Upon completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:
You must be familiar with the term ‘Renaissance’. Derived from the French language, this term means rebirth – in this case, a metaphorical rebirth from the Middle Ages. Renaissance is considered the era of transition from the Dark Ages to modern times. This period of European history was an era of growth and evolution in terms of both culture and literature. As Early Modern English was widely in use during this period, it is also known as the Early Modern period. During this time, a notable revival of classical thought and ancient philosophies occurred within both art and literature.
The Renaissance originated in Italy during the fourteenth century and spread to the rest of Europe in the following centuries. Soon, the English courtly poets, such as Thomas Wyatt, Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, adapted and transformed the Italian poetic forms into English poetry. Along with new metrical forms like the Spenserian stanza, the Renaissance also witnessed the innovation of many literary genres, including the essay.
Moreover, theatre and drama flourished more than ever with writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe. The eponymous hero Hamlet by Shakespeare can be considered a classic example of the Renaissance man, with his thirst for knowledge and dark existentialism. Another example is Christopher Marlowe’s titular character Doctor Faustus whose unquenchable thirst for knowledge brings forth his downfall. Renaissance ushered in a marked shift from religious thought to the spirit of humanism, and man and his indomitable will were high-lighted in many works of this time.
The Renaissance period can be further divided into four based on the rulers of the time: Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline and Commonwealth periods. We shall look at these classifications in detail in the following discussion.
Renaissance, Classics, Humanism, Reformation, Elizabethan literature
As we have already learned from the first unit, the French term ‘renaissance’ implies rebirth. In contrast with the preceding Middle Ages, the age of Renaissance shed new light on all walks of Western life – from its literature, arts and sciences to even its language and culture. Also known as the early modern period, the Renaissance marked the transition of English society from the Medieval era to the Modern age. Since the fall of the Roman empire, no other cultural or artistic movement has man-aged to impact Western society as much as the Renaissance.
2.2.1 The Origin of Renaissance
Have you wondered how Renaissance came to be called so? The term was popularised by the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet. He redefined the French term ‘renaissance’ to refer to the cultural, intellectual and artistic revival that emerged in 14th-century Italy and it subsequently spread to the rest of Europe.
The origin of the Renaissance can be traced back to 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. During this time, many scholars were forced to flee and seek refuge in other European nations. Some of them settled in Italy and it soon began to evolve into the hotbed of learning and scholarship in Europe. Eventually, this led to the intellectual efflorescence of not only Italy but the whole of Europe.
Education, scholarship, and the pursuit of knowledge became the primary focus of Re-naissance society. The technological innovation that changed the face of Europe during the Renaissance was the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century.
While life during the Middle Ages was fraught with war and despair, the Renaissance period was relatively stable. The Renaissance scholars who recognised the shocking dearth of intellectual output during the Middle Ages made a conscious attempt to revert to the golden age of the classics. Their primary aim was to elevate the status of man from the stagnant Middle Ages to the glory of the bygone classical era.
One of the earliest literary works that paved the way for the Renaissance movement was The Divine Comedy (1320) by Italian poet Dante Alighieri. This epic poem in three parts depicts the poet’s fictional journey to Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Composed of around 15000 lines, the work is a fascinating mixture of Christian theology, Greco-Roman mythology and contemporary politics. Regarded as the greatest literary work in the Italian language, it is an allegory of the whole of Western history and European civilisation.
Dante’s vision of the afterlife has influenced generations of writers and artists across Eu-rope – Chaucer, Milton and Blake to name a few. Moreover, Dante deliberately chose to write his work in the vernacular Tuscan language instead of Latin, the language of the learned. The Divine Comedy is the work that established the former as the official Italian language and inspired the rise of countless writings in vernacular languages all over Eu-rope. Chaucer’s choice to compose The Canterbury Tales in vernacular English is also considered to be the influence of Dante.
2.2.2 Renaissance Humanism
The idea of humanism was central to the Re-naissance. Unlike the previous eras, which put God at the centre of the universe, this philos-ophy firmly placed man at its centre and be-gan to view things from a more humanitarian angle. Logic and reason prevailed, eventually gaining more traction than the ideas of reli-gion or faith. Knowledge became the ultimate weapon of Renaissance man. The fourteenth- century Italian scholar and poet Petrarch is generally known as the Father of Humanism. With the rise of humanism, history began to be increasingly perceived as a man-made event instead of its previous conception as a series of divine chronicles. Instead of considering man as a puppet of fate, Renaissance human-ism viewed man as the maker and champion of his destiny. Moreover, humanism viewed the universe as a product of nature and believed that nature in turn can be examined and explained using science and reason. As it considered society to be fundamentally rooted in human agency, the focus was on maximising the potential of the human mind through ad-equate scholarship and learning. This is why the Greek and Latin classics and philosophers were highly revered during this period.
