded a fleet.
Between 700 and 1000 there were waves of Vikings invaded Britain. The
Vikings were Danes came from Nederland and Denmark. They
didn’t meet a strong opposition, because the Anglos were
divided tribes, only King Alfred repelled (respinse) Vikings.
The land the Vikings ruced (governavano) was the Dane law.
The Vikings continued to invade Britain until in 1066, when Canute, the
leader of the Vikings, became king between 1016-1036.
He worked for reconciliation and he treated all his subjects in the
same ways. He became Christian and he helped abbeys (abbazie).
He was succeeded by Edward the Confessor, who was an Anglo-Saxons. He
had spent all his life in monastery in Normandy.
When he came to England as a king, he brought with him the nobles
(nobili) in the high places of Church and State. He built Westminster
He was very religious and childless, and he didn’t have
When he died the Witan, an assembly of bishops (vescovi) and nobles,
elected Harold I, a Vikings government, but William, duke of Normandy,
claimed (rivendicava) the throne for himself because he said that
Edward, a relative of him, promised him the throne. So William lends
the British coast and marches towards London. He is met at Hastings by
King Harold and William defeats him and he is crowned king of England
After the Norman conquest feudalism was introduced in England.
FEU-dalism was derived from a French word.
The king had all the land and his subjects (sudditi) can have a part of
land in fee (in return for labor).
The Feudalism society was composed by the vassals, who were the Barons
and the Knights.
The Barons gave in return goods, labor, services (mainly military).
They in turn gave some of the lands to the knights, who gave the goods
to the barons.
After there were the peasants (contadini), who were divided in
villains, who were people can't move themselves from the land where
they were born and serfs, a sort of slaves).
The feudalism had peculiary characteristics: the State is always strong
When William distributed the lands between his vassals, he took care to
retain (trattenere) a quarter of the lands for himself.
His most important Barons couldn't have all the land in the same place,
but they had it shed (sparsa), so they can't became too strong for wage
(fare guerra) with the king.
Then William controlled the land with his sheriffs. There were a
sheriffs in every country. They had more power than the Barons.
The last thing William did concerned (riguarda) his relation with the
Peter's pence was a sort of tax to the Church for the support it has
given him during the conquer of Britain.
However he separated religious from lay.
After William there were 3 Norman kings and then Henry the II
Plantagenet because in his emblem there was Broom (ginestra) [in latin
plantagenistra]. He was a very important king for development of
He increased the power of the State and reduced the power of the Barons
making them pay a tax called scutage (tassa per i servizi militari).
After that the king with their money hired a personal army.
For the first time the Barons became more involved in their land.
Henry II began “The English Common Law”, sending
travelling judges all over the country. The modern system of law is
based on common and canon (the sentences before do law).
Henry II also tried to reduce the power of the Church with the
Clarendon's constitution, and the best way to approve it was to make
his friend and chancellor (cancelliere) Thomas Backet, archbishop of
On the contrary Thomas Backet went voluntary in exile (esilio) to
French. As soon as he went back to England for an apparent
reconciliation, he was murdered in 1170 in his cathedral by four
Thomas Backet was made saint and nowadays his tomb is a way of
As Henry II died, his son Richard the Lionheart became king from 1189
He was much more concerned (interessato) with war and religion, and he
led the Crusade in Holy land.
After him his brother John became king in 1199-1216. John was called
the Lackland because he lost Normandy. He was an inept (unable) king,
who wasn't loved by his Barons.
He had levied (richiedere) higher taxes and he had done so after an
unsuccessful campaign in French. Therefore his barons revolted him and
he was forced to sing the Magna Charta.
According to the Magna Charta none could be imprisoned without a trial
(processo), and texts couldn't be emanated without the nobles' consense.
For the first time in the history the king had to govern according to
After John the Lackland, Henry III became king but he was only a child
and the country was ruled by a group of noblemen.
The Barons however didn't accept this situation and they called a
For the first time during Henry III's reign, the Barons
repelled and called the Parliament. This word comes from the word
Parlet, it means discussion.
It was firstly haphazard, a meeting with nobles and clergymen (uomini
An important evolution of Parliament was during the reign of Edward I.
It was the based of the modern parliament, because 2 citizens of each
town and 2 citizens fro each county (contea) were sent to represent it
It also started the House the Commons.
