Filología Inglesa

Literatura Inglesa



Short Summary of Beowulf:

The poem begins with a brief genealogy of the Danes. Scyld Shefing was the first great king of the Danes, known for his ability to conquer enemies. Scyld becomes the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes during the events of Beowulf. Hrothgar, like his ancestors before him, is a good king, and he wishes to celebrate his reign by building a grand hall called Heorot. Once the hall is finished, Hrothgar holds a large feast. The revelry attracts the attentions of the monster Grendel, who decides to attack during the night. In the morning, Hrothgar and his thanes discover the bloodshed and mourn the lost warriors. This begins Grendel's assault upon the Danes.

Twelve years pass. Eventually the news of Grendel's aggression on the Danes reaches the Geats, another tribe. A Geat thane, Beowulf, decides to help the Danes; he sails to the land of the Danes with his best warriors. Upon their arrival, Hrothgar's thane Wulfgar judges the Geats worthy enough to speak with Hrothgar. Hrothgar remembers when he helped Beowulf's father Ecgtheow settle a feud; thus, he welcomes Beowulf's help gladly.

Heorot is filled once again for a large feast in honor of Beowulf. During the feast, a thane named Unferth tries to get into a boasting match with Beowulf by accusing him of losing a swimming contest. Beowulf tells the story of his heroic victory in the contest, and the company celebrates his courage. During the height of the celebration, the Danish queen Wealhtheow comes forth, bearing the mead-cup. She presents it first to Hrothgar, then to the rest of the hall, and finally to Beowulf. As he receives the cup, Beowulf tells Wealhtheow that he will kill Grendel or be killed in Heorot. This simple declaration moves Wealhtheow and the Danes, and the revelry continues. Finally, everyone retires. Before he leaves, Hrothgar promises to give Beowulf everything if he can defeat Grendel. Beowulf says that he will leave God to judge the outcome. He and his thanes sleep in the hall as they wait for Grendel.

Eventually Grendel arrives at Heorot as usual, hungry for flesh. Beowulf watches carefully as Grendel eats one of his men. When Grendel reaches for Beowulf, Beowulf grabs Grendel's arm and doesn't let go. Grendel writhes about in pain as Beowulf grips him. He thrashes about, causing the hall to nearly collapse. Soon Grendel tears away, leaving his arm in Beowulf's grasp. He slinks back to his lair in the moors and dies.

The Danes, meanwhile, consider Beowulf as the greatest hero in Danish history. Hrothgar's minstrel sings songs of Beowulf and other great characters of the past, including Sigemund (who slew a dragon) and Heremod (who ruled his kingdom unwisely and was punished). In Heorot, Grendel's arm is nailed to the wall as a trophy. Hrothgar says that Beowulf will never lack for riches, and Beowulf graciously thanks him. The horses and men of the Geats are all richly adorned, in keeping with Hrothgar's wishes.

Another party is held to celebrate Beowulf's victory. Hrothgar's minstrel tells another story at the feast, the story of the Frisian slaughter. An ancient Danish king had a daughter named Hildeburh; he married her to a king of the Frisians. While Hnaef, Hildeburh's brother, visited his sister, the Frisians attacked the Danes, killing Hnaef and Hildeburh's son in the process. Hengest, the next leader of the Danes, desired vengeance, and in the spring, the Danes attacked the Frisians, killing their leader and taking Hildeburh back to Denmark.

After this story is told, Wealhtheow presents a necklace to Hrothgar while pleading with her brother-in-law Hrothulf to help her two young sons if they should ever need it. Next she presents many golden treasures to Beowulf, such as necklaces, cups, and rings. Soon the feast ends, and everyone sleeps peacefully.

In the night, Grendel's mother approaches the hall, wanting vengeance for her son. The warriors prepared for battle, leaving enough time for Grendel's mother to grab one of Hrothgar's counselors and run away. When Beowulf is summoned to the hall, he finds Hrothgar in mourning for his friend Aeschere. Hrothgar tells Beowulf where the creatures like Grendel live in a shadowy, fearful land within the moors.

Beowulf persuades Hrothgar to ride with him to the moors. When they reach the edge of the moors, Beowulf calls for his armor, takes a sword from Unferth, and dives into the lake. After a long time, Beowulf reaches the bottom of the lake, where Grendel's mother is waiting to attack. Beowulf swings his sword, but discovers that it cannot cut her, so he tosses it away. They then wrestle until Beowulf spies a large sword nearby. He grabs it by the hilt and swings killing Grendel's mother by slicing off her head. Still in a rage, Beowulf finds the dead Grendel in the lair and cuts off his head as a trophy.

As they wait, the Danes have given up all hope for Beowulf because he has been underwater for such a long time. They are shocked when Beowulf returns with Grendel's head and the hilt of the sword (which melted with the heat of Grendel's blood). They bear the hero and his booty back to Heorot, where another celebration takes place. Beowulf recounts his battle; Hrothgar praises him and gives him advice on being a king. A grand feast follows, and Beowulf is given more priceless treasures. The next morning, the Geats look forward to leaving Denmark. Before they leave, Beowulf promises aid for Hrothgar from the Danes. Hrothgar praises Beowulf and promises that their lands will have an alliance forever. As the Geats leave, Hrothgar finds himself wishing Beowulf would never leave.

The Geats return with much rejoicing to their homeland, where their king Hygelac and his queen Hygd greet them. In an aside, the narrator compares Hygd to the queen of the ancient Offa, who is not tamed until Offa comes to subjugate her. Beowulf tells his lord the events of his trip to Denmark. In the process, he tells another story that had previously been unmentioned. Hrothgar betrothed his daughter Freawaru to a prince of the Heathobards in order to settle an old feud. Beowulf speculates that someone will goad this Heathobard prince to take vengeance upon the Danes for all their past wrongs. Hygelac praises Beowulf for his bravery and gives him half the kingdom. They rule the kingdom together in peace and prosperity. Hygelac is killed in a battle soon after, so Beowulf becomes king of the Geats and rules the kingdom well.

In the fiftieth year of Beowulf's reign, a monster arises to terrorize the Geats. A treasure trove was left by an ancient civilization, which guarded it jealously until only one member of the race was left. After the last person's death, a fire-breathing dragon found the treasure and guarded it for three hundred years. One day, a slave stumbled upon the treasure and stole a cup as an offering to his lord. The dragon awakened to find something missing from his treasure, and began his rampage upon the Geats.

One day, Beowulf learns that this dragon has destroyed his own great hall. This attack sends him into deep thought. Soon he orders a shield to use for battle, but not without a heavy heart at what may happen to him. He recalls Hygelac's death in battle and his own narrow escape from this battle. He recalls a number of battles he has seen as he travels to the dragon's lair with eleven of his thanes. The servant who stole the cup leads them to the lair.

As they wait to attack the dragon, Beowulf recounts the Geat royal family's plight, in which Hygelac's oldest brothers killed each other and left their father to die of a broken heart. Beowulf says he served Hygelac well, and a sword (named Naegling) that he won while serving Hygelac will help him save the kingdom once again. Beowulf leads the charge to the dragon's cave. The shield protects him from the dragon's flames, but his men flee in fear, leaving only one man behind. This man is Wiglaf, Beowulf's kinsman through Ecgtheow. Wiglaf becomes angry, but swears that he will stay by Beowulf's side.

Just then the dragon rushes up to them. Beowulf and the dragon swing at each other three times, finally landing mortal blows upon each other the last time. The dragon is beheaded, but Beowulf is bitten and has a mortal poison from the dragon flowing through his body as a result. Wiglaf bathes his lord's body as Beowulf speaks on the treasure. He says that Wiglaf should inherit it as his kinsman; then he dies.

After his death, the cowards return, to be severely chastised by Wiglaf. He sends a messenger to tell the people of their king's death. The messenger envisions the joy of the Geats' enemies upon hearing of the death of Beowulf. He also says that no man shall ever have the treasure for which Beowulf fought. Wiglaf and Beowulf's thanes toss the dragon's body into the sea. They place the treasure inside a mound with Beowulf's body and mourn for "the ablest of all world-kings."

Character List:

Scyld Shefing: He is known as one of the first great kings of the Danes. Upon his death he is given a remarkable burial at sea. Eventually he becomes the great-grandfather of Hrothgar, king during Grendel's attacks upon the Danes.

Beow (Beowulf): He is the son of Scyld Shefing, and a strong king in his own right. He is often confused with the hero of the poem.

Hrothgar: He is the King of the Danes at the time of Grendel's assaults. He builds the hall Heorot as a tribute to his people and his reign.

Heorot: This is the hall that Hrothgar builds in celebration of his reign. It is the site both of many happy festivals and many sorrowful funerals.

Grendel: This man-monster is a descendant of Cain. He attacks Heorot after hearing the sounds of revelry there. Beowulf eventually kills him, with his severed arm hung as a trophy in Heorot. His mother attempts to avenge his death.

Beowulf: He is a thane of the Geat king Hygelac and eventually becomes King of the Geats. The poem relates his heroic exploits over 50 years, including the fights with Grendel and his mother and with the treasure-guarding dragon.

Wulfgar: He is one of Hrothgar's faithful thanes. As the watchman for the Danes, he is the first to greet Beowulf and his thanes to the land of the Danes. He also deems the Geat visitors as people worthy enough to meet with Hrothgar.

Ecgtheow: He is Beowulf's father. He is a Waegmunding by birth and a Geat by marriage. When he was younger, Hrothgar helped him settle a feud with the Wylfingas.

Unferth: A thane of Hrothgar's, he taunts Beowulf in the hall about his swimming contest with Breca. However, Beowulf shames him in the boasting match. His name means "discord."

Wealhtheow: She is Hrothgar's queen and the mother of his two sons. Her name comes from the Anglo-Saxon words for "treasure bearer." She actually has the duty of presenting necklaces and mead-cups at court.

Sigemund: He is an ancient Germanic hero whose story is recounted after the fight with Grendel. He was known as the famous dragon slayer.

Heremod: He was an ancient Danish king who went from being a good king to a ruthlessly evil king. Hrothgar uses him as an example of bad kingship for Beowulf.

Hildeburh: Her story in recounted during the second feast for Beowulf at Heorot. She is an ancient Danish princess who was married into the Frisian royalty. Her brother and her son were both killed in a war with the Frisians at Finnesburh.

Hrothulf: He is Hrothgar's younger brother. Wealhtheow calls upon him to protect her young sons if it should ever be necessary to do so.

Grendel's Mother: She is, of course, the mother of the man-monster Grendel. She comes to Heorot seeking vengeance for the death of her son. Beowulf kills her

Aeschere: Apparently he is one of Hrothgar's important officials and faithful thanes. Grendel's

mother kills him, and Hrothgar is inconsolable.

Hrunting: Unferth gives this sword to Beowulf to use in killing Grendel's mother. It is unable to cut her, however, so Beowulf discards it. Later he returns it to Unferth with his thanks

Hygelac: This King of the Geats is also Beowulf's uncle. Upon hearing Beowulf's courageous exploits, he gives Beowulf nearly half his kingdom.

Freawaru: She is the daughter of Hrothgar who is unmentioned until Beowulf tells Hygelac about her. Beowulf believes that her marriage to a Heathobard prince will do more harm than good for the Danes.

The Dragon: This is the third and last monster that Beowulf must defeat. After a Geat slave steals from his treasure, he goes on a rampage. Beowulf defeats him, but not before striking a mortal blow to him.

Naegling: Beowulf won this sword in a fight between the Geats and the Frisians. He uses it in the battle with the dragon.

Wiglaf: This is Beowulf's kinsman through Ecgtheow's family, the Waegmundings. He is the only thane of Beowulf's that stays with him during the battle with the dragon.


The Importance of Establishing Identity - As Beowulf is essentially a record of heroic deeds, the concept of identity—of which the two principal components are ancestral heritage and individual reputation—is clearly central to the poem. The opening passages introduce the reader to a world in which every male figure is known as his father's son. Characters in the poem are unable to talk about their identity or even introduce themselves without referring to family lineage. This concern with family history is so prominent because of the poem's emphasis on kinship bonds. Characters take pride in ancestors who have acted valiantly, and they attempt to live up to the same standards as those ancestors.

While heritage may provide models for behaviour and help to establish identity—as with the line of Danish kings discussed early on—a good reputation is the key to solidifying and augmenting one's identity. For example, Shield Sheafson, the legendary originator of the Danish royal line, was orphaned; because he was in a sense fatherless, valiant deeds were the only means by which he could construct an identity for himself. While Beowulf's pagan warrior culture seems not to have a concept of the afterlife, it sees fame as a way of ensuring that an individual's memory will continue on after death—an understandable preoccupation in a world where death seems always to be knocking at the door.

Tensions between the Heroic Code and other Value Systems - Much of Beowulf is devoted to articulating and illustrating the Germanic heroic code, which values strength, courage, and loyalty in warriors; hospitality, generosity, and political skill in kings; ceremoniousness in women; and good reputation in all people. Traditional and much respected, this code is vital to warrior societies as a means of understanding their relationships to the world and the menaces lurking beyond their boundaries. All of the characters' moral judgments stem from the code's mandates. Thus individual actions can be seen only as either conforming to or violating the code.

The poem highlights the code's points of tension by recounting situations that expose its internal contradictions in values. The poem contains several stories that concern divided loyalties, situations for which the code offers no practical guidance about how to act. For example, the poet relates that the Danish Hildeburh marries the Frisian king. When, in the war between the Danes and the Frisians, both her Danish brother and her Frisian son are killed, Hildeburh is left doubly grieved. The code is also often in tension with the values of medieval Christianity. While the code maintains that honor is gained during life through deeds, Christianity asserts that glory lies in the afterlife. Similarly, while the warrior culture dictates that it is always better to retaliate than to mourn, Christian doctrine advocates a peaceful, forgiving attitude toward one's enemies. Throughout the poem, the poet strains to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot (and does not seem to want to) deny the fundamental pagan values of the story.

The Difference between a Good Warrior and a Good King - Over the course of the poem, Beowulf matures from a valiant combatant into a wise leader. His transition demonstrates that a differing set of values accompanies each of his two roles. The difference between these two sets of values manifests itself early on in the outlooks of Beowulf and King Hrothgar. Whereas the youthful Beowulf, having nothing to lose, desires personal glory, the aged Hrothgar, having much to lose, seeks protection for his people. Though these two outlooks are somewhat oppositional, each character acts as society dictates he should given his particular role in society.

While the values of the warrior become clear to us through Beowulf's example throughout the poem, only in the poem's more didactic moments are the responsibilities of a king in relation to his people discussed. The heroic code requires that a king reward the loyal service of his warriors with gifts and praise. It also holds that he must provide them with protection and the sanctuary of a lavish mead-hall. Hrothgar's speeches, in particular, emphasize the value of creating stability in a precarious and chaotic world. He also speaks at length about the king's role in diplomacy, both with his own warriors and with other tribes.

Beowulf's own tenure as king elaborates on many of the same points. His transition from warrior to king, and, in particular, his final battle with the dragon, rehash the dichotomy between the duties of a heroic warrior and those of a heroic king. In the eyes of several of the Geats, Beowulf's bold encounter with the dragon is morally ambiguous because it dooms them to a kingless state in which they remain vulnerable to attack by their enemies. Yet Beowulf also demonstrates the sort of restraint proper to kings when, earlier in his life, he refrains from usurping Hygelac's throne, choosing instead to uphold the line of succession by supporting the appointment of Hygelac's son. But since all of these pagan kings were great warriors in their youth, the tension between these two important roles seems inevitable and ultimately irreconcilable.


Monsters - In Christian medieval culture, "monster" was the word that referred to birth defects, which were always understood as an ominous sign from God—a sign of transgression or of bad things to come. In keeping with this idea, the monsters that Beowulf must fight in this Old English poem shape the poem's plot and seem to represent an inhuman or alien presence in society that must be exorcised for the society's safety. They are all outsiders, existing beyond the boundaries of human realms. Grendel's and his mother's encroachment upon human society—they wreak havoc in Heorot—forces Beowulf to kill the two beasts for order to be restored.

To many readers, the three monsters that Beowulf slays all seem to have a symbolic or allegorical meaning. For instance, since Grendel is descended from the biblical figure Cain, who slew his own brother, Grendel often has been understood to represent the evil in Scandinavian society of marauding and killing others. A traditional figure of medieval folklore and a common Christian symbol of sin, the dragon may represent an external malice that must be conquered to prove a hero's goodness. Because Beowulf's encounter with the dragon ends in mutual destruction, the dragon may also be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the inevitable encounter with death itself.

The Oral Tradition - Intimately connected to the theme of the importance of establishing one's identity is the oral tradition, which preserves the lessons and lineages of the past, and helps to spread reputations. Indeed, in a culture that has little interaction with writing, only the spoken word can allow individuals to learn about others and make their own stories known. This emphasis on oral communication explains the prevalence of bards' tales (such as the Heorot scop's relating of the Finnsburg episode) and warriors' boastings (such as Beowulf's telling of the Breca story). From a broader perspective, Beowulf itself contributes to the tradition of oral celebration of cultural heroes. Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,Beowulf was passed on orally over many generations before being written down.

The Mead-Hall - The poem contains two examples of mead-halls: Hrothgar's great hall of Heorot, in Denmark, and Hygelac's hall in Geatland. Both function as important cultural institutions that provide light and warmth, food and drink, and singing and revelry. Historically, the mead-hall represented a safe haven for warriors returning from battle, a small zone of refuge within a dangerous and precarious external world that continuously offered the threat of attack by neighboring peoples. The mead-hall was also a place of community, where traditions were preserved, loyalty was rewarded, and, perhaps most important, stories were told and reputations were spread.


