English Renaissance Literature

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English Renaissance Literature

When tobacco took England by storm in the late sixteenth century, it quickly permeated all arenas of cultural activity, and literature was no exception. References to both medical and recreational uses of tobacco soon began to appear throughout a wide range of literary forms, with a particular concentration in comic genres such as satire, epigram, and city comedy. Just as broader responses to tobacco ranged from euphoric acclaim to cynical derision, poets and playwrights similarly portrayed the plant as medicinal, magical, even divine, but also as comically absurd, wasteful, and dangerous.

Although the boundaries between medical and recreational use were unstable, and frequently blurred, literary depictions of tobacco from the English Renaissance tend to focus primarily on either one or the other. For the most part, references to tobacco in earlier literary works tend to be positive and to emphasize its role in improving health. As the drug's popularity grew, however, and its role in English culture became more recreational than medical, writers began to portray it more as a social pastime, and accordingly depicted its use in increasingly irreverent and sardonic ways.

Tobacco as Medicine

Tobacco first entered England as a medicine, a "panacea" that could heal all ills. The first English writings devoted to it, such as the translation of Nicholas Monardes's treatise on New World medicines, titled in English Joyfull Newes Out of the New Founde Worlde (1577), discussed its curative properties. Appropriately, its earliest literary appearances also emphasized its miraculous potential to improve health. In Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590), Belphoebe turns to "divine tobacco" as a medicinal herb to treat the wounded squire Timias. Notions of tobacco's medical value run through literary writings from many genres, both seriously and as parody. A song in Barten Holiday's play Technogamia or The Marriage of the Arts (1618) describes tobacco as "a Physician, / Good both for sound and sickly/. . . . [it] expells cold rheume, / And makes it flow downe quickly."

Early reports on Native American uses of tobacco emphasized not only its medical use but also its association with religious ritual, and these two traits merged in depictions of the "miracle drug" as magical, supernatural, or even divine. Spenser's description of tobacco as "divine" became a popular epithet, and other writers explored variations on this idea. Thomas Nashe, in Nashe's Lenten Stuffe (1599), describes tobacco as a heavenly panacea and claims that this "divine drug proclaimeth miracles. "Sir John Beaumont, in his Metamorphosis of Tobacco (1602), refers to "this herbes celestiall qualitie," and calls it "the fountaine whence all pleasure springs,/ A potion for imperiall crowned Kings. "Michael East, similarly, praises "Metaphysical Tobacco" in The Second Set of Madrigales (1606). Tobacco even acquires its own mythological genealogy in Richard Brathwaite's The Smoaking Age (1617), a prose romance that portrays the drug as the bastard son of the Roman goddess Proserpine. Tobacco's association with divinity earned it some controversy—its detractors identified it with paganism, Catholicism, and idolatry—but it reflected the awe and wonder associated with the drug.

Tobacco as Recreation

As tobacco became more popular and smoking became more widely perceived as a social pleasure akin to drinking, literary representations of tobacco took a less reverent turn. In particular, smoking tobacco seems to have had an irresistible comic appeal for early modern dramatists; a seemingly artificial and alien habit, it was associated with young gallants, who were already stock comic characters, and the extravagant claims made for tobacco could easily be turned to parody. Tobacco was on sale in theaters, and a number of writers refer to gallants smoking at plays, and, at the indoor theaters, on the stage itself. In Edward Guilpin's Skialetheia (1598), Cornelius, "that braue gallant youth," "sits o're the stage, / With the Tobacco-pipe now at his mouth," while the prodigal in Joseph Martin's New Epigrams, and a Satyre (1621) "desires a Page, / To light Tobacco for him on the Stage."

"Epigram 82. Of Tobacco"

Tobacco is a Weed of so great powre,
That it (like Earth) doth what it feedes deuoure.


Within the plays, dramatic smokers, who are nearly always young men, tend to fall into two groups. Firstly, there are the prodigals, central characters for whom taking tobacco marks their downward spiral into debt and depravity. Polymetes in John Day's Law Tricks (c. 1604) at first spurns smoking, but a sign of his later prodigality is his newfound love for "the Indian punck Tobacco." The other, larger group of smokers are comic stereotypes, foolish gallants for whom smoking is the most absurd of a collection of outlandish habits. The most fully developed of these include Bobadill in Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour (1598); Fastidious Brisk in Jonson's Every Man Out of his Humour (1599), who takes tobacco "as a parenthesis"; Asinius in Thomas Dekker's Satiromastix (1601–1602); the title character in George Chapman's Monsieur D'Olive (1605); Petoune in Edward Sharpham's The Fleer (1606), named after a variety of tobacco; and Laxton in Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's The Roaring Girl (c. 1610). In the satiric playlet Wine, Beer, Ale and Tobacco (1616), Tobacco is personified as "a swaggering Gentleman" who swears and brags in the manner of his adherents.

