The Sixteenth Century (1485-1603) Literary works in sixteenth-century England were rarely if ever created in isolation from other currents in the social and cultural world. The boundaries that divided the texts we now regard as aesthetic from other texts that participated in the spectacles of power or the murderous conflicts of rival religious factions or the rhetorical strategies of erotic and political courtship were porous and constantly shifting.
It is perfectly acceptable, treating Renaissance texts as if they were islands of the autonomous literary imagination. One of the greatest writers of the period, Sir Philip Sidney, defended poetry in just such terms; the poet, Sidney writes in The Defence of Poetry(NAEL 1. 933-54), is not constrained by nature or history but freely ranges “only within the zodiac of his own wit. ” Many sixteenth-century artists, such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare, brooded on the magical, transforming power of art.
This power could be associated with civility and virtue, as Sidney claims, but it could also have the demonic qualities manifested by the “pleasing words” of Spenser’s enchanter, Archimago (NAEL 1. 63), or by the incantations of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (NAEL 1. 990-1025). It is significant that Marlowe’s great play was written at a time in which the possibility of sorcery was not merely a theatrical fantasy but a widely shared fear, a fear upon which the state could act with horrendous ferocity.
Marlowe’s tragedy emerges not only from a culture in which bargains with the devil are imaginable as real events but also from a world in which many of the most fundamental assumptions about spiritual life were being called into question by the movement known as the Reformation. Catholic and Protestant voices struggled to articulate the precise beliefs and practices thought necessary for the soul’s salvation.
One key site of conflict was the Bible, with Catholic authorities trying unsuccessfully to stop the circulation of the unauthorized Protestant translation of Scripture by William Tyndale, a translation in which doctrines and institutional structures central to the Roman Catholic church were directly challenged. The Reformation is closely linked to many of the texts printed in the sixteenth-century section of Spenser’s Faerie Queene (NAEL 1. 628-772), for example, in which a staunchly Protestant knight of Holiness struggles against the satanic forces of Roman Catholicism. Text: The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1. 6th ed. (NAEL)