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Book Review: The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyyard

This is a gem of a book that basically explores the Elizabethan way of viewing the world by examining popular literature and philosophies oThe Elizabethan World Picturef the period.

Quoting extensively from the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser and Sidney (among many others) and making reference to the Greek philosophers that influenced Elizabethan thought, particularly (pun intended) Plato, Tillyard explains the way people of the 15th and 16th centuries understood their relationship to the corporeal and spiritual world and how they established hierarchies of being from oysters through to lions; from paupers to kings. How these all existed in a complex and simple relationship, a chain of being within the cosmos. How this was all regarded as functioning within very ordered vertical and horizontal planes and within a deep religiosity, is also explored. While anyone familiar with Elizabethan literature and history will not be unfamiliar with Tillyard’s ideas, it’s the way they’re explained and how literature and plays are used to both provide and support evidence that makes this book particularly delightful.

I think the most surprising thing to come out of the text for me was Tillyard’s summation that for all we think of the Elizabethan poets and dramatists as having some special relationship to their muses, the world and imagination, what they produced was quite “ordinary”. What he means by this including the music of the spheres in a poem, or likening the queen to the sun or moon and stars, linking the macrocosm and microcosm – was rather commonplace thinking for the time. He is not diminishing the accomplishments of the poets etc but rather asking us to understand that all Elizabethans read the world in that way, so the language of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe etc. was speaking to like-minded people who lived and breathed the allusions rather than grasping at powerful and beautiful metaphors that prove elusive to so many now. While an obvious point, I loved reading it and have subsequently tried to read Spenser with that view of the world in mind. It really does change things and make them easier to grasp. Not as easy as I’d like, but for that to happen, I’d have to step back in time awhile. Now, where’s my Tardis….?

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