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Glossary of Literary Terms

The first stories related by man were an attempt to explain creation and the end of the world. These tales about the struggle of man, legendary heroes and cosmic forces still have an influence today. This section details the major developments and changes in literature and the theatre.


Greek. Early literary writings took two forms: epic poetry (Homer) and personal poetry (Archilochus, Sappho). From the 6th century BC Athens emerged as the centre of literary learning. The earliest prose was mainly philosophical and historical, evolving later into tragedy, comedy and the history of war. The Hellenistic period from the 4th century BC was mainly prose, either philosophical or oratory (Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates) plus fantasy and satire. The first theories of literature were written in about 340BC by Aristotle (The Poetics).

Roman. Early Roman literature was heavily influenced by Greecian writing and consisted mainly of historical epics. The height of Roman literature came during the reign of Alexander with emotional poems and epics. As the empire became established writing became more modern, relying less on past glories, a theme that lasted until the fall of the empire.

Early Greek plays were choral, in honour of Dionysus and a celebration of the gods. The first speaking plays began in the 6th century BC. Later Greek and Roman theatre produced scandalous plays about the gods. Much of modern poetry and prose is based on the literary theories founded in the classical literary period up to 4th century AD.

MIDDLE AGES 400 - 1300

Religion was the predominate literary influence throughout the middle ages with national languages now replacing the traditional Latin. Miracles and moral stories were related in mystery and morality plays, alliterative poetry and fables (Canterbury Tales, Decameron, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).

The two central medieval literary styles in western Europe were the epics and romances.

Epics. Long poems relating tales of courage and honour, heroes and knights (Seigfried, Beowulf, El Cid, Rowland). Norse epics tended more to stories of the gods (The Poetic Edda).

Romances. Fictional tales, developed by 11th century troubadours, emphasising the warrior qualities of love and loyalty. Mainly aristocratic characters (King Arthur).

Authors and poets. Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Langland.


The strongly religious ideals of the middle ages were replaced by human dramas with strong classical themes. In England the change was abrupt following the 16th century Reformation.

Theatre. Early English renaissance drama began with the intellectual plays of Marlowe. It is however Shakespeare that is most associated with the cultural changes. The first public playhouses opened in the 1570's (Globe and Rose Theatres) with drama, comedy, tragedy and the classics all making their mark. Later Puritan persecution forced the theatre into the Courts where masque became more popular. The civil war and closure of the theatres in 1642 marked the end of renaissance drama.

Poetry. The revival of classical ideals found favour with renaissance poets who attempted to imitate the classics using modern languages. Poets also cultured a relationship with the aristocracy, seeking to please and entertain as courtier and lover (of their patrons and their art).

Authors. 15th C. More, Malory. 16th C. Spenser, Bacon, Jonson, Burton, Shakespeare. 17th C. Bunyan, Pepys, Newton, Defoe, Swift.


The first novels in the early 18th century were a contrast to the classical values of the renaissance. They were realistic but often fictional stories, written in the first person, episoidal and often with exotic settings (El Cid, Robinson Crusoe, Gullivers Travels).

Authors. Ceventes, Defoe, Swift.


The Romantics. Romantic literature emerged as a break from the rigid renaissance ideals, it was a opportunity to express emotion and freedom and the pursuit of unattainable goals. Much of European romantic work was prosaic in the form of novels. In Britain poetry predominated with the Gothic novel favoured in Scotland.

Authors and poets. Herder, Goethe, Hegel, Shelley, Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Tennyson.

Realism. As with art, realism followed romanticism. Truth and morality told mainly by French and Russian authors.

Authors. Basrac, Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy.


The advances in printing and serialization in magazines allowed the general public access to literature for the first time. Most novels were moralistic but with social, romantic and regional themes.

Authors. Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Disraeli, Hardy, Trollope.


The end of the 19th century saw the emergence of the modern novel. Realism was replacing by the exploration of human emotions, stronger characters and the stories more provocative. Later, post-modernist novels delved deeper into the human consciousness, stories became more exotic and further detached from reality.

Authors. DH Lawrence, Hemingway, Satre.

Theatre. Early drama dealt mainly with such issues as politics, religion and morality. Post-war disenchantment saw 'angry young men' writing strong emotional plays. In contrast to which was experimental theatre which included: naturalism, german expressionism and theatre of the absurd.

Playwrights. Shaw, Wilde, Osbourne, Pinter, Stoppard.

Popular Literature. Books aimed to appeal to the masses. Subjects include: detective novels, thrillers, horror and ghost stories, science fiction fantasy and romance. The latest phase is the bestseller; books written purely for their commercial value.

The Cinema. Not only is the cinema used for the visual portrayal of literature but it can also provide a greater medium for presenting traditional theatrical works such as Shakespeare.

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