Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
Before we talk specifically about the English Renaissance, there's a really simple question we should probably answer, which is: what is a renaissance? Renaissance basically means 'rebirth' or 'revival.' In a more specific sense, the capital 'R' Renaissance was a flowering of the arts that swept through Europe starting in Italy in about the late 14th century. It made its way over to England somewhere around 1500 and lasted about 100 years. There can be a lot of debate about when it exactly started and ended, but that's a good way to put us in the right timeframe. To many critics, the English Renaissance is kind of when Western literature kicks into high gear. We're about to cover some of the most famous folks that ever put pen - or quill, if you will - to paper.
First, let's talk a little bit more about the culture that allowed the Renaissance to occur in the first place. One major thing that England had going for it in the late 15th century was the introduction of the printing press. This made it possible to mass-produce written works, which was huge, and it strengthened society's ability to create a literary culture. Another important factor was England's general social and political climate - the plague (or the Black Death) had passed and the Hundred Years' War was over - so, that's great. It's more productive when people aren't fighting and dying. British citizens could finally settle down in a life of relative peace and safety for the first time in a long time. When all of your resources aren't devoted just to staying alive and keeping your family alive, you have time to do things like write.
And write they did. It's interesting to note that, while the Italian Renaissance was primarily dominated by visual art, architecture, and stuff like that, the English really hit hard with the written word. So many titans of the English literary canon wrote during this time that this lesson will kind of seem like a 'Best-Of' list. These are the writers who more or less defined what English literature would be for the coming years.
Before we go much further, though, there's one caveat that I want to state. This wouldn't be the humanities if there weren't some point of critical controversy. Some critics don't think it's worthwhile to call this period 'The Renaissance' at all. They note that the English flourishing that we're talking about has little to do with what happened in Italy, and besides that, not all aspects of society were undergoing a positive rebirth, which can make the name 'renaissance' seem a little inaccurate. It's just good to know that this term 'renaissance' isn't a hard-and-fast label but more like a general way to think of what was going on at the time. To these people, the term we should use to describe this era is the 'early modern.' Even though the time period's definition is up for debate, we're just going to make it simple, and we're going to stick with Renaissance, acknowledging that that's not the term that everyone would prefer. So, a lot of really important people did a lot of really important work during this period, regardless of what you want to call it. That's really what we're going to start looking at now: who these people were, what they wrote, and why it matters.
An easy way to keep the following writers handy is to divide them into three different segments: the dramatists - the people who wrote plays and wrote for the theater - poets, and the essayists/thinkers. It's possible that these people have some overlap, but those are the three main categories. So, each of the people we talk about usually has one major category that they're associated with even if they dabbled in some others. If you're wondering why I didn't include novelists on the list - good catch, you - novels weren't really a thing yet. That's why we won't be talking about that.
One final note- I promise this is it and then we'll dive right in - if you've ever looked into the literary significance of numbers, you'll know that seven is an important one. For example, there are seven horcruxes in Harry Potter, there are seven dwarves, I'm sure you can think of some others. Seven is just a potent, easy-to-remember number - seven digits in a phone number, for example. We're going to give you seven definitive figures of English Renaissance literature. These seven authors, more necessarily than any others, altered the Western literary landscape forever.
When we talk about important English writers of the Renaissance, you probably know who's going to come up first. It the big guy - the Superman - we're talking William Shakespeare. Still the premiere dramatist of the English language today, his plays you've undoubtedly heard of or seen, either read them in class or seen them performed - seen one of the million adaptations that exist on film. We've covered Shakespeare's works pretty thoroughly in a lot of other lessons, so I definitely recommend you check them out to learn more about who he was and his most famous works individually. The key point here is just to remember that he's at the very forefront of the English Renaissance.
Besides Shakespeare, there are two other sort of titans of the Renaissance stage that we've got to discuss. First is Christopher Marlowe, which if you've seen that movie Shakespeare in Love, you might be familiar with that name. He was a precursor to Shakespeare and big influence. Some people think he was a bit of a rival. Marlowe was a figure of some controversy; it's suspected that he was kind of a secret agent for Queen Elizabeth. He had a violent and mysterious death, and it speaks to the way that he may have been tied up in some unsavory business. Of all his dramas, the one with most lasting impact is probably The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, an adaptation of a German legend in which a scholar sells his soul to the devil for personal gain. Spoiler alert: that never goes well! Though this is a story almost as old as religion itself, Marlowe is really credited for creating the first dramatized version. His version inspired most of those that followed, including the most popular version of the story, the German playwright Goethe's rendition, which came over 200 years later.
