Renaissance Literature

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What were the effects of the Renaissance on English literature?

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During the Renaissance, English literature gained greater psychological complexity. The Middle Ages was largely dominated by plays more interested in imparting morals or presenting religious stories than anything else. Around the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, humanism—a system more interested in human affairs than what might occur after death—was on the rise.

Poetry flourished during this period. English poets were inspired by Italian poetry in particular. Edmund Spenser sought to write his own national epic in The Faerie Queene, a work as Protestant as Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy is Catholic. Shakespeare penned his famous collection of sonnets during this period as well.

English drama of this period was heavily influenced by the theatre of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a trend followed by science, visual arts, and philosophy, which also took cues from antiquity during the Renaissance. The Roman playwright Seneca was a big influence on English tragedies, particularly "revenge tragedies" such as The Spanish Tragedy or Hamlet. These plays tended to have their characters brought low not by bad fortune or supernatural temptations, but through bad decisions or fatal flaws already present within the hearts of the characters, much as the tragedians of antiquity did. Comedies used similar situations and character types as the Greek/Roman farces as well.

A play like Hamlet is a perfect example of how the Renaissance affected English literature: a medieval version of this story might have rendered Hamlet's inner turmoil as mere good versus evil, while, as it is, the play is psychologically complicated and more ambiguous regarding the morality of its cast of characters, many of whom do not fit into simple "bad" or "good" categories.

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The effects of the Renaissance on English literature were an increased emphasis on humanism and individuality, as well as an increased willingness of writers to satirize existing institutions such as the church and state and to write secular rather than religious works. Poetry from the Italian Renaissance such as the sonnets of Petrarch, one of the first humanists, influenced the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, and Sir Philip Sidney, among others. Wyatt introduced the sonnet into English, and the Earl of Surrey was the first to write in blank verse in English. Sidney and other poets wrote about their experience of love in a way that was individualized and secular, two hallmarks of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance, inspired by classical drama by the Greeks and Romans, brought innovation to English drama, which was formerly mainly concentrated on mystery plays that were religious in nature. During the Renaissance, drama became secularized. Shakespeare's plays, written during the English Renaissance, are commentaries on the human condition and a reflection of the Renaissance's emphasis on humanism. For example, Hamlet includes the themes of the father-son relationship, of guilt, of women's relationships to men, of mother-son relationships, of madness, and many other themes that define us as humans and that we still wrestle with. Other works during the English Renaissance such as More's Utopia were discourses on the components of the ideal society and offered criticism of the current state of England. Writers during this time period were willing to criticize the church and state in search of greater happiness for individuals within the society. 

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The Renaissance had several major effects on English literature.

First, it marked a rediscovery of many classical texts that had been unknown in the Middle Ages. For example, the recovery of Greek novels, and in particular their translation into French by Amyot, led to a certain type of pastoral English novel, exemplified by Lyly's Euphues.

Classical models strongly influenced drama. Seneca's tragedies were models for the Elizabethan and Jacobean genre of revenge tragedy, and Latin versions of Greek New Comedy influenced romantic comedy.

Protestantism, with its emphasis on reading the Bible in the vernacular, contributed to the growth of vernacular literacy, and thus the audience for literary works in English.

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