What are some main features of the literature of the English Renaissance?

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The so-called “Renaissance” in English literature is often dated from the beginnings of the sixteenth century and is often considered to have ended around 1660, when the English monarchy was restored (an event known as “the Restoration). The word “renaissance” means “rebirth,” and in this case it mainly refers to a rebirth of interest in the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course, interest in their works and ideas had never died during the Middle Ages, but a new interest in them became particularly intense in Italy during the fourteenth century and then eventually spread throughout Europe. Among various common characteristics of English Renaissance literature are the following:

  1. An attempt to see (or make) connections between the writings and ideas of the pagan Greeks and Romans and contemporary Christian ideas. In fact, the chief project of the Renaissance might be seen as an effort to find (or assert) the relevance to Christians of ancient thinkers and their texts. Christians believed that their religion gave them access, through scripture and through study of the so-called “book of nature” (God’s creation) to the Truth (with a capital T). However, they also recognized that the ancient Greeks and Romans had already discovered a great deal of truth, even though they were not Christians. Yet any truth was, by very definition, compatible with Christianity, since Christianity was the very essence of Truth. Therefore, any truth discovered by the Greeks and Romans could (and must) be reconciled with Christian truth. The fact that the pagans, merely by using their God-given gift of reason, had discovered so much truth, and the fact that that truth was compatible with Christianity, made Christianity seem (in the eyes of Renaissance Christians) all the more credible.
  2. An intense interest in finding the real value (which often meant the spiritual value) of life as it was lived on this earth rather than the life lived in the other-worldly realm of heaven. In other words, rather than focusing on the afterlife as especially important and feeling absolute contempt for the natural world (contemptus mundi), people in the Renaissance often found much to appreciate and interest them in their time on earth, even though they fully recognized that time on earth was very brief and was ultimately not of crucial importance.
  3. A growing interest in nationalism, including the development of particular national languages. Whereas earlier Christians had tried to think of all Christians as part of an all-encompassing “Christendom,” Christians in the Renaissance were more likely to take pride in the achievements of their own nations, including their own national languages. Whereas Latin had once been (and still was, to some degree) the common, shared language of educated people in Europe, increasingly the people of different nations (such as Italy, Spain, France, and England) began to write literary works in their national languages.

For a superb and accessible overview of these issues and many others, see Isabel Rivers, Classical and Christian Ideas in English Renaissance Poetry: A Students’s Guide, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 1994).