Renaissance Literature

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

From the mid-fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced many vital changes, many of which were interconnected, and most of which were built upon technical, social, and political developments from the late Middle Ages. The most notable of these was the development of printing, which in turn influenced a number of other events. In Germany, Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable-type printing press in 1450, which combined a number of existing technologies, quickly caught on in other European countries. With the renewed interest in classical literature and the increasing contributions to Renaissance literature, book production rose steadily. Johnson notes, “By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million.” As vernacular languages gained in popularity, the number of printed books increased even more.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people were flocking to universities, which had been created in the late Middle Ages to educate members of the clergy. However, as literacy increased and people renewed their interest in classical education, universities began to offer more secular curricula like law. Many Renaissance writers were trained at these universities.

The Renaissance was also a time of mobility, both within Europe and abroad. As the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church waned in power, Italy’s city-states and Europe’s monarchies increased in importance. With this development, Rome was no longer the intellectual or cultural center of Europe, and Renaissance scholars began to travel elsewhere, spreading their ideals in the process. The most notable of these traveling scholars was Erasmus, whose visits to England in the late fifteenth century introduced him to several other influential humanists and helped him to develop the ideas that would make him famous. As Johnson notes, Erasmus came in 1498 to study at Oxford University in England because “it was no longer necessary to go as far as Italy.”

Meanwhile, explorations outside Europe were on the rise, and a whole new world was being discovered. The successful navigation around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in the 1450s was one such voyage, while Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America in 1492 was another. The resulting expansion of the world in the eyes of Europeans influenced Renaissance writers like Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel incorporates fantastical islands that can be reached by ocean travel, and features very odd beings: “We got sight of a triangular island. . . . The people there. . . . all of them, men, women, and children, have their noses shaped like an ace of clubs.”

In England, the Renaissance spirit of criticism increasingly focused on the Catholic Church. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his famous ninety-five theses to the door of his church; these, with the aid of the printing press, were also widely distributed. One of the theses demonstrates the main point of his argument: “Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that by the indulgences of the pope a man is freed and saved from all punishment.” Although Luther, like the humanists who inspired him, had hoped his theses would inspire a reformation of the Church while keeping it whole, most historians agree that his symbolic act launched the Protestant Reformation. From this point on, parishioners gathered in two factions, Catholics and Protestants. In 1529, the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII’s divorce from his second wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to bear the king a male heir. Two years later, Henry retaliated by declaring himself the supreme head of the Church of England.

The Protestant Reformation inspired the Catholic Church’s response, the Counter-Reformation, in which the Church...

(This entire section contains 645 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

changed its tactics and started to embrace some of the humanist aspects it had originally fought so hard against. During these two major movements, both Catholic and Protestant printers used their trade as a weapon, creating propaganda literature they distributed to people in hopes of keeping or gaining their faith.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Vernacular The Renaissance movement began with a resurgence in classical learning, including the study and proper use of Latin. However, Latin was the language of scholars, not the common person. As more people became literate, many authors began to write in their own vernacular, or native language, to reach this wider audience. At the same time, many writers attempted to demonstrate that their native languages were just as good as Latin, as Rabelais did when he published his Gargantua and Pantagruel in his native French. In addition, many writers produced works defending the decision to use vernacular, of which Joachim du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language is one of the most famous. “I do not, however, consider our vulgar tongue, as it now is, to be so vile, so abject as do these ambitious admirers of the Greek and Latin tongues,” says Bellay, arguing against the prevailing belief of the time that only the classical languages could produce literary greatness.

Irony Irony is found in literature in two forms, verbal and situational. In its most basic sense, verbal irony refers to saying one thing when meaning the opposite, often for a humorous effect. Situational irony, on the other hand, refers to an instance where a situation directly contradicts the expected outcome. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the title character is given false confidence from a prophecy by three witches, stating that he cannot be killed by a man born of a woman. At the end of the play, Macbeth relies on this prophecy when he goes to battle Macduff and is so sure he will kill the man that he taunts him, telling Macduff about the prophecy that he cannot be killed. However, as Macduff tells Macbeth:

Despair thy charm; And let the angel whom thou still hast serv’d Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.

Because Macduff was not technically “born,” he has the capability of killing Macbeth, which he does. This is contrary to the expectations of both Macbeth and the audience.

Satire Satire is a sort of attack or protest, which is created by portraying the object of the protest in an unfavorable manner. In Renaissance times, writers like Erasmus and his friend More responded to the social injustices they saw with satirical attacks, as an example from Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly demonstrates. When speaking about Christians, who he says are “enslaved to blindness and ignorance,” Erasmus writes that priests encourage this blindness because they have wisely foreseen “that the people (like cows, which never give down their milk so well as when they are gently stroked), would part with less if they knew more.” Erasmus is saying that if people were more educated about the Church and its injustices instead of just relying on the Church’s comforting assurances, people would not be so willing to give their faith to the Church. By referring to the process of duping the people into faith as milking a cow, Erasmus sets up a negative image in the readers’ minds and causes them to think about his argument.