Because ritual behaviors and tokens of loyalty are so central to pagan Germanic culture, most of the objects mentioned in Beowulf have symbolic status not just for the readers but also for the characters in the poem.

The Golden Torque - The collar or necklace that Wealhtheow gives Beowulf is a symbol of the bond of loyalty between her people and Beowulf—and, by extension, the Geats. Its status as a symbolic object is renewed when we learn that Hygelac died in battle wearing it, furthering the ideas of kinship and continuity.

The Banquet - The great banquet at Heorot after the defeat of Grendel represents the restoration of order and harmony to the Danish people. The preparation involves the rebuilding of the damaged mead-hall, which, in conjunction with the banquet itself, symbolizes the rebirth of the community. The speeches and giving of gifts, essential components of this society's interactions, contribute as well to the sense of wholeness renewed.

About the Manuscript and the Poet of Beowulf:

Beowulf is the first surviving epic written in the English language. The single existing copy of the manuscript dates from the late tenth century, although some scholars believe it dates from the first part of the eleventh century. It is found in a large volume that features stories involving mythical creatures and people. Two different scribes copied the poem, most likely using an existing copy. Between 1066 and the Reformation, the whole volume remained in a monastic library until Sir Robert Cotton gained possession of it for his own extensive library. A fire consumed much of his library, and the volume containing Beowulf became badly charred. Today the manuscript still exists, though it is falling apart rapidly due to the charring in the fire.

We do not have any definite knowledge about the poet--indeed, we do not even know the date of the poem's composition. Through the study of Old English verse, most scholars believe that the poem was composed much earlier than the Cotton manuscript, between 650 and 800. Some words in Beowulf do not adhere to the scansion of Old English verse; however, using the older forms of the words, dating from the period given, causes the lines to scan correctly. Yet accurately dating the poem is a difficult enterprise since the poem has such a derivative quality. It is evident that the Beowulf poet wished to place his work within an even more ancient tradition. Beowulf directly uses many ancient stories that have been preserved in later texts, such as the legend of Sigemund and the account of the war at Finnesburh. In addition, the poem is written with the traditional epic diction, with whole phrases taken from the other bards who sang the legends incorporated.

Despite his borrowing from other sources, perhaps in large quantities, the Beowulf poet nonetheless manages to add his own specialized view of his characters' world. First and foremost, Beowulf's author is a Christian, and he makes the Christian world extremely visible. He alludes to Cain and the Flood; he shows the Christian God's influence upon the pagan world of the Danes. Yet he is obviously aware of his culture's pagan past and attempts to describe it in great detail through rituals, such as the elaborate Germanic sea-burials and the grand feasts in the mead-halls, and the ever-present belief in fate. Thus Beowulf's poet tries to recreate the past of his people for his people, almost with a nostalgic feeling for the bygone pagan days


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


The alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight survives in a late-fourteenth-century manuscript with three other poems by the same author—Pearl,Purity, and Patience. We know very little about the author of these poems, but most scholars believe him to have been a university-trained clerk or the official of a provincial estate (we refer to him as the "Pearl-poet" or the "Gawain-poet"). Though we cannot say with certainty that one person wrote all four poems, some shared characteristics point toward common authorship and also suggest that the Gawain-poet may have written another poem, called St. Erkenwald, that exists in a separate manuscript. All the poems except Sir Gawain and the Green Knight deal with overtly Christian subject matter, and it remains unclear why Sir Gawain, a secular Arthurian romance, was included in an otherwise religious manuscript.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is written in a dialect of Middle English that links it with Britain's Northwest Midlands, probably Chester or Lancashire. Though not the economic, political, and artistic center that was William Langland's and Geoffrey Chaucer's London, there is no reason to assume that the English provinces were less culturally active in the late fourteenth century. In fact, the works of the Gawain-poet belong to a type of literature traditionally known as the Alliterative Revival, usually associated with northern England. Contrary to what the name of the movement suggests, the alliterative meter of Old English never went away and therefore did not need reviving. Nevertheless, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exists as a testament that the style continued well into the fourteenth century, if not in London, then in the provinces.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight's adapted Old English meter tends to connect the two halves of each poetic line through alliteration, or repetition of consonants. The poem also uses rhyme to structure its stanzas, and each group of long alliterative lines concludes with a word or phrase containing two syllables and a quatrain—known together as the "bob and wheel." The phrase "bob and wheel" derives from a technique used when spinning cloth—indeed, the bobs and wheels in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight help to spin the plot and narrative together in intricate ways. They provide commentaries on what has just happened, create or fulfill moments of suspense, and serve as transitions to the next scene or idea.

Told in four "fitts," or parts, the poem weaves together at least three separate narrative strings commonly found in medieval folklore and romance. The first plot, the beheading game, appears in ancient folklore and may derive from pagan myths related to the agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting crops. The second and third plots concern the exchange of winnings and the hero's temptation; both of these plots derive from medieval romances and dramatize tests of the hero's honesty, loyalty, and chastity. As the story unfolds, we discover that the three apparently separate plotlines intersect in surprising ways.

A larger story that frames the narrative is that of Morgan le Fay's traditional hatred for Arthur and his court, called Camelot. Morgan, Arthur's half sister and a powerful sorceress, usually appears in legend as an enemy of the Round Table. Indeed, medieval readers knew that the perfect world of Camelot depicted in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is destined to fall, with Morgan's aid.

The final frame of the poem is a historical one. The poem begins and ends with references to the myth of Britain's lineage from the ancient city of Troy, by way of Britain's Trojan founder, Brutus. These references root the Arthurian romance in an older, more elevated tradition of "courtly" literature—namely, the epic—and link fourteenth-century England to Rome, which was also founded by a Trojan (Aeneas). Thus, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presents us with a version of translatio imperii—a Latin phrase referring to the transfer of culture from one civilization (classical antiquity, in this case) to another (medieval England). The Gawain-poet at times adopts an ironic tone, but he also displays a deep investment in elevating his country's legends, history, and literary forms—especially Arthurian romance—by relating them directly to classical antiquity.

Plot Overview Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

During a New Year's Eve feast at King Arthur's court, a strange figure, referred to only as the Green Knight, enters. He challenges the group's leader or any other brave representative, to a game. The Green Knight will allow whomever accepts the challenge to strike him with his own axe, on the condition that the challenger find him in exactly one year and one day so that he can return the blow.

Stunned, Arthur hesitates to respond, but when the Green Knight mocks Arthur's silence, the king steps forward to take the challenge. As soon as Arthur grips the Green Knight's axe, Sir Gawain leaps up and asks to take the challenge himself. He takes hold of the axe and, in one deadly blow, cuts off the knight's head. To the amazement of the court, the now-headless Green Knight picks up his severed head. Before riding away, the head reiterates the terms of the pact, reminding the young Gawain to seek him in a year and a day at the Green Chapel. After the Green Knight leaves, the company goes back to its festival, but Gawain is uneasy.

Time passes, and autumn arrives. On the Day of All Saints, Gawain prepares to leave Camelot and find the Green Knight. He puts on his best armor, mounts his horse, Gringolet, and starts off toward North Wales, traveling through the wilderness of northwest Britain. Gawain encounters all sorts of beasts, suffers from hunger and cold, and grows more desperate as the days pass. On Christmas Day, he prays to find a place to hear Mass, then looks up to see a castle shimmering in the distance. The lord of the castle welcomes Gawain warmly, introducing him to his lady and to the old woman who sits beside her. For sport, the host (whose name is later revealed to be Bertilak) strikes a deal with Gawain: the host will go out hunting with his men every day, and when he returns in the evening, he will exchange his winnings for anything Gawain has managed to acquire by staying behind at the castle. Gawain happily agrees to the pact, and goes to bed.

The first day, the lord hunts a herd of does, while Gawain sleeps late in his bedchambers. On the morning of the first day, the lord's wife sneaks into Gawain's chambers and attempts to seduce him. Gawain puts her off, but before she leaves she claims one kiss from him. That evening, when the host gives Gawain the venison he has captured, Gawain kisses him, since he has won one kiss from the lady. The second day, the lord hunts a wild boar. The lady again enters Gawain's chambers, and this time she kisses Gawain twice. That evening Gawain gives the host the two kisses in exchange for the boar's head.

The third day, the lord hunts a fox, and the lady kisses Gawain three times. She also asks him for a love token, such as a ring or a glove. Gawain refuses to give her anything and refuses to take anything from her, until the lady mentions her girdle. The green silk girdle she wears around her waist is no ordinary piece of cloth, the lady claims, but possesses the magical ability to protect the person who wears it from death. Intrigued, Gawain accepts the cloth, but when it comes time to exchange his winnings with the host, Gawain gives the three kisses but does not mention the lady's green girdle. The host gives Gawain the fox skin he won that day, and they all go to bed happy, but weighed down with the fact that Gawain must leave for the Green Chapel the following morning to find the Green Knight.

New Year's Day arrives, and Gawain dons his armor, including the girdle, then sets off with Gringolet to seek the Green Knight. A guide accompanies him out of the estate grounds. When they reach the border of the forest, the guide promises not to tell anyone if Gawain decides to give up the quest. Gawain refuses, determined to meet his fate head-on. Eventually, he comes to a kind of crevice in the rock, visible through the tall grasses. He hears the whirring of a grindstone, confirming his suspicion that this strange cavern is in fact the Green Chapel. Gawain calls out, and the Green Knight emerges to greet him. Intent on fulfilling the terms of the contract, Gawain presents his neck to the Green Knight, who proceeds to feign two blows. On the third feint, the Green Knight nicks Gawain's neck, barely drawing blood. Angered, Gawain shouts that their contract has been met, but the Green Knight merely laughs.

The Green Knight reveals his name, Bertilak, and explains that he is the host of the castle where Gawain recently stayed. Because Gawain did not honestly exchange all of his winnings on the third day, Bertilak drew blood on his third blow. Nevertheless, Gawain has proven himself a worthy knight, without equal in all the land. When Gawain questions Bertilak further, Bertilak explains that the old woman at the castle is really Morgan le Fay, Gawain's aunt and King Arthur's half sister. She sent the Green Knight on his original errand and used her magic to change Bertilak's appearance. Relieved to be alive but extremely guilty about his sinful failure to tell the whole truth, Gawain wears the girdle on his arm as a reminder of his own failure. He returns to Arthur's court, where all the knights join Gawain, wearing girdles on their arms to show their support.

Character List

Sir Gawain - The story's protagonist, Arthur's nephew and one of his most loyal knights. Although he modestly disclaims it, Gawain has the reputation of being a great knight and courtly lover. He prides himself on his observance of the five points of chivalry in every aspect of his life. Gawain is a pinnacle of humility, piety, integrity, loyalty, and honesty. Gawain's only flaw proves to be that he loves his own life so much that he will lie in order to protect himself. Gawain leaves the Green Chapel penitent and changed.

Sir Gawain - Though Gawain and Guinevere share the high table at the New Year's celebration in Arthur's court, he describes himself as the least of Arthur's knights in terms of both physical prowess and mental ability. His modest claim to inferiority and his high status at court—he is Arthur's nephew and one of the most famous knights—testify to both his humility and his ambition. Gawain seeks to improve his inner self throughout the poem. After Gawain arrives at Bertilak's castle in Part 2, it is evident that his reputation is quite widespread. To Gawain, his public reputation is as important as his own opinion of himself, and he therefore insists on wearing the green girdle as a sign of shame at the story's end. He believes that sins should be as visible as virtues.

Even though the Green Knight essentially tricks Gawain by not telling him about his supernatural abilities before asking Gawain to agree to his terms, Gawain refuses to back out of their deal. He stands by his commitments absolutely, even when it means jeopardizing his own life. Nonetheless, the poem frequently reiterates Gawain's deep fears and anxieties. But Gawain's desire to maintain his personal integrity at all costs requires him to conquer his fears in his quest for the Green Knight.

Gawain is a paragon of virtue in the first two parts. But in Part 3 he conceals from his host the magical green girdle that the host's wife gives him, revealing that, despite his bravery, Gawain values his own life more than his honesty. Ultimately, however, Gawain confesses his sin to the knight and begs to be pardoned; thereafter, he voluntarily wears the girdle as a symbol of his sin. Because Gawain repents his sin in such an honorable manner, his one indiscretion in the poem actually ends up being an example of his basic goodness.

Gawain is not a static character. In his encounter with the Green Knight, he recognizes the problematic nature of courtly ideals. When he returns to Arthur's court at Camelot, the other lords and ladies still look to him like lighthearted children, but Gawain is weighed down by a new somberness. Though he survives his quest, Gawain emerges at the end of the poem as a humbled man who realizes his own faults and has to live with the fact that he will never live up to his own high standards.

Green Knight - The Green Knight's huge stature, wild appearance, and green complexion set him apart from the beardless knights and beautiful ladies of Arthur's Camelot, where we first meet him. He is an ambiguous figure: he says that he comes in friendship, not wanting to fight, but the friendly game he proposes is quite deadly. He attaches great importance to verbal contracts, expecting Sir Gawain to go to great lengths to hold up his end of their bargain. The Green Knight shows himself to be a supernatural being when he picks up his own severed head and rides out of Arthur's court, still speaking. At the same time, he seems to symbolize the natural world, in that he is killed and reborn as part of a cycle. At the poem's end, we discover that the Green Knight is also Bertilak, Gawain's host, and one of Morgan le Fay's minions.

Principio del formulario

The Green Knight (also known as Bertilak de Hautdesert and the Host) - The Green Knight is a mysterious, supernatural creature. He rides into Arthur's court on New Year's Eve almost as if summoned by the king's request to hear a marvelous story. His supernatural characteristics, such as his ability to survive decapitation and his green complexion, immediately mark him as a foreboding figure. The Green Knight contrasts with Arthur's court in many ways. The knight symbolizes the wildness, fertility, and death that characterize a primeval world, whereas the court symbolizes an enclave of civilization within the wilderness. But, like the court, the Green Knight strongly advocates the values of the law and justice. And though his long hair suggests an untamed, natural state, his hair is cut into the shape of a courtly garment, suggesting that part of his function is to establish a relationship between wilderness and civilization, past and present.

At Gawain's scheduled beheading, the Green Knight reveals that he is also the host with whom Gawain stayed after his journeys through the wilderness, and that he is known as Bertilak de Hautdesert. As the host, we know Bertilak to be a courteous, jovial man who enjoys hunting for sport and playing games. A well-respected and middle-aged lord, the host contrasts with the beardless Arthur. In fact, his beard is "beaver-hued," a feature which associates the host with the Green Knight. Other clues exist in the text to connect the host with the Green Knight. For instance, both the Green Knight and the host value the power of verbal contracts. Each makes a covenant with Gawain, and the two agreements overlap at the end of the poem.

Final del formulario

Bertilak of Hautdesert - The sturdy, good-natured lord of the castle where Gawain spends Christmas. We only learn Bertilak's name at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The poem associates Bertilak with the natural world—his beard resembles a beaver, his face a fire—but also with the courtly behavior of an aristocratic host. Boisterous, powerful, brave, and generous, Lord Bertilak provides an interesting foil to King Arthur. At the end of the poem we learn that Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same person, magically enchanted by Morgan le Fay for her own designs.

Bertilak's wife - Bertilak's wife attempts to seduce Gawain on a daily basis during his stay at the castle. Though the poem presents her to the reader as no more than a beautiful young woman, Bertilak's wife is an amazingly clever debater and an astute reader of Gawain's responses as she argues her way through three attempted seductions. Flirtatious and intelligent, Bertilak's wife ultimately turns out to be another pawn in Morgan le Fay's plot.

Morgan le Faye - The Arthurian tradition typically portrays Morgan as a powerful sorceress, trained by Merlin, as well as the half sister of King Arthur. Not until the last 100 lines do we discover that the old woman at the castle is Morgan le Faye and that she has controlled the poem's entire action from beginning to end. As she often does in Arthurian literature, Morgan appears as an enemy of Camelot, one who aims to cause as much trouble for her half brother and his followers as she can.

King Arthur - In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthur is young and beardless, and his court is in its golden age. Arthur's refusal to eat until he hears a fantastic tale shows the petulance of youth, as does Arthur's initial stunned response to the Green Knight's challenge. However, like a good king, Arthur soon steps forward to take on the challenge. At the story's end, Arthur supports Gawain and shows that Gawain's trial has taught him about his own fallibility, joining his nephew in wearing a green girdle on his arm.

Queen Guinevere - At first glance, the beautiful young Guinevere of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight seems to have little in common with the one of later Arthurian legend. She sits next to Gawain at the New Year's feast and remains a silent, objectified presence in the midst of the knights of the Round Table.

Gringolet - Gawain 's horse.


The Nature of Chivalry - The world of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is governed by well-defined codes of behavior. The code of chivalry, in particular, shapes the values and actions of Sir Gawain and other characters in the poem. The ideals of chivalry derive from the Christian concept of morality, and the proponents of chivalry seek to promote spiritual ideals in a spiritually fallen world.

The ideals of Christian morality and knightly chivalry are brought together in Gawain's highly symbolic shield. The pentangle represents the five virtues of knights: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Certainly, Gawain's adherence to these virtues is tested throughout the poem, but the poem also poses a question larger than Gawain's personal virtue: namely, whether heavenly virtue can operate in a fallen world. Thus, what is really being tested in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be the chivalric system itself, as symbolized by Camelot.

Arthur's court depends heavily on the code of chivalry, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight gently criticizes the fact that chivalry values appearance and symbols over truth. Arthur is introduced to us as the "most courteous of all," indicating that people are ranked in this court according to their mastery of a certain code of behavior and good manners. When the Green Knight challenges the court, he mocks them for being so afraid of mere words, suggesting that words and appearances hold too much power over the company. The members of the court never reveal their true feelings, instead choosing to seem beautiful, courteous, and fair-spoken.