The Humanists examined the fundamental question of what it is to be human. Realising the human potential to better one’s individual and social life, the Renaissance scholars made a collective attempt to emulate the classical age where people used to live with dignity and goodwill. Even the fundamental beliefs of society, such as God and fate were questioned, developing a strong spirit of enquiry and criticism. Moreover, Renaissance artists valued self-expression and realism, which many of the artworks of the time reflect. As models of excellence, the perusal of classical literature, arts and sciences was highly encouraged.
22.214.171.124 The Renaissance Man
A typical Renaissance man would be someone who is a master of all trades – from science and Mathematics to art and literature. Can you think of an example of such a figure?
The Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci is con-sidered a classic example of the Renaissance man. This polymath proved his exception-al craftsmanship not only in painting but in many other art forms, such as architecture and sculpture as well. Moreover, da Vinci was also reputed as a master engineer and even has sev-eral scientific inventions to his credit. Another example of a master craftsman would be the famous artist Michelangelo, who is equally skilled in painting, architecture and sculpting. Here are some more examples of the ‘Renais-sance man’ from literature: The eponymous hero of Hamlet by Shakespeare: “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! (Ham-let Act 2 Scene 2).
The hero of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe:
“Lines, circles, letters, characters—
Ay these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honor, and omnipotence
Is promised to the studious artisan!”
(Doctor Faustus Act 1 Scene 1)
The English Renaissance (1485 – 1660)
As usual, Renaissance took some time to finally reach the shores of England. It was only during the 15th century that English society started exhibiting clear signs of a developing Renaissance movement. While the Italian Renaissance mostly centred around paintings and sculptures, English Renaissance was most vibrant in the fields of literature and music.
English Renaissance can be considered to have begun with the end of the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty in 1485. The Wars of the Roses was a series of wars fought from 1455-1485 for the English throne between the House of Lan-caster and the House of York. The War got its name from the badges of these royal families, which were red and white rose respectively.
The Oxford Reformers
A group called ‘Oxford Reformers’ is widely credited with introducing Renaissance to the land of England. These pioneers of the English Renaissance were central in linking humanism with religious reform. The priest John Colet founded St. Paul’s grammar school to felicitate the study of classics. Meanwhile, Dutch scholar Erasmus mocked the folly of the church in his classic work The Praise of Folly. The visionary masterpiece Utopia by Sir Thomas More narrated in detail his model of an idealistic yet impractical human society.
We have discussed at length the Renaissance man, but how about the Renaissance woman? Unfortunately, we find that the status of women during the Renaissance period does not reflect the progressive ideals of the time. Rather, the position of women in society seems to have deteriorated during this period as they were mostly restricted to the realms of home and children.
You might find this rather surprising considering that England was under the reign of the much-renowned Queen Elizabeth I during the time. Nevertheless, her indomitable character seems to have left a strong impression on the artists and writers of the time. The presence of several outstanding female characters such as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, and Rosalind in As You Like It is a testament to this.
2.2.3 The Reformation
This religious movement which began in the 16th century was aimed at reforming the practices of the Roman Catholic church. Martin Luther heralded the Reformation when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to a Wittenberg church door in 1517. This direct challenge to the Catholic Church’s power eventually led to the establishment of the Protestant church in England.
The ideas of the Reformation made a significant impact on 16th and 17th-century English literature. In a way, Reformation can be seen as the true manifestation of Renaissance humanism and its individualistic spirit. It insisted on the dignity of the human soul and its ability to connect to God without the interference of intermediaries like the church or priest.
The Renaissance period in England can be further divided into four based on the rulers of the time: Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline and Commonwealth periods.
Let us look at these classifications in detail.
- The Elizabethan Period (1558 -1603)
It is widely acknowledged that the Renaissance ideals were at their peak during the Elizabethan era. Society progressed in leaps and bounds in terms of economy, education and technology. The establishment of the printing press in England in 1475 by William Caxton played a significant role in the diffusion of literature to the masses. It also resulted in an increased number of translated classic works from other literature into English.Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English society found peace, stability and prosperity like never before. The Spanish Armada, the fleet launched by the Catholic King of Spain to invade Protestant England, was defeated by the English fleet in 1588. Further-more, the long-anticipated union of Scotland and England also helped resolve the conflicts both within and outside the country. Thus, the Elizabethan era cultivated a renewed sense of national pride in their land and culture among the English. England continued to expand its geographical boundaries through travel, trade and explorations.
