SHAKESPEARE must, indeed, remain somewhat of a mystery; no conditions of time and place can adequately account for him. We have to accept him as he was, a fairly successful actor who in the leisure of his employment about the two small London theatres wrote the bulk of his plays and poems. It is unwise to take every line he wrote as hall-marked by genius, but he remains the perfect master of tragedy and of those forms of verse then practised, and the creator of a gallery of human characters beside whom those of any other dramatist of any period seem incomplete. He dwarfs his contemporaries, though they were men of considerable talent. Jonson was his nearest rival; Marlowe's name has been preserved almost as much for his riotous life and violent death as for his merits. Elizabeth's last years and James I.'s reign, into which Shakespeare and most of his contemporaries survived, was a brief summer for the theatre.
There was a great deal of miscellaneous lyric writing, besides the elaborate verse of which Spenser's Faerie Queene was the chief example. Far more talent then went to the writing of sonnets and lyrics than at any time since; educated people found it natural to sing and to write in verse. Much of the best Elizabethan poetry was meant to be sung, and the madrigal or unaccompanied song for several voices reached its highest development. Musical instruments were few and the spinet or virginals had not yet evolved into the piano, but there was a number of gifted musicians, among whom Byrd, the madrigalist and church composer, was the chief. The prose writing of that time survives in the Authorized Version of the Bible, which, though translated a few years after the Queen's death, fairly ranks as typical of her reign. There were no great English painters as yet: few besides Italians and Flemings practised the art.