Renaissance Literature Themes
The main themes in Renaissance literature include antiquity, individualism, and faith in reason.
- Antiquity: The Renaissance was a cultural and intellectual rebirth that revived the ideas and works of classical antiquity.
- Individualism: The Renaissance brought a new emphasis on the powers and freedoms of the individual, a break from the hierarchical paradigm of the Middle Ages.
- Faith in reason: One of the core philosophies of the Renaissance was humanism, which promoted a secular approach to life.
The Renaissance was sparked by a return to a classical style of learning, which had largely been ignored during the Middle Ages, when most writers glorified the Catholic Church and its teachings. As cities began to prosper, religious corruption increased and the influence of the Church waned; however, writers rediscovered the classics and began to incorporate them into their own works. “My father was neither the Chaos, nor Orcus, nor Saturn, nor Jupiter,” says Erasmus’s personified “Folly” in The Praise of Folly, referring to four gods, who were figures from the stories of the successions of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. With the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, the age of mass-market print distribution began, and more writers were able to receive a classical education.
Study of the classical languages and values moved Renaissance writers to incorporate the classical style into their own works and encouraged a more worldly view than that of Middle Age religious writings, so that writers and scholars began to look beyond the Church’s teachings and to take matters into their own hands, including the interpretion of the scriptures. This dramatic shift in thought, from relying totally on the wisdom of the Church to developing understanding through scholarship, led to the intense examination and appreciation for the human individual. This movement was called Humanism. The glorification of humans and human experience eventually led to the idea that humans could achieve perfection in this life as opposed to only in a divine paradise. Shakespeare’s Danish prince Hamlet echoes this sentiment in a famous passage from Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties!” (Faculties in this sense means “abilities.”)
Faith in Reason
With the resurgence in classical learning and the focus on more secular, or nonreligious, human issues, scholars and writers embraced a spirit of skepticism and began to place a greater importance on reason. This belief was directly contrary to Church teachings, which encouraged people to have faith in the Church alone. However, it is important to note that the humanists were not against the Church. On the contrary, most humanists believed their faith was strengthened by reason, and when they used rational or skeptical arguments against the Church, it was in an attempt to inspire reform of the Church’s practices. In addition to its applications to the Church, humanists also used reason to rebel against the unrealistic ideals popular in medieval literary works, most notably the chivalric romances. Cervantes’s Don Quixote embodied this application. The old man in the story is so blinded by the idealism he has read about in medieval romances that he can no longer see the truth, thinks he is a knight, and goes seeking adventures. In one of the most famous examples from the story, Quixote attempts to fight a number of windmills, which he mistakes for giants. Says Quixote: “This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
Education was extremely important to Renaissance writers, and they pursued their own educations with vigor. As literacy increased due to the printing revolution and more people than just scholars were able to read, writers also turned their focus outward. Historian Norman Davies says in Europe, “The humanists knew that to create a New Man one had to start from schoolboys and students.” From students, Renaissance writers turned to other specific sections of the public, toward whom they aimed a number of educational publications detailing the proper ways to do just about everything. In 1518, Baldassare Castiglione wrote The Courtier, a manual for courtly behavior. In 1530, Erasmus wrote Manners for Children. In 1532, Guillaume Budé emphasized the importance of learning itself in The Right and Proper Institution of the Study of Learning, while in the same year, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, his handbook for government leaders.