On his quest for the Green Chapel, Gawain travels from Camelot into the wilderness. In the forest, Gawain must abandon the codes of chivalry and admit that his animal nature requires him to seek physical comfort in order to survive. Once he prays for help, he is rewarded by the appearance of a castle. The inhabitants of Bertilak's castle teach Gawain about a kind of chivalry that is more firmly based in truth and reality than that of Arthur's court. These people are connected to nature, as their hunting and even the way the servants greet Gawain by kneeling on the "naked earth" symbolize (818). As opposed to the courtiers at Camelot, who celebrate in Part 1 with no understanding of how removed they are from the natural world, Bertilak's courtiers joke self-consciously about how excessively lavish their feast is (889-890).

The poem does not by any means suggest that the codes of chivalry be abandoned. Gawain's adherence to them is what keeps him from sleeping with his host's wife. The lesson Gawain learns as a result of the Green Knight's challenge is that, at a basic level, he is just a physical being who is concerned above all else with his own life. Chivalry provides a valuable set of ideals toward which to strive, but a person must above all remain conscious of his or her own mortality and weakness. Gawain's time in the wilderness, his flinching at the Green Knight's axe, and his acceptance of the lady's offering of the green girdle teach him that though he may be the most chivalrous knight in the land, he is nevertheless human and capable of error.

The Letter of the Law - Though the Green Knight refers to his challenge as a "game," he uses the language of the law to bind Gawain into an agreement with him. He repeatedly uses the word "covenant," meaning a set of laws, a word that evokes the two covenants represented by the Old and the New Testaments. The Old Testament details the covenant made between God and the people of Israel through Abraham, but the New Testament replaces the old covenantwith a new covenant between Christ and his followers. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul writes that Christ has "a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." The "letter" to which Paul refers here is the legal system of the Old Testament. From this statement comes the Christian belief that the literal enforcement of the law is less important than serving its spirit, a spirit tempered by mercy.

Throughout most of the poem, the covenant between Gawain and the Green Knight evokes the literal kind of legal enforcement that medieval Europeans might have associated with the Old Testament. The Green Knight at first seems concerned solely with the letter of the law. Even though he has tricked Gawain into their covenant, he expects Gawain to follow through on the agreement. And Gawain, though he knows that following the letter of the law means death, is determined to see his agreement through to the end because he sees this as his knightly duty.

However, at the poem's end, the covenant takes on a new meaning and begins to resemble the less literal, more merciful New Testament covenant between Christ and his Church. In a decidedly Christian gesture, the Green Knight, who is actually Gawain's host, Bertilak, absolves Gawain because Gawain has confessed his faults. He gives Gawain a penance, in the form of the wound on his neck and the girdle, both of which will forever remind him of his weakness, but the knight does not follow the covenant to the letter. Bertilak calls it his right to spare Gawain and releases him from further debt.

Ultimately, it is Gawain who clings to the letter of the law. He seems unable to accept his sin and absolve himself of it the way Bertilak has, and he continues to do penance by wearing the girdle for the rest of his life. The Green Knight transforms his literal covenant by offering Gawain justice tempered with mercy, but the letter of the law still threatens in the story's background, and in Gawain's own psyche.


The Seasons - At the beginning of Parts 2 and 4, the poet describes the changing of the seasons. The seasonal imagery in Part 2 precedes Gawain's departure from Camelot, and in Part 4 his departure from the host's castle. In both cases, the changing seasons correspond to Gawain's changing psychological state, from cheerfulness (pleasant weather) to bleakness (the winter). But the five changing seasons also correspond to the five ages of man (birth/infancy, youth, adulthood, middle age, and old age/death), as well as to the cycles of fertility and decay that govern all creatures in the natural world. The emphasis on the cyclical nature of the seasons contrasts with and provides a different understanding of the passage of time from the more linear narrative of history that frames the poem.

Games - When the poem opens, Arthur's court is engaged in feast-time customs, and Arthur almost seems to elicit the Green Knight's entrance by requesting that someone tell him a tale. When the Green Knight first enters, the courtiers think that his appearance probably signals a game of some sort. The Green Knight's challenge to Gawain is presented as a game, as is the host's later challenge, and even the wordplay that takes place between Gawain and the lady. The relationship between games and tests is explored because games are forms of social behavior, while tests provide a measure of an individual's inner worth.


The Pentangle - According to the Gawain-poet, King Solomon originally designed the five-pointed star as his own magic seal. A symbol of truth, the star has five points that link and lock with each other, forming what is called the endless knot. Each line of the pentangle passes over one line and under one line, and joins the other two at its ends. The pentangle symbolizes the virtues to which Gawain aspires: to be faultless in his five senses; never to fail in his five fingers; to be faithful to the five wounds that Christ received on the cross; to be strengthened by the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in Jesus (the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection, Ascension, and Assumption); and to possess brotherly love, courtesy, piety, and chastity. The side of the shield facing Gawain contains an image of the Virgin Mary to make sure that Gawain never loses heart.

The Green Girdle - The meaning of the girdle belonging to the host's wife changes over the course of the narrative. It is made out of green silk, embroidered and girded with gold thread, colors that link it to the Green Knight. She claims that it possesses the power to keep its wearer from harm, but we find out in Part 4 that the girdle has no magical properties. After the Green Knight reveals his identity as the host, Gawain curses the girdle as representing cowardice and an excessive love of mortal life. He wears it from then on as a badge of his sinfulness. To show their support, Arthur and his followers wear green silk baldrics that look just like Gawain's girdle.


About Geoffrey Chaucer

Before William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer was the preeminent English poet, and still retains the position as the most significant poet to write in Middle English. Chaucer was born in the early 1340s to a middle-class family. His father, John Chaucer, was a vintner and deputy to the king's butler. His family's financial success came from work in the wine and leather businesses. Little information exists about Chaucer's education, but his writings demonstrate a close familiarity with a number of important books of his contemporaries and of earlier times. Chaucer was likely fluent in several languages, including French, Italian and Latin.

Chaucer first appears in public records in 1357 as a member of the house of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. This was a conventional arrangement in which sons of middle-class households were placed in royal service so that they may obtain a courtly education. Two years later Chaucer served in the army under Edward II and was captured during an unsuccessful offensive at Reims, although he was later ransomed. Chaucer served under a number of diplomatic missions. By 1366 Chaucer had married Philippa Pan, who had been in service with the Countess of Ulster. Chaucer married well for his position, for Philippa Chaucer received an annuity from the queen consort of Edward II. Chaucer himself secured an annuity as yeoman of the king and was listed as one of the king's esquires.

Chaucer's first published work was The Book of the Duchess, a poem of over 1,300 lines that is an elegy for the Duchess of Lancaster. For this first of his important poems, which was published in 1370, Chaucer used the dream-vision form, a genre made popular by the highly influential 13th-century French poem of courtly love, the Roman de la Rose, which Chaucer translated into English. Throughout the following decade, Chaucer continued with his diplomatic career, traveling to Italy for negotiations to open a Genoa port to Britain as well as military negotiations with Milan. During his missions to Italy, Chaucer encountered the work of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, which were later to have profound influence upon his own writing. In 1374 Chaucer was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wool, skins, and tanned hides for the Port of London, his first position away from the British court. Chaucer's only major work during this period was Hous of Fame, a poem of around 2,000 lines in dream-vision form, but this was not completed.

In a deed of May 1, 1380, Cecily Chaumpaigne charged Chaucer with rape. Rape (raptus) could at the time mean either sexual assault or abduction; scholars have not been able to establish which meaning applies here, but, in either case, the release suggests that Chaucer was not guilty as charged. This charge had little effect on Chaucer's political career. In October 1385, he was appointed a justice of the peace for Kent, and in August 1386 he became knight of the shire for Kent. Around the time of his wife's death in 1387, Chaucer moved to Greenwich and later to Kent. Changing political circumstances eventually led to Chaucer falling out of favor with the royal court and leaving Parliament, but when Richard II became King of England, Chaucer regained royal favor. During this period Chaucer used writing primarily as an escape from public life. His works included Parlement of Foules, a poem of 699 lines. This work is a dream-vision for St. Valentine's Day that makes use of the myth that each year on that day the birds gathered before the goddess Nature to choose their mates. This work was heavily influenced by Boccaccio and Dante.

Chaucer's next work was Troilus and Criseyde, which was influenced by The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the Roman philosopher Boethius in the early sixth century and translated into English by Chaucer. Chaucer took the plot of Troilus from Boccaccio's Filostrato. This eight thousand line poem recounts the love story of Troilus, son of the Trojan king Priam, and Criseyde, widowed daughter of the deserter priest Calkas, against the background of the Trojan War.

The Canterbury Tales secured Chaucer's literary reputation. It is his great literary accomplishment, a compendium of stories by pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Chaucer introduces each of these pilgrims in vivid brief sketches in the General Prologue and intersperses the twenty-four tales with short dramatic scenes with lively exchanges. Chaucer did not complete the full plan for the tales, and surviving manuscripts leave some doubt as to the exact order of the tales that remain. However, the work is sufficiently complete to be considered a unified book rather than a collection of unfinished fragments. The Canterbury Tales is a lively mix of a variety of genres told by travelers from all aspects of society. Among the genres included are courtly romance, fabliau, saint's biography, allegorical tale, beast fable and medieval sermon.

Information concerning Chaucer's descendants is not fully clear. It is likely that he and Philippa had two sons and two daughters. Thomas Chaucer died in 1434; he was a large landowner and political officeholder, and his daughter, Alice, became duchess of Suffolk. Little is known about Lewis Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer's youngest son. Of Chaucer's two daughters, Elizabeth became a nun, while Agnes was a lady-in-waiting for the coronation of Henry IV in 1399. Public records indicate that Chaucer had no descendants living after the fifteenth century.

The General Prologue:

As April comes, the narrator begins a pilgrimage to Canterbury from the Tabard Inn at Southwerk. Twenty-nine people make the pilgrimage toward Canterbury and the narrator describes them in turn. The pilgrims are listed in relative order of status, thus the first character is the Knight. Chaucer describes the knight as a worthy man who had fought in the Crusades. With him is a Squire, the son of the Knight and a 'lusty bachelor' of twenty. The Knight has a second servant, a Yeoman. There is also a Prioress, shy and polite. She is prim and proper, sympathetic and well-mannered. The Prioress wears a broach with the inscription "All things are subject unto love." With the Prioress is her secretary (the Second Nun) and a Monk. The monk is a robust and masculine man who loves to hunt. The Friar, Hubert, is an immoral man more concerned with making profit than converting men from sin. The Merchant from Flanders is a pompous man who speaks endlessly on how profits may be increased. He seems grave, yet there is no better man, according to the narrator. The Clerk follows the Merchant. As an Oxford student without employment, he is impoverished and wears threadbare clothes. The Man of Law is a man who deserves to be held in awe. He knows the law to the letter and gives the impression that he is far busier than he actually is. A Franklin travels with him. He is a man who lives in comfort and is interested simply in pleasure, particularly culinary delight. There are also five guildsmen: a Weaver, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Tapestry-maker and a Haberdasher. With them they bring a Cook. A Shipman is the next traveler, who comes from the port of Dartmouth, and with him a Physician. The Wife of Bath is next; she is a weaver who wears bright red clothing. She has been married five times (and had several companions as a youth). The Parson is an honorable, decent man who cares for his congregation and adheres to the teachings of Christ. With him is his brother, a Plowman, who is equally kind. The final travelers are a Miller, a Manciple, a Reeve, a Summoner and a Pardoner. The Miller is a large man with an imposing physique. The Manciple is from a lawyers' college and knows every legal maneuver. The Reeve is a slender man with a fiery temper. The Summoner is quite unfair in his job (he is responsible for serving summons to court for church crimes). If he likes a scoundrel, he can ignore the man's sins. The Pardoner is an effeminate man. Each of these travelers finds themselves in the Tabard Inn, where the Host, a bold and merry man, suggests that on their way to Canterbury each traveler tell two tales, and on the way back each traveler tell two more. They draw lots to decide who will tell the first tale, and it is the Knight who has the honor.


In the General Prologue, Chaucer sets up the general structure of the tales and introduces each of the characters who will tell the tales. The characters who tell each of the tales are as important as the characters in the tales that they tell; a significant portion of the action of the Canterbury Tales takes place within the prologues to each of the tales. The General Prologue in essence serves as a guide for the tales, giving some explanation for the motivation behind each of the tales each character tells.

The introductory imagery of the General Prologue mixes the spiritual with the secular and moves between each form with relative ease. The Canterbury Tales begins with the famous lines "Whanne that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote," setting up imagery of spring and regeneration. Yet he does not continue with the logical outcome of this springtime imagery. Instead of conforming to the cliché "in springtime a young man's fancy turns to love," Chaucer veers into more spiritual territory. In springtime these travelers make a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. Yet Chaucer is equally uninterested in the religious details of this journey, and keeps the beginning passages of the General Prologue focused on nature and not on the human society with which the travelers will deal.

Chaucer gives relatively straightforward descriptions of the characters and has some inclination to show their best qualities. Chaucer describes virtually each pilgrimage as an exemplar ­ a number of these pilgrims are described as 'perfect' in some way or another, most often in their craft. Furthermore, these pilgrims exist almost entirely in terms of their profession. Chaucer gives only a few of them character names, and these emerge only in terms of conversation between the characters during each tale's prologue, and not in Chaucer's description in the General Prologue.

Yet even within these descriptions he allows for subtle criticism and sly wit. The description of the Prioress in particular, is overtly flattering yet masquerades a sharp criticism of her foolish sentimentality and oppressive attention to manners. Although she strives to be polite and refined, she spoke French "after the school of Stratford-at-Bow," the vulgar rural pronunciation compared to elite Parisian French. Furthermore, she weeps at the mere sight of a dead mouse, a gross overreaction to a small tragedy.

The descriptions of the upper members of the clergy deserve special note in context of the tales. Each of the clergymen defy traditional expectations; the Monk is a rough laborer, while the Friar is resolutely immoral. Chaucer lists the various sins of the Friar: he sells pardon from sin for a price, seduces women who ask for pardons, and spends more time in bars than he does aiding the poor. His concern for profit is a stark contrast with that of the Merchant. While the Merchant merely dispenses advice on how to attain profit, it is the Friar who applies his entire existence to its pursuit. The Friar further contrasts with the later description of the Parson, a man who performs his duties honorably and cares for his congregation. In his description of the Parson, Chaucer lists the various admirable qualities, none of which are held by the Friar.

The description of the Merchant is also notable, for it shows the disparity between how the narrator overtly appraises a character and what he describes. After listing a number of unflattering qualities in the Merchant, the narrator still judges him to be a fine man; in these descriptions, the details and anecdotes are far more important in defining character than the final stated opinion of the narrator.

Chaucer indulges in comic criticism in his portrait of the Clerk. This Oxford student, however educated, is not worldly enough for any normal employment. He has studied only impractical knowledge, and even carries among his few possessions several volumes of Aristotle.

Most of the travelers engaged in a profession receive little description; as the travelers move down the social scale Chaucer gives them less and less detailed descriptions. The Wife of Bath is the most significant of the travelers low on the social scale. Chaucer describes her as lewd and boisterous. Her clothing, all variations of bright red, is ostentatious, meant to attract attention from others. Chaucer even indicates that she is quite promiscuous ­ she has been married five times and had an undetermined number of lovers. The other traveler who merits a lengthy description is the Pardoner. He has a very effeminate manner, with a high voice and soft features. Chaucer even compares him to a gelding (a castrated horse) or a mare, which may be a subtle comment on his sexuality.

The prologue sets up the general design of the Canterbury Tales. Each character will tell four tales during the journey, leading to a grand total of 116 tales. Chaucer never completed all of the tales, starting only about one fourth of the possible stories, not all of which remain in their entirety. Some of the stories that remain are only fragments which have either been lost or were never completed by the author.

When the travelers draw lots to decide who will tell the first story, it is the Knight who has the first choice. Although the order is supposedly random, the Knight draws the first lot and thus randomly receives the rank appropriate to his status, which indicates that the Host may have fixed the lots in order to curry favor with the Knight.

Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale:

The Host thinks that the cause of Virginia's death in the previous tale was her beauty. To counter the sadness of the tale, the Host suggests that the Pardoner tell a lighter tale. The Pardoner delays, for he wants to finish his meal, but says that he shall tell a moral tale. He says that he will tell a tale with this moral: the love of money is the root of all evil. He claims that during his sermons he shows useless trifles that he passes off as saints' relics. He proudly tells about how he defrauds people who believed they have sinned. He states explicitly that his goal is not to save people from sin, but to gain money from them. The Pardoner says that he will not imitate the apostles in their poverty, but will have food, comfort, and a wench in every town.


Among the various pilgrims featured in the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner is one of the most fully realized characters. The only character to whom Chaucer gives greater detail is the Wife of Bath. The Pardoner is a fraudulent huckster who shows no qualms about passing off false items as the relics of saints, but he also demonstrates a great sense of self-loathing. The Pardoner shifts from moments of direct honesty to shameless deceit, openly admitting the tricks of his trade to the travelers but nevertheless attempting to use these various methods on these travelers who are aware of his schemes. The Pardoner is in many senses a warped character, unable to hold to any consistent code of moral behavior. Even in his physicality he is deformed. The General Prologue, suggesting that the Pardoner resembles a 'gelding or a mare,' hints that the Pardoner may be a congenital eunuch or, taken less literally, that he is a homosexual. In his deformity the Pardoner becomes a shell of a person. Although he is one of the most developed characters, he is the character perhaps most defined by his profession. The Pardoner has substituted a system of values with a rote performance, which conforms to his profession, which substitutes a meaningless monetary transaction for penance for sin. The Pardoner therefore suggests a traditional Vice character who behaves strictly out of the most impure motives, but where he departs from vice characters, who shamelessly commit misdeeds for their own pleasure, is that he lacks the necessary amoral quality. The Pardoner is not a moral man, but he nevertheless has a moral system to which he most certainly does not adhere.

