After 1340, Geoffrey Chaucer come to the stage as one of the best equipped of the English poets because of his rich background. In his masterpiece, “The Canterbury Tales”, he gave literature something it had never seen before: observation of life as it is really lived, pictures of people who are real and a view of life which we can only call “modern”.
This was partly a new idea and partly an old one. Collections of short stories had been popular for a long while on the Continent. The next greatest work of Chaucer is “Trolius and Criseyde”, a love-story taken from the annals of the Trojan War, which has provided European writers with innumerable myths.
Only in Scotland did something of the Chaucerian fire still burn, in poets like King James I (1394 – 1437), Robert Henryson (1425 – 1500), William Dunbar (1465 – 1520) and Gavin Douglas (1475? – 1522?). The only considerable poet who England seems to have produced in the fifteenth century is John Skelton (1460? – 1529).
A species of poetry which seems to lie outside the main current of English literature must be mentioned as well – the Ballad. It was a kind of popular verse which flourished chiefly on the border between England and Scotland and was passed down orally. Because of this, the Ballads – like Old English poetry – cannot be assigned to any author or authors.
A book whose influence on English writing, speech and thought has been (and still is) immense ought to be considered herein: the Bible. It is not primarily literature; it is the sacred book of Christianity. However, recently there has been a growing tendency to appreciate the Bible for its artistic qualities, to view it not only as the ‘word of God’ but also as the work of great writers.
Shakespeare is England’s – and the world’s – greatest dramatist, and before talking about his achievements we must find out first what drama is. It is the most natural of the arts, being based on one of the most fundamental of the human and animal faculties – the ability of imitation.
Religion and drama shall be seen closely mixed throughout the early history of the art in Europe. The Greek developed the tragedy and the comedy around this subject matter, for example. It is worth stating that there is a huge difference between the Greek and Shakespearian concept of tragedy. The Shakespearian hero has the power of choice, but with the heroes of the Greek tragedy there is no free will at all, because Gods control a man’s destiny.
One admirable thing about the Greek tragic dramatists is their sense of form. Their main concern is to tell a story and to emphasize the moral significance of that story itself: everything is subordinated to that end.
It is certain that no religious dramas of this type existed in England before the Norman conquest, and that it was the Normans themselves who introduced sacred drama to England. This drama became so popular that underwent a process of secularisation. These were called Miracle plays.
Corpus Christi was chosen by the trade-guilds of England’s towns as a day for the presentation of a cycle of plays based on incidents from the Bible. This set the historical context for the rise of the Mystery Plays.
Secular subjects are slow in coming, but they make their way into drama through a new kind of religious or semi-religious play – the Morality Plays. In the last days of the fifteenth century, we find it rather hard to distinguish between the Morality Plays and the Interlude. An interlude was a short play performed in the middle of something else, perhaps a feast – a sort of incidental entertainment. Now the raw materials for the Elizabethan drama are being gathered up together.