Renaissance Literature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1425

Miguel de Cervantes (c. 1547–1616) Miguel de Cervantes (Saavedra), son of Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra and Leonor de Cortinas, was born circa September 29, 1547, in Alcalá de Henares, Spain. After studying under a humanist teacher in Madrid, Cervantes enlisted in the Spanish military and helped to defend southern “Europe from the invasion of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. While involved in this effort, Cervantes suffered an injury that crippled his left hand. On the way back home from the front, Cervantes and other Spanish soldiers were captured by pirates and detained in northern Africa for five years, at which time they returned to Spain as heroes. However, economic times were tough, and Cervantes’s status as hero soon waned. He turned to writing plays but with little success. He finally was able to secure a civic position as a supplies manager, whereupon he was blamed for the mismanagement of food and jailed. Following these misfortunes, Cervantes wrote his masterpiece El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha (translated as The History of that ingenious gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha), commonly referred to as simply Don Quixote, which details the misadventures of a madman. Cervantes died of edema on April 22, 1616, in Madrid, Spain.

Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466–1536) Desiderius Erasmus was born circa October 1466, most likely in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He attended cathedral school, where he was first exposed to Renaissance humanistic thought, and his desire for the intellectual life was born. He used his religious education to access as many classics as he could find. Unlike many Renaissance writers who followed him, Erasmus wrote entirely in Latin, still considered at this time to be the language of the educated. Although he made plans to obtain a degree in theology, these plans were constantly put on hold because of his intellectual pursuits, including several trips to England, where he met influential English humanists like Thomas More. Following More’s lead, Erasmus eventually combined his religious and intellectual interests into a new program of reform, using his literary works to stage satirical attacks on the Church and society. Out of all of his works, Erasmus’s satire The Praise of Folly had the greatest influence on later humanist writers, who mimicked Erasmus’s style in their own satirical works. It should be noted that Erasmus, like other humanist writers, wished to reform the Catholic Church while keeping it unified. However, in his criticisms of the Church and his scholarly interpretation and translation of the Bible, Erasmus was one of many humanists who inadvertently helped to instigate the Protestant Reformation and subsequent division of the Church. Erasmus died on July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–c. 1527) Niccolò Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to a middle-class family of civic workers. He studied Latin from an early age and was drawn to the classics, particularly texts about the Roman Republic. He followed family tradition and entered the Florentine political scene during Italy’s politically unstable “city-state” period, when large cities like Florence acted as independent republics. Within Florence, a number of factions vied for power. In 1498, Machiavelli helped one of them overthrow the dominant religious and political figure. Through a few other political posts he held over the next fourteen years, Machiavelli gained influence, while observing the harsh realities of politics. After the Medici family returned to power in 1512 and exiled Machiavelli to his country home, Machiavelli spent much of his time translating his political experiences into two treatises, or explanatory documents. The most infamous of these is The Prince . Machiavelli died of illness circa...

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June 21, 1527, in Florence.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) Christopher Marlowe, son of John and Catherine Marlowe, was born in February 1564 in Canterbury, England. Although he embarked on a humanistic education, receiving his bachelor of arts from the University of Cambridge while on scholarship, Marlowe was initially denied his master of arts due to his absences during his studies. Marlowe’s activities were vouched for, however, by the court of Queen Elizabeth. Historical evidence suggests that during his educational absences, Marlowe was serving as a spy in the queen’s service, helping to uncover and foil an insurrection plot by expatriate Roman Catholics. This life of intrigue and suspicion continued during Marlowe’s six years in London, where he was imprisoned for a short time as an accomplice to murder. During the six years he was in London, Marlowe wrote plays, the most famous of which is Dr. Faustus. Marlowe was again a suspect when a friend of his was found with incriminating papers, which the friend testified were Marlowe’s. Shortly after the incident, Marlowe was stabbed to death on May 30, 1593, in a Deptford tavern by one of his companions during a fight over the tavern bill.

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, son of Pierre Eyquem, was born on February 28, 1533, in Perigueux, France. The Montaigne name was a noble title, purchased by the author’s great-grandfather and first used by the author. At the direction of Montaigne’s father, the entire Eyquem household spoke Latin in an effort to instill it into the young Montaigne. Montaigne studied and practiced law for several years and served two terms as mayor of Bordeaux. However, his major focus during his adult life was writing. Despite his background in Latin, Montaigne wrote his major work, The Essays, in his native French. Montaigne died on September 13, 1592, in Perigueux.

Sir Thomas More (c. 1478–1535) The records for Sir Thomas More’s birth are not exact, although historians surmise he was born February 7, 1478, in London, England. More was the son of John More and Agnes Graunger More. While in his early to mid twenties, More lived with monks and adopted their lifestyle. Like his friend Erasmus, More combined his religious and intellectual pursuits into one humanistic ideal that he pursued for the rest of his life. The ultimate expression of this ideal came with the publication of Utopia (1516). In his adult life, More served King Henry VIII and Parliament, and in 1521 he was knighted. When Henry declared himself head of the Church of England in 1531, however, More was forced to choose between his king and his Church. Faithful to the Church until his last days, More resigned his chancellor position and three years later refused to swear an oath endorsing King Henry VIII’s authority over the Church of England and nullifying that of the pope in England. More was sent to the Tower of London and was beheaded July 6, 1535.

François Rabelais (c. 1494–1553) Details about François Rabelais’s life are incomplete, but it is believed that he was born circa 1494 in Chinon, France, into a wealthy family. Rabelais embodied the spirit of the Renaissance, which encouraged the pursuit of multiple vocations and interests. In his varied career, Rabelais worked as priest, physician, scholar, and writer. He also served his brother, the governor of Italy’s Piedmont region, as an intermediary in the escalating conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. This was an ironic task, since Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel was condemned by the Sorbonne—the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Paris—as sympathetic to the Lutheran cause, while the Calvinists (Protestants) thought Rabelais’s books promoted atheism. Despite this animosity from religious groups, Rabelais’s books enjoyed a wide circulation, thanks to his protection from the French crown. Most of Rabelais’s work was written in the French vernacular, which inspired other French writers to do the same. Rabelais’s writings influenced other European humanists as well, most notably Cervantes. Rabelais died in 1553 in France.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) Tradition holds that William Shakespeare, son of John and Mary Arden Shakespeare, was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, although the specific date of his birth has not been verified. In fact, for a man who is regarded by many critics as one of the most important writers in history, surprisingly little is known about his life. Most of the details are derived through speculation. Because his father was a man of some civic importance, it is assumed that Shakespeare received a well-rounded, humanistic education. Scholars also make evidence of Shakespeare’s references to schools in his plays as some measure of his own education. Given the enormous variety of experiences Shakespeare describes in his plays, it is also assumed that he pursued or observed many vocations and activities. Not much else is known about Shakespeare until 1592, when he became popular as an actor and writer in the London theater scene. He wrote more than thirty plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 23, 1616, exactly fifty-two years after his birth.