Renaissance Literature

The Renaissance in Europe was in one sense an awakening from the long slumber of the Dark Ages. What had been a stagnant, even backsliding kind of society re-invested in the promise of material and spiritual gain. There was the sincerely held belief that humanity was making progress towards a noble summit of perfect existence. How this rebirth – for Renaissance literally means rebirth – came to fruition is a matter of debate among historians. What cannot be debated is that humanity took an astounding leap forward after hundreds of years of drift. The fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries in Europe witnessed a deliberate break with feudal modes of living. Aristocratic landowners lost their hegemony over the lower classes, as opportunities for growth and enrichment beckoned from the swelling urban centers. In Italy, for example, educated citizens rediscovered the grace and power of their classical, pagan traditions. Greek and Roman mythologies and philosophies served as the inspirational material for a new wave of artistic creation. Intellectuals adopted a line of thought known as “humanism,” in which mankind was believed capable of earthly perfection beyond what had ever been imagined before. The overwhelming spirit of the times was optimism, an unquenchable belief that life was improving for the first time in anyone’s memory. Indeed, the specter of the Dark Ages and the Black Death were still very fresh in people’s minds, and the promise of moving forward and away from such horrors was wholeheartedly welcome.

Several threads can be said to tie the entire European Renaissance together across the three centuries which it spanned. The steady rise of nationalism, coupled with the first flourishing of democracy, were traits common to the entire Continent. The first inklings of a middle class began to gain power in the cities, as trade and commerce became full enterprises in their own right. With the fear of contagion a distant bad memory, and people eager to get out of their homes and see more of the world, international and even global trade began to surge forward. Along with products and wealth, ideas also spread from one nation to another. Fashions in Venice soon became the fashions in Paris and eventually London. Speaking of the British Islands, the well-known practice of young privileged men “touring” the continent first began during the Renaissance. The ideas these travelers brought back to their homelands would influence culture, government, literature and fashion for many years thereafter. Until the Renaissance, Britain was regarded as something of a wilderness, lacking culture and refinement. Even the English language was disdained. The preeminent English philosopher Thomas More published his Utopia in Latin, and a vernacular English translation did appear until decades afterward.

The single greatest innovation of the Renaissance era was the printing press, put into service around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. Rudimentary presses had existed for a long time, but Gutenberg’s design maximized printing efficiency in a way that changed the world of arts, letters, and ideas forever. His greatest innovation was a means to rapidly produce movable typesets, meaning that new sheets of text could be set in place and printed with far less effort than had previously been the case. The revolutionized printing press allowed for the fast and relatively cheap reproduction of work. Certainly it is no coincidence that literacy rates saw a measurable uptick in the decades following the press’s invention. The religious upheaval known as the Protestant Reformation would not have been possible without the capacity to make many copies of a document quickly and with minimal effort. Martin Luther’s famous “95 Theses” spread like wildfire through Continental Europe thanks to the newfound ease of reproduction. Even more so than easy reproduction, printing changed the whole social economics of reading and learning. No longer was literature a rarefied, privileged domain. The effect of having readily available literature was almost inconceivably profound in its democratization of the written word. Another overlooked aspect of this innovation is the effect that it had on the act of reading. Previously, one document was read aloud to a group of people. In the oral tradition, biblical or humorous stories were memorized and then passed down. Thanks to the sudden increase in printed material, communal reading and the oral tradition gradually gave way to silent, individual reading. At the time, silent reading was considered something of a novelty, and there were even those who looked upon the practice with suspicion. Nevertheless, the image of the individual engaged with the text on a solitary journey of interpretation is a quintessential Renaissance image.

Every nation in Western Europe experienced its own incarnation of the Renaissance. In different nations, even different cities within the same nation, the manifestations of Renaissance art and thought were unique. Whereas in one region, architecture might be the most obvious outlet for new creative energies, in other regions literature might take the most prominent position. At every locale, however, the rebirth of passion and creativity had undeniably world-altering effects. Although the Italian Renaissance is most familiar to students, the literary output of Renaissance England rivals anything else of the period. Spanning the years 1500-1660, the English Renaissance produced some of the greatest works of literature the world has known. The spirit of optimism, unlimited potential, and the stoic English character all coalesced to generate literature of the first order. At the same time, England graduated from an overlooked “barbarian” nation to a seat of commercial power and influence. This power naturally translated into a literature that was bold, sweeping, innovative, and trend-setting. Poets experimented with form, and dramatists revived and reinvented the classical traditions of the Greeks and Romans.

