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The main characteristic of Renaissance English literature is that it was influenced by the ideas of the Renaissance related to art, religion and politics. It was also heavily influenced by classic Greek and Roman literature and ideas.
The most famous example of English Renaissance literature is Shakespeare. Shakespeare was influenced by Greek tragedy, and wrote about historical and social issues. His poetry centered on the aesthetic.
The poets of the English Renaissance focused on exploring religious and social ideas that their counterparts explored in art. English Renaissance is decadent, and often explores religious themes with a completely different approach than the traditional religious poets.
Another important characteristic of English Renaissance literature is humanism, or an optimistic outlook on humanity. Up until then, the more religiously dominated texts had a dimmer view of humans and their potential.
The English renaissance was particular in its preoccupation with religion and the place of man in relationship with God. England had undergone an especially fraught period in its religious convictions with Henry VIII having taken the country through the reformation, the country having gone from being Catholic to becoming Protestant, adherents of the newly formed Church of England. Some might claim that the King James Bible and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer stand as particular examples of English renaissance rhetoric that were to be profoundly influential upon English Literature of the period.
The literary work of this period was particularly interesting in its questioning of religious orthodoxy and in the questioning of religious authority. Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, for example, is set in the same Wittenberg University in which Martin Luther, the first protestant reformer, nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door. In a profound satire on the questing spirit of the protestant reform, Marlowe make Faustus an intellectual man who wishes to test his personal relationship with God - one of the underpinning notions of protestant theology - by selling his soul to the devil.
Equally, later works such as Shakespeare's Macbeth sought to test the bounds of supernatural beliefs via the presence of witches on stage and Macbeth's belief in his self-determination tested by the prophecies of these 'weird sisters' whose prediction of his demise finally transpires to be correct. Moreover, Hamlet, another Wittenberg student and rationalist, is also tested in his belief in the power of the human intellect to explain God's creation when he witnesses his father's ghost early in the play which defies his rationalist belief in 'ocular proof'.
The crowning glory of this change in religious attitude comes in one of the triumphs of the late English renaissance, John Milton's Paradise Lost and its reconsideration of the role of the ultimate acts of religious free will, Lucifer's expulsion from heaven and mankind's original sin. Milton's puritanical religious thought is made all the more interesting by his sympathetic portrayal of Satan as a beguiling character, one of whose confrontation of God and later temptation of man are made understandable by Milton.
One might also look to the issue of changes in social status in renaissance England for another major theme. In an early sonnet by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, 'Whose List to Hunt' he overly reveals the constraints of monarchy in writing about his own clandestine affair with Anne Boleyn who is represented as a 'hind' who he would 'hunt' but for the fact that she has 'Noli me tangere' (do not touch me) on a collar around her neck. He, of course, touched her and with it tacitly acknowledges a socially revolutionary act that was echoed in much renaissance literature. One only need to look to the Machiavellian Iago and Edmund of Shakespeare's Othello and King Lear to see two characters who seek social advancement past their socially prescribed places in life while Middleton and Rowley's De Flores of The Changeling serves a similar purpose. None finally achieve their aim but all are exponents of the expediency espoused in Nicolo Machiavelli's The Prince and find their echoes in other examples from renaissance drama in particular such as Henry V who, for example, is willing, as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part II, to inform on his best friend, Falstaff to save his own reputation and in Part I of the same play sequence, to plot his own rise from infamy. As newly crowned monarch in Henry V he is willing to execute an old acquaintance to maintain order, a reflection of the political expediency that one might argue that Elizabeth I also showed in her execution of Mary Queen of Scots during a period of anti-Catholic sentiment.
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