Introduction to English Renaissance Literature

‘Renaissance’ is a French term which means rebirth or revival; Rebirth of literature and art in the 14th and 16th century on the old classical models. It was in fact the rediscovery of Greek and Romance literature in the 15th century. 

English Conversation Practice - At ...
English Conversation Practice - At the Library

The classical literature came to Europe. Gutenberg’s Printing press printed it in Europe and Caxton’s press brought it to London, England. Europe which was sunk in the darkness was glowing with the beams of knowledge. In the beginning, renaissance started in Italy. Then it came to France. It took more than a century to reach England.

Renaissance provides the foundations to the modern age. The term ‘renaissance’ was invented in the 19th century. One of the French authors wrote, man ‘re-find himself’ at this age. In Italy, it started in the late 1300s. This was the time when Roman Catholic doctrine was declining. The interest started developing in the Greek and Latin texts. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle,  Seneca, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Plutarch were the men of great influence. 

Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was another factor that brought about renaissance. Many scholars fled and brought printed books and manuscripts to Italy. 

The English Renaissance roughly starts from the 1520s. It is very different from that of the Italian Renaissance in many ways. The movement penetrated slowly in England because she was not that much accepting of the change. The Elizabethan period is regarded as the highest time in the English Renaissance.

In many ways, the English Renaissance is different from that of the Italian renaissance. Music and literature were the dominant forms in English renaissance. Visual art was very much famous in Italy. It developed in Italian cities of Florence and Venice in the safe hands of Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Visual art was not significant in the English Renaissance. The tradition of literature in England was very strong and the printing press strengthened it more. In the Elizabethan age, the literary culture had fully developed. 

Drama and poetry were the leading genres which gave great names to the English Renaissance.  Spencer’s verse epic, The Faerie Queene is one the influential works of that time. This verse epic has had a great influence on English literature but it was overshadowed when Shakespeare, Wyatt and Surrey stepped into the genre of poetry. The drama was very much famous in this age. Marlow, Shakespeare, Jonson, Lily and Thomas Nash were the leading dramatists during the English renaissance. 

The theater tradition got popularized during this age. Shakespeare,  the leading figure, was an actor and has a share in a theater. In theater, the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson were performed. The Queen herself is regarded as the product of renaissance. She was married to the nation and wrote some occasional poems. Among intellectuals and philosophers, this age has Francis m Bacon and Thomas More. 

The Tudors of the 16th century were highly educated. It does not focus on the literature related to Christianity. The focus of this age was on pre- Christian literature which was from Greeks and Romans.

Characteristics of English Renaissance Literature

Wonders of Love and Beauty

Renaissance has been the age of wonders. It also has a love for beauty. This was the time when the strong foundations of religion began to shake. Science, art and literature began to rise up. Religion was not as strong as it used to be. Printing press has brought literature and knowledge to everyone’s threshold. Books were in common man’s access. The world was viewed differently by the writers and the readers. Curiosity aroused and man became the centre of the universe. Writers started to be creative as the Creator of the universe. The man took imaginative plight and wrote wonderful pieces of literature. 

The people started loving designs and they gave much importance to beauty. The minimalist style of writing, which is very common in modern age, was not popular at that time. This did not impress the renaissance writers and readers. The witty, clever and sharp minds were appreciated. The sound, flow and beauty of the language were the concerns of the writers and the readers. 

Along with this, their focus was also on the depth, thoughtfulness and originality of the idea. The renaissance gave many such writers who satisfy these desires. Even modern readers feel immersed when he goes through the writings of the renaissance. 

Humanism

The humanistic philosophy got renewed along with all cultural interests and classical things. Greece and Roman writings came to Europe and man was the center of humanistic philosophy. The Middle Ages are often regarded as The Dark Ages because of unkind happenings. Plagues, wars and fires made these Middle Ages as Dark Ages. This made people focus on heaven and afterlife. This made people believe that this life is a test of their goodness. If one is good and does good deeds, he is considered to go to heaven. 