Some important events took place; the first is the beginning of the 100
years war with France. It was an interrupted war; the reason was that
after the death of the ring of France, there wasn't heirs (eredi) and
Edward III claimed the throne for himself. But the real reason was for
England produced wool and exported in the Flanders, and France
threatened (minacciare) British's trades, so Edward tried to become
king of France.
The first phase of the war was successful for British with the battle
of Crecy and Poitier, but at the end of the war in 1443, England has
lost all its possetions in France, except Callaics.
It was during the reign of Edward III that the Black Death swept
through in Britain. It was called the Black Death because of the colour
of the corpse (cadaveri); it was the bubonic plague, an infection
disease (malattia infettiva) which was carried by fleas living on black
rats which infested the ships traded throw the
It was momentarily stopped during the winter of 1349 but it went on in
different waves until the last appearance in 1665. And it was called
the London plague.
The mortality rate was very high; it is generally thought that the
Black Death carried off a third of England’s population, so
it pass from 4 million to 2 and a half million.
In this period there was a wide spread (diffuso) anticlericalism in
Britain because of the wealth, luxury, corruption and immoral behaviour
in the church.
And was this period that a movement of reform started in Oxford in
1377; the leader of this movement was John Wycliffe. They condemned
ecclesiastical property and capital punishment, as well as the trade of
They were persecuted and many of them were put to death but their
ideals were at the based of the English reformation of the church.
Another very important event was the Peasants’ revolt in 1381
during the reign of Richard II. In this period there was a discontent
with the church, the living conditions were very bed for the poor, who
were also made more difficult by the uninterrupted state of war, and
also the Black Death contributed to do this difficult economic
conditions. It was with this situation that a tax, called poll tax, was
Poll means head, so the tax was demanded for each person alive. The
poor revolted and they marched to London because they wanted to speak
to the king. They attacked the houses of some noblemen and they opened
the prisons because they also revolted of these revenues of the power
of the barons the sheriffs and the church.
Richard II who was a boy, met them and promised that they would become
free men, but he was deceiving them. As soon as they withdrew, their
leader was caught, the revolt was stopped and their leader, Wat Tyler,
was put to death.
When Richard II, the last Plantagenet king, abdicated, he was
childless; so he was succeed by his cousin Henry, the duke of
Lancaster, and he was crowned with the name of Henry IV.
It was during the reign of Henry VI that a civil war broke out between
the two noble houses of York and Lancaster; it was called
“the war of the Roses” because in the emblem of
this family there were a rose: a red one of Lancaster and a white one
of York. It was fought between 1454 and 1485. The war finished when
Henry VII became king and he was the first Tudor king. With him there
was a new period in British history started and it was called
In this period there was an important development in British society:
it is the growth of middle classes and the guilds (gilde)
It was in 13th century that trade began to expand and living condition
started to get better but it was in 14th century that the new middle
class of artisan and trade man began to develop as well as the gentry
that are the small landowners.
Also the guilds developed in this period; a guild was group of artisan
and trade men organised to protect their interests.
ANGLO SAXON POETRY
Anglo Saxon poetry was mainly oral and was only later written down.
The poems were recited by the scop, who sang it accompanying himselfs
on the harp.
There were elegies and epic poems.
The most famous Anglo Saxon epic poem is Beowulf; it was composed
between 7th and 10th century and it’s the story of Beowulf, a
Scandinavian prince, who fights against two monsters, Grendal and his
mother, who are threatening the king of Jutland’s
reign. Beowulf saved the king and his country.
They narrated the deeds of nobles, aristocrats and the moral values of
the society; there were often supernatural events and myths.
There were stylistic features, the two main were stress (accento) and
stige nearwe] è old English
paths narrow] è modern English
Each line was divided into two halves and each half was divided by a
Each half line had two stressed syllables. Alliteration, the same
consonant sound at the beginning of the word, fell only on stressed
Kennings were a devices the scops used to avoid repetition (perifrasi).
It was a sort of riddle, such as:
-beaga-brytta = the ring giver, that is the
-sinces brytta = the treasure giver, that is the king
-freowine = a gracious friend, that is the king
Towards the end of the 12th century, old English had already started to
change and to lose declensions.
This process went on until about 1150: it is the date of middle English.
Middle English came from the fusion of 3 different languages.