The Pardoner's Tale:

There once lived in Flanders a group of three rioters who did nothing but engage in irresponsible and sinful behavior. They were blasphemous drunkards who, while in a tavern one night, witnessed men carrying a corpse to its grave. A boy told the rioters that the dead man was one of their friends, slain by an unseen thief called Death. They remark that Death has slain thousands, and vow to slay Death themselves. The three drunken men go off to find Death, but only come across an ancient man shrouded in robes. He claims that Death will not take him, and says that they can find Death underneath a nearby oak tree. When they found the tree they only found bushels of gold. They decide to take the treasure and divide it evenly, but realize that if they immediate went into town with it they would be presumed robbers. They therefore draw lots; the one with the shortest straw shall go into town and fetch food and drink for them. They shall stay in the forest with the gold until they can leave in the middle of the night. The youngest drew the shortest lot and was sent into town. The two that remain decide to murder the third once he returns, for they would then be able to divide the gold by two instead of three. However, while the third rioter was in town, he bought poison from an apothecary which he poured into the wine bottle. When he returned, the two rioters stabbed the third, murdering him. They then drank the poisoned wine and died themselves.

The Pardoner interrupts the end of his tale with a diatribe against the sin of avarice, then launches into a sermon in which he attempts to sell relics to the other travelers. The Host argues with him, telling him that the only relic he would want from the Pardoner is his testicles enclosed in a hog's turd. The knight mediates the conflict.


The Pardoner's Tale is a direct extension of the personality of the narrator, an overtly moralistic tale that serves primarily to elicit a specific response. It is a particularly shameless tale, a condemnation of avarice that stems from the avarice of its narrator; by condemning the sin, the Pardoner hopes to motivate the travelers to pay the Pardoner to absolve their sins. The character of the Pardoner is omnipresent throughout the tale, which is told in an intimidating oratorical style that intends to create a sense of horror at the consequences for sinful action. Throughout the tale the narrator drifts in and out from the story, as the Pardoner occasionally leaves the plot of the tale to launch into sermons against sin. Finally, at the conclusion of the tale, he reveals the rationale for this authorial intervention, preaching against avarice for the sole intention of selling phony relics to the travelers. The tale is thus less of a fully formed narrative than a performance given by the Pardoner in which he never submerges his presence in the story.

The importance of the narrator is reflected in the relative unimportance of the characters in the story. The three rioters are anonymous hoodlums to whom the narrator gives no distinctive characteristics. The one distinction that the Pardoner makes among the three is that the rioter who is sent for food and drink is younger than the other two. Their characteristics are uniformly negative, but relatively broad ­ they are avaricious, but also drunkards and murderers, which gives the Pardoner opportunity to condemn a vast array of sins.

The old man that points the rioters in the direction of death is the single developed character in the story, a grotesque figure who waits to die out of extreme weariness for life. When he tells the rioters that he wishes to die, he claims that he walks on the ground, his 'mother's gate,' and asks to return to the earth (in the form of a decayed corpse). This conforms to the idea of rebirth, as the old man asks to return to the earth (his mother's womb) presumably to be born once again. However, for the old man this is only his second choice. He would prefer to exchange bodies with a young man, but can find no man willing to trade. He suffers the misery of a man who does sees no hope for redemption. He does not consider the possibility of heaven and Christian redemption, but rather adheres to ideas of earthly reincarnation. Quite significantly, this is the only expression of any spirituality contained in the Pardoner's Tale. The Pardoner has little concern with actual religious matters and makes no real reference to Christianity. His concern is money, and the Christian religion is only the means to achieve this end.

The Tale itself is a relatively simplistic moral fable that hinges on the distinctions between literal and figurative language. The initial personification of death that the young child uses as a metaphor and euphemism leads to the actual physical manifestation of Death as a tangible object: the piles of gold that the three rioters find. The plot of the tale derives from the rioters' literal interpretation of euphemism ­ since death has taken their friend, they must find death. This personification of death finally becomes metaphor once again when the piles of gold represent the death that they find.


IT is probable that the sacred play was brought to England from France after the Norman conquest. Throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries there was a constant supply of mysteries and miracles. More than one hundred English towns, some of them very small, are known to have been provided with these entertainments, which in some places were given every year. Usually, however, an interval of a few years elapsed between productions. Corpus Christi day, which falls in early June, was the most popular time, though Whitsuntide and occasionally other Church festal days were marked by performances. On one occasion the Parish Clerks gave a pageant which lasted for three days, and again one lasting for eight days. The boy choristers of Saint Paul's in London became celebrated for their histrionic ability, and in 1378 they begged Parliament to issue an injunction against "unskilled performers." In 1416 Henry V entertained the Emperor Sigismund at Windsor with a play on the subject of Saint George; and in the following year the English bishops who were delegated to the Council of Constance--the same Council which promised safe conduct to John Huss and then burned him at the stake--entertained their hosts with a Christmas play in three parts, the Nativity, the Visit of the Magi, and the Slaughter of the Innocents. Two performances were given, one for their fellow councillors and themselves, the other for the burghers of the town.

Some of the extant manuscripts. The usual name for these plays in England was miracle, or the Latin ludus, or sometimes the word history. The name mystery is said to have been first applied, in England, in the early eighteenth century by Dodsley, the editor of a volume of old plays. Of the extant manuscripts, the earliest is probably the Harrowing of Hell, in three versions, all of which were probably taken from the French. It is simply a dramatic dialogue in verse, in which Christ and Satan argue over the ownership of the souls in hell; and it belongs naturally with the Easter group of plays. Two plays were discovered during the twentieth century, one on the subject of Abraham and Isaac; the other, belonging to the lost Newcastle Cycle, on the Building of the Ark, both probably surviving from the fourteenth century.

The Cycles. The greater part of the important manuscripts of biblical drama belongs to the cycles--a medieval product in a sense peculiar to England--which attempted to cover the history of Man from his creation to the Day of Judgment. In these cycles there appeared, almost unconsciously, something like the principle of unity: first came the creation, then the fall of Man, which necessitated his redemption. This redemption, after being foretold by the prophets, was accomplished by the birth and passion of Christ, with his resurrection. The series, taken as a whole, formed a true dramatic sequence, in which the soul of Man was the hero.

There are commonly counted four important English cycles: Chester, York, Coventry, and Towneley (also called Wakefield). Cycles are also known to have been produced at Newcastle, Canterbury, and Lincoln. Of those that survive, the Chester cycle is probably the earliest. Of the Newcastle cycle but one play remains, The Building of the Ark, in which there are five characters, and Noah's wife is represented as a vixen. Such is her stubborn temper that Noah is constrained to say to her,

"The devil of hell thee speed

To ship when thou shalt go!"

The cycles vary in quality, and the plays are not always the work of one hand, nor even of one century. The manuscripts, as we have them, have been revised, edited, and arranged, probably from several earlier models, possibly in some cases from the French. In the different cycles there is naturally great similarity both in subject matter and in the sequence of plays; but there are also interesting differences of treatment.

THROUGH practically a thousand years while the European theater was "dark" the Christian Church was unable to stamp out completely the festive element among the common people that manifested itself particularly at the spring planting time and the harvest season. It is probable, had not the church itself responded to the primitive desire of people to "act out" the stories of their lives, that secular drama would have sprung up in place of the Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays of the Middle Ages.

It must be remembered, too, that everywhere the service of the church was conducted in Latin rendering it quite unintelligible to the masses of the people. If they were to be familiar with the stories of the Bible that knowledge must come to them through the medium of a portrayal of events in the life of Christ and of his saints. When the early attempts were made by the priests to act out the stories of the Christmas and Easter seasons, there was little or no national consciousness in continental Europe. It was, to all intents and purposes, one vast domain living under a feudal system and acknowledging a nominal allegiance first to Charlemagne and later to the "Holy Roman Emperor of the German people." There was, too, but one religion. This religious and political unity made it extremely easy for the ideas of the Mystery and Miracle plays to spread through the agency of the bards and troubadors that wandered from court to court of the feudal barons.

At first only the priests took part in acting out the events from the lives of Christ and the saints and the portrayal took place in the Church proper. Later as the performances grew more elaborate and space became an important item the Mysteries and Miracles were pushed out into the courtyards of the churches and laymen began to take part in the acting.

By the beginning of the twelfth century national boundaries were becoming more or less marked. England by its geographical position was isolated from the currents of thought that flowed through continental Europe, and there, as the people took over the responsibility for the acting of the sacred plays, it became the custom to turn individual incidents over to the guilds of the various crafts. Also, there arose a feeling of need to present, not only isolated incidents or groups of related incidents at Christmas and Easter, but the whole history of man from his creation to the day of judgment. The various incidents of this long story were divided among the guilds of a district, staged on wagons easily drawn from one place to another, and were presented in proper sequence at set stations throughout the district. This complete history enacted by the various guilds came to be referred to as a "cycle" and for further identification was referred to by the name of the district in which it was presented. Viewed from the light of modern times the four most important cycles were those of Chester, York, Coventry, and Towneley (also called Wakefield). That these cycles, even though religious in nature, took into account the popular love of comedy is evidenced by the fact that in the only surviving incident of the Newcastle cycle Noah's wife is represented as a vixen.

About the same time, both in England and on the continent, the idea was conceived of representing the Virtues and Vices by name in the persons of actors, to afford the audience a "moral" lesson. From this grew the Moralities of which the most famous are the English Castell of Perseverance and Everyman ... the latter presumably an import from Holland.

Both the Mystery and the Morality plays were often long winded and frequently dull. To relieve the tedium "interludes" were presented which were nothing more nor less than slapstick farces as a rule more distinguished for their vulgarity than their humor. Most of these farces came originally from France or Italy and dealt either with the subject of sex or digestion. At their best, however, they carry on the true tradition of the Greek comedy writers and the Roman Plautus and Terence. From these "interludes" (literally "between the games," which was their actual use in Italy) developed a swift moving farce that was acted independently of any other performance. The best and most famous of these farces of the Middle Ages is the French Farce of Pierre Pathelin

The remarkable fact that the revival of the drama in modern Europe was due to the Christian Church has been abundantly proved and illustrated. At first, certain parts of the church ritual were expanded in action, and especially at the great religious festivals of Christmas and Easter attempts were made to exhibit vividly before the faithful what the service was intended to commemorate. The Wise Men from the East, who had been guided by a miraculous star, worshipped and presented their gifts before the cradle of the Divine babe; the Virgin Mother was represented by a girl with a child in her arms; the Resurrection was suggested by a priest rising from a mimic sepulchre. Later the action was extended, and dialogues were added. These were, of course, in Latin, the universal language of the Church. Gradually scenes from other Scripture stories were combined with those strictly belonging to the service. These church dramas may have been inartistic, but they were characterized by strict simplicity and earnest devotion.

After a time, these or similar miracle-plays were performed outside of the churches, in the streets of towns or in the fields, at fairs or places of public resort. The actors were priests or monks, and the performance was still religious, including the legends of the saints, as well as Scripture histories. At times, perhaps, a touch of nature was added to gratify the rabble who flocked to the show.


Eventually the place of the Latin prose play in the festivals of the Church was usurped by a Mystery in French verse. No pains seem to have been spared to heighten the attractiveness of the latter in its new home. Characterized in itself by a simple dignity befitting the treatment of such themes, it was acted with all the pomp and circumstances associated with Roman Catholic worship; and nowhere shall we find a grander or more impressive spectacle than a Mystery of the Passion, as performed in one of these grand old Gothic piles. Banners hung above the fretted arches; the odor of incense filled the air; tapers shone brightly in the dim light from storied and diversely-colored windows; elaborate processions wound their way through the aisle to the strains of solemn music; the figures of the priest-players stood out in clear relief against the splendor of the altar, as, facing thousands of rapt spectators, they gravely declaimed, with appropriate gestures, the dialogue intended to set forth the events which led up to the Crucifixion.


So potent a means of entertaining the masses could not long be kept within the pale of the sanctuary, where, to use a simile from Goethe, it was like an oak in a vase of porcelain. It disengaged itself from direct ecclesiastical influence, returned to the market-place, and became an independent institution. Mysteries and Miracles--the latter dealing with the Virgin and saints--were played by guilds and companies expressly organized for the purpose, and no popular festivity was deemed complete without one or more of these instructive entertainments. They were given on scaffolds in the streets, with the actors in more or less archaic costume, with an organ at the back to accompany a chorus of angels, and also with some attempt to indicate the place of the different actions. Occasionally farce was introduced into the most serious scenes. Especially comic was the figure of the devil, who, appearing on the stage as he was popularly supposed to be--a deformed and hairy sprite, with horns, dragon's wings, long tail and cloven feet--was subjected to the greatest cruelties and indignities. Nothing was then deemed too cruel for the presumed author of all the ills and annoyances experienced by mankind. Roars of laughter filled the air when holy men spat in his face, when liberties were taken with his tail, when a stalwart anchorite brought him to the dust with a well-directed blow, and, above all, when a courageous saint seized him by the nose with red-hot pincers.


General characteristics


The Humanist Philosophy

The new interest in secular life led to beliefs about education and society that came from Greece and Rome. The secular, humanist idea held that the church should not rule civic matters, but should guide only spiritual matters. The church disdained the accumulation of wealth and worldly goods, supported a strong but limited education, and believed that moral and ethical behavior was dictated by scripture. Humanists, however, believed that wealth enabled them to do fine, noble deeds, that good citizens needed a good, well-rounded education (such as that advocated by the Greeks and Romans), and that moral and ethical issues were related more to secular society than to spiritual concerns.

Rebirth of Classical Studies

The rebirth of classical studies contributed to the development of all forms of art during the Renaissance. Literature was probably the first to show signs of classical influence. The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) delighted in studying the works of Cicero and Virgil, two great writers of the Roman age, and he modeled some of his own writings on their works. Although he often wrote in Latin, attempting to imitate Cicero's style, Petrarch is most renowned for his poetry in Italian. As one of the first humanists, and as a writer held in high esteem in his own time, he influenced the spread of humanism--first among his admirers, and later throughout the European world.

Spiritual Matters

During the Renaissance, a churchman named Martin Luther changed Christianity. On October 31, 1517, he went to his church in the town of Wittenburg, Germany, and posted a list of things that worried him about the church. His list included the church's practice of selling indulgences, a means by which people could pay the church to reduce the amount of time their souls must spend in purgatory instead of atoning for their sins via contrition. Luther also requested that, when appropriate, Mass be said in the native language instead of in Latin so that the church's teachings would be more accessible to the people. This request for reform ignited the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. Many other Christians agreed that the church needed to change, and several new Christian religions were established during this time. The old church became known as Roman Catholic, and new Christian sects were known by their leaders--among them Lutherans (Luther) and Calvinists (John Calvin).

The Reformation

Jean Calvin

To contemporaries, the reordering of religion and the sundering of the social unity that it had once provided to European culture was the most significant development of the sixteenth century. It is impossible to understand the time without taking a look at this. Religion was not a matter of personal preference or opinion, it was the very basis of society.

The Pre-Reform

The rediscovery of the learning of the ancient world, the printing press, and all the other forces that came together to create the Renaissance also affected the Church. At the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth, Christian humanists sought to apply the new style of scholarship to the study of scriptures in their original languages and to return to the first principles of their religion. In the interests of spreading religious understanding, they began to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages. The end of the fifteenth century saw a popular spiritual revival of a more mystical nature as well, characterised by such works as Thomas à Kempis' Imitatio Christi (translated and published in every major European language). The Renaissance belief in the "perfectability of man" made people less content with things as they were, and more interested in improving them in the here and now. No one could argue that the church was not corrupt: holding vast wealth, exercising enormous political power and waging war, it was administered by holders of patronage positions that had more interest in lining their pockets than in promoting the welfare of their "flocks". The Christian humanists criticized these all-too-human failings, while striving for a purer church.

The early years of the sixteenth century were graced by some great Christian humanist intellects: Erasmus, Lefèvre d'Etaples, and others. Marguerite de Navarre, François Ier's sister, was a great patron, and François Ier as an enlightened Renaissance prince himself, was sympathetic and once offered Erasmus the leadership of his new College de France, founded to promote classical learning. The Bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briçonnet, gathered a circle of inquiring intellects and passionate, reform-minded preachers around him there during the early 1520s. There was no particular intention of breaking from the church at this time, merely a passion for improving it.

The Gallican Tradition

Since Clovis, the French crown has had a special relationship to the church. There was no concept of the separation of church and state in France.  The Pope gave the kings of France the title of "Most Christian King," and at his consecration (itself a holy rite) the King takes an oath to extirpate heresy in his realm. In spite of this close relationship, or perhaps because of it, the Gallican church in France has also traditionally enjoyed more independence from the central church hierarchy. The King's rights to govern the church were unprecendented. In 1516 the Concordat of Bologna confirmed François Ier's right to make appointments to benefices, but gave the Pope the right to veto unqualified candidates and to collect a year's revenue from each post. Although this gave the Pope many rights, it gave the king more. The king of France had enormous powers to dispose of the Church's wealth and he could (and did) use the offices of bishops, abbots, etc. to provide sinecures for his faithful followers.  This also meant that lords of the church were usually quite worldly people, often quite unfit for their offices if spirituality or theological learning is considered a requirement. (The Pope's veto was hardly ever exercised.) There was no restraint against a single individual holding many simultaneous titles, and there were plenty of bishops who lived well on their revenues and never set foot in their sees. The weaving together of obligation, reward, and responsibility between church and state made for a unique Gallican fusion of church and state, with the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) acting as the scholastic think-tank arm of the church-state complex.