So whatever the Middle Age Europeans did, they did not do for now but for an afterlife.  But wars, plagues and unpleasant happenings brought great impact on people’s life. Their attitude toward life has changed.  They started living a new life. Everything around them has changed. They began enjoying their life. They started focusing on their present life. They were no more interested in the soul. Man and his body were significant instead of soul and essence.

Getting classical education has become the interest of the people. People were interested in studying, history, philosophy, literature, physics and geometry. Virgil’s Aeneid is the epic that has allusions in abundance. This was about the War of Troy and the start of Rome. Why did it appeal to the people? It appealed because of its political bodies. 

The political body of Elizabethan England mattered the most to Shakespeare. He loved and stood-in for the political body of Rome. He wrote his bloodiest play, with the title of Titus Andronicus, which is about the problems of Elizabethan England. His dramas have political conflicts which represent the political condition of the age.

Humanism and Religion

This was the time when humanism witnessed its own rise. Humanism is a belief that humans are good by nature and they have something to offer. This belief has shaken the foundations of religion. It also made fun of the religion. England’s religious renaissance was flamed up with the lively love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boyle. 

Catherine of Aragon was the wife of Henry VIII. She could not get him a male child. He made this the reason and started his affair with Boyle. At that time, it was thought to be the fault of a woman, if she did not have a male child. Henry VIII married many times to get a male heir. It was an easy task for him to get divorced from Catherine Aragon. It was difficult to compete with the enmity of the church. 

At that time the church had been the centre of powers. It had supreme authority. In this conflict with the Church, he took a bold decision. He founded Anglican Church and himself became the Head of the Church of England. It suggests that he could do anything for his desires. Catholics, Protestants and Anglicans were engaged in a great struggle for the redemption of people’s souls. 

Magic and Religion

In rural England, people were under the spell of magic. In order to resolve the issues of their head and heart, they sought refuge in magic. Their aim was to purify their souls. It does not mean that witches do exist in reality. At that time, people believed in them. Even today, in the backward corners of the world, people do believe in magic and amulets.

This panoply of religions, provided the literature, which was full of such superstitious things. The superstitious beliefs of Greeks and Romans also came from Europeans. Greek and Roman myths were very popular at that time, and poets and playwrights were obsessed with these myths. They used such myths in abundance.  

For example, the themes of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale are those ideas on which Christianity put stress.  But the play itself comes out of the myth of Pygmalion. And allusions from classical literature brings life to the play. Let’s consider Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Everything happens in an Italian city, Verona. Italy has been the official place where the pope lived. The use of love language in Romeo and Juliet symbolizes religious worship. 

Political peace and stability is the key characteristic of this age. Queen Elizabeth has managed it quite brilliantly both inside and outside of the country. A working agreement has come with Scotland. The northern barons were rebels and they were kept in check. The border areas were traditionally disturbed but she maintained and sustained peace brilliantly in those conflicting areas. She was a good administrator and under her administration, England made progress rapidly.

Rise of Merchant Class

Social development was another key feature of the age. Industrial towns started growing rapidly and it gave employment to the thousands. When trade and commerce increased, it enriched England. The tax was imposed on the rich to support the poor. 

Religious Serenity

This was the environment in which the literary activities started to increase. This was also the age of religious tolerance. When she was crowned, she witnessed the nation as divided in itself. The Catholics were in the north. The south was of Protestants. Reformation was followed by Scotland. Ireland was different from all three and was following its own old traditional religion. 

It was Queen Elizabeth who made the Anglican Church a reality. Anglican Church was a kind of agreement between Catholics and Protestants. It tried to settle down the things between both. It was accepted by both, the Catholics and the Protestants. All the English nation was impressed by the religious policy of the Queen. This policy has maintained tolerance in society. The whole nation was united enthusiastically.

Now the mind was free from all kinds of fears. The man was no more feared by the persecution. The mind was very creative and engaged in creative activity. This religious peace paved the ways for literary activities. This was the most glorious literary period in the history of English literature.

Patriotism

Sense and feeling of patriotism is another characteristic of the English Renaissance. This age is considered to be the age of patriotism. The Queen loved her country passionately and her court was the best court of Europe. Her court was so sumptuous that it dazzled the eyes of the people. 

