Late 16th-century England had no very great portrait painters, but at least one of its dramatists created a gallery of images - principally through his characters - at once brilliant and hard to forget. Hamlet and Lear can haunt the mind in a way that eclipses even the magnificent faces of Dürer and Titian. Shakespeare in fact embodies in his work a great change in 16th-century culture. During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, major European artists came to work in England. In these decades, King's College chapel was completed, Holbein achieved his great portraits of the king, courtiers and gentry, and Torregiano was sculpting Henry VII for Westminster Abbey. But, though there were notable writers (Skelton, Wyatt, More, the great translators of the Bible like Tyndale), the country's literary culture was relatively thin: it lacked character and cohesion. By the end of the 16th century, the picture had reversed. The great architectural and sculptural achievements were over - few churches were built in Elizabeth's reign, though grand country houses were certainly rising. But a great literature had emerged, with Shakespeare at the peak of it.
LRB 19 August 2010 | PDF Download