In The Elizabethans, A.N. Wilson attempts to offer a comprehensive overview of this fascinating age in a relatively short (420-page) book. He succeeds pretty well, although the book does seem to lack any real defining theme that would make it easier to follow.
The book is divided into four sections: “The Early Reign”; “1570’s”; “1580’s” and “The Close of the Reign.” Within each section, the chapters read like essays on the events of that period, mostly dwelling on the religious conflicts between Catholic and Protestant, and the vivid characters of the time. Through the lives of these people, Wilson explores the social and cultural, political and philosophical, military and literary events in this most colorful and explosive period of history. Of course, it all centers on the charismatic and savvy personage of Queen Elizabeth I herself.
Characters we meet in The Elizabethans include the wizard and scientist John Dee, the privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake, influential political figures like William Cecil and Francis Walsingham, and courtiers like Robert Dudley.
Then, of course, there are the literary greats including Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare. Indeed, one of the most intriguing chapters is the concluding one, which combines an analysis of Hamlet with the decline of Elizabeth’s reign.
Wilson has a very readable and accessible writing style. He also carefully avoids trying to put modern mores and moral values on the Elizabethan age. He does not shy away from talking about slavery and the harsh treatment of Ireland by the English in Elizabeth’s time. He shows Elizabeth being merciful and also being firm and even violent when she felt those measures were called for.
While this book might not be the best first book on the subject for the casual reader, because it tries to cover so much and is sometimes a bit hard to follow for that reason, for anyone who has some knowledge of the events and characters of the time, this book will fill in a great deal of detail about the colorful and important era that changed a tiny island country into a world power.