She had moderate policies which made her popular in her masses. She was known as the Queen Virgin, wedded to the nation. She was worshipped during her reign. She has been in prominent authors and poets literary works.

 In Spencer’s Faerie Queen, she is Gloriana. In Raleigh’s work, she is Cynthia. Shakespeare calls her fair vestal throned by the West. All classes of men were inspired by the Queen. England made progress swiftly during her times. The literature witnessed its highest period during her reign.

Timeline of the Movement

Publication of The Gutenberg Bible 1454-1455

The 15th century witnessed the greatest invention ever in the form of the printing press. The Gutenberg Bible is the very first publication in the Western world. The exact date of the publication is not obvious but one thing is damn sure that it set foundations of the English Renaissance. It worked miraculously and enlightened the darkest West with the light of knowledge. 

More’s Utopia was written in 1516

Thomas More’s exploration of Utopia; The perfect kind of society, a quest for new lands. It is a great book to read. It is also regarded as the finest piece of literature of the age of quest and exploration.

Martin Luther started the anti-Catholic Church movement in 1517

Martin Luther stood up against the Catholic Church. What it becomes when a little dose of humanism is mixed up with Catholicism. A new kind of thing named Lutheranism appears.

Copernicus Navigated Revolution of Sun in 1543

In this year comes Copernicus’s Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits Earth. Now the sun does not move. The earth does. It is the planetary body which moves around the sun. It will sound like a revolutionary idea if you were born in the 16th century. 

Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558

Queen Elizabeth, who never married but was wedded to the nation, occupied the throne. She refused to marry. Her time is known as the golden period in the history of England. 

Marlow and Shakespeare were born in 1564

The great twins, Marlowe and Shakespeare were born this year. Marlowe is known as the greatest Elizabethan dramatist. He paved ways for Shakespeare and others. He was stabbed to death in an inn and his career ended just after it started. After Marlow, Shakespeare took the torch and led the crew. 

London Stock Exchange and Battle of Lepanto in 1571

This was the year when the London Stock Exchange was created. Also the year of the Battle of Lepanto. This was the age when the merchant class raised itself up and it was also the rising of English Renaissance. 

First theatre in 1576

The year when the first theatre was built. It was the first permanent kind of theatre. It all happened in England folks. 

Drake explored the shape of the earth 1577-1580

Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world.  And explored that earth is not flat rather it is round.

Shakespeare became famous 1585

Shakespeare started acting and writing the plays. He is simply going to become the most famous play writer. Shabash Shakes!

Fight between English and Spanish Armies in 1588

It was the year when English fleet forced the Spanish Armada to kneel down before them. It was indeed a bloody battle. Lives laid down. Death danced. A lot of lives ended on both sides. The power scale bent towards England after this.

Spenser’s Faerie Queen in 1590

Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen was performed in the court of the Queen and it was a big hit. 

Death of Shakespeare 1616

Shakespeare is no more with us. Rest in peace legendary Shakespeare!  Renaissance is left a bit more but Our Shakes is gone!

Major Poets of English Renaissance

The English Renaissance produced many good poets. One of the great historians called this age as the nest of singing birds. Because this period gave some great poets to the English literature. The poetry of this age represents the true spirit of its times. 

Themes of the poetry were: Love, patriotism, philosophical and satire. Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey travelled abroad, especially to Italy. Italy was the hub of literary activities and renaissance also sprung from that region. Classical influence and Italian literature was brought to England by these two men. 

They used Italian form to compose their poetry. They are rightly called the true harbingers of the renaissance in England. They composed songs and sonnets and also called the first modern poets. The brief introduction of the great poets of the age is given below with their works.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

It was Sir Thomas Wyatt who bestowed English Poetry with grace, harmony and nobility. He kept Italian models in his view and composed his poetry. He composed songs, sonnets, madrigals and elegies. It was Wyatt who brought sonnets to England from Italy. Sonnet became so popular in England that this form was used by Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Arnold and many others. Personal and Autobiographical note in English poetry was introduced by him. He is not famous for his sonnets but for lyrics and songs he composed.