Utopia More’s Utopia inspired many imaginary societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is so famous that the word “utopia” now refers both to any idealized place and the literary form that utilizes such a place. Renaissance utopian works sought to inspire social change by creating a new, imaginary, society that addressed problems in a different way. Two related examples from Utopia illustrate how More did this. In the first part of the book, More has his fictional character Raphael Hythloday talk to Cardinal Morton (King Henry VII’s chancellor) about some reforms he proposes. Hythloday brings up a current problem of the day, the wool trade. Says Hythloday, “Your sheep . . . that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour men themselves.” This is not a literal eating of men, but a symbolic one. It points to the fact that landlords who wished to get rich from the wool trade were creating widespread poverty by stealing all of the common land people formerly used for agriculture, so that the landlords’ sheep could graze on it. As a result, many of the new rural poor crowded the cities, which led to other social ills such as disease and crime. In the second part of the book, about utopia itself, Hythloday demonstrates how the utopians do not have this problem because they conserve their resources when making and using clothes: “They use linen cloth most because it requires the least labour . . . . a Utopian is content with a single cloak, and generally wears it for two years.”

Movement Variations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Protorenaissance Many historians and critics acknowledge a “protorenaissance” that preceded and laid the groundwork for the actual Renaissance. While critics are in disagreement as to when this protorenaissance began, the period lasted approximately from the twelfth century (when many universities were built) to the first half of the fifteenth century (up until the advent of the printing press). During this time period, many influential writers began to create the Renaissance spirit that would influence later Renaissance writers. The most notable of these are three Italian writers—Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio—and English writer Geoffrey Chaucer. When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in Italian in the early fourteenth century, he literally created and defined the written version of Italian, paving the way for later Renaissance writers to develop their own vernaculars. At around the same time, Petrarch not only helped to track down and reproduce many of the great classical works later writers would study, he also helped popularize the use of the sonnet, a type of lyrical poem that many European Renaissance writers utilized for centuries.

Giovanni Boccaccio also helped to recover and translate ancient texts and, as historian Paul Johnson notes in his book The Renaissance: A Short History, “he produced a number of reference works, including two massive classical encyclopedias,” one on the topography of the ancient world and one categorizing all of the ancient deities. Boccaccio also wrote The Decameron, a collection of one hundred tales some critics think influenced Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s work, most notably The Canterbury Tales, published in 1400 after his death, helped to develop the English vernacular, inspiring later English writers as Dante’s work had done in Italy. The Canterbury Tales, which tell the stories of several pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, are also noted for their humanistic depiction of late medieval society. Johnson says of the pilgrims: “These men and women jump out from the pages, and live on in the memory, in ways that not even Dante could contrive.”

The American Renaissance Ralph Waldo Emerson issued a ringing challenge to the literary community of the young American nation in his 1837 Harvard address, “The American Scholar”: if American writers were “free and brave,” with words “loaded with life,” they would usher in a “new age.” Emerson looms over that age, whether as an inspiration to reformers and artists of his generation and the next or as a bugbear to those distrustful of social and institutional change or literary innovation. Never wishing to lead a party or to be imitated himself, he always thought it his role (and that of the scholar) to provoke others to discover their own resources of genius and power. The rich literary production in New England during the next quarter century—in many senses a response to Emerson’s provocation— constituted what has come to be known as the “American Renaissance.”

The Renaissance Man The Renaissance inspired the term “Renaissance man,” which defines an ideal to which men of the time period aspired. A Renaissance man was a person who pursued as many vocations and interests as possible, following the humanist notion that man’s capacity to learn and improve is endless. This ideal was emphasized in the Renaissance education, which included study in several different areas. One of the most famous examples from the time period is the Italian Leonardo Da Vinci, who was accomplished as a painter, sculptor, and scientist, just to name of few of his many vocations. Davies says, Leonardo “possessed seemingly limitless talents to pursue his equally limitless curiosity.” In the twenty-first century, the term Renaissance man or woman applies to any well-rounded, learned individual who is successful in many areas.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1450s: German businessman Johann Gutenberg prints the first Bible (in Latin) from a printing press.

1510s: Martin Luther’s theses and other literature promoting reformation of the Catholic Church are quickly disseminated through printing presses.

Today: There continues to be a market for printed books, though literature is also being spread and published by electronic media.

1450s: After decades of bitter rivalry, the Italian city-states form the “Italian League” and agree to protect each other from outside attacks.

1510s: Machiavelli writes The Prince, an instruction manual on how monarchs gain and wield power. He addresses it to the Medici family, the unofficial rulers of the Florentine republic.

