Comment on the presence of Renaissance and Reformation ideology and belief in Elizabethan tragedies like Hamlet and Dr.Faustus.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Posted intwo parts: Part I]

The Renaissance period has a date generally agreed upon as commencing circa 1450 and ending circa 1600. The Northern Renaissance, in which England is classed, has later dates as its Renaissance followed Italy and then France, the dates begin circa 1500 to circa 1615. The Reformation era, beginning with Martin Luther's religious epiphany, began in 1517 when Luther redefined the doctrines of Christian salvation, divine revelation and priesthood.

The Elizabethan era, that denoting the period of time of the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, was from her ascension in 1558 to 1603. Her rule spanned the end of the Northern Renaissance. Plays written during her reign are duly classed as Elizabethan plays. One playwright of such plays was Christopher Marlowe who wrote Dr. Faustus. The premier playwright of the Elizabethan era--within the Renaissance period and following the Reformation movement--was William Shakespeare who wrote, among other things, Hamlet.

Having a properly aligned perspective of the times addressed in the question asked here shows that undoubtedly Renaissance thought and Reformation belief would be evident in the tragedies of Elizabethan playwrights. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the word "playwright" stems from the fact that in Elizabethan times, the English theatre was still organized according to the guild system and "wright," from before 900 A.D. Middle English taken from the earlier Old English "wryhta," means "worker," hence, playwright, or "playworker," in accord with English guild nomenclature, e.g., wheelwright.

In Italy and to a similar though slightly different extent in England, the Renaissance emphasized the revival of classic literature and ideas that were associated with Italian Humanists. Actually, as Richard Hooker of Washington State University points out, they were the "umanista" group of teachers who emphasized "studia humanitatis," or studies not including mathematics and such. The umanista, or humanist, opposed the specific logic of Scholasticism even though they improved the general science of logic. The Northern Renaissance built on the classicism and humanism the Italian Renaissance but differed in that after 1517 it gradually added an emphasis in Protestant religious interest and a revival of New Testament first century Christianity.

This is a particularly important point when considering Elizabethan plays in general and Hamlet and Dr. Faustus specifically. The Latin Roman classics were closely associated with the Papal seat and, therefore, Catholicism. Remembering that England, beginning with Henry VIII, had been through political upheaval during which England's allegiance to Papal Rome was severed then restored then severed then restored under Queen Mary then severed again under Queen Elizabeth I, and remembering that severe laws, persecutions and punishments accompanied these various switches, it is readily discernible that an Elizabethan playwright advocating or seeming to advocate a Catholic perspective or allegiance with the Pope would actually be in a life or death situation due to an accusation of heresy, as explained by Professor Steven Fernandez of IPAG.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[Part II]

Therefore, English playwrights opted for Greek classics over Latin classics, which is one reason why England is said to have a classical Greek foundation. In addition to this playwrights chose, as Shakespeare did, to redramatize old stories from other earlier sources. As a result of these Reformation concerns, themes of Elizabethan plays shunned the overtly religious and undertook, as Professor Fernandez points out, generally humanistic themes (love, marriage, betrayal, etc), loyalty to the government (histories), and stability in society (women's role, hierarchy versus humanism).

Hamlet demonstrates these Reformation concerns quite well. For one thing, Hamlet is absolutely identified as a Lutheran Protestant by locating his university, which plays no role in plot development, in Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther's academic and protestant activities. For another, Hamlet debates with himself about the ghost's authenticity, which alludes to the possibility of its having come from Purgatory, which to a Lutheran Protestant is an errant because decidedly Catholic religious construct. Additionally, Hamlet struggles against taking revenge, which is based on an important Lutheran precept respecting the doctrine laid out in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New Testament against revenge. Also, Protestant reading of the New Testament places the king as the highest in earthly authority, over the Pope who is, of course, not recognized, so murder of a king is an unspeakably horrible act, one from which the Lutheran Hamlet recoils.

Marlowe's Dr. Faustus illustrates Renaissance principles as readily as Hamlet illustrates Reformation principles. Dr. Faustus' ambition has been, all through his prestigious career, the mastery of all academic knowledge encompassing all classical ideas. His learned endeavors engage him in sciences and humanities as well as divinity, which marks him as a Protestant in that, in early Catholic tradition, divinity studies were the province of the priesthood. This all marks Faustus as a Renaissance Humanist. Further, true to the humanist ideology, Faustus also pursues the study of logic. Reflecting the Reformation, Dr. Faustus' daring to go face to face with the powers of the devil's magic via Mephistopheles stems from a--perhaps overemphasized and misunderstood--belief in the Reformation doctrine that works, deeds done or not done, are not tied to Christian salvation, that salvation is by faith alone as a gift of graciousness.