In 1517, a dispute about who was entitled to a cut of the revenues generated by itinerant papal indulgence sellers provoked the controversy that led the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg. The upshot of Luther's theses was that Christians are saved by faith, and faith alone, and that no amount of works (including the purchase of indulgences) made any difference at all. A drastic enough view, but not one that was immediately perceived as having the ultimate consequences that it eventually did. The Pope, Leo X, was a fairly easy going fellow, not inclined to vigorously prosecute this first appearance of heresy. There were plenty of heterodox views in the air at the time, and he thought it could be worked out diplomatically.

As it turns out, it could not. Luther was not immediately burnt for a heretic; he was allowed to present his case in court and had a powerful effect on the populace. He also had a powerful patron and protector in the Elector of Saxony, who shielded him from the ecclesiastical authorities. In addition, the media explosion brought on by the printing press spread his message much further than it otherwise might have gone, and made him the focus for all sorts of religious, spiritual, political, and economic discontent. The right to read and interpret scripture lead to the throwing off of the chains of papal and ecclesiastical authority; and taking this to mean political and economic freedom as well, there were widespread revolts among the German peasantry. This horrified Luther and many of the civil powers.

The deep belief that religious uniformity was essential for political and and social stability made heterodox opinions a potential act of treason. It was not the desire of the intellectual reformers to challenge civil authority, but it was a consequence. The German states were small political units: principalities, duchies, electorates, and so on, all theoretically owing loyalty to the Holy Roman Emperor as overlord, but most exercising a fairly independent course a lot of the time. As the leaders of these states made their choices for or against the new opinion, their populations went with them (like it or not). For many, the attractions of "nationalizing" church property was a powerful incentive to become a reformer. Political alliances were made and remade in the name of religion throughout the rest of the century.

The Day of the Placards

After Luther made it more difficult to be neutral, the hidebound, rigidly scholastic Sorbonne denounced the Circle of Meaux as heretics in 1525. Some recanted, some fled into exile, some became avowed Protestants, some fled to the shelter of Marguerite de Navarre's court. During the 1520s and 30s the lines between evangelical Christian humanists and Protestants were very vague. Seminal humanists like Erasmus and Lefèvre d'Etaples never left the Church, not wishing to see its fundamental unity destroyed, while others became religious and social radicals.

In spite of the fear inspired by the example of Luther's followers, the Most Christian King of France was fairly tolerant of the spirit of inquiry and truly valued scholarship. He generally prevented the doctors of the Sorbonne from doing their worst against anyone challenging their medieval views.

However, this tolerance changed with the "Day of the Placards." Early Sunday morning on October 18, 1534, Parisians and many other citizens of northern France awoke to find the city plastered with broadsides denouncing the Catholic mass as "an insufferable abuse", condemning the Eucharist in very vitriolic language, and threatening the priesthood for "disinheriting" kings, princes, and so on by its practice. One of these appeared on the king's bedroom door. This was not just a theological debate, but an attack on the fundamental social fabric. It confirmed the popular suspicion that the "Lutherans" were not only heretics, but rebels and traitors.

A few culpable parties were rounded up and burned, and François Ier responded to this challenge to his dual role as head of the state and the church in France by holding a massive procession of the Holy Eucharist through Paris, in which all the royal and parliamentary institutions participated. Sporadic suppression of Protestantism followed, but it was all very inconsistent. Rabelais wrote his satirical works during this time and managed never to be burnt for them, while others went to the stake for much less.


In the wave of suppression that followed the Day of the Placards, one of the exiles was a evangelical humanist named Jean Cauvin (latinized as Calvin), from Noyon in Picardy. He had studied law and had made a bit of name in humanist circles with a work on Seneca.

In 1536 Calvin published (in Latin) The Institutes of the Christian Religion in Basel. He sojourned in Strasbourg from 1538-1541, refining his thoughts on how to create God's kingdom on earth, and ultimately landed in Geneva. The Institutes were published in French in 1541, and had the most profound effect of any book save the Bible on the development of Protestantism in France. Ironically, the first edition of this book was dedicated to King François, perhaps in the hope that the generally open-minded king could still be persuaded to adopt the reformed religion.

Calvin did not really add anything particularly new to Protestant theology in the Institutes, but he gave much more logical and analytical structure to its doctrines. His book was an effective educational tool, intended to be the foundation for organizing a new Christianity (and by implication, a more godly new society). Calvinism is strongly identified with the doctrine of predestination, but this was not really a novel view -- it was implicit in Luther's doctrines also. It was Calvin's legalistic explanation of the significance of it and other standard articles of Protestant confession that made the difference.

It is an intense irony that the citizens of Geneva, a people who were so determined to be free from an oppressive church hierarchy, who held as an article of faith the priesthood of all believers, and who were fanatical about the liberty to study and interpret the scriptures for themselves, should end up establishing a theocracy where the Kingdom of God was so rigidly enforced that staying up after 9 o'clock in a public inn was a crime.

Incidentally, the Lutherans and Calvinists came to despise each other. Montaigne recounts the story of visiting a town in Germany and having an interesting discussion with the pastor of the church there. (Montaigne was insatiably curious about other's beliefs and never passed up the opportunity to talk to Lutherans, Jews, witches, and anyone else of interest). This Lutheran pastor held that he would rather celebrate the mass of Rome than so much as walk into the service of the Calvinists. Le plus ça change...

The Council of Trent

Eventually the church mobilized itself to deal with splintering of its authority and held the Council of Trent. It was the purpose of this council to try to define a common ground of belief and practice for all Christians, and to attempt to heal the schism. It opened in 1545 in the last years of François's reign, and met for 18 years, during which it healed nothing. There was little hope that the Protestant views would be truly accomodated and honestly debated, and the end result was that Trent ended up reinforcing the more uniquely Catholic aspects of religion in contradiction to the Protestant practice. The special place of Mary was reaffirmed, for example, as well as the role of devotional works, the sacraments, the saints and angels, the role of Latin in worship, the sole privilege of the clergy to interpret scripture, the primacy of the pope, and all the other traditional trappings.

The Gallican church played next to no role in the Council of Trent, and refused to register its decrees. During its early years of convocation, the Papacy was dominated by Hapsburg political influences. The Valois were at war with the Hapsburgs throughout the reigns of François I and his son Henry II, and papal/French relations were at a very low point. The Gallican church was very prickly about its rights and did not acknowledge that the Pope or the Council had any right to interfere in the internal affairs of the church of France.

The Counter-Reformation

The Council of Trent did try to address some of the abuses of the church, calling for a more effective, educated, and involved clergy. The most effective tool of the church came into being during this time. A Spanish bravo was wounded by a cannonball in 1521 and in his frustration at never being able to follow the noble profession of arms again, turned to the comfort of religion. Ignatius Loyola applied a very military sensibility to the development of spirituality, and founded the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits took education of the laity and the common clergy as one of their special goals. They answered to no earthly power but the Pope, and served as the premier strike force of the Counter-Reformation. By 1559, they were were a world power.

There were several other notable saints of the Counter-Reformation. Some responded to the "faith not works" challenge of the Protestants by finding a new vocation in social justice. Vincent de Paul and Francis de Sales were intensely devoted to caring for the poor, founding orders with that mission at a time when an emerging capitalist economy was adding to the social wreckage. It was a time of increasing poverty and homelessness in the face of growing wealth and power for the elite, and this brand of counter-reformation Catholic chose to stand on the side of the meek and humble. Henri IV strongly approved of St. Francis de Sales.

There was also a Counter-reformation revival of Catholic mysticism, another reaction to the desire for a more personal relationship with God. St. John of the Cross probed The Dark Night of the Soul, and St. Theresa of Avila explored The Interior Castle where God dwelt. Theresa reformed the Carmelites and spread contemplation at the same time that her countryman Loyola was spreading orthodoxy by whatever means necessary. Women played a major role in the Counter-Reformation, just as they did in the Reformation. Some were public leaders themselves, but most were leaders of a quieter sort, patronizing the saints, thinkers, and preachers, motivating their families, and acting in their communities.

The post-Trendentine church also took a stronger interest in family life, the roles of husband and wife, parent and child, and the responsibilities of the parents to train their children up in the faith. They began to oppose the excesses of Carnival and other types of pagan "laxity" that was part of everyday life, and began to promote a more watchful sexual morality. Many of the "family values" that we now think of as characteristically "Catholic" were formed during this time and were a response to the Puritan tendencies of the Protestants.

The Demographics of Dissent

Historians have debated for a long time who the Protestants were, why the new faith appealed to them, where the social/religious fault lines lay and why. Marxists have seen a class struggle between the lower orders and the elite, others a conflict between a feudal Catholicism and a capitalist Protestantism, still others the appeal of a more "rational" religion to better educated minds during a time of social flux.

Recent scholarship on this subject has finally provided some hard data. Protestantism in France had more more appeal in the towns than in the countryside, except in the South which had a long tradition of anti-clericalism, heresy, and independence from the crown. In the towns, artisans and learned professionals made up a disproportionate number of the Huguenots (when and why this term was coined for French Protestants is unknown). They were overwhelmingly more literate than the general population, which was important for a religion that so strongly emphasized bible study. Members of new trades like printing and bookselling, as well as newly prestigious trades like painting and goldsmithing, and new manufacturing technologies like silk-making were more likely to take to Protestantism than members of older, more tradition-bound trades. As a whole, these were artisans with more education, independence, and entrepreneurial spirit than average. At least, these generalizations are true in those regions of France where these kinds of trades were strong. Regional context varies and the popularity or lack thereof of the reformed religion needs to be weighed against local conditions, but for the most part, Huguenot artisans were working in trades that their fathers never knew.

Observers have always noted a certain congeniality between Protestantism and capitalism, even though the great banking families and merchant houses first emerged in the Italian city-states, a Catholic region where the church was such a strong native industry that the reform never had a chance. The sober, industrious lifestyle followed by most Protestants went well with the demands of making money in trade and industry. It depends on whether or not you think this is a good thing -- some have seen in the Protestant work ethic the sublimation of people who have no absolution, no ritual means of forgiveness, and who must therefore throw themselves into their worldly labor to forget. Economically, the northern countries and the Atlantic-based trade prospered during this time and many of the nations on the economic upswing were Protestant. In the Netherlands, the southern towns like Antwerp (where Catholicism was imposed by the Spanish) lost out to the growing economic power of the Protestant northern provinces as many refugees fled the Spanish wars to make new lives in places like Amsterdam. Those towns and provinces that prefered to do business rather than enforce religious purity on their subjects did better in the emerging modern world.

French Protestantism would never have amount to the potent social force it became if it had remained a religion of artisans. In the 1550s and 1560s, large numbers of noble elites were attracted to it. Calvin made a concerted effort to recruit them, sending Geneva-trained French evangelists into the country with a mission to influence the powerful decision-makers. Very often, these decision-makers were reached through the influence of their mothers and wives.

Marguerite de Navarre's early humanist patronage blossomed into a full-fledged Protestant conviction in her daughter, Jeanne d'Albret, the Queen of Navarre, Duchess d'Albret, Countess of Bearn and Vicomtesse of Foix. Jeanne brought along her waffling and opportunistic husband, Antoine de Bourbon, raised her son Henry de Navarre in the religion, and made the reformed faith the state religion in her territories. This rock of reform made for a powerful base in the Southwest, where the Huguenots enjoyed more popular support than anywhere else.

Among the other noteworthy converts were the Prince de Condé, another Bourbon and prince of the blood, and the Châtillon brothers: Gaspard de Coligny, Odet Cardinal de Châtillon (who never gave up his cardinal's hat), and François d'Andelot. Many of the nobles no doubt took this course out of opportunism, loyalty to their patrons, and similar motives, but some like Coligny have no such stain in the characters at all. [Catherine de' Medici is reputed to have disliked Coligny because she couldn't understand a person who was not motivated by personal gain and self-interest.]

An elite group that was also initially attracted to the religion were the judges of the parliamentary courts. This was particularly threatening to the social order, and Henri II took steps to deal with it. One of the famous early Protestant martyrs was Anne du Bourg, a Protestant magistrate who defied the king in the Parliament of Paris and was burned for his intransigence in 1559. Signficantly, the charges were not just heresy but sedition and lese majesté. The year 1559 also saw the untimely death of Henri II, which set the stage for the transformation of the social issues of the Reformation into out and out civil war. (See Wars of Religion.)


This is by no means a work of theology, but the following tables compares a few of the key doctrinal issues separating the Protestants (specifically Calvinists) from the Catholics.  


Catholic (Council of Trent)

Justification by faith -- Christ's sacrifice atones for all sins, and it is only necessary to believe in it to be saved. There is nothing humans can do by their own efforts to add or detract from it.

Both faith and good works (acts of devotion, charity, the sacraments, etc.) are necessary for salvation.

The priesthood of all believers -- all believers have equal access to God and no other earthly intermediaries are needed. This does not mean that the flock does not need teachers, but there are no special sacramental functions belonging to any particular class.

The Catholic priesthood is necessary as only priests can perform the sacramentsnecessary for spirtual health and correctly interpret the meaning of scripture.

The scriptures as the only source of true doctrine -- studying and understanding the scriptures is therefore important to all believers. Translating the Bible into the vernacular tongues and making it available to all is essential.

Scripture is only one way in which doctrine is revealed; the decisions of church councils, encyclicals from the Pope, tradition, etc. are all part of it. Only the priesthood of the church can correctly interpret the meaning of scripture -- do not try this at home.

The Lord's Supper is symbolic and the body and blood of Christ are not physically present. To believe otherwise is to commit idolatory.

The Eucharist is a mystery in which the sacrifice of Christ is reenacted; the bread and wine become spiritually transformed into the true body and blood of the Lord.

No heavenly intermediaries are needed to intercede with God. Atlhough the Virgin Mary, saints, and angels are all in heaven, they should not be the objects of prayer or veneration. The making of images encourages idolatrous worship that should be directed at the more abstract concept of God.

Although the saints and angels should not be worshipped, their intercession is valuable and necessary to helping the Christian to achieve salvation. The Virgin Mary is especially honored by God, and should be also by believers. Religious images should not be worshipped, but they help to inspire devotion (these fine points were often lost on the average peasant).

God's foreknowledge and ominipotence mean that everyone is predestined to their fate: either to be or not to be one of the elect. Human action avails nothing.

God's omnipotence does not restrict human will, and each individual is still responsible for earning their own salvation.

The Bible only documents two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper (so called to distinguish the Protestant practice from the Catholic Eucharist)

There are seven sacraments: baptism, Eucharist (see above), penance (confession/ absolution), confirmation, marriage, holy orders, extreme unction (last rites). Of these, baptism can be performed by anyone in an emergency, and marriage (a historical newcomer to the list) is technically bestowed by the two partners on one another -- all the rest can only be performed by a priest.


Thomas Wyatt(1503-1542) was born at Allington Castle, near Maidstone, in Kent, in 1503, son of Henry and Anne. His first court appearance was as Sewer Extraordinary to Henry VIII in 1516, in which year he also entered St. John's College, University of Cambridge. In 1520 (?) he married Elizabeth Brooke (daughter of Lord Cobham); she bore him a son, Thomas, in 1521. In 1524 he was engaged by King Henry VIII to fulfill various offices at home and abroad.2

Around 1525, Wyatt separated from his wife, charging her with adultery; it is also the year from which his interest in Anne Boleyn probably dates. He accompanied Sir Thomas Cheney on a diplomatic mission to France in 1526 and, the following year, accompanied Sir John Russell to the papal court in Rome, and to Venice. He was made High Marshal of Calais (1528-1530) and Commissioner of the Peace of Essex (1532), accompanying Henry and Anne Boleyn (now the king's mistress) to Calais later the same year. In January 1533 Anne Boleyn married Henry; Wyatt served in her coronation in June.

Wyatt was knighted in 1535, but in 1536 he was imprisoned in the Tower for quarreling with the Duke of Suffolk, and possibly also because he was suspected of being one of Anne Boleyn's lovers. During this imprisonment Wyatt witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn on May 19, 1536 from the Bell Tower, and wrote V. Innocentia Veritas Viat Fides Circumdederunt me inimici mei. He was released later that year, and in November of the year his father Henry died.

Wyatt was back in favor, and made ambassador to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in Spain. He returned to England in June 1539, and later that year was again ambassador to Charles until May 1540. Wyatt's praise of country life, and the cynical comments about foreign courts, in his verse epistle Mine Own John Poins derive from his own experience.

In 1541 he was charged with treason on a revival of charges originally levelled against him in 1538 by Edmund Bonner, now Bishop of London, that while ambassador, Wyatt had had dealings with Cardinal Pole and been rude about the King's person. Wyatt was again confined to the Tower, where he wrote an impassioned 'Defence'. He received a royal pardon, perhaps at the request of Queen Catharine Howard, and was fully restored to favor in 1542. Wyatt was given various royal offices after his pardon, but he became ill after welcoming Charles V's envoy at Falmouth and died at Sherborne on 11 October 1542.

None of Wyatt's poems had been published in his lifetime, with the exception of a few poems in a miscellany entitled The Court of Venus. His first published work was Certain Psalms (1594), metrical translations of the penitential psalms. It wasn't until 1557, 15 years after Wyatt's death, that a number of his poetry appeared alongside Surrey's in printer Richard Tottel's Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other. Until modern times it was called simply Songs and Sonnets; but now it is generally known as Tottel's Miscellany. The rest of Wyatt's poetry, lyrics, and satires remained in manuscript until the 19th and 20th centuries "rediscovered" them.

