Renaissance Literature

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What effects did the Renaissance have on English literature?

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The Renaissance greatly impacted English literature by introducing greater psychological complexity and humanistic themes. Poetry and drama flourished, with works such as Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's sonnets and plays like Hamlet. Literature was influenced by Italian poetry and classical Greek and Roman theatre, moving away from religious themes to explore secular issues and individual experiences. This period also saw an increase in satire and criticism of the church and state, as seen in More's Utopia.

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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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What impact did the so-called "Renaissance" have on English poetry of that period?

The word "Renaissance" -- closely related to a very similar Italian word of the period -- suggests the idea of "rebirth." The term refers to a rebirth of interest in Greek and Roman culture, especially classical literature. Interest in the classical past had never by any means died out during the so-called "middle ages," but such interest became especially intense during the Renaissance.  The Renaissance began in Italy and is often associated with the fourteenth-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (or "Petrarch," in English). Petrarch's sonnet sequence known as the Rime sparse ("Scattered Rhymes") was especially influential on subsequent Renaissance literature in many European countries. By the early 1500s, the impact of the Renaissance in general, and of Petrarch in particular, was beginning to be felt in England.

The main project of the "Renaissance" was to try to determine how the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans were relevant to contemporary Christians. The rationale behind this quest was simple: since Christianity was the Truth with a capital T, anything discovered in the classical past that was true was, by definition, compatible with Christianity. Renaissance Christians felt enormous respect for the so-called "virtuous pagans," such as Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca,who had used reason alone to discover so much truth. Reason was a gift from God, and the virtuous pagans had used it wisely and well. Even though they did not have access to the full Truth (contained in the Bible), they had nevertheless discovered much truth simply by using the reason God gives to all human beings.

This admiration for the "virtuous pagans" can be seen, for example, in Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem "Farewell, Love." Wyatt is usually considered one of the very first, and most influential, of the English Renaissance poets.  In "Farewell, Love," the speaker turns his back on Cupid, since Cupid is the symbol of selfish desire (as opposed to true spiritual love). The speaker announces that Cupid's

. . . baited hooks shall tangle me no more;

Senec and Plato call me from thy lore,

To perfect wealth my wit for to endeavor. (2-4)

These lines are utterly typical of Renaissance poetry. Cupid (i.e., selfish desire) tries to entice us with his deceptive, baited hooks of temptation, as if we were as lacking in reason as fish are. However, virtuous pagans, such as the Roman philosopher Seneca and the Greek philosopher Plato, can help call us away from Cupid's "lore" (his teachings) and his "lure" (the bait on his hook). In other words, the virtuous pagan philosophers can help teach us to achieve "perfect" moral and intellectual "wealth" by teaching us to endeavor to employ our "wit" (or reason) properly. This poem is just one of many pieces of English Renaissance literature that makes essentially the same point: that Renaissance Christians should strive to be at least as virtuous as the "virtuous pagans" were.

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