Nondramatic comic genres, such as satire and epigram, tended to follow city comedy in their treatment of tobacco. Poets such as John Davies of Hereford, Sir John Davies, John Harington, Joseph Hall, Henry Parrott, Samuel Rowlands, and John Taylor littered their work with references to tobacco. Their poems have titles such as "Siegnor Tobacco that brave Cavalier" (Jo. Cooke, Epigrames [1604]), "Of a Drunken Tobacconist" (Harington, The Most Elegant and Witty Epigrams of Sir J. H. [1618]), "Tobacco Carted to Tyburne" (Rowlands, More Knaves Yet? [1613]) and "Of a Tobacco-taking Horse" (John Davies of Hereford, The Scourge of Folly [1611]). As in drama, tobacco was usually a comic prop for the gallant, signifying the extent of his urbane depravity. Parrot's "Usus Natura" is typical: its feckless subject takes tobacco "in's bed till noone," eats, gets drunk, plays at dice, sees a play, goes to a bawdy house, has his pocket picked, and finally "Drinks more Tobacco, spues, and goes to bed" (Cures for the Itch [1626]). Many poems mock the inflated claims made for tobacco: Sir John Davies's "Of Tobacco," for example, lists all the ailments which tobacco is supposed to cure, revealing in its conclusion the real reason why young men cultivate the habit: "it the pox wil cure: / This were inough, without discoursing more, / All our brave gallants in the towne t'alure" (Epigrammes and Elegies [1599]).

Tobacco and Gender

Because of tobacco's association with the hot and dry humors linked with men, it was widely identified with masculinity, and its promoters claimed that it could increase manly vigor. Although conflicting accounts suggested that the intoxication it induced could effeminate, enervate, and even bring about impotence, the association of smoking with taverns, drinking, and other arenas of malebonding underlined its status as a firmly masculine activity. Literary representations of tobacco, accordingly, generally attributed it to men and portrayed female smokers as aberrant or excessive. Notable examples include Moll Cutpurse in The Roaring Girl, who is pictured smoking a pipe on the title-page of the play (the anonymous author of Moll's 1662 "autobiography," The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse, claims that she was the first Englishwoman to enjoy tobacco) and Ursula the pig-woman in Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (1614). The title character in John Davies of Hereford's epigram "Of Doll's Taking Tobacco" is sexually incontinent, whereas the "blown-up Fatling" Ebbrezza in Thomas Bancroft's The Heroical Lover (1658) sits "Smoking and quaffing still alternately; / That so being moist and dry by turnes, she might / Tast her Delights with greater appetite." Despite indications that tobacco was smoked by men and women in the period, tobacco is often portrayed as being disdained by "normal" women. Rosaline in John Marston's Antonio and Mellida (c. 1600), for instance, declares that she will marry "when men abandon jealousy, forsake taking of tobacco, and cease to wear their beards so rudely long" (5. 2. 43-5).

from "On Tobacco"

Pernicious Weed (should not my Muse offend,
To say Heav'n made ought for a cruel end)
I should proclaim that thou created wer't,
To ruin Man's high, and immortal part.
Thy Stygyan damp obscures our Reason's Eye,
Debauches Wit, and makes Invention dry;
Destroys the Memory, confounds our Care;
We know not what we do, or what we are:
Renders our Faculties, and Members lame
To ev'ry office of our Country's claim.
Our Life's a drunken Dream devoy'd of Sense,
And the best Actions of our time offence.
Our Health, Diseases, Lethargies, and Rhume,
Our Friendship's Fire, and all our Vows are Fume.
Of late there's no such things as Wit, or Sense,
Councel, Instruction, or Intelligence:
Discourse that should distinguish Man from Beast,
Is by the vapour of this Weed supprest;
For what we talk is interrupted stuff,
The one half English, and the other Puff:
Freedom, and Truth are things we do not know,
We know not what we say, nor what we do:
We want in all, the Understanding's light,
We talk in Clouds, and walk in endless Night.


As these examples demonstrate, tobacco played a visible and colorful role in the literature of the time. It appeared throughout contemporary writings as an object of admiration, awe, concern, skepticism, annoyance, and especially irreverent humor. The prominence, ubiquity, and variety of its forms in the literature of the time offer a fitting reflection of its complex status in English Renaissance culture.


Tobacco, Tobacco
Sing sweetly for Tobacco,
Tobacco is like love,
O love it
For you see I will prove it
Love maketh leane the fatte mens tumor,
So doth Tobacco,
Love still dries uppe the wanton humor
So doth Tobacco,
Love makes me sayle fro[m] shore to shore
So doth Tobacco
Tis fond love often makes men poor
to doth Tobacco,
Love makes men scorne a Coward feare,
To doth Tobacco
Love often sets men by the eares
So doth Tobacco
Tobaccoe, Tobaccoe
Sing sweetely for Tobaccoe,
Tobaccoe is like Love,
O love it,
For you see I haue provde it.





Dickson, Sarah Augusta. Panacea or Precious Bane: Tobacco in Sixteenth Century Literature. New York: New York Public Library, 1954.

Knapp, Jeffrey. "Elizabethan Tobacco." Representations 21 (1988): 27–66.

Linton, Joan Pong. The Romance of the New World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Pollard, Tanya. "The Pleasures and Perils of Smoking." In Smoke: A Global History of Smoking. edited by Sander Gilman and Zhou Xun. London: Reaktion Press, 2004.

Rustici, Craig. "The Smoking Girl: Tobacco and the Representation of Mary Frith." Studies in Philology 96:2 (1999): 159–179.

gallant a well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman, attentive to the needs and concerns of ladies, but in a proper way. Rhett Butler is a gallant.

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English Renaissance Literature

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