Wyatt, along with Surrey, was the first to introduce the sonnet into English, with its characteristic final rhyming couplet. He wrote extraordinarily accomplished imitations of Petrarch's sonnets, including 'I find no peace' ('Pace non trovo') and 'Whoso List to Hunt'—The latter, quite different in tone from Petrarch's 'Una candida cerva', has often been seen to refer to Anne Boleyn as the deer with a jewelled collar. Wyatt was also adept at other new forms in English, such as the terza rima and the rondaeu.

Henry Howard Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) was born in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, in 1517, as the eldest son of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, and Lady Elizabeth Stafford (daughter of the Duke of Buckingham). Surrey was descended from kings on both sides of his family; he was brought up at Windsor with Henry VIII's illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, at Windsor. He was given his title by courtesy in 1524 on the passing away of his grandfather, Thomas, Earl of Surrey Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, when his father became 3rd Duke of Norfolk.

In 1532, after marrying Lady Frances de Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford, he accompanied his first cousin Anne Boleyn, the king, and the Duke of Richmond to France, staying there for over a year as a member of the entourage of Francis I. In 1536 his first son, Thomas, was born, Anne Boleyn was executed, and Henry FitzRoy, Duke of Richmond, died at age seventeen. Surrey's childhood friend, who was also his brother-in-law, was buried at one of the Howard homes, Thetford Abbey. Also in 1536, Surrey served with his father against the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion which protested against the King's dissolution of the monasteries.

Surrey, like his father and grandfather, was an able soldier, and the Howards had long been loyal to the crown. But the Howards' fortunes at court depended on Henry's queens. They were in trouble when Jane Seymour became queen in 1536, and the Seymours, a rival faction at court, began their scheming in earnest. The Seymours accused the Howards for secretly sympathizing with the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and Surrey was briefly imprisoned on that suspicion.

In the Early 1540s, Surrey was back in favor. He was made Knight of the Garter in 1541. Surrey served in the war with Scotland in 1542, and in 1543 he fought in Flanders with the English army on the side of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was seeking to acquire the Netherlands. The following year he was wounded at the siege of Montreuil; in 1545-1546 he became Commander of the garrison of Boulogne.

When Henry VIII's health was failing in 1546, Surrey made the mistake of announcing his opinion of the obviousness of his father's becoming Protector to Prince Edward. The Seymour's finally had their day, when Surrey ill-advisedly displayed royal quarterings on his shield. Arrested with his father on trumped-up charges of treason, he was imprisoned in the Tower, condemned and executed on January 19, 1547 on Tower Hill.

Surrey continued the practice of the sonnet in English as instituted by Wyatt and established a form for it that was used by Shakespeare and that has become known as the English sonnet form: three quatrains and a couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. Even more significant, he was the first English poet to publish in blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—a verse form so popular in the succeeding four centuries that it seems almost indigenous to the language. The work in which he used this "strange meter," as the publisher called it, was a translation of part of Virgil's Aeneid. Book 4 was published in 1554 and book 2 in 1557.

Surrey's poetry circulated in manuscript form in court circles. He published his Epitaph on Sir Thomas Wyatt, but most of his poetry first appeared in 1557, ten years after his death, in printer Richard Tottel's Songs and Sonnets written by the Right Honorable Lord Henry Howard late Earl of Surrey and other. Until modern times it was called simply Songs and Sonnets; but now it is generally known as Tottel's Miscellany. Sir Philip Sidney appreciated Surrey's lyrics for "many things tasting of a noble birth, and worthy of a noble mind".

Sir Philip Sidney(1554-1586) was born on November 30, 1554, at Penshurst, Kent. He was the eldest son of Sir Henry Sidney, thrice Lord Deputy (governor) of Ireland, and nephew of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. He was named after his godfather, Philip II of Spain. He entered Shrewsbury School in 1564, at the age of ten, on the same day as Fulke Greville, who became his friend and, later, his biographer. After attending Christ Church, Oxford, (1568-1571) he left without taking a degree in order to complete his education by travelling the continent. Among the places he visited were Paris, Frankfurt, Venice, and Vienna.

When Sidney returned to England in 1575, he lived the life of a prominent courtier. In 1577, he was sent as ambassador to the German Emperor and the Prince of Orange. Officially, he had been sent to condole the princes on the deaths of their fathers. His real mission was to feel out the chances for the creation of a Protestant league. Yet, the budding diplomatic career was cut short because the Queen found Sidney to be perhaps too ardent in his Protestantism, the Queen preferring a more cautious approach. Upon his return, Sidney attended the court of Elizabeth I and actively encouraged such authors as Edward Dyer, Greville, and most important, the young Edmund Spenser, who dedicated The Shepheardes Calender to him.

In 1580, he incurred the queen's displeasure by opposing her projected marriage to the Duke of Anjou, Roman Catholic heir to the French throne, and was dismissed from court for a time. He retired to Wilton, the estate of his beloved sister Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, and there he wrote for her entertainment a long pastoral romance in prose called Arcadia. At some uncertain date, he composed a major piece of critical prose that was published after his death under two titles, The Defence of Poesy and An Apology for Poetry. Sidney's Astrophil and Stella ("Starlover and Star") is the first of the great Elizabethan sonnet cycles, which relied heavily on the conventions established by Petrarch. Sidney's collection has 108 sonnets and eleven songs.

Yet Sidney was growing restless with lack of appointments. In 1585 he made a covert attempt to join Drake's expedition to Cadiz. Elizabeth summoned Sidney to court, and appointed him governor of Flushing in the Netherlands. In 1586 Sidney, along with his younger brother Robert Sidney, took part in a skirmish against the Spanish at Zutphen, and was wounded of a musket shot that shattered his thigh-bone. Some 22 days later Sidney died of the unhealed wound at not yet thirty-two years of age. His death occasioned much mourning in England as the Queen and her subjects grieved for the man who had come to exemplify the ideal courtier. It is said that Londoners, come out to see the funeral progression, cried out "Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived."

Edmund Spenser(1552-1599) Born in or near 1552 to a family of small means, Edmund Spenser attended the Merchant Taylor's School under Richard Mulcaster, and went to Cambridge, about 1569-76, as a sizar of Pembroke Hall, where he befriended Gabriel Harvey. He took his Bachelor's degree in 1573 and his Master's in 1576. By 1578 he was serving as secretary to Bishop John Young, in Kent, the landscape of which is frequently mentioned in The Shepheardes Calender. Entering into employment by the Earl of Leicester the following year, Spenser became friends with Philip Sidney, Edward Dyer, and Fulke Greville; they formed a literary group called by Spenser the "Areopagus," and their talents were enlisted in supporting the cause of the Leicester faction in matters of religion and politics (Heninger xii-xiii).

The Shepheardes Calender appeared at the end of the year, in time to serve as, among other things, propaganda for the Leicester position on the Queen's proposed marriage with the Duc d'Alencon. The following year he began work on The Faerie Queene, and entered the employ of Lord Grey of Wilton, Lord Deputy of Ireland.

In 1581 Spenser was appointed Clerk in Chancery for Faculties, and soon after befriended Sir Walter Ralegh, whose estate was not far from his own. The year 1589 saw Spenser's return to London, partly to oversee the publication of the first three books of The Faerie Queene.

Soon thereafter the Daphnaida and the Complaints also appeared. After two years Spenser returned to Ireland, where he courted and married Elizabeth Boyle, and continued to produce a number of works, including the Amoretti and Epithalamion, Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, Fowre Hymnes, and Prothalamion. An edition of The Faerie Queene, Books I-VI, appeared in 1596. The Stationers Register carries an entry for A Vewe of the present state of Irelande in April, 1598, but this did not appear until 1633. A general uprising of the Irish forced Spenser to flee to London in 1598, where he brought correspondence from Sir Thomas Norris to the Privy Council; a few weeks later, January 13th, 1599, he died in Westminster and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Cantos of Mutabilitie first appeared in the edition of The Faerie Queene of 1609 (MacLean xv-xvi).

William Shakespeare (

Life and Times of William Shakespeare

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else--Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates--but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

The Sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets are very different from Shakespeare's plays, but they do contain dramatic elements and an overall sense of story. Each of the poems deals with a highly personal theme, and each can be taken on its own or in relation to the poems around it. The sonnets have the feel of autobiographical poems, but we don't know whether they deal with real events or not, because no one knows enough about Shakespeare's life to say whether or not they deal with real events and feelings, so we tend to refer to the voice of the sonnets as "the speaker"--as though he were a dramatic creation like Hamlet or King Lear.

There are certainly a number of intriguing continuities throughout the poems. The first 126 of the sonnets seem to be addressed to an unnamed young nobleman, whom the speaker loves very much; the rest of the poems (except for the last two, which seem generally unconnected to the rest of the sequence) seem to be addressed to a mysterious woman, whom the speaker loves, hates, and lusts for simultaneously. The two addressees of the sonnets are usually referred to as the "young man" and the "dark lady"; in summaries of individual poems, I have also called the young man the "beloved" and the dark lady the "lover," especially in cases where their identity can only be surmised. Within the two mini-sequences, there are a number of other discernible elements of "plot": the speaker urges the young man to have children; he is forced to endure a separation from him; he competes with a rival poet for the young man's patronage and affection. At two points in the sequence, it seems that the young man and the dark lady are actually lovers themselves--a state of affairs with which the speaker is none too happy. But while these continuities give the poems a narrative flow and a helpful frame of reference, they have been frustratingly hard for scholars and biographers to pin down. In Shakespeare's life, who were the young man and the dark lady?

Historical Mysteries Of all the questions surrounding Shakespeare's life, the sonnets are perhaps the most intruiguing. At the time of their publication in 1609 (after having been written most likely in the 1590s and shown only to a small circle of literary admirers), they were dedicated to a "Mr. W.H," who is described as the "onlie begetter" of the poems. Like those of the young man and the dark lady, the identity of this Mr. W.H. remains an alluring mystery. Because he is described as "begetting" the sonnets, and because the young man seems to be the speaker's financial patron, some people have speculated that the young man is Mr. W.H. If his initials were reversed, he might even be Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, who has often been linked to Shakespeare in theories of his history. But all of this is simply speculation: ultimately, the circumstances surrounding the sonnets, their cast of characters and their relations to Shakespeare himself, are destined to remain a mystery.


University Wits

From the confluence of the religious and humanist traditions, along with a native farce tradition, there emerged in mid-16th-century England one of the great eras in world drama: the Elizabethan-Jacobean age.

Within the religious tradition, the morality play exercised the greatest influence over later English drama. In plays such as Everyman (c.1500), abstract qualities came to life and struggled for dominion over the soul of man. The native farce tradition yielded John Heywood's Johan Johan (1533), a prototypical triangle of adultery involving a henpecked husband, shrewish wife, and lecherous priest.

The humanist tradition, flourishing in grammar schools, universities, and law schools, at first produced comic plays in the ancient Roman tradition. One of the first to depend largely on native English elements was Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (c.1533). It was followed some years later by the anonymous Gammer Gurton's Needle (c.1560), in which a great deal of farcical hubbub surrounds the loss of precisely one needle. Gorboduc (1561) was the first English tragic drama in blank verse.

A group of educated writers, known as the University Wits, in applying their learning to the professional theater infused the rough-and-tumble Tudor drama with elements of classical style. The pastoral plays of John Lyly proved that English could be as balanced, elegant, precise, and supple as Latin. Robert Greene imported the romantic comedy from Italy while Thomas Kyd, in The Spanish Tragedy (c.1588), brought Senecan blood and thunder to the public stage, whetting the popular taste for revenge tragedy. The greatest poet among the University Wits was Christopher Marlowe, who demonstrated the efficacy of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for dramatic expression in English. In Tamburlaine (c.1586), Doctor Faustus (c.1588), The Jew of Malta (c.1589), and Edward II (c.1592), he created a succession of mighty heroes (or anti-heroes) who held the stage through their insatiable wills and insistent poetry.

Building upon all these innovations, shuttling between and blending a variety of forms, creating works of unprecedented subtlety and durability, William Shakespeare--poet, dramatist, actor, and theater comanager--achieved a primacy among his peers that eventually became a primacy among dramatists of all lands and times. His innovations in tragedy, comedy, romance, and history plays have never been surpassed for daring and accomplishment. His 38 plays embody an uncanny congeries of elements, combined in an infinitely complex whole: bold formal experimentation; exquisite verbal expression in diverse styles; unbounded imagination and curiosity; shrewdly observed, enduring characters; the wintry despair of the grave mingled with a lusty, vital comic sense; and an unparalleled instinct for the stageworthy that allowed his works to speak to the illiterate and the sophisticate at the same time. His work remains a mine of wonderment for all who contemplate the drama.

Second only to Shakespeare in Elizabethan comedy, and the most learned dramatist of his day, Ben Jonson proudly sported his familiarity with classical comedy and satire in scathingly moralistic theatrical attacks on the avarice and folly of his countrymen. Jonson modified the ancient use of stock characters in his "comedies of humours" by attributing extravagant character traits (such as a disposition to be sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic) to an imbalance in the mix of bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). His Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are among the most frequently revived 17th-century plays. Jonson was also the chief writer of Jacobean court masques.

A remarkable vigor and originality characterized even the lesser dramatists of the day. Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday (1600) is a pleasant comedy of the artisan class. John Marston's The Malcontent (1604) seethes with the lasciviousness and intrigue typical of the Jacobean era (1603-25). Following Marston's lead came such bold expositions of lust, corruption, treachery, and murder as Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (c.1606), John Webster's The White Devil (c.1610) and The Duchess of Malfi (c.1613), and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's The Changeling (c.1622). Not all Jacobean drama was so bitter: the most popular playwrights after the death of Shakespeare were the sometime collaborators Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who specialized in the more sedate form of romantic tragicomedy. In the Caroline era (1625-42), however, the most important play was John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c.1630), in which the only sympathetic characters are a brother and sister involved in an incestuous affair.

The Puritans naturally opposed the decadence they perceived on the stages of London, and when they came to power in 1642 they immediately closed down all the theaters.


The Life of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, moved to the idyllic town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the mid-sixteenth century, where he became a successful landowner, moneylender, wool and agricultural goods dealer, and glover. In 1557 he married Mary Arden . John Shakespeare lived during a time when the middle class grew and became wealthier and wealthier, thus allowing its members increasing freedoms, luxuries, and voice in the local government. He took advantage of the opportunities afforded him through this social growth and in 1557 became a member of the Stratford Council, an event which marked the beginning of an illustrious political career. By 1561 he was elected one of the town's fourteen burgesses, where he served as constable, one of two chamberlains, and alderman successively. In these positions he administered borough property and revenues. In 1567 he was made bailiff, the highest elected office in Stratford, and the equivalent of a modern day mayor.

The town records indicate that William Shakespeare was John and Mary's third child. His birth is unregistered, but legend places it on April 23, 1564, partially because April 23 is the day on which he died 52 years later. In any event, his baptism was registered with the town on April 26, 1564. Not much is known about William's childhood, although it is safe to assume that he attended the local grammar school, the King's New School, which was staffed with a faculty who held Oxford degrees, and whose curriculum included mathematics, natural sciences, Latin language and rhetoric, logic, Christian ethics, and classical literature. He did not attend the university, which was not unusual at this time, since university education was reserved for prospective clergymen and was not a particularly mind-opening experience. However, the education he received at grammar school was excellent, as evidenced by the numerous classical and literary references in his plays. His early works especially drew on such Greek and Roman greats as Seneca and Plautus. What is more impressive than his formal education, however, is the wealth of general knowledge exhibited in his works, from a working knowledge of many professions to a vocabulary that is far greater than any other English writer.

In 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married the twenty-six year old Anne Hathaway. Their first daughter, Susanna, was baptized only six months later, which has given rise to much speculation concerning the circumstances surrounding the marriage. In 1585, twins were born to the couple, and baptized Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. Hamnet died at the young age of eleven by which time Shakespeare was already a successful playwright. Around 1589 Shakespeare wrote his first play, Henry VI, Part 1. Sometime between his marriage and writing this play he and his wife moved to London, where he pursued a career as a playwright and actor.

Although we have many records of his life as a citizen of Stratford, including marriage and birth certificates, very little information exists about his life as a young playwright. Legend characterizes Shakespeare as a roguish young scrapper who was once forced to flee London under sketchy circumstances. However, the little written information we have of his early years does not confirm this. Young Will was not an immediate and universal success; the earliest written record of Shakespeare's life in London comes from a statement by rival playwright Robert Greene, who calls Shakespeare an "upstart crow . . . [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you:" - hardly high praise.

In 1594 Shakespeare became a charter member of The Lord Chamberlain's Men, a group of actors who later changed their name to The King's Men when they gained the sponsorship of King James I. By 1598 he was "principal comedian" for the troupe, and by 1603 he was "principal tragedian." Acting and writing plays at this time were not considered noble professions, but successful and prosperous actors were relatively well-respected. Shakespeare was very successful and made quite a bit of money. He invested this money in Stratford real estate and was able to purchase the second largest house in Stratford, the New Place, for his parents in 1597. In 1596 Shakespeare applied for a coat of arms for his family, in effect making himself into a gentleman, and his daughters married successfully and wealthily.

William Shakespeare lived until 1616 while his wife Anna died in 1623 at the age of sixty-seven. He was buried in the chancel of his church at Stratford.The lines above his tomb (allegedly written by Shakespeare himself) read:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones
And cursed be he that moves my bones.