1 Anglo Saxon: it was still spoken among the lower classes after the
2 Norman French: was brought to England by William the Conqueror; it
was the language of the ruling classes.
3 Latin: was the language of the church and of the courts of law.
These languages were spoken up to the middle of 13th century. Later
Norman French went out of fashion because of the 100 year war.
In 1356 English was ordered to be the language of courts.
What remained of old English was the Saxon’s genitive, the
plural with “s” and the article
“the”. The language acquired a lot of French words.
Anyway middle English was not one single language, there were different
dialects. Eventually, the east England dialect became the language of
literature, the most used all over the country and of the court.
There were 3 main types of literary works in middle English:
2) narrative poem
3) drama (morality plays or miracle plays)
The ballad was the favourite narrative of the middle age.
It was a sort of narrative poem often sung and anonymous. Their main
characteristics depend on its oral transmission. The form is simple and
regular with stanzas of 4 lines called quatrains (ABAB ABCB).
Ballads were often told in form of questions and answers. The language
is very simple, there were no descriptions.
Everything appears through the character’s actions and
dialogue. There is repetition of one or more lines with slight
The themes in ballads were very simple. The minstrel sang the ballads
while being accompanied by a harp. The theme, such as magic, love and
tragedy, appealed to the common people. There is a group of ballads
called “border ballads” that narrated the struggles
of the Scots fighting for their independence from the English.
The singers (minstrels) were not interest in originality and so we have
many versions for each ballad. They used stock phrases that they had
committed to memory to recite the ballad. They needed to know the
story, the plot and the stock phases by heart. The rest was improvised.
The invention of printing was the main reason for the decline of the
The Ballad was the favourite form of transmission for the popular story
of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood was a yeoman (a landowner) who, for some reasons, became an
outlaw (fuorilegge). He lived during the reign of John the Lackland and
was helped by a group called “The Merry Men”. They
lived together in Sherwood Forrest and fought against the nobles and
the Sheriff of Naughtingham. Together they robbed (derubare) from the
rich and gave to the poor. The Sheriff of Naughtingham poisoned
(avvelenare) Robin Hood, who shot an arrow (freccia). He was buried
where the arrow hit the ground.
Geoffrey Chaucer is the most important Middle English writer.
He is considered the father of English literature. Born around 1343 in
a middle class family, his father was trader of wine. As a child, he
was sent to court as a page during the reign of Edward III.
He had a good education and spoke fluent French as it was the language
of the courts. He became familiar with French literary works, authors
and classical writers such as Virgil and Ovid.
Since he was 17 years old, he was sent on diplomatic missions to France
and Italy. During his missions to Italy he probably met Boccaccio and
probably came to know the Decameron. He certainly became acquainted
with Divina Commedia as he quotes Divina Commedia in the Canterbury
Tales. These authors were important for his future development as a
writer in the last phase of his literary works.
Upon his return to England, he continued working for the courts as a
custom officer and also writing poetry until his death.
He died in the year 1400, possibly at the age of 56.
His literary production is usually divided into 3 periods:
1 Period (1359 – 1372) – This is called the French
period, as he was strongly influenced by the themes and styles of
French courtly poems. His most important works of this period are
“Le Romande de la Rose” and “the Book of
2 Period (1372 – 1386) – This is called the Italian
period. His most important work of this period is
“Troilus” and “Crisyde”, the
translation of Boccaccio Filostrato. Dante’s helped him
3 Period (1386 – 1400) – This is called the English
period when he wrote about English contemporary society. This is when
he wrote the Canterbury Tales.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s most famous work. It is a
narrative–descriptive poem that he never finished. He wrote
only 24 tales out of the 120 he had planned to write.
THE PLOT/SUMMARY OF THE CANTERBURY TALES
The story start in spring on an April morning when the poet meets 29
pilgrimins in the Tabard Inn located in Southwork (a suburb south of
These pilgrims are setting on a pilgrimage to Thomas Backets shrine in
In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, he gives a description of each
There are 3 women and 26 men. They represent the upper and middle
The aristocracy is not represented because they were supposed to travel
on their own and with their servants, not with other pilgrims. Also,
the servants were not represented because they had no means to go. As
they are talking the host of the Inn suggests that they tell 2 stories
on their way to Canterbury and 2 tales on their way back in order to
pass the time away. He also offers to travel with them and act as a
judge. The best story teller would travel at the expense of his fellow
THE STRUCTURE OF THE CANTERBURY TALES
There is a prologue that gives the setting and description of the
The 24 tales are usually preceded by a prologue. In each prologue, the
themes and characters are deal with. The tales were also sometimes
followed by an epilogue.