Today: After many transformations in Italian government, city-states have been abandoned in favor of a democratic republic.

1450s: After fifty years, Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti completes his famous bronze doors for the northern and eastern portals of the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, which depict scenes from the Bible in astonishing realism.

1510s: Erasmus publishes The Praise of Folly, a seminal humanist work that advocates interpreting the Bible with realistic, scholarly methods to determine God’s true intent instead of relying solely on church tradition.

Today: Some people believe that, if the original text of the Bible is fed into a computer and analyzed for certain patterns, hidden messages can be revealed.

Representative Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Don Quixote The two parts of Miguel de Cervantes’s The History of that ingenious gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha, commonly referred to as simply Don Quixote, were published in 1605 and 1615, respectively. Both parts are generally included together in one publication. The story details the misadventures of an old man who has gone mad from reading too many chivalric romances, a form of medieval literature that was popular in Spain during Cervantes’s lifetime. True to the form of chivalry, the old man idealizes everything he sees, to much humorous effect. At the end of the novel, Quixote comes to his senses and denounces chivalric ideals before he dies. The novel painted an accurate picture of life in early seventeenth-century Spain and struck a resonant chord with Cervantes’s public. Although Cervantes himself thought the work nothing more than a parody, modern critics have noted the book’s Renaissance view of favoring realism over idealism and have credited the book for its influence on the development of the modern novel. In addition, Cervantes’s novel spawned the term “quixotic” (the pursuit of foolish ideals), which is still used in the twenty-first century.

The Essays When Michel de Montaigne wrote his collection of inquiries known as The Essays, first published in 1580, he created the modern literary essay form. However, the book itself—composed of three books of 107 chapters of widely varying length— is not organized into essays as recognized by modern readers. Rather, the term “essays,” translated from the original French title of the book, Les essais (meaning “tests” or “attempts”), refers to the introspective, or self-driven, experimental methods that Montaigne used to explore the limits of his own human experience—the dominant idea of Humanism. This method is the only unifying factor in the book. The essays lack chronological order and sometimes contradict each other. In some cases, the essays are about subjects that have nothing to do with the title, and in other cases, the author switches topics within the essay. Although a few critics have attacked this lack of cohesiveness, the majority have looked past the structure of the book to its idea of introspection and its use of a conversational tone that creates an intimate bond between author and reader. Montaigne’s in-depth, critical examination of subjects both large and small emphasized the idea of extreme skepticism popular in humanist thought, which influenced later Renaissance writers, including Shakespeare.

Hamlet William Shakespeare was first and foremost a humanist, and all of his plays distinctly capture this Renaissance spirit. In his first tragedy, Hamlet, Shakespeare gives his title character an introspective intellect that is both humanist and modern. The play, published in 1600 or 1601, details the internal struggle that Prince Hamlet faces in deciding whether or not to avenge his father’s murder. Although his father’s ghost commands Hamlet to kill the murderer (Hamlet’s uncle), Hamlet is not so easily swayed and thinks through the problem for himself. In the process, Hamlet discusses many ideas about philosophy and human experience, all the while experiencing a spiritual crisis. The play resonated with Shakespeare’s contemporary audience and has continued to impact audiences and critics into the twenty-first century, many of whom note its psychological depth.

The Praise of Folly Desiderius Erasmus published his satire The Praise of Folly in 1511. Making use of the goddess Folly, the book features biting commentary on the injustices the author perceived in his world, most notably examples of religious foolishness such as the sale of indulgences (vouchers people could buy to absolve themselves of sin). When the work was released, it angered conservative Church officials. In Renaissance fashion, Erasmus incorporates classical references throughout the work and parodies the blind idealism of medieval times, a technique which influenced later humanist writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Cervantes. Erasmus’s use of the word “folly” in different ways throughout the book has kept critics busy for the last four centuries trying to ascertain Erasmus’s true intentions with the work.

The Prince It can be argued that no other work in the history of literature has inspired more long-term, widespread distaste than Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1532, five years after the author’s death. Although Machiavelli intended the work to be a handbook for political leaders, most readers in the sixteenth century were outwardly disgusted by the book’s cold discussion and support of the unethical methods, such as murder, that successful leaders used to acquire and remain in power. At the time of its publication, the book was condemned as a manual for tyranny, and many critics since that time have had a similar response to the work. Largely due to the deliberate spread of mistranslations of The Prince, English Renaissance writers like Shakespeare and Marlowe incorporated negative depictions of Machiavelli into some of their works. The book even inspired the term “Machiavellian” (meaning duplicitous), which remains in use into the twenty-first century.

It has only been in the last two centuries that The Prince has been accurately translated and reevaluated in its historical context. In this new light, the intentions of the author have been hotly debated. Some critics have conjectured that Machiavelli was simply reporting on behaviors that he observed, while others believe that Machiavelli wrote the book as a satiric attack on tyranny. In any case, through works like The Prince, Machiavelli has been referred to as the founder of empirical political science.

Utopia Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, is one of the most influential works written during the Renaissance. The book has two parts. The first critiques the social and political problems More saw, while the second describes life in an idealistic fictional society called Utopia. Utopians employ various communist methods to prevent problems experienced in sixteenth-century England. In both parts, More himself is the narrator and, as such, acts as the Renaissance skeptic for the reader. In addition to criticizing his own society, he also criticizes as absurd the methods that the utopians use, causing critics to debate what More’s true beliefs were. The author never resolves the issues, leaving the book open-ended instead of trying to provide a clear solution. Critics have noted that this ambiguity invited his readers to join in the discussion on these topics, a call heeded by other Renaissance writers.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Don Quixote was adapted as a television movie in 2000 by Hallmark Entertainment. It was directed by Peter Yates and starred John Lithgow as Don Quixote and Bob Hoskins as Sancho Panza. The movie is available through Turner Network Television (TNT).

Hamlet was adapted by Pilgrim Pictures as a classic 1948 film, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in the title role. Today, it is available from Universal-International distributors. Several of Shakespeare’s plays, under the following titles, have been adapted for film by Kenneth Branagh serving as writer and director: Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), Hamlet (1996), In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, also known as A Midwinter’s Tale), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1989). Branagh also stars in the first two and the last two of these productions.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince was adapted to an audiocassette, entitled Prince, and was published by Blackstone Audiobooks in 1997.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia was adapted to audiocassette and was published by Blackstone Audiobooks in December 1991.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources Cervantes, Miguel de, The History of That Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha, translated by Burton Raffel, W. W. Norton & Company, 1995, p. 38.

Davies, Norman, Europe: A History, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 469–507.

du Bellay, Joachim, “From The Defence and Illustration of the French Language,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leitch, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 284.

Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folly, edited by Horace Bridges, Pascalcovici, 1925, pp. 8, 81.

Frye, Roland M., “Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Doctor Faustus,” edited by Willard Farnham, Prentice- Hall, 1969, p. 56.

Hall, Vernon, A Short History of Literary Criticism, New York University Press, 1963, pp. 31, 48.

Hart, Jonathan, “Reading the Renaissance: An Introduction,” in Reading the Renaissance: Culture, Poetics, and Drama, Garland Publishing, 1996, p. 2.

Johnson, Paul, The Renaissance: A Short History, Modern Library Chronicles series, 2000, pp. 3–59.

Johnson, Samuel, “From Preface to Shakespeare,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent Leitch, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996, p. 469.

Marlowe, Christopher, “Doctor Faustus,” in Doctor Faustus and Other Plays, edited by David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen, Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 137–83.

More, Thomas, Utopia, edited by George M. Logan and Robert M. Davis, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 18–19, 54.

Rabelais, François, Gargantua & Pantagruel, Dodd, Mead & Company, n.d., p. 527.

Shakespeare, William, The Yale Shakespeare, edited by Wilbur L. Cross and Tucker Brooke, Barnes & Noble Books, 1993, pp. 992, 1150.

Viorst, Milton, The Great Documents of Western Civilization, Barnes & Noble Books, 1994, p. 85.

Further Reading Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1999. In this controversial book, Bloom states that Shakespeare alone is responsible for the creation of the modern human personality in all cultures.

Erasmus, Desiderius, The Praise of Folly and Other Writings: A New Translation with Critical Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989. This book contains some of Erasmus’s most influential writings as well as excerpts from some of his letters.

Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, University of California Press, 1989. In this book, a classic in Shakespearean study, Greenblatt offers his interpretations on Shakespeare’s major plays.

Jordan, Constance, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models, Cornell University Press, 1990. The author argues that the concept of, and first debates about, feminism as a mode of thought originated during the Renaissance.

Kraye, Jill, The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, Cambridge University Press, 1996. This book provides a thorough guide to the humanist movement, which originated during the Renaissance.

Lewis, C. S., The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Cambridge University Press, 1994. This book examines the medieval view of the world, giving historical and cultural background that allows for a greater understanding of medieval and Renaissance literature.

Viroli, Maurizio, Niccolo’s Smile: A Biography of Machiavelli, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2000. Theories about Machiavellianism are mainly about immoral and ruthless behavior used to maintain power at all costs. The author of this book argues that this was merely a reflection of the kind of leader Machiavelli longed for as a solution to the violent time period in which he lived rather than a type of behavior that he preached as appropriate.

Wells, Stanley, The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1986. A comprehensive introduction to William Shakespeare through essays, this book begins with background information on Shakespeare and his supposed thoughts, then connects his writings to the time in which he lived.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide