Renaissance Literature

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How did the Renaissance influence the growth of the English language?

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The Renaissance introduced the classical learning of Greece and Rome into England. As a result, many Latinate words entered the English language. As knowledge exploded, other words were invented to fill gaps in the English language. The printing press, invented during the English Renaissance, also contributed to the rise and rapid spread of new words.

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The English Renaissance began in the late fifteenth century but is primarily identified with the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the period of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare.

Because large numbers of classical texts and ideas were being translated into English during this period (helped very much by the rise of the printing press), new words entered the language in droves. Some words were simply imported "as is" from other languages, while some were invented to describe concepts that had no word yet in English. (Today's world is in a similar shift due to the rise of the internet and related computer technologies: a flood of words from webinar to texting have entered the language, which simply did not exist twenty years ago because what they describe did not then exist.)

Because of the new focus on the classical world, many Latin and Greek words were brought into the language and simply "became" English, such as mythology, chaos, skeleton, and anatomy. These words reflected the intense interest in subjects such as science and Greek myth.

Shakespeare is famous for inventing hybridized words to fill gaps in the language, such as "barefoot," but other writers, such as Ben Jonson, did so as well. Other words, such as the Latinate "dexterity" and "ingenious," were coined by writers and scholars who wanted to emphasize their prestige by their links to classical learning.

As mentioned before, the printing press helped to standardize the language, uniting various dialects and rapidly introducing new words. Periods of foment and change tend to alter languages, and by the end of the English Renaissance, the groundwork for Modern English (usually identified as starting around 1700) were laid.

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What were the influences of the Renaissance on English literature?

The Renaissance had a lasting impact in shaping English literature through the works of poets and dramatists like Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and most importantly, William Shakespeare.

For centuries since, the English Renaissance has had a lasting impact in shaping the traditions of English literature and drama. We can see this in Shakespeare's influence over the English language (he likely invented hundreds of words that are in common use today) as well as on the stage (consider how often his works have been interpreted and reinterpreted, with different generations finding something new to glean from his work).

One can also point to Renaissance expectations concerning poetry, the legacy of which would continue to shape the form for centuries afterward. Poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continued to use the same metrical structures that Elizabethan poets had used before them. Later, in the twentieth century, Modernists would break with those expectations through techniques such as free verse. Yet, even in their case, these poets were still interacting with Renaissance artistic norms by way of rebellion.

From this perspective, the Renaissance has had long-standing influence in shaping centuries of English literature. The works of Shakespeare and the metrical form continue to be relevant today.

On the other hand, if you wish to explore how Renaissance ideas were reflected within English Renaissance literature, that's a very different question. Most importantly, a humanist focus on Classical Antiquity is one of the defining features of the Renaissance period. In the English context, we see Classical references embedded throughout English literature. These references occur in Shakespeare's works, including Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra (and even A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its inclusion of Theseus and Hippolyta).

In addition, we can point to Shakespeare's poetry, with works such as Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece that were also derived from Classical Antiquity. We can also point to Christopher Marlowe's translations of Ovid and Lucan. These examples should give you a sense of the degree to which the humanist fascination with Antiquity was present in English literature during the Renaissance era.

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What were the influences of the Renaissance on English literature?

The Renaissance emphases on humanism, democratic representation, nationalism and an emerging middle class. Humanism fostered the idea of man's importance within society as opposed to his importance within the a solely religious context. Democratic representation helped to inspire the up-building of the middle class by instilling a sense of individual value while nationalism made the culture and society equally important with the aristocracy (ruling powers). These were reflected in literature in works like Shakespeare's As You Like It in which the usurper of power is deposed and Thomas Aquinas writings that joined Classical literature with Church doctrine. These influences all stemmed from the spread of Classical Greek and Latin literature.

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