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Introduction to Renaissance Literature: Characterizing Authors and Works

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  • 0:05 The English Renaissance
  • 1:57 Terminology & Lesson Outline
  • 4:06 Drama
  • 6:56 Poetry
  • 8:38 Major Thinkers
  • 10:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Chances are, you've heard of the term 'Renaissance' before, but do you know what it means? Watch this video to learn about how this artistic movement forever altered England and the way we look at literature.

The English Renaissance

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.

Terminology & Lesson Outline

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.

Drama

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.

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