The literature produced during the period of the reign of Elizabeth to the time of the early Stuart Kings is known as Elizabethan literature. Queen Elizabeth was a connoisseur of literature and thus all genres flourished during her period including poetry, prose and drama. Deeply rooted in the conventions of classical literature, Renaissance literature produced several unrivalled masterpieces.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada ravaged by storms gave rise to the saying, ‘God blew and they were scattered.’
Elizabethan Age: The Golden Era of Sonnets
When it comes to Renaissance poetry, no other literary form grew more prominent than the sonnet. A sonnet is a poem of 14 lines with a standardized rhyme scheme and fixed meter – usually the iambic pentameter. There will also be a ‘volta’ or turn in the ending lines which express a significant shift in theme or tone. Deriving from sonetto – the Italian word for ‘little song’, most sonnets were centred on the theme of unrequited love. Usually written from the male point of view, the sonnet narrates his lady love but mostly focuses on the lover’s emotions instead of his beloved. The English poets often tried to imitate the melancholic and introspective tone of the original Italian sonnets.
Petrarchan sonnet is a sonnet form named after the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, who helped to popularise it. Its stanzas are divided into an octave (8-line stanza) and a sestet (6-line stanza). Moreover, this form is usually filled with poetic devices, such as metaphors, similes and conceits.
The publication of the anthology of poetry Tottel’s Miscellany (also known as Songes and Sonettes) in 1567 marked the beginning of the golden era of English poetry. Known as the first printed collection of English poems, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey were the major contributors to this anthology. This work revolutionised English literature by making lyric poetry, which was strictly restricted to the court, accessible to the general public.
Elizabethan literature can be broadly categorised into two periods: The Age of Spenser (1558-1579) and the Age of Shakespeare (1579-1603).
Now let us take a look at some of the major Elizabethan poets. Elizabethan England was known as ‘the nest of singing birds.’
Elizabethan Age: Major Poets
- Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
Sir Thomas Wyatt is credited with the introduction of the sonnet, originally from the Italian language, into English. Not only did he compose original sonnets but he also translated several Petrarchan sonnets from Italian to English. Although Sir Thomas Wyatt had introduced the Italian sonnet to English literature, it was later adapted and perfected by the fellow courtier poet Surrey.
- Earl of Surrey (1517-1547)
Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey is usually regarded as the creator of the English sonnet form. His style and lyricism are considered to be far superior to Wyatt. In his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Surrey introduced the blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) which eventually became the most widely used poetic form in English.
- Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)
The famed courtier of Queen Elizabeth I with a reputation for chivalry and nobility, Sidney’s most important contribution to English poetry is his work Astrophil and Stella (1591). The Petrarchan sonnet was introduced to English through this work; written on his lover, Lady Penelope’s marriage to another man. Com-posed of 108 sonnets and 11 songs of remark-able lyricism, this poem became the most influential sonnet sequence in English literature.
Major works: Astrophil and Stella (1591), Arcadia (1580).
- Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)
Spenser is considered the next great poet to emerge in England after Chaucer. Known as the ‘poet’s poet’ for his peerless lyrical beauty, he is the greatest of all the Elizabethan poets. His work The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) is considered to be a landmark in the genre of pastoral poetry. It is comprised of twelve eclogues – short, dramatic poems set in the countryside, usually involving a series of dialogues between shepherds. Interestingly, the twelve eclogues here correspond to the twelve months of the year. His marriage poems Epithalamion (1595) and Prothalamion (1596) also showcase Spenser’s intricate poetic craft.
Major works: The Faerie Queene, The Shep-heardes Calendar, Amoretti, Epithalamion, Prothalamion, Colin Clouts Come Home Again.
The Faerie Queene was originally conceived in twelve books; Spenser was able to finish only the sixth and a part of the seventh book of this great allegorical poem dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Rich with layered meanings, this epic touches upon several political, moral and religious issues. Each book in this massive work centres on a knight who represents a particular virtue. Similar to the Earl of Surrey’s blank verse, Spenser’s major innovation in poetic form was the Spenserian stanza. The Spenserian stanza consists of nine lines – with the first 8 lines decasyllabic and the last line having twelve syllables (alexandrine).
The Elizabethan era is considered the origin of English literary prose with its abundance of pamphlets, treatises and tracts. With the rising number of Bible translations, the language of the common man prospered during the time. One of the most remarkable contributions of this period was the development of the essay form by Francis Bacon.