Earl of Surrey

Surrey worked under the supervision of Sir Thomas Wyatt. He was Wyatt’s disciple. He was not an independent poetic figure. He composed better sonnets than that of Wyatt. Wyatt followed the Petrarchan models whereas Surrey modified it and developed a typical English form from it. The form modified by Surrey is expressive, whereas the Petrarchan form is impressive. 

The modified form of Surrey is used by Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s sonnets are known as Shakespearean Sonnet. Surrey translated Aeneid as he used blank verse for the first time in English poetry.

Sir Philip Sidney

Sir Philip Sidney is one of the most celebrated poets before Shakespeare and Spenser. He is a well-learned man who is mainly known for Arcadia, which is a romance and Apology for Poetry, in which he defends poetry and explains its principles. Then he published the collections of his sonnets known as Astrophel and Stella.

This consists of 108 love sonnets. First time in English poetry, personal feelings have been expressed. In tone and style, he owes to Petrarch and Ronsard.

The lady of May, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, Astrophel and Stella, The Sidney Psalms, An Apology for Poetry

Thomas Sackville

Sackville, the first Earl of Dorset was a great humanist. He contributed to English poetry with The Induction. What makes him superior to Wyatt and Surrey is freedom from technical errors. His works include Gorboduc, The Mirror for Magistrates, Induction   

Edmund Spenser

Edmund Spenser, the creator of The Faerie Queene is rightly called the poet’s poet. He is a legendary figure and all English is indebted to him. C. Rickett names him as the child of Renaissance and Reformation. He has the seriousness of Milton. Both can be equally ranked in English Poetry. Spenser was also a humanist. 

His poetical works are the following; The Shepherd’s Calendar, which was published in 1579. Then Amoretti was published in 1595, in which he composed 88 sonnets on the Petrarchan pattern. He also composed a beautiful ode, on his marriage with Elizabeth Boyle, with the title of Epithalamion. This ode was published in 1959, centuries after his departure. 

On the death of Sir Philip Sidney, he composed an elegy, with the title of Astrophel in 1596. His other ode on marriage was Prothalamion. In order to glorify love and humour, he wrote Four Hymns in 1576. His well-known work is his epic, The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1590.

William Shakespeare

He was an unknown country boy who became known to the world for his mastery in playwriting. His pen produced play after play, mighty dramas, legendary characters and unrivalled work. Shakespeare simply takes an old play or poem, mould tenderest feelings into them and lo and behold! We find his work more wonderful than the last one.  He lived in a play loving age and that is why his work is overmastered in this genre. 

At the time of death, twenty-one plays were staged and manuscripted, and various had been printed in quarto. His first printed collection is known as Folio published in 1623. It was arranged by two actors, Heming and Condell. It contained thirty-six of the thirty-seven plays of Shakespeare. 

His typical works are classified in four periods; early experiment, development, maturity and gloom and late experiment. His plays are classified in three classes; historical, comedy and tragedy. Following is a short guide of his notable works of all times. 

Comedies: Merchant of Venice, Midsummer Night’s Dream, As you like it, Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Twelfth Night.

Tragedies: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Othello

Historical Plays: Julius Caesar, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra. 

Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, One Hundred and Fifty Four Sonnets

Doubtful Plays: Titus Andronicus, Henry VI, Richard III, Edward III

Ben Jonson

Jonson also is known as ‘dictator of London’ is the most commanding literary figure of the renaissance period. As a poet laureate, he criticized the romantic tendencies of his age and helped restore the classic form drama. 

Apparently he failed and the romantic school held grounds strongly but his influence grew gradually. There are many myths about Jonson’s hostility with Shakespeare. He scoffed Shakespeare’s plays for being nonsensical and using inexistent coasts.  