The dominant forms of English literature during the Renaissance were the poem and the drama. Among the many varieties of poetry one might have found in sixteenth century England were the lyric, the elegy, the tragedy, and the pastoral. Near the close of the English Renaissance, John Milton composed his epic Paradise Lost, widely considered the grandest poem in the language. Conventions played a large part in how particular poetic styles were manifested. Expectations about style, subject matter, tone, and even plot details were well-established for each poetic genre. Even the specific occasion demanded a particular form of poetry, and these tried and true conventions were tacitly understood by all. Not infrequently, poetry of the era was intended to be accompanied by music. In any case, the general consensus among critics is that the chief aim of English Renaissance verse was to encapsulate beauty and truth in words. English poetry of the period was ostentatious, repetitious, and often betrayed a subtle wit. One attribute that tended to set English letters apart from the Continent was the willingness to intermix different genres into a sort of hodgepodge, experimental affair. This pastiche style is exemplified in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, a long poem which mingled elements of romance, tragedy, epic and pastoral into an entertaining and still cohesive whole.

English court life and the opinions of noble patrons had a profound influence on the direction of the arts. Being close to the king or queen was desirable, but also dangerous. The literature reveals that courtiers were exceedingly clever with their use of language, employing double meanings and sly wit to protect their own interests. The verbal duels one might have overheard in the court naturally found their way into the poetry and drama of the time. The nuanced communication style of Shakespeare’s vivid characters, for example, had its genesis in the court of the English royalty.

In the area of drama, no one matched William Shakespeare in terms of variety, profundity, and exquisite use of language. His subject matter ran the gamut, from classical Greco-Roman stories to contemporary tales of unrequited love. Shakespeare is known for his ability to shift between comedy and tragedy, from complex character study to light-hearted farce. He is likewise highly regarded for the exquisite formal structure which all of his plays demonstrate. This goes beyond just acts and scenes, but encompasses the emotional and psychological arc of the action in the drama. More than anyone else, he elevated the English language to a level of sumptuousness that previous generations would not have thought possible. In particular, Shakespeare’s sonnets display a verbal pyrotechnics seldom seen even today, with images layered one on top of another in a kind of sensory collage. Strangely enough, very few details of the playwright’s life are known today. His uncertain biography has led to numerous conspiracy theories, even to the point of questioning whether he was in fact a single person. One of the profound difficulties in ascribing authorship to any piece of literature from so long ago is that copyright, in the modern sense of the term, did not exist. A writer simply did not own his or her own words, an inconceivable state of affairs

The theatre in Renaissance England steadily evolved from a village festival attraction to a bona fide cultural institution. During the Middle Ages, troops of vagabond actors would perform morality plays, essentially live-action sermons, to delighted provincial audiences. In 1567, the Red Lion was erected on the outskirts of London, one of the first commercial playhouses. From the very beginning, the theater had its detractors. Locals despised the crowd and the noise that the popular houses attracted, and the pubs and brothels that inevitably cropped up nearby. Many saw the theater as an invitation to laziness, with children abandoning their studies and laborers leaving work to see the plays. Others found the subject matter distasteful and wicked. The Puritans, in particular, aimed their barbs directly at the Elizabethan stage. The intensely conservative offshoot of Protestantism, the Puritans feared that the cross-dressing and playacting one found at the theater would lead to sexual corruption among the general populace.

One of the greatest stumbling blocks for artists and writers during the English Renaissance was the ever-present need to somehow eke a living out of their craft. The system of patronage was one means by which talented and creative individuals sustained themselves. A patron was an independently wealthy noble person who had a taste for the finer things, and lavished money and attention on artists who catered to that taste. In some cases, the patron surrounded themselves with poets and dramatists as a mere pretence. On the other hand, many patrons had a deep and genuine appreciation for artistic creation. From the point of view of the starving artist who reaped the benefits of such generosity, it did not really matter either way. The freedom to pursue one’s craft to the utmost would certainly have been a blessing in sixteenth century England. Original manuscripts which have survived the ravages of time bear witness to the importance of securing the blessings of a wealthy patron. Typically such works are dedicated to the patron who provided the funds for its production. Or, the writer may be seeking the good favor of a patron who has yet to loosen their purse strings. There are even accounts of a single piece of literature being reproduced and dedicated to several potential patrons, a kind of wide net approach that demonstrates the business savvy required of the Renaissance artists. In the majority of cases, artists had to give much of their time to a career in some other more lucrative field and only pursue their craft as a sort of hobby. Four hundred years have done little to change that unfortunate reality.

The unbounded optimism and humanist spirit of the Renaissance could not go on forever. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the quest for human perfection had given way to decadence, cynicism, and an introversion which would stifle creativity for a long time to come. In England, the rise of Puritanism, itself an offshoot of Renaissance philosophy, put the brakes on the pursuit of knowledge and aesthetic endeavors. Another factor leading to the end of the English Renaissance was the failure of Queen Elizabeth to produce an heir. All of England adored their Queen, yet she was literally the end of a line. The power vacuum she left behind was immense, and set the stage for shocking violence and intrigue. In a nation fraught with such political uncertainty, the arts invariably suffered a decline.

This article is copyrighted © 2011 by Jalic Inc. Do not reprint it without permission. Written by Josh Rahn. Josh holds a Masters degree in English Literature from Morehead State University, and a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Kentucky.

Major Writers of the Renaissance Period



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