About Shakespearean Theater:

Before Shakespeare¹s time and during his boyhood, troupes of actors performed wherever they could ­ in halls, courts, courtyards, and any other open spaces available. However, in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten years old, the Common Council passed a law requiring plays and theaters in London to be licensed. In 1576, actor and future Lord Chamberlain's Man, James Burbage, built the first permanent theater, called "The Theatre", outside London city walls. After this many more theaters were established, including the Globe Theatre, which was where most of Shakespeare's plays premiered.

Elizabethan theaters were generally built after the design of the original Theatre. Built of wood, these theaters comprised three tiers of seats in a circular shape, with a stage area on one side of the circle. The audience's seats and part of the stage were roofed, but much of the main stage and the area in front of the stage in the center of the circle were open to the elements. About 1,500 audience members could pay extra money to sit in the covered seating areas, while about 800 "groundlings" paid less money to stand in this open area before the stage. The stage itself was divided into three levels: a main stage area with doors at the rear and a curtained area in the back for "discovery scenes"; an upper, canopied area called "heaven" for balcony scenes; and an area under the stage called "hell," accessed by a trap door in the stage. There were dressing rooms located behind the stage, but no curtain in the front of the stage, which meant that scenes had to flow into each other, and "dead bodies" had to be dragged off.

Performances took place during the day, using natural light from the open center of the theater. Since there could be no dramatic lighting and there was very little scenery or props, audiences relied on the actors' lines and stage directions to supply the time of day and year, the weather, location, and mood of the scenes. Shakespeare's plays masterfully supply this information . For example, in Hamlet the audience learns within the first twenty lines of dialogue where the scene takes place ("Have you had quiet guard?"), what time of day it is ("'Tis now strook twelf"), what the weather is like ("'Tis bitter cold"), and what mood the characters are in ("and I am sick at heart").

One important difference between plays written in Shakespeare's time and those written today is that Elizabethan plays were published after their performances, sometimes even after their authors' deaths, and were in many ways a record of what happened on stage during these performances rather than directions for what should happen. Actors were allowed to suggest changes to scenes and dialogue and had much more freedom with their parts than actors today. Shakespeare's plays are no exception. In Hamlet, for instance, much of the plot revolves around the fact that Hamlet writes his own scene to be added to a play in order to ensnare his murderous father.

Shakespeare's plays were published in various forms and with a wide variety of accuracy during his time. The discrepancies between versions of his plays from one publication to the next make it difficult for editors to put together authoritative editions of his works. Plays could be published in large anthologies called Folios (the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays contains 36 plays) or smaller Quartos. Folios were so named because of the way their paper was folded in half to make chunks of two pages each which were sewn together to make a large volume. Quartos were smaller, cheaper books containing only one play. Their paper was folded twice, making four pages. In general, the First Folio is of better quality than the quartos. Therefore, plays that are printed in the First Folio are much easier for editors to compile.

Although Shakespeare's language and classical references seem archaic to some modern readers, they were commonplace to his audiences. His viewers came from all classes, and his plays appealed to all kinds of sensibilities, from "highbrow" accounts of kings and queens of old to the "lowbrow" blunderings of clowns and servants. Even his most tragic plays include clown characters for comic relief and to comment on the events of the play. Audiences would have been familiar with his numerous references to classical mythology and literature, since these stories were staples of the Elizabethan knowledge base. While Shakespeare¹s plays appealed to all levels of society and included familiar story lines and themes, they also expanded his audiences' vocabularies. Many phrases and words that we use today, like "amazement," "in my mind's eye," and "the milk of human kindness" were coined by Shakespeare. His plays contain a greater variety and number of words than almost any other work in the English language, showing that he was quick to innovate, had a huge vocabulary, and was interested in using new phrases and words.

Historical Background of King Lear:

The story of King Lear and his three daughters existed in some form up to four centuries before Shakespeare recorded his vision. Lear was a British King who reigned before the birth of Christ, allowing Shakespeare to place his play in a Pagan setting. Predated by references in British mythology to Lyr or Ler, Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded a story of King Lear and his daughters in his Historia Regum Britanniae of 1137. Dozens of versions of the play were then written up, highlighting certain events, such as the love test, or expanding upon the story, such as creating a sequel where Cordelia committed suicide. Most of these versions had a happy ending, though untrue to the story, where peace was restored under the reign of Lear and Cordelia. Shakespeare however had no interest in writing a tragicomedy.

The main version that Shakespeare had likely read and from which he had definitely borrowed was The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters. He also borrowed from Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland (who adopted the story from Monmouth), Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queene, Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (from which Shakespeare drew his subplot), and John Higgins' A Mirror For Magistrates. He stole pieces and ideas from these versions to create the type of story he wanted to tell. For instance, The True Chronicle provides the basis of the story, though sentimentalizing it by ignoring the sequel. "Leir" is betrayed by two of his daughters but is reconciled to his youngest at the end. "Cordella" is accompanied by a Fool-type character who is loyal to her and Leir is reseated on the throne after beating Gonerill and Regan's armies. Moreover, Shakespeare left out main components of the earlier stories of Lear and created wholly new ones as well. Most considerable of the changes was the creation of a subplot and Lear's descent to madness.

In Shakespeare's time, numerous events, historical considerations, relationships, and cultural trends influenced his writing of King Lear. Scholars tend to believe that the play was written after Othello and before Macbeth, thus assigning it to 1604-1605. Further proof of this comes from the apparent influence the 1603 texts, A Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures, by Samuel Harsnett, and John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays, had on Shakespeare's conglomeration of the story. Critics have noted that more than one hundred words found in King Lear which Shakespeare had never before used can be found in Florio's translation. In addition, Montaigne's famous essay, "Apology for Raymond Sebonde," apparently refers to the same major themes which Shakespeare's King Lear presents. He also borrowed from a very convenient contemporary true story of a gentleman pensioner of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Brian Annesley, whose daughters tried to get him declared insane in late 1603 so that they could legally take control of his estate.The youngest daughter, named Cordell, intervened on his behalf.

As Shakespeare's players were the king's men, he knew they would have to perform for King James I and his court. Subsequently, Shakespeare imbued his plays with certain aspects that would appeal to James. For instance, the dangers of a divided kingdom was often the topic of James' speeches because of his wish to unite Scotland with England. Further topics from the time which Shakespeare took into account were the honor and wisdom endowed to the elderly as opposed to the rash ambition of the young as well as the ritualistic reverence showed to royalty. Shakespeare himself had moved into his period of writing tragedies as he felt they were more respected by critics although audiences generally preferred comedies. After his publication of Julius Caesar, he was looked at as the greatest tragedian since Sophocles and was at the zenith of his literary capacity. The play was first performed for the King in December of 1605. It was first published in a quarto in 1608 and titled M William Shak-speare His Historie, of King Lear. A completely revised version was reprinted by Shakespeare in a 1623 First Folio edition, now referred to as The Tragedy of King Lear. The two versions were conflated in the eighteenth century until editors realized how significantly different the two were and now each edition and the conflated text can be found.

Short Summary:

Act I:

The Earls Kent and Gloucester discuss the division of King Lear's kingdom. Lear has divided the kingdom into three parts, allotting the largest to Cordelia, his most favored of the three daughters. Lear first addresses his two eldest daughters, asking them to express their love for him before they and their husbands will receive the land he has allotted for them. It is a selfish request and Goneril, the eldest, responds readily. Regan answers his request next, attempting to outdo her sister, and thus says that she has given all of her love to Lear. Cordelia finds her sisters extremely boorish in their exaggerated and completely insincere flattery and refuses to participate. Upon her turn, she tells Lear that she loves him as her duty as a daughter requires but no more, as she will save some of her love for her soon to be husband. Lear becomes extremely angry but Cordelia still refuses to stoop to the level of her sisters. As a result, Lear strips Cordelia of her inheritance and her title. Kent steps in to support Cordelia's behavior but Lear will hear none of it. Insulted by Kent's opposition, Lear banishes him from the kingdom. The suitors then learn of Cordelia's position. Burgundy cannot accept her as a mate without the promised entitlements but France finds her more endearing in her sincerity and makes her his wife, Queen of France. Goneril and Regan plot to take all of Lear's power out of his hands quickly.

Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, vows to steal the land and legitimacy of his half brother Edgar by manipulating both father and brother against each other. His father sees him hiding a letter he is carrying and forces him to show it. It is a fabricated letter from Edgar asking for Edmund's help in overturning their father. Gloucester is enraged but Edmund tells him to not jump to conclusions until he can arrange a meeting between himself and Edgar. Edmund then finds Edgar and alerts him to Gloucester's anger, suggesting he flee to Edmund's house and stay armed.

Lear resides with Goneril, who plans to drive him out of her residence and to her sister's by pretending that his knights and servants are creating havoc. She orders her servants to treat Lear coldly. Kent returns disguised and becomes Lear's servant, Caius. Lear is outraged at Goneril's charges and the coldness against him and his train. He curses Goneril and her unborn children before leaving for Regan's home. Albany reproaches Goneril for her treatment of Lear. Goneril sends her servant, Oswald, to warn her sister.

Act II:

Edmund hears from a courier that there are rumors of conflict between Albany and Cornwall. He uses this idea when he encounters Edgar, informing him that he has offended both parties and is in danger. Upon hearing Gloucester, Edmund has Edgar draw his sword and then run off. Edmund wounds himself and pretends it was received in his duel with Edgar because Edgar had wished to kill Gloucester. Gloucester sends men out to capture Edgar and promises Edmund the land to which he has never been privileged. Regan and Cornwall, who have traveled to Gloucester's castle to escape Lear's arrival, hear of Edgar's betrayal and place their trust with Edmund.

Oswald and Kent meet at Gloucester's castle, both delivering messages. Kent insults him for his previous treatment of Lear and begins to strike him. The noise brings Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, and Edmund. Cornwall and Regan place Kent in the stocks as punishment. Lear arrives to find him there but cannot believe his own daughter and son-in-law were responsible. His Fool continuously ridicules his choices: chastising Cordelia, trusting his other daughters, and giving up his authority. Lear sends Gloucester for Regan and Cornwall but they refuse to see Lear until he threatens to wake them himself. They feign happiness in seeing him. Lear entreats Regan to feel sympathy for him because of Goneril's treatment of him but Regan instead says he should return to her for the intended month and apologize.

As Goneril arrives, he finally asks who put Kent in the stocks. Cornwall admits to it. Goneril and Regan unite to oppose Lear, claiming that he does not need one hundred knights and servants. When Regan proclaims that he could only have twenty-five with her, he wishes to return to Goneril whose previous promise of fifty must mean she loves him more. The two sisters then lower the size of a train they will allow to ten, then five, and then none. Lear is outraged and wishes to be with neither daughter, escaping out into the woods. Gloucester pleads with them to allow Lear back inside as a storm is approaching, but they refuse.

Act III:

Kent encounters one of Lear's train and sends him to Dover with his purse and a ring to show Cordelia if he sees her. He is to fill her and the others in as to Lear's condition and treatment. Lear is quickly becoming one with the storm as he approaches madness, though he reasons that the heavens owe him less than his daughters did. He rages on and on about betrayal and filial ingratitude. Lear admits that he has sinned but recognizes too that he was even more sinned against. Kent tries to get Lear inside a hovel for shelter. The Fool prophecies that when men are honest and sincere, England will fall apart. Lear sends the Fool into the hovel first but he comes out screaming when he meets Edgar disguised as the beggar, poor Tom of Bedlam. Tom's babble illustrates his demonic madness and Lear believes that he must have suffered from ungrateful daughters. Tom tells his history as a servingman given over to lust, bringing Lear to question the make up of man. Lear himself approaches unaccommodated, essential man. He attempts to strip off his clothes but the Fool stops him.

Gloucester confides in Edmund that he has received a letter with news of a movement to avenge the King. He tells him to remain silent on the issue. Gloucester then goes to find Lear, unable to follow the orders of Regan and Goneril, and hopes to take Lear to shelter. Lear would rather stay to talk with Tom, the "philosopher". Kent suggests that Tom accompany Lear to shelter and they move to it. The Fool, Lear, and Tom muse over the definition of a madman. Lear decides to hold a mock trial for Regan and Goneril and indict them for their offenses, placing the Fool and Tom as the judges. Lear has lost his wits. Gloucester returns with news of Regan and Goneril's plot against Lear's life. He has secured transportation for him and sends him off to Dover. Edgar remains.

Edmund eagerly uses Gloucester's confidence to forward his means by divulging it to Cornwall. He pretends to be sad that he is betraying his father. Cornwall makes him the new Earl of Gloucester, accepts him as a son, and calls for a search for Gloucester. He then sends Goneril and Edmund to Albany so that Edmund will not be present for his father's punishment. Regan and Goneril call for Gloucester to be hanged or blinded. Gloucester is brought to Regan and Cornwall, who tie him up. Gloucester is shocked by the rudeness of his guests. Once they tell him they have his letter, he admits that he has sent Lear to Dover because of the horrible cruelty of his daughters. Cornwall blinds one of Gloucester's eyes. A servant interjects angrily, wounding Cornwall, and Regan slays him. Cornwall then blinds the other eye as well and Regan notifies Gloucester that Edmund was the one who informed against him. Gloucester realizes that he has wronged Edgar. He is turned out into the storm, aided by a few loyal servants.

Act IV:

Gloucester is led by an old man though he wishes to be left alone. He prays to be able to see his son Edgar again. When they come upon poor Tom, Gloucester chooses to allow Tom to lead him because the time had come where madmen were leading the blind. Gloucester asks to be taken to a high cliff in Dover where he can commit suicide. He gives Tom his purse in an effort to better balance the economic inequality of the world. When they reach Dover, Edgar tricks his father into thinking his has climbed the steep hill. Thus when he tries to fall of the cliff, he merely falls flat. Before he falls, he blesses Edgar. Edgar runs back to him, pretending to be another stranger, and tells him that it was a miracle that he fell and did not die. He explains that a spirit left him at the summit, insinuating that poor Tom was a spirit and Gloucester believes him, though depressed that he is not even allowed death.

Goneril and Edmund are greeted by Oswald who alerts them to Albany's reverse in attitude. He is pleased by the invasion of France and displeased by Edmund. Goneril sends Edmund back to Cornwall, with a vow to unite as mates and rulers. She finds her husband enraged against her for the treatment he has heard she and Regan bore against Lear. He would tear her apart if she were not a woman. He then learns that Gloucester has been blinded and that Cornwall died from a wound caused by the servant defending him. Goneril feels torn about Cornwall's death. Albany learns that Edmund informed against Gloucester and he promises to avenge Gloucester's blindness. Regan is then greeted by Oswald. She remarks that they should have killed Gloucester as his situation arouses too much sympathy. Edmund is supposed to be looking for him. She is worried that Edmund and her sister are planning to become intimate and she warns Oswald to remind Edmund of the promises he has made to her.

Kent meets the gentleman he sent ahead to Dover and learns that the King of France has had to return, though Cordelia and others remain. He asks how Cordelia received his message and is told that she was a mixture of smiles and tears. Lear has not yet been reconciled to Cordelia because he is too ashamed to face her. She worries that he has gone completely mad but the doctor assures her that rest should help. Lear stumbles upon Gloucester and Edgar, rambling about the manipulation of his daughters and the evil nature of women. He recognizes Gloucester's voice and mentions, ignorant of Edmund's betrayal, how his adulterous ways have been more fortunate than Lear's legitimate ones. Lear tells him that blindness should in fact help him to see and that pretense is the largest flaw of most in authority. Cordelia's gentlemen find Lear and try to bring him to her but he thinks he is being captured and runs away.

Oswald tracks Gloucester down and hopes to kill him. Edgar intercedes. They fight and Oswald falls. He tells Edgar to give the letter he was carrying to Edmund. Edgar is infuriated to find that the letter is from Goneril and is in reference to her wish to kill Albany and marry Edmund. Lear has been found and given a sleeping drug by Cordelia's doctor. Cordelia thanks Kent for all of his support and goodwill toward the King. She bemoans the the horrific treatment her sisters have shown him. Lear is brought into them, barely awake and does not recognize them. Finally he understands that he is with Cordelia but is still very confused.

Act V:

Regan questions Edmund as to his relationship with Goneril. He promises that he is not intimately involved with her. Goneril notes that she would rather lose to France than to her sister for Edmund's hand. Goneril and Albany discuss the importance of being united with Regan to face France. Edgar, still disguised, finds Albany and passes on the letter from Goneril. Edgar tells him to call by herald if he is needed again. Edmund soliloquizes on the question of which sister to choose and decides to takes Goneril if she manages to kill Albany. He is most concerned with ruling a reunited Britain.

The battle begins. Cordelia and Lear lead one army. Edgar leaves Gloucester safely while he fights on their side. Edgar returns after the quick off stage war with the news that Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner. Edmund is in charge of them and has them sent away to prison. Cordelia tries to be strong and Lear hopes the time will be one where they can catch up and talk about life. Edmund hands a death note to a captain of his to carry out. Albany praises Edmund for his acts of battle but reminds him he is a subordinate. Edmund lies, saying that Cordelia and Lear are merely being retained. Regan declares that as her new partner Edmund is an equal, which incites Goneril's jealousy. Albany responds with a claim of treason and challenges Edmund to a duel. Ill, Regan is escorted out. The herald sounds the trumpet three times and a disguised Edgar appears to fight Edmund. Edmund falls but Albany spares him until he can incriminate him. Albany quiets Goneril with the her letter though she maintains she is above any law as she is the ruler of it. She flees his anger. Edmund admits his guilt and Edgar reveals himself. In response to Albany's questioning, Edgar explains how he had been disguised as a beggar and that he has led and cared for Gloucester until his death. He died, overwhelmed by happiness and sadness, shortly after Edgar revealed his identity to him. Edgar was then met by Kent who also told of his disguise, Lear's state, and his own coming death.