The characters are presented through their behaviour, clothes, words,
their roles in society and their professions as this is what
conditioned everyone’s’ way of thinking. They are
typical characters of literary tradition and English society (honest
knights, libertine Friar, bossy wife, the lady-like Prioress). They
represent English medieval society, the feudal society (knights and
Yeoman). The clergy is largely represented with the Prioress, the monk,
the Friar and the pardoner. The towns and trades were represented with
the physician, merchant, cook and tapestry-maker.
These characters are typical of English society but they are not
stereotypes as in French allegorical literature. They are strongly
characterised by tales, description, words and the tales themselves
tell us about their problems, fears and conditions.
The pilgrimage can be seen as a device that Chaucer used to bring all
the different characters together with a typical English social event.
Moreover, the pilgrimage has an important symbolic meaning from a
religious point of view as in the middle ages life was considered as a
sort of pilgrimage to the holy, we should also think that there were
not holidays and pilgrimages were often used as a holiday or for
THEMES OF THE CANTERBURY TALES
The themes are typical of medieval literature (loves, marriage,
miracles, hypocrisy). And they almost always have a moralistic aim/
purpose with a stress on the spiritual valves which were so important
in the middle ages.
STYLE OF THE CANTERBURY TALES
This narrative poem is written in verse. He uses rhyme for the first
time, what will later be called the heroic caplet. It is formed by two
lines of rhyming iambic pentameter that is 5 feet of unstressed +
Chaucer’s pilgrimage to Canterbury can be related to
Dante’s pilgrimage from hell to heaven. It is a sort of
journey through 14th century in Italy as Chaucer’s is a
journey through England. Dante was the 1st to use the Tuscan for
literature purposes as Chaucer was the 1st to use the English from
London. As for his relationship to Boccaccio the only thing in common
is the social event in the Tale. But the 100 tales of the Decameron
told by men and women skipping from the plague and took place in a
Villa near Florence. All the young people in the Decameron are in the
same social classes where they are in different classes in the
Also, all of Boccaccio characters speak in the same language and
aren’t individualized by the words they say. Whereas Chaucer
gives a psychological description through their language. Chaucer
himself becomes a character in the Canterbury Tales and takes part in
the pilgrimage. As for the story Boccaccio narrated, they come from all
over Europe. Writers in this period weren’t concerned
inventing stories. The story of Griselda is narrated in both the
Canterbury Tales and the Decameron but Chaucer said that he had come to
know this story from a Latin translation by Petrarca.
After the Wars of the Roses, a new age started. This age is called the
English Renaissance and began in the year 1485. After the War of the
Roses, Henry VII who defeated Richard III (the last king of the House
of York) in the Battle of Bosworth, became the King of England and
started the dynasty of the tutors.
Henry VII was above all a good administrator who brought financial
stability to the country. He was able to check the power of the nobles
and laid the foundations of England’s naval power and even
encouraged trade with foreign countries. By the end of his reign,
feudalism had come to an end and a strong centralized state had been
established even if during his long reign of 24 years, he only summoned
parliament seven times. He died in 1509. At his death his son, Henry
VIII, came to the English throne.
Henry VIII had a very different personality. He maintained a
magnificent court. He loved art, sports, and was also known for being
cruel. He married six times as he wanted a son and in the end, he did
get a son along with two daughters. The son, Edward VI later became
king and the daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I, later became Queens.
Henry VIII reinforced the English naval fleet with ships especially
made to fight, adopted to the ocean and easy to manoeuvre.
The most important even for English history was the reformation because
it reduced the power of the clergy and was one of the principle steps
in the change from medieval to modern society. Henry VIII wanted to
divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon because she had only given
him a daughter, but the Pope Clement VII refused to grant him the
divorce he needed. So, Henry VIII eventually passed the Act of
Supremacy in 1534 and with it he declared himself Supreme Head of the
Church of England. He accepted the principles of the Protestant
movement as they were presents in the ninety-five thesis that Martin
Luther attached to the door of his Church in Wittenberg in 1517.