Dramas: Sejanus, Catiline, Everyman in his Humor, 

Comedies: The Case is Altered, Eastward Hoe, The Devil Is an Ass, The Magnetic Lady, The Sad Shepherd, The Alchemist, A Tale of Tub

Poetry: A Celebration of Charis, Execration against Vulcan

Christopher Marlowe

The Renaissance age is the age of drama and poetry. In drama Marlowe paved the way for Shakespeare. Marlowe wrote four plays, his themes include life and death, the struggle for power and human passions. The language he used is splendid and poetic. The age was man-centred. The man was central and it was the age of humanism. God was no more in the centre. Man has started questioning him in many ways.

Marlowe’s doomed character, Dr Faustus truly represents the spirit of the renaissance. He is a university scholar, who exchanges his soul for magical powers. He signs the agreement and gets extensive powers for 24 years. Dr. Faustus gets everything he desires. He wishes to meet Helen of Troy, who became the cause of the Trojan War. The war was fought in the BC in Greece, centuries before the Renaissance age.

Plays: Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, The Massacre at Paris

Poetry: Translation of Book One of Lucan’s Pharsalia, Translation of Ovid’s Amores, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love, Hero and Leander

Major Texts of English Renaissance

In the Renaissance period of English literary history revival of learning brought considerable literature into being. With the invention of the printing press in the 16th century, English literary tradition increased gradually and an abundance of books was printed. Men’s minds were so occupied with classics that native English literature went behind the back screen. 

Roger Ascham (1515-1568) published his famous book Toxophilus in 1545 and clearly addressed in its prologue the dissatisfaction raised by the scholars of that era. He apologized to native English writers for hiding their talent. 

Even in Italy, no great literature was produced in order to revive the classics. Except for a few books worthy of remembrance are found in this era. Here is a brief summary of them.  

Praise of Folly

The most conspicuous book appeared in England during this period is undoubtedly Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. Erasmus is the greatest writer of the Renaissance who lived most part of his life in France, Italy, England and Switzerland. This book was first published in 1511 in the reign of Henry VIII. It was originally written in Latin and translated into many European languages. 

The book is about songs of victory for New Learning that have dragged away humanity from three foes; ignorance, superstition and vice.  Folly in the title basically denotes the cruelty of kings, the selfishness of clergymen and ignorant standards of education.

Utopia

Thomas More’s Utopia also known as ‘Kingdom of Nowhere’ was published in 1516. It addresses the social conditions of that time. Bellamy’s Looking Backward is inspired by Utopia. It is his book in which we find historical words of French Revolution; Liberty, Fraternity and Equality. More learned from a sailor about a kingdom of nowhere where social upheavals are dealt with common sense and justice.  When he heard of this land, he promptly wondered why his country is still uncivilized after fifteen centuries of Christianity. If we read this book now, we will ask the same question.

Translation of the New Testament

Another influential literary text of this era is Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament (1525). He translated the New Testament and some parts of the Old Testament from the original Greek and Hebrew language respectively. His work was later included in Crammer’s Great Bible (1539) and was read in almost every Church of England. 

This translation brought English to a standard level for scholars and fixed English for native speakers. It laid the foundation for an authorized version of the Bible.

Tottel’s Miscellany

It appeared in 1557 as the first collection of miscellaneous poems composed by court poets. Half of the poems belonged to Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey also known as Wyatt and Surrey. In collaboration, they both wrote enormous Sonnets inspired by those of Italy. Surrey is also celebrated during the renaissance period not only for his poetic sonnets but also two translations of Virgil’s work in ‘Strange Meter’. 

The stranger meter was later known as a blank verse which had no etymological trails in English history. Thus the major contribution of Surrey and Wyatt was to introduce sonnets and blank verse in English literary tradition.

Morte d’Arthur

Undoubtedly the greatest text of the renaissance period is Morte d’Arthur written by Malory. It is a collection of King Arthur’s romances told in a prose style. He weaves the legends around the Holy Grail and maintains the spirit of medieval Christianity. Though the subject matter of this book is medieval, Malory preserved the legends of Britain and found a place in the renaissance period.

In this section, we have learned that the Revival of Learning was a significant characteristic of the renaissance period. Erasmus’  Praise of Folly, More’s Utopia, Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament and Malory’s Morte d’Arthur are notable works. Surrey and Wyatt also gave English intellectual progress by introducing sonnet and blank verse.