The great Queen (Elizabeth) died in 1603, after a glorious reign. She was succeeded by James I, distantly related to her. The reign of James I ( in Latin called ‘Jacobus’), following the Elizabethan Age, is popularly known as the Jacobean Age.
That Jacobean period kept up the high literary tradition of its immediate predecessor. It was also the period of Shakespeare later and last, plays as also the plays of a good many of his big contemporaries and prominent successors, like Ben Jonson, George Chapman, Beaumont and Fletcher, Middleton, Haywood, Webster, Tourneur, Massinger, and Shirley. The age also presents a galaxy of great poets like Milton, Donne, Drummond, Drayton and so on. The prose master, like Bacon, Burton, Donne (with his sermons) as also the Authorized Version of the Holy Bible, published at the personal initiative of King James I, also belong to this age.
Two material elements, however, need to be noted here. The period of James I is meant by the term ‘Jacobean’. But factually, in the first place, two ages-Elizabethan, and Jacobean– are found to overlap and mingle up in the matter of literature. In the second place, the literature of the Jacobean period ran to the phases that followed- Charles I’s rule and the Civil War, followed by the establishment of the Puritan Parliamentary authority till the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
The Background of the Civil War
When the continent was racked with religious rivalries and strives, England passed through an undisturbed period, free from the problem and religious explosions under Queen Elizabeth’s wise rule. By the end of her reign, the English people in general readily accepted the state-made Church, free from either Catholicism or and handled well by efficient administration. The English people came to be nurtured in humanism, in the basic tenets of the Bible and their maritime prosperity.
But the situation started to change after the death of the august Queen. The next royal authority James I had some hidden sympathy for the Catholics, but somehow followed the neutral religious policy of Queen Elizabeth. Naturally, religious freedom, humanistic tradition and literary influences continued, though not as sweepingly as in the Queen’s grand rule.
But the situation very unfavorably changed with the ascension of Charles I. Charles I was somewhat opposed to his father and lacked the royal wisdom that alone could preserve power and achieve prosperity. He was too arrogant and assertive of his sovereign authority over the power of Parliament mainly because of the King’s lack of sense to handle the later with care and caution.
The old tradition of England was parliamentary. The Tudor despotism was a novel policy and based on the skillful parliamentary management by sovereign power with a conciliatory policy of living and let live. Charles, however, tried to go beyond and tramped down Parliament. As a result, a sort of Civil War started in England. The war continued for about five years and at the end won by the Parliamentarians. The king was disposed of.
Parliament, at that time was constituted of the intellectual gentlemen of high morals. They were, in the main, under the influence of Puritanism. The hostility between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, mainly Puritans, brought about the deposition of the King. That was followed by the execution of the King in open Parliament in 1649.
The end of the monarchy led to the establishment of the Commonwealth, under the authority of Cromwell. The Puritans had the supreme command on all matters, religious as well as literary and cultural. There was the abrupt end of the romantic tradition of the Elizabethan age and the imposition of Puritan austerity was inevitable.
Naturally the character of English literature had a sudden alteration. The liveliness of Elizabethan literature was replaced by somber Puritanism. There was the end of romantic songs and lyrics and the light-hearted prose-romances. The theatre was closed by a Puritan ordinance in 1642.
The literature of The Jacobean Age
Jacobean literature was yet fresh and lively with Elizabethan inspirations. In the realm of drama, Shakespeare had several worthy contemporaries and successors, pursing artistically their craft. Of course, there was a decline in the dramatic sphere. But the decline was only in comparison with Shakespeare’s unique dramatic creations.
The University Wits and the Elizabethan Lyricists were no more but they were replaced, not very unworthily perhaps, by the poets, like Donne and Drummond, and the prose masters, like Bacon and the makers of the Authorized Version of the Holy Bible.
Continuity in literature was marked, though a potential change was evident, coming, perhaps slowly, but firmly. A new literary world for England was about to dawn.
Finally, the Civil War and the rigors of the Puritan’s rule seemed to cut off English literature from its great tradition- from the traditional vitality and variety of English literature. But it was a gloom before a sparkle to flash with the restoration of the monarchy. A few years after, English literature yet continued to be fresh and alive.