All of those who dared oppose him or refused to accept the Act were
imprisoned and sometimes put to death. This happened to Tom More (a
catholic who was his counsellor). He also suppressed the orders of
friars and monks and ordered the priests to recite in English instead
of Latin. Masses were no longer in Latin.
The lands and monasteries that belonged to them were confiscated and
given to his supporters. And in some of the monasteries state schools
were established and were called King’s Schools.
After a long reign (1509-1547) Henry VIII died. At his death his son,
Edward VI succeeded him. He was only ten years old and his reign was
short as he died at the age of sixteen in 1553. The important even
during his reign is that Arch Bishop Cranmer publicized the Book of
Common Prayer which is very important for the English language and
literature because it was the first book of England in English. It
harmonized the new and old population together. However, there were
also persecutions of the Roman Catholics.
After his death his sister, Mary I (the daughter of Henry VII first
wife, Catherine of Aragon) became queen and like her mother, she was
catholic and tried to restore Catholicism in England. She also insisted
on marrying Phillip II of Spain who was the most fanatic catholic
sovereign in Europe despite the fact that her subjects did not support
this. Moreover, during her reign three hundred protestants
were burned. This was a really cruel prosecution and for this reason
she was later known as Bloody Mary. For these reasons the English
people came to perceive the old religion as foreign, cruel, and
unpatriotic. Her reign only lasted five years. She died in 1558 and her
sister, Elizabeth I came to the throne.
Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VII second wife, Ann Boleyn.
Elizabeth I had a remarkable personality. She was a strong-willed
intelligent woman who had a wide classical education and could speak
several languages. She was also able to surround herself with
intelligent counsellors. When she came to the throne, the country was
too weak to defend itself from a foreign invasion but she managed to
make the most of the rivalry of France and Spain as neighbouring one of
them could allow the other the prevail over England. She exploited the
Religious Wars in Spain and moreover, she let Phillip II of Spain
believe that she would marry him to keep Spain from invading. She never
did marry him. She died a Virgin Queen and is to this day known as the
Virgin Queen. During Elizabeth I reign the protestant religion was
established in the form of Anglicism. That was the 15th English
national church with the queen/king as the head.
Catholicism was declared illegal and Puritanism (an evolution of the
protestant religion) was prosecuted as well on the ground of
non-conformity to the Anglican Church. There were plots against
Elizabeth I the most famous of which was lead by her cousin Mary
Stewart who was the Queen of Scotland. Mary Stewart was imprisoned and
executed after twenty years.
It was during Elizabeth I reign that the British Empire started. She
supported and reinforced the navy just as her father and grandfather
had done before her.
Her greatest achievement was the victory over the Invincible Armada
(her strongest Spanish fleet in 1588).
Elisabeth VI died childless and her nearest relative was James VI of
Scotland, who was Mary Stuart's son. James became King of England as
James I and for the first time, the two kingdoms were united.
He believed in the divine right's king to rule and he tried to rule
without the support of Parliament and he summoned Parliament only when
he needed money. He created a wide spread discontent of his subject.
Moreover he managed to alienate both Catholics and Puritans. There are
two main events: the first was Gunpowder Plot lead by Guy Fawkes. They
wanted to blow up (esplodere) the Parliament in session with the king
in it, using gunpowder (polvere da sparo). It happened the 5 November
The other important event took place in 1620. James I persecuted the
Puritans and in order to avoid persecutions, a group called Pilgrim
Father, left by England with a boat called Mayflowers. They went in
North America and founded New England.
The sonnet was the most popular poetical form among the aristocracy and
at court during the renaissance. The sonnet had his origin in Italy,
where Dante and Petrarch had developed this form. Petrarch’s
Canzoniere in particular fixed a set of images and themes, which were a
model for all European poets/sonneteers.
Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) brought the sonnet
to England. Sir Thomas Wyatt went to Italy on a diplomatic mission and
he came to know Petrarch’s Canzoniere. They introduced sonnet
to England. It was a sort of translation or imitation of
They also introduced some slight changes in the structure of the
sonnet. These are the main reasons why they are still known today, and
not for their own poetry, whereas Edmond Spencer, Sir Philip Sidney and
William Shakespeare wrote sonnets with a more personal inspiration.