A gentleman brings in the knife Goneril used to kill herself after admitting that she poisoned Regan. The bodies are called for. Kent comes hoping to bid Lear goodbye which reminds Albany to ask about Lear and Cordelia's condition. Edmund informs them that he and Goneril had ordered Cordelia hanged so that it would look like a suicide. A servant tries to stop it but Lear enters with Cordelia's body. He had killed the man who hanged her but she does not live. Lear is inconsolable. Kent tries to say goodbye to him but Lear barely recognizes him and likely does not understand that he has been undercover as his servant Caius all along. They are told Edmund is dead. Albany gives Lear back absolute rule and Kent and Edgar their rights. Still swooning for Cordelia, Lear dies. Albany then gives Kent and Edgar shared rule but Kent notes he will soon follow Lear, thus leaving Edgar as the next King.

UNIT 8: THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE VI. Jacobean and Caroline Drama

General characteristics of the Jacobean and Caroline Drama; the central position of Jonson.

THE ELIZABETHAN drama, undoubtedly, followed a natural law of development. It culminated in tragedy in the first decade of the seventeenth century, because men and women reveal themselves most fully and finally in the furnace of affliction; and, therefore, the dramatist who desires to express the truth of human nature arrives, sooner or later, at tragedy as his most penetrating and powerful method. After the height has been reached a necessary rest and suspension of effort ensue, and of such a nature was the Jacobean and Caroline age of the drama. But a second cause was at work to increase this exhaustion and to hasten the decadence of an art that had lost its freshness. The tension of feeling as to things political and religious, which led, at last, to the civil war, was unfavourable to all artistic effort, but was especially hurtful to the drama. It took possession of the minds of all but the most frivolous. Theatre-goers ceased to be drawn from all ranks, as they were in Elizabeth's days and began to form a special class composed of careless courtiers and the dregs of the town populace. Such a class required only lesser dramatists to supply its wants; and, as we approach the date of the closing of the theatres (1642), the greater lights go out one by one till only a crowd of little men are left, writing a drama which has neither form nor spirit remaining in it.

The accident of the survival of Henslowe's diary helped us to group together in some kind of natural order the more active of the lesser Elizabethan dramatists. We have no document of this sort to aid us in the case of the Jacobean and Caroline writers; but we are confronted by a remarkable personality whose relations with the dramatists and poets of his age were as honourable and unselfish as Henslowe's were mercenary and mean. A young dramatist, writing to Henslowe for a loan, signs himself, in Elizabethan fashion, “your loving son.” It was a slight extension of this usage which made Jonson the literary father of a large family of “sons,” all proud to be sealed of the tribe of Ben. His position as the leader of literary and dramatic taste and the centre of literary society in London was a new thing in English life, and his influence was so commanding and complete that most of the lesser dramatists stood in some sort of relation to him, either of attraction or repulsion: they were either friends or foes. It may also be conjectured that Jonson's art lent itself to imitation by lesser men more readily than Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's apparent artlessness covered a far more subtle method and mystery than did Jonson's strict canons of conformity to definite theories of dramatic composition. Secondly, Jonson's theory of “humours” simplified human nature and enabled the lesser dramatist, in setting about the composition of a comedy, to choose his basic humour, and get to work on inimitable humanity with some confidence. And, thirdly, while Jonson's massive common sense and satiric intensity are, in bulk, colossal, they can be readily imitated by lesser men who manufacture smaller pieces of the same stuff. Jonson's most remarkable plays were quarries from which contemporary writers chose what suited them, diligently working it into some sort of artistic shape. For these reasons Jonson occupies an exceptional relation towards the literature of the Jacobean age, and may be regarded as a centre round which the lesser dramatists are grouped. He fails us only when we deal with romantic tragicomedy, in which species Fletcher and Massinger are the dominating influences. But the lesser writers of romantic drama are so weak that we shall have no space for detailed examination of their work.

The Elizabethan-Jacobean age

From the confluence of the religious and humanist traditions, along with a native farce tradition, there emerged in mid-16th-century England one of the great eras in world drama: the Elizabethan-Jacobean age.

Within the religious tradition, the morality play exercised the greatest influence over later English drama. In plays such as Everyman (c.1500), abstract qualities came to life and struggled for dominion over the soul of man. The native farce tradition yielded John Heywood's Johan Johan (1533), a prototypical triangle of adultery involving a henpecked husband, shrewish wife, and lecherous priest.

The humanist tradition, flourishing in grammar schools, universities, and law schools, at first produced comic plays in the ancient Roman tradition. One of the first to depend largely on native English elements was Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (c.1533). It was followed some years later by the anonymous Gammer Gurton's Needle (c.1560), in which a great deal of farcical hubbub surrounds the loss of precisely one needle. Gorboduc (1561) was the first English tragic drama in blank verse.

A group of educated writers, known as the University Wits, in applying their learning to the professional theater infused the rough-and-tumble Tudor drama with elements of classical style. The pastoral plays of John Lyly proved that English could be as balanced, elegant, precise, and supple as Latin. Robert Greene imported the romantic comedy from Italy while Thomas Kyd, in The Spanish Tragedy (c.1588), brought Senecan blood and thunder to the public stage, whetting the popular taste for revenge tragedy. The greatest poet among the University Wits was Christopher Marlowe, who demonstrated the efficacy of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) for dramatic expression in English. In Tamburlaine (c.1586), Doctor Faustus (c.1588), The Jew of Malta (c.1589), and Edward II (c.1592), he created a succession of mighty heroes (or anti-heroes) who held the stage through their insatiable wills and insistent poetry.

 Building upon all these innovations, shuttling between and blending a variety of forms, creating works of unprecedented subtlety and durability, William Shakespeare--poet, dramatist, actor, and theater comanager--achieved a primacy among his peers that eventually became a primacy among dramatists of all lands and times. His innovations in tragedy, comedy, romance, and history plays have never been surpassed for daring and accomplishment. His 38 plays embody an uncanny congeries of elements, combined in an infinitely complex whole: bold formal experimentation; exquisite verbal expression in diverse styles; unbounded imagination and curiosity; shrewdly observed, enduring characters; the wintry despair of the grave mingled with a lusty, vital comic sense; and an unparalleled instinct for the stageworthy that allowed his works to speak to the illiterate and the sophisticate at the same time. His work remains a mine of wonderment for all who contemplate the drama.

Second only to Shakespeare in Elizabethan comedy, and the most learned dramatist of his day, Ben Jonson proudly sported his familiarity with classical comedy and satire in scathingly moralistic theatrical attacks on the avarice and folly of his countrymen. Jonson modified the ancient use of stock characters in his "comedies of humours" by attributing extravagant character traits (such as a disposition to be sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, or melancholic) to an imbalance in the mix of bodily fluids (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). His Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are among the most frequently revived 17th-century plays. Jonson was also the chief writer of Jacobean court masques.

 A remarkable vigor and originality characterized even the lesser dramatists of the day. Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday (1600) is a pleasant comedy of the artisan class. John Marston's The Malcontent (1604) seethes with the lasciviousness and intrigue typical of the Jacobean era (1603-25). Following Marston's lead came such bold expositions of lust, corruption, treachery, and murder as Cyril Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy (c.1606), John Webster's The White Devil (c.1610) and The Duchess of Malfi (c.1613), and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's The Changeling (c.1622). Not all Jacobean drama was so bitter: the most popular playwrights after the death of Shakespeare were the sometime collaborators Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who specialized in the more sedate form of romantic tragicomedy. In the Caroline era (1625-42), however, the most important play was John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (c.1630), in which the only sympathetic characters are a brother and sister involved in an incestuous affair.

The Puritans naturally opposed the decadence they perceived on the stages of London, and when they came to power in 1642 they immediately closed down all the theaters.


THERE were two groups of plays in the sixteenth century which belonged neither to the democratic, popular class, nor to the pseudo-classical species fostered by the academic circles. One of these was the court comedy, designed especially as a compliment to the queen; the other was the masque, in which the aristocracy and royalty itself took part as actors. The court comedy was in a sense a variation, or a specialization, of the pastoral, brought into England from Italy chiefly by John Lyly, the author of Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, and Euphues, His England. Lyly produced a series of court comedies in which allegorical and classical stories were made to veil complimentary allusions to the queen and her court. There are eight plays which most scholars accept as authentic, six of which were first played by the Children of the Chapel Royal. Four of them are based on classic subjects, with the allegory so contrived as to constitute one colossal hymn of adulation to the queen. Elizabeth had already become the "Virgin Queen" to her subjects, and she had been styled Cynthia by Spenser. Lyly used the fable of Endymion as the vehicle for one of his early panegyrics. The sleeping Endymion was Leicester, the queen's favorite. Out of pity, charity, and queenly goodness she rouses him from his entranced slumber with a kiss. Never before have her lips been touched, nor would they ever again be soiled by such condescension. Throughout the play the queen is gracious, charming, and always queenly. Other characters in the allegory could easily be identified by the coterie of spectators, and not all of the dramatis personae were pictured with as kind a pen as that which had drawn the lovely Cynthia. The adulation is unmistakable, though never vulgar. The play has little plot, but is imbued with high spirits, delicacy of taste, and graceful poetry. Hazlitt and Keats both praised Endimion extravagantly.

The successful Endimion was followed by similar plays, and the figure of Lyly seemed for a time to dominate English drama. All but one of his comedies are in prose. They show no suspicion of struggle or passion, but they are imbued with an atmosphere of sunshine and classical purity. It was Lyly who popularized a peculiar type of gay but innocent dialogue, used the device of putting his play into a dream setting, made the disguise of girls as boys an amusing and harmless feature, and still proved that such spiceless diversions could stand the test of public performance. All these devices are familiar to us in the work of Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Ben Jonson. Lyly's importance lies in the fact that he practically created the English court comedy -- a type which has no exact parallel in any other language.


One of the most spectacular entertainments of the nobility was the masque, introduced into England from Italy by Henry VIII as early as 1512. The first requisite for the masque was a pleasant and entertaining story in verse, preferably with mythological or allegorical characters. There was of course some dialogue and declamation, but these matters were relatively unimportant. Far more significant were the tableaux, music, the ballet, the elaborate settings, the gorgeous costumes and scenery, stage appliances, and surprises in mechanical effects. The actors were members of the aristocracy, sometimes of the royal family. They wore masks, spent huge sums upon their costumes, and lent their halls and treasures of art to enrich the scenes. Little else was required of them, as actors, but to look beautiful and stately. The success of the masque depended upon the architect, the scene painter, decorator, and ballet master. In the course of time considerable importance was given also to singing and instrumental music.

The cost of these accessories was too great to permit masque production in the public theaters, even supposing they had been acceptable to the taste of the populace; and during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, royal ideas of economy forbade the lavish display which had characterized the masque in Italy. With the accession of the Stuarts, however, this form of theatrical display took on a new importance. James I and his son Charles were willing to spend a good deal of the country's money upon them. Among the poets engaged to write masque librettos were Jonson, Beaumont, Fletcher, and most of the other talented writers of the day. Ben Jonson was first of all, not only in point of time but in genius. He became poet laureate, and devoted his amazing learning, his theatrical sense, and his gift for charming lyrics to the work of perfecting the masque. With him, as manager and stage director, worked the artist, Inigo Jones; also a director of chorus, a dance master, and a composer for instruments. The court musicians numbered as many as fifty-eight persons, and neither time nor expense was spared in their training. Not only the court, but noblemen wishing to compliment royalty, arranged for these entertainments. The courts of the Inner Temple, Gray's Inn, and such societies, vied with each other in the lavishness of their productions. The king and queen, each, provided a masque at Christmas. There remain more than thirty examples of this sort of play written during the reign of James I and Charles I. In 1634 there was given at Whitehall, in the royal banquet room, by the members of the various Inns of Court, a masque called The Triumph of Peace, designed by Inigo Jones and written by Shirley, for which the cost amounted to more than one hundred thousand dollars. This was but fourteen years before the tragic end of Charles and the abolition of such extravagant gaieties

Ben Jonson (1572- 1637)

Ben Jonson was born around June 11, 1572, the posthumous son of a clergyman. He was educated at Westminster School by the great classical scholar William Camden and worked in his stepfather's trade, bricklaying. The trade did not please him in the least, and he joined the army, serving in Flanders. He returned to England about 1592 and married Anne Lewis on November 14, 1594.

Jonson joined the theatrical company of Philip Henslowe in London as an actor and playwright on or before 1597, when he is identified in the papers of Henslowe. In 1597 he was imprisoned for his involvement in a satire entitled The Isle of Dogs, declared seditious by the authorities. The following year Jonson killed a fellow actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel in the Fields at Shoreditch and was tried at Old Bailey for murder. He escaped the gallows only by pleading benefit of clergy. During his subsequent imprisonment he converted to Roman Catholicism only to convert back to Anglicism over a decade later, in 1610. He was released forfeit of all his possessions, and with a felon's brand on his thumb.

Jonson's second known play, Every Man in His Humour, was performed in 1598 by the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe with William Shakespeare in the cast. Jonson became a celebrity, and there was a brief fashion for 'humours' comedy, a kind of topical comedy involving eccentric characters, each of whom represented a temperament, or humor, of humanity. His next play, Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), was less successful. Every Man Out of His Humour and Cynthia's Revels (1600) were satirical comedies displaying Jonson's classical learning and his interest in formal experiment.

Jonson's explosive temperament and conviction of his superior talent gave rise to "War of the Theatres". In The Poetaster (1601), he satirized other writers, chiefly the English dramatists Thomas Dekker and John Marston. Dekker and Marston retaliated by attacking Jonson in their Satiromastix (1601). The plot of Satiromastix was mainly overshadowed by its abuse of Jonson. Jonson had portrayed himself as Horace in The Poetaster, and in Satiromastix Marston and Dekker, as Demetrius and Crispinus ridicule Horace, presenting Jonson as a vain fool. Eventually, the writers patched their feuding; in 1604 Jonson collaborated with Dekker on The King's Entertainment and with Marston and George Chapman on Eastward Ho.

Jonson's next play, the classical tragedy Sejanus, His Fall (1603), based on Roman history and offering an astute view of dictatorship, again got Jonson into trouble with the authorities. Jonson was called before the Privy Council on charges of 'popery and treason'. Jonson did not, however, learn a lesson, and was again briefly imprisoned, with Marston and Chapman, for controversial views ("something against the Scots") espoused in Eastward Ho (1604). These two incidents jeopardized his emerging role as court poet to King James I. Having converted to Catholicism, Jonson was also the object of deep suspicion after the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes (1605).

In 1605, Jonson began to write masques for the entertainment of the court. The earliest of his masques, The Satyr was given at Althorpe, and Jonson seems to have been appointed Court Poet shortly after. The masques displayed his erudition, wit, and versatility and contained some of his best lyric poetry. Masque of Blacknesse (1605) was the first in a series of collaborations with Inigo Jones, noted English architect and set designer. This collaboration produced masques such as The Masque of Owles, Masque of Beauty (1608), and Masque of Queens (1609), which were performed in Inigo Jones' elaborate and exotic settings. These masques ascertained Jonson's standing as foremost writer of masques in the Jacobean era. The collaboration with Jones was finally destroyed by intense personal rivalry.

Jonson's enduring reputation rests on the comedies written between 1605 and 1614. The first of these, Volpone, or The Fox (performed in 1605-1606, first published in 1607) is often regarded as his masterpiece. The play, though set in Venice, directs its scrutiny on the rising merchant classes of Jacobean London. The following plays, Epicoene: or, The Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614) are all peopled with dupes and those who deceive them. Jonson's keen sense of his own stature as author is represented by the unprecedented publication of his Works, in folio, in 1616. He was appointed as poet laureate and rewarded a substantial pension in the same year.

In 1618, when he was about forty-five years old, Jonson set out for Scotland, the home of his ancestors. He made the journey entirely by foot, in spite of dissuasion from Bacon, who "said to him he loved not to see poesy go on other feet than poetical dactyls and spondæus." Jonson's prose style is vividly sketched in the notes of William Drummond of Hawthornden, who recorded their conversations during Jonson's visit to Scotland 1618-1619. Jonson himself was sketched by Hawthornden: " He is a great lover and praiser of himself ; a contemner and scorner of others ; given rather to lose a friend than a jest ; . . . he is passionately kind and angry ; careless either to gain or keep ; vindictive, but, if he be well answered, at himself . . . ; oppressed with fantasy, which hath ever mastered his reason."1 After his return, Jonson received an honorary Master of Arts degree from Oxford University and lectured on rhetoric at Gresham College, London.

The comedy The Devil is an Ass (1616) had turned out to be a comparative flop. This may have discouraged Jonson, for it was nine years before his next play, The Staple of News (1625), was produced. Instead, Jonson turned his attention to writing masques. Jonson's later plays The New Inn (1629) and A Tale of a Tub (1633) were not great successes, described harshly, but perhaps justly by Dryden as his "dotages."

Despite these apparent failures, and in spite of his frequent feuds, Jonson was the dean and the leading wit of the group of writers who gathered at the Mermaid Tavern in the Cheapside district of London. The young poets influenced by Jonson were the self-styled 'sons' or 'tribe' of Ben, later called the Cavalier poets, a group which included, among others, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace.

Jonson was appointed City Chronologer of London in 1628, the same year in which he suffered a severe stroke. His loyal friends kept him company in his final years and attended the King provided him some financial comfort. Jonson died on August 6, 1637 and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a plain slab on which was later carved the words, "O Rare Ben Jonson!" His admirers and friends contributed to the collection of memorial elegies, Jonsonus virbius, published in 1638. Jonson's last play, Sad Shepherd's Tale, was left unfinished at his death and published posthumously in 1641.

Literatura Inglesa I

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Idioma: inglés
País: España

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