I know of no better introduction to the Elizabethan age than E. M. W. Tillyard's The Elizabethan World Picture. It is small, but erudite, being more challenging than most modern introductions, but more rewarding as well. It ought to be a required prerequisite to Shakespeare studies.
One of the problems with Tillyard's book for new students are the references. They are many and, though familiar to some, obscure to others. That is where the Internet comes in. It is now possible, since the advent of Google Book Search, to take a passage from Tillyard with his many brief references and allusions, and with a few clicks, find the source materials to place the passages in context. This is quite impressive.
As an exercise, I tried it with the famous early chapter on "Order." Tillyard begins by quoting Ulysses' famous speech on degree from Troilus and Cressida:
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking. (1.3.86-127)
Tillyard's point is that "...so many things are included simultaneously within this 'degree' or order, and so strong a sense is given of their interconnections" (10). His emphasis throughout this chapter is that this idea of order in degree was an Elizabethan commonplace, and he makes reference to the summarizing literature of the period to demonstrate; to:
- Spenser's An Hymn in Honour of Love
- Elyot's Governour
- The Church homilie Of Obedience
- Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity
- and Raleigh's History of the World
Tillyard quotes from each work to demonstrate his thesis.
When I read this passage recently, I wondered if it were possible to find all the passages Tillyard quotes in this chapter, something that wouldn't have been possible on the Internet just a couple of years ago. The answer is, yes. Here they are:
I found Spenser's An Hymn in Honour of Love at Google Book Search:
The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, vol. 5, ed. C. C. Clarke, W. P. Nimmo, 1868, from Google Book Search, full view and PDF, 330 pages; containing Spenser's An Hymn in Honour of Love. You will find the passage Tillyard quotes (beginning, "The earth the air the water and the fire") on p. 285.
I also found Elyot's Governour at Google Book Search:
The Boke Named the Governour Devised by Sir Thomas Elyot, Knight, vol. 1 from Google Book Search, ed. H. H. S. Croft, 1883, full view and PDF, 351 pages. The "take away order" passage is on p. 3.
For the Church homilie Of Obedience I turned to Ian Lancashire's edition at the University of Toronto:
Elizabethan Church Homilies (from the University of Toronto). It could not be found at Google Book Search--at least by me at least in the time I had to look. I must investigate when at leisure.
For Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, it was back to Google:
Richard Hooker. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Books I-IV, Routledge, 1888, from Google Book Search, full view and PDF, 288 pages.
And finally, for Sir Walter Raleigh's History, Google again:
Sir Walter Raleigh. A History of the World, Book I, from Google Book Search, full view and PDF, Oxford, 1829.
An needed an assist from Anniina Jokinen's remarkable Luminarium, in particular the Raleigh resources available there, to help me find the last one. For reasons I can't understand, searchin within Google Book Search is not as simple as general web searching using Google. I eventually did find all the Works of Ralegh [sic] and placed them on my Renaissance page.
In any event, there you have it. It makes one envious of young scholars setting out today. They will never know the tedium of tracking down obscure references in dusty stacks, or being vicimized by imperious librarians. Thbere is much room for improvement, but already it is a great deliverance, much to be praised.