THE THEMES OF THE SONNET
The central theme of the sonnet, both Italian (or Petrarchian) and
English (also called Elizabethan or Shakespearian), is the love for an
unattainable lady, who cannot return the poet’s love. The
poet on one hand wanted the lady, but on the other hand he
didn’t want her to surrender, as she was an idealised figure
and she was considered a means to reach god. Therefore she had to be
pure and the love had to remain pure as well. The lady, who is usually
beautiful and celestial, is described from the poet’s point
of view but there is no hint to her feelings.
Theme of beauty: Beauty represented perfection, but the beauty of the
lady changed during the time and the aim of the poet is to make this
beauty live, to make it immortal through poetry.
THE FORM OF THE SONNET
It is a 14-lines poem; the Italian sonnet was written in
endecasillabos, the English sonnet in iambic pentameter, but there is
also another difference between the Italian and the English sonnet and
it is due to the fact that it is easier to find rhymes in Italian.
The Petrarchian sonnet was made of two quatrains or an octave and a
sestet or two tercets. These stanzas were rhyming ABBA, ABBA, CDC, CDC.
Wyatt divided the sestet in a quatrain and a couplet, so English sonnet
had three quatrains and a couplet, rhyming ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG.
These different structures also influenced the content. Petrarchian
sonnets presented a problem in the first octave and a solution in the
last sestet, whereas in the English sonnet you have the same problem
presented from three different point of view in the 3 quatrains, and a
solution is drawn in the last couplet.
English sonneteers used a refined language full of Latinate words. And
this language was full of paradoxes for instance: “I burn and
freeze”. A parody is a figure of speech and it is based on a
statement that seems to be impossible because it contradicts itself.
This language is also full of similes. Similes are comparisons of two
things using the world “like”,
“as” or the verb “resemble”.
And English sonnets were full of conceits. They were elaborates
comparisons that have nothing in common but thought speech the author
shows their similarities.
Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets was published in 1609 but
they were probably written between 1590 and 1600 at a time when the
theatres were closed because of the plague, since it was trough that
the plague was more easily spread thought travelling actors and
This collection of sonnets is made up of 154 sonnets and has a
dedication to a mysterious Mr. H W who was probably Mr. Henry
Wiothesley. He was the Earl of Southampton and Shakespeare’s
As for the form of the sonnets, Shakespeare adopted the form as it was
introduced by Wyatt. Never the less, the contempt of the sonnets was
Petrarchian with a turning point at the end of each line. This style
was only called Elizabethan or Petrarchian after Shakespeare had
Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets is divided into two
sections. The first section is composed of sonnets 1-126 while the
second section is sonnets 127-154. In the first section there is
another division. Sonnets 1-17 are called marriage sonnets. As all
sonnets in the first section address a fair youth, probably the Earl of
Southampton, with this 17 sonnets, Shakespeare exhorts this young man
to marry and produce an heir as a means to perpetuate his beauty.
Sonnets 18-126 are addressed to the same man but deal with a number of
different themes like the effects of time love and beauty and also
universal themes such as love, death, beauty and art.
Moreover, within this group of sonnets there are same addressed to a
This rival poet is perceived as threatening to Shakespeare’s
relationship with the young man because this poet also dedicated some
poems to the same young man.
The second section is much shorter (sonnets 127-154) and these sonnets
are dedicated to a dark lady who’s identity is still unknown.
She certainly wasn’t physically attractive and probably
didn’t portray perfection from a moral pint of view.
But she was desirable and unlike the other sonneteers, Shakespeare
didn’t only deal with courtly love. He also dealt with a real
and not idealized woman and the sonnets for him are a means to examine
universal theme. His sonnets are the most original in English
literature with a richness of language and feelings never reached
Within this group of sonnets we can detect the development of
Shakespeare’s relationship with the young man. They are
sonnets that praise the young man’s beauty and advise him to
procreate children. There is also suffering for the passing of time as
the young man’s beauty fades with time. But there is also
hope because love is immortal and the poet wants to make it immortal
THE ENGLISH DRAMA
English drama can be traced back to the Middle Ages and even earlier.
It is connected to the liturgical ritual. The clergy had
always tried to make common people understand religion by means of
dramatic performances. In Italy, for instance, St. Francis had
represented Christ’s nativity with a real cradle baby in a
real cradle and had leading characters representing the scene of his
Little by little, scenic effects and dialogues were added. Latin was
substituted by English and other elements not strictly connected with
religion were introduced. Therefore, the aim was not to make it easier
for people to understand but to entertain. Therefore, with time
performances became more popular and audience grew. This is
performances, which at first took place inside the church, were later
moved outside the church to the courtyard and then to the other parts
of the town. These performances were first directed by the clergy but
later the direction was taken up by the guilds.
