Alongside the development of theatres came the growth of an acting culture; in essence it was the birth of the acting profession. Plays had generally been performed by amateurs - often men from craft guilds. Towards the end of the sixteenth century there developed companies of actors usually under the patronage of a powerful or wealthy individual. These companies offered some protection against the threat of Puritan intervention, censorship, or closure on account of the plague. They encouraged playwrights to write drama which relied on ensemble playing rather than the more static set pieces associated with the classical tradition. They employed boys to play the parts of women and contributed to the development of individual performers. Audiences began to attend the theatre to see favourite actors, such as Richard Burbage or Will Kempe, as much as to see a particular play. Although the companies brought some stability and professionalism to the business of acting - for instance, Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's, subsequently the King's, Men, continued until the theatres closed (1642) - they offered little security for the playwright. Shakespeare was in this respect, as in others, the exception to the rule that even the best-known and most successful dramatists of the period often remained financially insecure.
All Renaissance drama, especially the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare, is profoundly concerned with shifting power relations within society. The individual was a new force in relation to the state. The threat of rebellion, of the overturning of established order, was forcefully brought home to the Elizabethan public by the revolt of the Earl of Essex, once the Queen's favourite. The contemporary debate questioned the relationship between individual life, the power and authority of the state, and the establishing of moral absolutes. Where mediaeval drama was largely used as a means of showing God's designs, drama in Renaissance England focuses on man, and becomes a way of exploring his weaknesses, depravities, flaws - and qualities.
The ruinous deeds of the ravaging foe(Beowulf)The best-known long text in Old English is the epic poem Beowulf. Beowulf himself is a classic hero, who comes from afar. He has defeated the mortal enemy of the area - the monster Grendel - and has thus made the territory safe for its people. The people and the setting are both Germanic. The poem recalls a shared heroic past, somewhere in the general consciousness of the audience who would hear it. It starts with a mention of 'olden days', looking back, as many stories do, to an indefinite past ('once upon a time'), in which fact blends with fiction to make the tale. But the hero is a mortal man, and images of foreboding and doom prepare the way for a tragic outcome. He will be betrayed, and civil war will follow. Contrasts between splendour and destruction, success and failure, honour and betrayal, emerge in a story which contains a great many of the elements of future literature. Power, and the battles to achieve and hold on to power, are a main theme of literature in every culture - as is the theme of transience and mortality. Beowulf can be read in many ways: as myth; as territorial history of the Baltic kingdoms in which it is set; as forward-looking reassurance. Questions of history, time and humanity are at the heart of it: it moves between past, present, and hope for the future, and shows its origins in oral tradition. It is full of human speech and sonorous images, and of the need to resolve and bring to fruition a proper human order, against the enemy - whatever it be - here symbolised by a monster and a dragon, among literature's earliest 'outsiders'. Beowulf has always attracted readers, and perhaps never more than in the 1990s when at least two major poets, the Scot Edwin Morgan and the Irishman Seamus Heaney, retranslated it into modern English. Heaney's version became a worldwide bestseller, and won many awards, taking one of the earliest texts of English literature to a vast new audience.
Literature before the Renaissance had frequently offered ideal patterns for living which were dominated by the ethos of the church, but after the Reformation the search for individual expression and meaning took over. Institutions were questioned and re-evaluated, often while being praised at the same time. But where there had been conventional modes of expression, reflecting ideal modes of behaviour - religious, heroic, or social - Renaissance writing explored the geography of the human soul, redefining its relationship with authority, history, science, and the future. This involved experimentation with form and genre, and an enormous variety of linguistic and literary innovations in a short period of time. Reason, rather than religion, was the driving force in this search for rules to govern human behaviour in the Renaissance world. The power and mystique of religion had been overthrown in one bold stroke: where the marvellous no longer holds sway, real life has to provide explanations. Man, and the use he makes of his powers, capabilities, and free will, is thus the subject matter of Renaissance literature, from the early sonnets modelled on Petrarch to the English epic which closes the period, Paradise Lost, published after the Restoration, when the Renaissance had long finished. The Reformation gave cultural, philosophical, and ideological impetus to English Renaissance writing. The writers in the century following the Reformation had to explore and redefine all the concerns of humanity. In a world where old assumptions were no longer valid, where scientific discoveries questioned age-old hypotheses, and where man rather than God was the central interest, it was the writers who reflected and attempted to respond to the disintegration of former certainties. For it is when the universe is out of control that it is at its most frightening - and its most stimulating. There would never again be such an atmosphere of creative tension in the country. What was created was a language, a literature, and a national and international identity.
In the humanist world following Erasmus, man is at the centre of the universe. Man becomes largely responsible for his own destiny, behaviour and future. This is the new current of thought which finds its manifestation in the writing of the 1590s and the decades which follow. The euphoria of Elizabeth's global affirmation of authority was undermined in these years by intimations of mortality: in 1590 she was 57 years old. No one could tell how much longer her golden age would last; hence, in part, Spenser's attempts to analyse and encapsulate that glory in an epic of the age. This concern about the death of a monarch who - as Gloriana, the Virgin Queen - was both symbol and totem, underscores the deeper realisation that mortality is central to life. After the Reformation, the certainties of heaven and hell were less clear, more debatable, more uncertain.
The Renaissance did not break completely with mediaeval history and values. Sir Philip Sidney is often considered the model of the perfect Renaissance gentleman. He embodied the mediaeval virtues of the knight (the noble warrior), the lover (the man of passion), and the scholar (the man of learning). His death in 1586, after the Battle of Zutphen, sacrificing the last of his water supply to a wounded soldier, made him a hero. His great sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella is one of the key texts of the time, distilling the author's virtues and beliefs into the first of the Renaissance love masterpieces. His other great work, Arcadia, is a prose romance interspersed with many poems and songs.
For more than half a century I have tried to confront greatness directly, hardly a fashionable stance, but I see no other justification for literary criticism in the shadows of our Evening Land. Over time the strong poets settle these matters for themselves, and precursors remain alive in their progeny. Readers in our flooded landscape use their own perceptiveness. But an advance can be of some help. If you believe that the canon in time will select itself, you still can follow a critical impulse to hasten the process, as I did with the later Stevens, Ashbury, and, more recently, Henri Cole.
At the end of the 1400s, the world changed. Two key dates can mark the beginning of modern times. In 1485, the Wars of the Roses came to an end, and, following the invention of printing, William Caxton issued the first imaginative book to be published in England - Sir Thomas Malory's retelling of the Arthurian legends as Le Morte D'Arthur. In 1492, Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas opened European eyes to the existence of the New World. New worlds, both geographical and spiritual, are the key to the Renaissance, the 'rebirth' of learning and culture, which reached its peak in Italy in the early sixteenth century and in Britain during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, from 1558 to 1603.
There is a remarkable degree of consistency in the way mediaeval literature affirms humanity. With all its faults, humanity emerges as more realistic than heavenly ideals. Because the mediaeval period is seen from our own times as historically distant, 'behind' the Renaissance with all the changes which that period brought, it has been undervalued for its own debates, developments and changes. The fact that mediaeval times have been revisited, re-imagined and rewritten, especially in the Romantic period, has tended to compound the ideas of difference and distance between this age and what came after. But in many ways the mediaeval period presages the issues and concerns of the Renaissance period and prepares the way for what was to come.