Although the English language lacked international prestige at the beginning of the sixteenth century, it became an expressive medium in the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare by the turn of the seventeenth century. Wealthy English travelers explored continental cities like Venice, Madrid, and Paris, taking back with them knowledge of their bustling marketplaces and impressive universities. As English had little prestige on the continent, or even in Britain itself, travelers learned bits of French, Italian, and Spanish. They often returned, wearing foreign fashions, much to the disgust of moralists. One of the earliest sixteenth-century works of English literature, Thomas More's Utopia, was written in Latin for an international intellectual community. It was only translated into English during the 1550s, nearly a half-century after its original publication in Britain.

The marriage of Owen Tudor to Catherine of Valois, widow of the Lancasterian King Henry V, effectively ended the political rivalry between the houses of York and Lancaster in the so-called War of the Roses. The development of the English language is indirectly linked to the consolidation and strengthening of the English state. In addition to a center of political power, the royal court became a center of culture, finding expression in theater, masques, fashion, and taste in painting, music, and poetry. As there was virtually no freedom of speech and relatively limited means of mass communication in Tudor England, important public issues were often aired indirectly through "entertainments," such as lyrics. Castiglione's Il Cortigiano (The Courtier) became highly influential in the English court, providing subtle guidance for conduct, such as sprezzatura, the art of concealment. The introduction of printing from moveable type reinforced the trend of silent reading.

Due to political upheavals, the Renaissance arrived late in England, under the reign of Henry VII. Rather than the flowering of visual arts and architecture that had occurred in Italy, the Renaissance emerged in Britain through an intellectual orientation to humanism. The sons of the nobility and gentry benefited most from education during the English Renaissance. The curriculum was ordered according to the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astrology, and music), and it emphasized Latin, the language of diplomacy, professions, and higher learning. Catholicism was the predominant religion during the early sixteenth century. After the Reformation, however, England was officially Protestant.

The debates about the official religion continued to create political tension within England and especially internationally between England and France. In addition to tensions concerning religion, relations between England and Europe were further complicated by internal tension about resident alien populations and Elizabeth's always prospective marriage to any of the many foreign rulers who would have ensured an heir and the continuation of the Tudor line. The greater diversity of population within England, thanks to expanded international trade, slavery, and court-sponsored piracy led to rioting with foreign artisans and merchants accused of taking jobs from Englishmen. Although Elizabeth's need for an heir did not cause overt tension in the realm, it was of considerable concern and interest throughout Europe, bringing rulers from every major country interested in forming an alliance with England.

Aesthetically, Elizabethan literature was generally invested in "symmetry and proportion," as Thomas Campion wrote, even though it supported elaborate rhetoric. Elizabethans strove to create literature with elaborate but perfectly regular designs. In his work of literary criticism, Defense of Poesy, Sir Phillip Sidney further addressed the importance of poetry as it had a moral power and didactic role, whether in a pastoral or heroic mode. In poetic production, the patronage system provided the financial resources to writers in an era when writing was not professionalized, as it would be many centuries later. As for drama of the period, noble patronage provided the resources for organizing companies of players. The construction of public theaters, dependent on admission charges, provided venues for the production of plays that included mystery plays, morality plays, tragedies, and comedies. In addition to these forms of public performance, various other forms of public spectacle were popular including festivals, public shaming, execution, and mutilation of criminals. Marlowe's Doctor Faustus ends with a dismemberment that is the theatrical equivalent of what occurred on a regular basis in reality.

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