The third and final dramatist (or playwright) we're going to mention is Ben Jonson. He's a 'frenemy' of Shakespeare, and he's best known for his satirical plays. For a long time, it was thought that Shakespeare represented unrestrained and messy verbal genius - he created a lot of words and he played with language in a way that people either really responded well to or really didn't. But Jonson was a superb sculptor of precise plays. This isn't necessarily 100% accurate, but I'm trying to give you a perspective that they were really on opposite ends of the spectrum. Jonson spent a lot of time writing masques, which were elaborate stage productions performed at the royal court. He thus had a good deal of institutional success; always good to get hooked up with the royals. Some of his more noted works include Volpone, a dark satire about a rich guy putting his friends through trials to gain his inheritance. Also, you should know about The Alchemist, another comedy about the ridiculous lengths people will go to to pursue material wealth. It's kind of a theme.
Alright, dramatists covered, we're going to move onto poems. All of the guys we just talked about wrote some poems - Shakespeare for example, you've probably heard of his sonnets - but they're primarily dramatists. We're going to talk about people who were known mostly for their poetry. Up first is Edmund Spenser, chronologically one of the first major writers of the English Renaissance. He's known primarily for his epic allegorical play The Faerie Queene. Epic basically just means long, but it can also mean important. Allegorical usually is when one thing in the play symbolizes something else. It usually has some sort of larger moral attached to the play itself. On the surface, this is just a super-long and beautiful work of poetry about knights, demons, and dragons. It can just seem pretty fun. But, the poem also has applications to more concrete things; for example, critics believe that Spenser intended it to be praise of then-Queen Elizabeth. That'd be Queen Elizabeth I, not the current one. We've got a lesson on Spenser so you can learn more about him; he's a pretty fascinating dude.
Another important poet who often practiced a shorter form was John Donne. I personally really love John Donne. He was at the head of the metaphysical poetry movement, the works of which often used clever conceits and were philosophical and spiritual in nature. In other words, they're like sonnets, love poems, and elegies - the kind of oh-so-clever verbiage you might have gotten tired of studying in school. John Donne was a smart guy and a super-skilled writer, and he marks the first in a major breed of English poets. His poems are gorgeous; I really recommend checking them out.
Finally, we're moving on to the major essayists/thinkers. This guy also wrote poetry, but he really made his splash by writing about poetry. This person is Philip Sidney, whose major work, The Defense of Poesy, was really the first example of literary criticism in the English language. That's a big deal, because criticism has evolved a lot since then, and however you feel about criticism (and there's a lot of ways to feel), it's definitely a big part of the study of literature. It isn't really surprising that as literature began to take on a life of its own, it's not an accident that writers would begin to think about their profession more carefully and look at what they're doing and what their colleagues are doing with a more critical eye. The Defense of Poesy, Sidney's defense of the fictional arts, as you might call them, basically kick-started this whole enterprise of literary criticism. If you don't like literary critics, you have him to thank. He's the reason you're watching this video, so don't be mad.
Finally, we're going to talk about Francis Bacon, a prominent writer who left his biggest mark a little outside the humanities. He's often referred to as the father of empiricism, which means he created a logical, verifiable way to conduct scientific research. You've probably heard the phrase 'empirical evidence,' and we have Bacon to thank for that. No one in England had thought to do that before; it was a really big deal at the time, even if now it's just the way we think about science and conducting scientific experiments. But, Bacon's work in this field basically established all of the modern sciences as we know them - that's huge! He's yet another great example of a Renaissance thinker who got the ball rolling in a major field of study.
The people we just talked about were only a few of the major thinkers and writers of Renaissance England. We're just scratching the surface. So much more happened in that period that you could spend your whole life studying it, and some people do! For the purposes of this video, I just want to give you a taste of what was going on then, because it was an exciting time in England.
I think the important thing to remember is that the English Renaissance really defined so much of what we take for granted when we study literature today. How would we think about plays if there had been no Shakespeare? What would we think about poetry without Donne? Or science without Bacon? (The scientist, not the food; bacon's great though, obviously.) Although, whether or not this period truly deserves the title of 'Renaissance' is a little beyond the scope of our discussion, it might be helpful to keep in mind the other popular title for this period - 'early modern' - for just that reason. It's in the late 15th and early 16th centuries that the worlds of art, science, and academia really began to take shape as we know it. It's the precursor to the way we understand these things now. Not bad for people who didn't even have indoor plumbing.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets