History is alive in the Individual: the Individual comes to life in History. The Individual is the unique, the differentiated, the precise leaf, or the single flower. Commitment, character, courage, love, desire, and delight are aspects of the Individual. What we are part of but cannot see, what must always lie in the past, irretrievable and unrepeatable, is our History. In the flow of time there are moments when Individuality is enhanced. Those moments throw up the remarkable, the self-contained personality, defined as if by a bounding line. Often they are moments when the flow of time seems to enter a narrow gorge, before opening out to flood the plain. Ideas, which have developed in the depths, and remained submerged, appear suddenly above the surface. They are the moments of genesis.
England in the 1590’s and early 1600’s is just such a moment. Its atmosphere is the essence of what we know as the Elizabethan. Essex, Marlowe, Raleigh, Donne are unique personalities thrown into dramatic relief by the actions and thoughts of that time. Marlowe and Essex die within the Elizabethan Age, but Raleigh and Donne live on beyond it to a time when the ideas alive in Elizabethan England, held in solution in the test tube, suddenly crystallise. The intellectual ambitions and aspirations of Elizabethan England, transformed, become the driving forces of the English Revolution.
Out of the cauldron emerged the new. Parliamentary democracy; secular law and justice; global trade and commerce; imperialist exploration and acquisition; naval and military power; individual human rights, and the scientific project. The former world was overturned. That world of divine kingship; arbitrary justice; limited horizons; constrained ambitions; the temporal power of religion; and of knowledge derived from tradition rather than experience.
Essex, Marlowe, Raleigh and Donne, express the turmoil. Drama in life is paralleled by drama in Elizabethan theatre. The brilliant literature of the age feeds on and in turn feeds intellectual debate and popular opinion. Opposing ideas clash. Thoughts conflict within the same mind. There is a readiness to adopt and discard. In the turmoil there is often inconsistency. Protagonists say one thing and do another. Equally the consequences of their actions are often not what they appear to desire or anticipate.
Essex becomes a symbol of a more glorious England, full of nationalistic pride, that is past and gone, his death an example of injustice and arbitrary manipulation of the law. His Protestant allegiance and anti-Spanish stance is remembered. His failings are forgotten. His execution causes resentment against Crown and Government, and yet he himself was neither a democrat nor anti-royalist.
Donne’s early works are subversive, yet he dies an orthodox servant of the State religion and the King. His espousal of the Protestant faith is an indication of the social and intellectual fate of English Catholicism. His Songs and Sonnets with their world of internalised love poetry, their adaptation of religious concepts of sacredness to private feeling and eroticism, have no visible influence on the world of revolution, but become part of the literary underground to re-surface in the sensibilities of the Romantics. His sermons on the other hand support and confirm Puritan instincts and social attitudes, and repudiate the early poetry in a transfer of human to religious love.
Raleigh takes care to explain and confirm both his loyalty to the Crown and his Protestant orthodoxy. He has been a Courtier, benefited from monopolistic favouritism, incurred popular disapproval for his perceived rivalry with Essex, and might seem the very image of a Royalist. Yet his freethinking intellectualism, which encouraged friendships with men of wide-ranging views, has also resulted in accusations of atheism, and associated him with radical thought. His voyages of exploration and sponsoring of colonial ventures, his experiments and his writings in the Tower, broaden English horizons, and stimulate scientific effort. With Bacon he can be seen as one of the great initiators of the scientific project in England. His speeches in Parliament, and aspects of his writings, make him a respected intellectual source to Puritan political activists including Cromwell. His anti-Spanish nationalism has popular support. His achievements in war, on land and sea, represent the glorious England of the Elizabethan zenith. The injustice of his trial and execution rankle. The courage he showed can be held up as an example. His energy, multifarious abilities, and intellectual power are recognised and his loss regretted. He shines like a light on the gloomy, repressive England of the Stuarts.
Marlowe seems the most clear-cut. His radical thinking is highly subversive, and where he seems orthodox there is an ironic stance and an ambiguous dramatic voice. He is a part of that shadowy underworld of espionage and mercenary allegiances that is reflected later in the masterless men of Revolutionary London. His attitudes to sexuality, religion, social structure, authority, and traditional wisdom are ambivalent and challenging. In Faustus he creates a symbol of the aspiring individual, ambitious of power through new knowledge. He plays to religious fears and exhibits the old learning in his drama, but his connections with the scientific and free-thinking set around Raleigh, Essex and Bacon suggest that his personal views are more radically in favour of the scientific project. His key themes are ambition, and the attainment of power, in a poetry full of the verbal ecstasies of sensual and aesthetic worldly glory, and in that sense he represents the deep radical and libertarian undercurrent in English thought which appears similarly in Shelley.
The four individuals display the consolidation of Protestantism, even though there is also anticipation of the scientific, rational, desacralised future. There is the unquestioningly Protestant Essex, and Donne’s apostasy from Catholicism to a secure position in the Anglican Church. There is also Raleigh the religious freethinker who nevertheless in his History of the World demonstrates his underlying orthodoxy. Marlowe alone verges on atheism yet the ending of his drama of Faustus is still a wholly religious conclusion appropriate to the age.
Religion was a critical compound, a catalyst, in the mixture inside the test-tube, strangely present there, as it was in the Florentine Renaissance, alongside classical reference, and secular originality. Catholicism represented the old order; hereditary power; royalty, subjection to foreign authority. It faced developing Puritanism, with its concepts of unmediated spiritual communication; the equality of believers; the power and authority of the people; independence and creative newness. In the midst was the official Protestant Church.
Elizabeth clearly asserted the Protestant religion maintaining freedom from Rome while at the same time allowing some freedom of worship. Religious extremism was curbed when necessary. She transferred to herself the attributes of the Virgin Goddess in courtly masque. A degree of tolerance was shown towards discreet Catholic allegiance. It has been said that she maintained the religious balance. It is more accurate to say that she merely created an authorised centre-ground. The suppression of extremism effectively marginalised and defused the potency of the Catholic faith, but left the Puritan radicals to find new strength under her unimpressive successors. Ironically while upholding hereditary kingship, she was a woman, who died childless, and of a dynasty which needed all Shakespeare’s skill to argue its legitimacy. And by suppressing and defusing the mythical elements of Catholicism she also desacralised the Crown.
All Religion was challenged by sceptical, rational, pragmatic thought. That thought derived from the Renaissance ferment, from exploration and experiment, from the experience of living. In Marlowe this exhibits itself as something close to atheism, and as a Machiavellian realism about the motives behind power politics. Elizabeth herself and her ministers encouraged the use of Reason, even though, in a further irony, sceptical questioning and secular debate was instrumental in fomenting the English Revolution. In Raleigh, Marlowe, the young John Donne, and among Essex’s set, it is evident as a wide-ranging intellectual open-mindedness and curiosity. This ferment was profoundly disturbing. Issues of religion, social order and moral values deeply affected Donne and also Shakespeare. Their Catholic background made them perhaps more sensitive to the challenge to human values that the new thinking represented.
The rituals and the values of the ancient world were still embedded in Elizabethan society, despite the long historical antagonism of the Christian Church. Those values incorporated ideas of the sacred; of the role of love and sexuality; of the relationship of Man to Nature, embodied as Woman, and worshipped as the Great Goddess. Catholicism, with the myth of the sacrificed God and the Virgin enshrined within it, was as close to religious concepts not derived from Judaism or original with Christianity, as it was to the Protestant religion of Sin and the Fall, of Redemption and Divine Mercy. However the ancient values, were repressed within all contemporary religion and often regarded as heretical, and so could only be explored internally, within the private life and mind. This process is visible in Donne’s early poetry, and in Shakespeare’s later plays. Ideas are retrieved from the arcane literatures of Neoplatonism, and the Mystical tradition. Religious terminology is transferred to a secular context. The Individual becomes a world, a private and personal world, which can also be a refuge, a temple, where the ancient sacred marriage and the humane values can continue to be celebrated.
The English Revolution can be presented legitimately as a battle between Catholicism and Puritanism, Crown and Parliament, positioned as old order and new order, static and progressive. The situation was more subtle than that. The Goddess worshipped across the ancient world, as far back as Paleolithic times, still appeared, though in a weakened and diminished form, in the person of the Virgin. The Church was inimical to the Goddess and to unredeemed Nature from its inception, nevertheless the deep persistence of Goddess worship can be seen by the strength of the cult of the Virgin in Medieval times. So Catholicism, though it represented stasis, superstition, mediated authority, and the powerlessness of the individual trapped in the cycles of eternal ritual, was also a refuge for some of the ancient human values and attitudes. It revealed a source of respect for Woman as expressed in the female personalities of the Old and New Testaments and gave continuing emphasis to female values of love, pity and compassion. Shakespeare expresses these human values in Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale, where the ancient temple of the Goddess appears at the crucial final act of the drama, in the context of reunion, resurrection and redemption, of love and compassion. A Catholic background and classical knowledge could still make visible the benign face of the Goddess.
Equally Puritanism by preaching unmediated equality, the power and independence of the people, and a future destiny for Mankind, was a religion of social change. It did value friendship highly. It did celebrate Woman, love and sexuality within the bounds of marriage. But equally there was a denigration of Woman as Eve the perpetrator of the Fall, a marginalisation of independent female values within society, and the ruling presence of the male and militant Old Testament Jehovah. It damaged the view of external nature as potent and sacred. It placed the power of the female within closed boundaries. It easily lead to a claustrophobic sin and death oriented darkness of theological thought, as reactionary, limited and stultifying as institutionalised Catholicism. Donne’s later life and sermons are only too often a human but sad expression of this.
Parliament, Crown, and Church are a set of mask-like surfaces under which the changes moved. Power was transferred to the wider social structure. Religion began to separate from the Secular State. The personal and private separated from the public and social. Science opposed tradition and superstition. Technology and exploration challenged the known and the accepted. Nature was increasingly divorced from Civilisation as urban culture developed. Imperialism and Global commerce threatened to again rework historical identities. Rights and the secular law superseded divine authority. Self-determination even if severely restricted by class began to replace inherited order. Economic, and technological, forces became the dominant drivers of social restructuring with military power as their servant. The values underlying these changes were institutionalised. The discussion of alternative values went underground, into art, into philosophy, into radical opinion and minority movements, into personal conscience, into private thought.
There was the beginning of that immense polarisation between the external world and the internal world that we have inherited. The external world has its ambitious projects of exploration, explanation and exploitation. It is the world of commerce and science. It is the place where power resides. All things in it are resources, means to a defined end, which may subsequently appear obsolete or meaningless. The internal world of values, pleasures, appreciation, awareness, empathy, and compassion, becomes the place where love resides. All things in that world are individual and unique, sacred and unrepeatable, ends in themselves, and rich with meaning, but powerless. The individual lives at their intersection. The more deeply and fully the individual tries to live the more agonising become the conflicts. It becomes in extremis the shirt of Nessus that cannot be removed and cannot be endured.
The Elizabethan Age is the moment in England when these massive changes begin to be felt. It is an earthquake zone, where Poseidon roars underground, and the surface shakes. All the elements are there, but confused and uncertain. It is a difficult and dangerous time to live. It is, though, radically original. That can be seen by contrasting the great Elizabethan moment, the fifteen years from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to Elizabeth’s death in 1603, with the next thirty years, which are a working through of the Elizabethan legacy. In the first period England achieves a vigorous national identity, creates a brilliant literature and drama, and tests the possibility of a colonial presence. In the second period there is an increasingly restrictive stillness, an introspective gloominess, a broad failure of policy, and repeated Court scandal. Out of that stillness the Civil war erupts, almost as a war of liberation. The Elizabethan Age contrasted with this second pre-Revolutionary period had been outward looking, optimistic and vibrantly alive.
Essex, Marlowe, Raleigh and Donne were precursors. They lived the possibilities. They shared an ambition to achieve and an ability to reach out to experience. They had the desire and the nerve to assault the heavens, in pride and aspiration.
Copyright © 2000 A. S. Kline, All Rights Reserved
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Last Modified 08/02/2000