There are two groups of plays: miracles/mystery and morality plays.
There is not a clear distinction between miracles and mystery but we
could say that mysteries are based on the stories of the Bible whereas
miracles are based on the lives of Saints.
Moralities were not strictly linked with religion but dealt with the
conflict between good and evil. Therefore, the characters is these
plays were personifications of vices and virtues for instance anger,
good deeds and death or they were general representations of man for
example there was everyman or mankind.
Another form of drama was the interlude. Interludes were short
performances were the characters were real, not personifications, and
their aim was to entertain comically between the acts of morality plays.
In the Elizabethan Age drama, unlike poetry, was a popular form of out.
Poetry was a form of art restricted to elites who has good education
whereas drama as it was spoken could be understood by everyone.
Moreover, prices of tickets were low and the language was simple and
the habit to attend the performances was widespread. People were used
to attending them because of miracle and mystery plays. We can say that
theatre was the most characteristic form of art in this period.
Up to 1576 there were no theatres and plays were performed on a
platform in inn’s courtyards. But the growing popularity of
these performances convinced a carpenter and actor, James Burbage, to
build the first theatre outside the walls of the town. He called it
This theatre was so successful and a good investment that soon other
theatre were build, the most famous of which was “the
THE STAGE OF THE THEATRE
The theatres were really different from how they are today: they were
circular or octagonal. There were three rows of galleries around the
walls and they were covered with seats. Common people paid one penny to
see the play from the yard while those who could pay high admission
fees could seat on the stage. The stage, called apron, was half covered
by a roof and had the audience around it on three sides.
The Globe was the theatre build by the Chamberlain’s man,
Shakespeare’s Company, and it was closed by the puritan in
1642 and burnt in 1644 to build houses in that place. Performances took
place only in the afternoon, because there weren’t artificial
light, and lasted about two hours.
There were no curtain and therefore the scene succeeded one another
without interruption and there were very few objects on the stage.
(table à room; plant à
wood; crown à king)
Therefore the audience had to imagine the set and the actors were very
good at creating the scenes with their actions and words.
If on one hand the scene was essential, on the other hand costumes and
make up were really elaborated to overcome the difficulties of acoustic
and also because some of the people were very distant from the players
and also because people watching plays were often speaking, laughing or
eating. The aim of the costumes and make up was to represent the main
There weren’t actresses so female parts were made by young
boys and they needed costumes and make up.
SHAKESPEARE AND PLAYS
Shakespeare is considered the most important play writer of all time.
This is partly due to the variability of themes explained in his plays
but also because he's the first playwright-dramatist to explore the
important questions of life (Where am I going? What is love? What is
death?). The themes are those of power, war, love, death, generation.
Moreover his language and characters have so many different aspects
that every spectator of every time and place can find something that
appeal to him.
The main sources for his plays were “Plutarch
Lives”, than the works by Generality Cinzio and Sir Giovanni
Fiorentino, but also Chaucer’s works and the works of many
other authors. Anyway we must say that these material were deeply
changed and so that they acquired new value and new meaning.
PLAYS AND DATES
As most of his contemporary Shakespeare was not concerned with the
publishing his work. They were published only after his death in 1623
by two actors of his company who were his friends in what was later
called “The first Foglio”. In this first foglio the
plays were grouped according to genre without a date. We can determine
the date of the play according to the various stylistic elements as
well as according to external and internal evidences.
His plays can be divided into periods:
-the 1st period was from 1589 to 1595, it is called the period of
experimentation (“Richard III” and “the
comedy of errors”);
-the 2nd period was from 1595 to 1600, it is the period of maturity
when he wrote historical plays and great comedies (“Romeo and
Juliet”, “The 12th nights”,
“Richard II”, “Henry V”,
“Julius Caesar”, “The Merchant of
-the 3rd period was from 1600 to 1608, it is called the period of great
tragedies (“Hamlet”, “The king
-the 4th period was from 1608 to 1613, it is the period of the last
plays (“Henry VIII” and “The
The plays of the first two periods reveal a positive outlook of life.