Moreover, The Defense of Poesy (1590), the first major work on literary criticism in En-glish, was produced by Philip Sidney during this period. Also known as An Apologie for Poetry, this treatise made a solid defence for poetry, highlighting its infinite power to teach and delight.
- Sir Thomas More (1478 – 1535)
Sir Thomas More was a true Renaissance scholar with expertise in versatile fields, such as politics, philosophy, literature and law. A pioneer of humanist thought, More’s literary reputation mostly rests on his fantasy prose work Utopia, originally written in Latin. This work gave rise to the genre of utopian fiction (set in an ideal, fantastical world) and dystopian fiction, its antithesis.
Major works: Utopia (1516), History of King Richard III (1513).
- Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
Another ideal Renaissance scholar, Bacon was not only a writer but also a reputed lawyer, philosopher, politician and scientist. He is regarded as the harbinger of the modern scientific method of research and experimentation. Moreover, he is also credited with the intro-duction of the essay form in English through his first published book Essays (1597). Bacon modelled his essay form on Montaigne’s essays in French.
Major works: The Advancement of Learning (1605), Novum Organum (1620), Essays or Counsels: Civil and Moral (1625)
- Sir Walter Raleigh (1554 –1618)
Sir Walter Raleigh, yet another example of a classic Renaissance man, was a renowned writer, soldier, explorer and courtier close to Queen Elizabeth. He was among the first Englishmen to take part in the colonization of North America. His incomplete historical work The History of the World is considered a landmark in English prose.
Major works: The Discoverie of Guiana (1595), The Last Fight of the Revenge (1591), The History of the World (1614).
- John Lyly (1553 – 1606)
A pioneer of English prose, John Lyly helped establish and elevate the genre to new heights. The extravagant and figurative language in his famous epistolary romance Euphues gave rise to a distinct literary style in English known as euphuism. Although this style soon fell out of favour with the public, Lyly’s works enriched English prose with their generous use of allusions, puns and other literary devices.
Major works: Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578), Euphues and His England (1580)
- Robert Greene (1558 -1592)
As a writer of both prose works and dramas, Greene was one of the most celebrated authors of the time. He established the blank-verse romantic comedy in English, a genre soon perfected by Shakespeare. Many of his works in-formed and inspired later works. For example, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale was based on Greene’s pastoral work Pandosto.
Major works: Pandosto (1588), The History of Orlando Furioso (1594), Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1594)
Among the numerous literary genres that flourished during the age, drama is unquestionably the one that made the biggest impact on society. Theatre grew so prominent in the Elizabethan era that it soon became an indispensable part of English life. The first group of professional playwrights in England was collectively known as the University Wits be-cause most of them were associated with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. They created plays of popular entertainment, often comical and romantic.
The University Wits:
- Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe (Cambridge)
- Thomas Lodge and George Peele (Oxford)
- Thomas Kyd
- Christopher Marlowe
The Elizabethan drama witnessed its height of dramatic verses in Marlowe. With his exquisite language, exaggerated power struggles, volatile human passions and dramatic conflicts, Marlowe raised the bar of Elizabethan tragedy to such a height that it went un-matched by all except Shakespeare. Marlowe transformed and established blank verse as the standard English verse form – what Ben Jonson famously referred to as ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’.
As we have already discussed, Doctor Faustus – the titular character in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, is a towering example of the Renaissance spirit. In his relentless pursuit of knowledge and power, Faustus sells his soul to the devil and ends up with a tragic fate. In a similar vein, most of Marlowe’s larger than life heroes tend to be hard to categorise as either heroes or villains and are often a mix of the two.
Major works: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588-89), Hero and Leander (1598), The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (1599-1600), Tamburlaine, Parts I and II (1588), The Jew of Malta (1589), Edward II (1593)
- William Shakespeare
No discussion of English literature would be complete without mentioning this towering figure. Indeed, Shakespeare has become so ubiquitous that his name is used almost synonymously with English literature today. His staggering literary power and extensive understanding of human nature have made his works unrivalled in terms of popularity and universality.
At the same time, his works are unequivocally the products of the Renaissance and the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare based most of his plays on Italian sources and has drawn much inspiration from classic mythology and literature. Many of his plays such as Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost are the embodiment of the true Renaissance spirit.
There are 38 plays in the Shakespearean canon and each one remains significant with unparalleled literary merit. For ease of learning, we can broadly categorise his works into three: comedies, histories and tragedies. His poetical works are also included here.
- Major comedies: As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Comedy of Errors, The Tempest etc.
- Major history plays: Richard II and III, Henry IV, V, and
- Major tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear.
- Major poetic works: Sonnets, The Rape of Lucrece, Venus and Adonis.
