Early Modern Period of English Literature (1500-1660)


The early modern period of English literature is a term used by literary scholars to describe the time span between the end of the medieval period and the beginning of the Restoration. It coincides with the Renaissance, the Reformation, the discovery of the New World, and the English Civil War. It is characterized by a flourishing of poetry, drama, prose, and translation, as well as by a remarkable diversity of genres, forms, styles, and voices.



Prose writing in this period was mainly used for religious, political, historical, and philosophical purposes. Some of the most influential prose writers were:


William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), who translated the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek sources, and wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), a treatise on the authority of scripture and the role of kings and subjects.

Thomas More (1478-1535), who wrote Utopia (1516), a dialogue on the ideal commonwealth that contrasted the corruption of Europe with the harmony of a fictional island society.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who wrote Essays (1597-1625), a collection of short moral and political discourses on various topics, and The New Atlantis (1627), a utopian vision of a scientific society.

John Bunyan (1628-1688), who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684), an allegorical narrative of a Christian’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.



Poetry in this period was influenced by classical models, especially those of ancient Rome, as well as by Italian forms such as the sonnet and the epic. Some of the most influential poets were:


Philip Sidney (1554-1586), who wrote Astrophil and Stella (1591), a sonnet sequence that expressed his love for Penelope Devereux, and The Defence of Poesy (1595), an essay that justified poetry as a noble art that could teach and delight.

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599), who wrote The Faerie Queene (1590-1596), an allegorical epic that celebrated Queen Elizabeth I and the virtues of chivalry, and Amoretti and Epithalamion (1595), a sonnet sequence and a marriage ode that celebrated his love for Elizabeth Boyle.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who wrote 154 sonnets that explored various themes such as love, beauty, time, death, and art, as well as several long narrative poems such as Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594).

John Donne (1572-1631), who wrote metaphysical poetry that combined witty conceits, paradoxes, and imagery to express his religious, erotic, and philosophical thoughts. His poems include Songs and Sonnets (1633), Holy Sonnets (1633), and Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624).

George Herbert (1593-1633), who wrote religious poetry that expressed his devotion to God and his struggle with doubt. His poems include The Temple (1633), a collection of lyrics that explored various aspects of his faith.



Drama in this period was dominated by the emergence of professional theatre companies that performed in public playhouses such as The Globe and The Blackfriars. Some of the most influential dramatists were:


Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who wrote tragedies that explored the themes of ambition, power, and passion, such as Tamburlaine (1587-88), Doctor Faustus (c. 1589), and Edward II (c. 1592).

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who wrote comedies, histories, tragedies, and romances that displayed his mastery of language, character, plot, and genre. His plays include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595), Hamlet (c. 1600), King Lear (c. 1605), and The Tempest (c. 1611).

Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who wrote satirical comedies that mocked the follies and vices of contemporary society, such as Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614). He also wrote masques that celebrated the court of James I.

John Webster (c. 1580-c. 1634), who wrote dark and violent tragedies that depicted the corruption and cruelty of the Italian Renaissance, such as The White Devil (c. 1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613).

John Ford (1586-c. 1640), who wrote tragedies that explored the themes of incest, revenge, and madness, such as 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore (c. 1633) and The Broken Heart (c. 1633).


Voices from the Margins

The early modern period also witnessed the emergence of voices from the margins of society, such as women, religious dissenters, and colonized peoples. Some of the writers who represented these perspectives were:


Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), who wrote closet dramas that expressed her feminist and scientific views, such as The Convent of Pleasure (1668) and The Blazing World (1666).

John Milton (1608-1674), who wrote epic poetry that defended his republican and Puritan ideals, such as Paradise Lost (1667) and Samson Agonistes (1671).

Aphra Behn (1640-1689), who wrote plays, novels, poems, and translations that challenged the patriarchal and colonial norms of her time, such as The Rover (1677), Oroonoko (1688), and Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-87).

Mary Wroth (1587-c. 1651), who wrote sonnets and prose romances that expressed her personal and political experiences as a woman in a turbulent era, such as Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) and Urania (1621).



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