In the 3rd period there is a sadder vision of life where human values,
such as friendship and love, are crumbling (frantumarsi) and where men
lived in a chaotic world.
In the last period a new serenity has been attained (acquisita).
ROMEO AND JULIET
Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s first romantic tragedy and
its fame is due to his ability to present the story of an adolescent
love with the passion typical of the first love between two teenagers.
In this tragedy the issue is presented from different point of view:
for Juliet’s father love is a contract between two families;
for Juliet’s nurse love is something physical; for Paris, the
man Juliet has been promise to, love is a social matter.
The theme of destiny and free will is also important. The two main
characters decide on their own what they want to their future to be,
but fate is there to crush their hopes, their plans to the future. This
is also a tragedy of communication massages on reported in a wrong way.
What is interesting is that Shakespeare creates a gap of knowledge
between the audience and the characters: the tension is created because
There is also the contrast between the appearance and reality.
Another important thing is the generation gap, the lock of
communication between generations.
The serenity and purity of Romeo’s and Juliet’s
love is not understood and not accepted by the old generation; and the
Romeo’s and Juliet’s death is a sort of sacrifice
with finally units the two families.
The most important thing we have to remember about the style and
language is Shakespeare’s ability in using different style
and languages according to the different personality and social
position and according to their mude.
Romeo’s speech is lyrical as Romeo represents courtly love,
Juliet’s language is more concrete and Juliet is also able to
reflect on the meaning of the words, the servants use prose and the
nurse uses idiomatic colloquial expression.
DATES AND SOURCES
Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1600, but the story narrated is
Hamlet was mention for the first time in the “Historia
Danica” by the dame Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th century and
Shakespeare probably6 knew a play of the same subject called
“Poor Hamlet”, dating around 1580’s, of
which there are no traces left.
GENRE AND FEATURES
This play belongs to the revenge tragedy which was popular in
Elizabethan drama and Shakespeare uses some of the convention typical
the appearance of ghost which urges the main character, the
protagonist, to take revenge;
simulated madness to conceal one’s real ends;
horrible death with much blood shedding;
the presence of skull on the stage;
the unnecessary death of heroin;
the play within the play to unmask the villain.
"Hamlet" is much richer than the other tragedies as the audience's
attention is drawn to Hamlet himself and to his personality and there
is many other interesting
themes explored in the tragedy, for instance the order of society has
been disrupted because the king had been killed and because he was the
legitimate king and he was a good ruler and he was killed by his own
Another theme is about the relationship between action and thought.
Too much thinking isn't allowed Hamlet to act. Moreover Hamlet's
decision and analysis are typical of modern man. Another theme is the
contrast between the interior evil and a healthy exterior.
"Something is rotten in the State of Denmark".
DATES AND SOURCES OF THE TEMPEST
The tempest was written between 1609 and 1611, during the last part of
Shakespeare’s literary production.
The editors of the first folio put it at the beginning of the
collection, as it can be considered a summering of
Shakespeare’s plays as many of the themes and elements of
Shakespeare's plays can be traced in the other plays as well.
Among the sources of these plays there aren’t particular
Shakespeare mainly due his inspiration of reporting the shipwreck due
to a tempest on an island of Bahamas in 1609 where the passengers spent
6 months before arriving in Virginia, where they were bound.
Shakespeare had also read an essay by Montaigne on cannibals for which
the names of Caliban comes.
Some passages show some resemblance with Ovid’s metamorphosis
and there are also some links with the Italian commedia
Perhaps the most important theme of the tempest is the magic. It was a
popular theme in the renaissance in fact the protagonist of Dr Faustus,
by Marlow, is a sort of magician who uses his power to evoke the devil
and to sign a pact with him. Two types of magic are represented here:
black magic that of the witch Sycorax, who is Caliban’s
mother, and the white magic that of Prospero who declare to use it only
for good ends.
Another theme of colonisation, a theme that had began to be of interest
for English audience after European people had started to colonise
The power relationship between colonizers and colonised people is
reflected in the relationship between Prospero and Miranda and Caliban
and the other.
The formers try to impose their values and culture on the literature.
Another theme is that of the power of words and art represented by
Prospero also represented the artist can never master it completely and
in the end he was to let it free at the same way as the play writer was
to let the play free into the world and be perceived and interpreted
independently by authors will.