Not only as a playwright, but Shakespeare also excelled as an actor in his theatre company ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’, which later established the famous Globe Theatre in 1599. Many of Shakespeare’s most notable plays including Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet were performed here.
2.The Jacobean Period (1603-1625)
In contrast to the preceding Elizabethan Age, the Jacobean era, named after King James (Jacobus – Latin for James), was much more politically unstable. Most of the Jacobean literature has a dark, sombre tone. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Bacon’s essays and Ben Jonson’s satirical works were produced during this time.
One of the major literary outputs of this period was the King James Bible published in 1611. Although countless Bible translations have appeared before, the King James version received the highest popularity among the general public. Its elevated language and style made a mark both in the language of the com-mon people and in the literature of the time.
Unlike the comical and entertaining dramas of the Elizabethan period, the Jacobean drama was mostly satirical and filled with dark humour. Jacobean theatre explored the dark side of humanity, with themes of sex, violence and evil being freely portrayed on the stage.
Major Playwrights of the period: William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Webster, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, George Chapman.
Major Jacobean Plays:
- The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil – John Webster
- The Changeling – Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
- Ben Jonson (1572 -1637)
Widely considered the first ‘professional’ author in English, Ben Jonson proved his excellence in numerous literary genres including prose, poetry and plays. Most of his works exhibited generally bitter and pessimistic view of human nature.
His major contribution to English drama was innovation of the ‘comedy of humours’, where each character is dominated by one particular ‘humour’. This dramatic genre developed by Ben Jonson was based on the Renaissance theory that the human body is built up of 4 humours/liquids:
- Yellow bile (choler)
- Black bile (melancholy)
Major works: Volpone or the Fox, The Alchemist, Bartholomew Fair, Every Man in His Humour, Every Man Out of His Humour.
3. The Caroline Era (1625-1649)
Named after King Charles I (Carolus – Latin for Charles), the Caroline Age was plagued with the English Civil War (1642-51), which divided the public into supporters and opponents of the King. The supporters of the King came to be known as the Cavaliers, whereas the Parliament supporters or the Puritans were known as the Roundheads. The era came to an abrupt end when Charles I was beheaded in 1649 by a Puritan uprising led by Oliver Cromwell.
Due to the numerous political upheavals, Caroline Age witnessed the gradual deterioration of the Renaissance spirit. Moreover, it marked the end of Renaissance drama as the theatres were closed down by the Puritans in 1642 through an Act of Parliament. Thus, the literary developments of this period were strictly limited to poetry and prose. The two styles of poetry that developed during this period were Metaphysical poetry and Cavalier poetry.
In stark contrast to the lyrical and extravagantly allusive Elizabethan poems, Meta-physical poetry presented a sharp and cerebral form of poetry. Written in a casual, argumentative form, these poems usually open with an arresting statement addressed to someone. Moreover, Metaphysical poetry makes use of extensive and elaborate comparisons between starkly different images – what we call the metaphysical conceit. According to Samuel Johnson, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together” in these poems.
The paradox is the central device of meta-physical poetry, typically represented by John Donne’s poems. Donne uses realism and irony to examine the sexual nature of love in many of his poems like “The Canonization,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” and “Flea.” His exaggerated, artificial, and some-times outrageous imagery was highly praised by later poets like T S Eliot. Other major Metaphysical poets are George Herbert, An-drew Marvell, Abraham Cowley, Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan.
Cavalier poets were a group of courtly po-ets who were supporters and allies of King Charles. This group which includes poets such as Richard Lovelace, John Suckling, Robert Herrick, and Thomas Carew, mainly created poems on courtly themes like chivalry, love and courage. Cavalier poems were written in a direct, lively, and engaging style and often propounded the philosophy of carpe diem (seize the day). Some of the major Cavalier poems include:
- To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
- To Alithea, From Prison by Richard Lovelace
4. The Commonwealth Period/Puritan Interregnum (1649-1658)
Soon after King Charles I was executed, England came under parliament rule and was declared a Commonwealth (constituting England, Scotland, and Ireland) in 1649. This parliament led by Oliver Cromwell came to be known as the Protectorate. The period be-tween the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of the monarchy in England by his son Charles II in 1660 is known as the Interregnum – a period where England had no king. This period marked the transition be-tween the Caroline and Restoration eras.
As the theatres remained closed for eighteen years, the literary form of drama vanished entirely during this period. Poetry also diminished and there was an expansion of nonfiction prose in its place. A wealth of political writings led by John Milton was the major contribution of this period. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes was one of the most influential political and literary texts of the era.