When compiling our list of great English Renaissance Literature, I consulted a friend who has studied the era in depth: David E. Miller, who earned a Master’s degree in English with a focus on Renaissance literature. David wrote his Master’s Thesis on Renaissance aesthetics. David’s picks for “must-read” Renaissance literature are below, along with his remarks.
My Middle Ages literature expert, Adam (see the Middle Ages English Literature timeline), also contributed some Renaissance picks and remarks, having studied Renaissance literature while working on his Ph.D. in Medieval. His picks and remarks are also included below.
I (MJ) also have many favorites among the incredible riches of literature of the English Renaissance, so don’t be surprised to find an occasional “MJ” comment too!
English Renaissance Literature is covered in two different pages on our site:
I: Tudor/Sixteenth Century, 1435-1603, this page.
Free Online Sources of Renaissance Literature:
Enjoy this tour of great and famous English literature of the Renaissance. Thanks, David and Adam, for sharing your expertise and love of literature!
Significant Historical Dates
1492: Columbus sails to the Americas.
1509: Henry VIII comes to power.
1517: Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” protesting some corrupt practices in the Roman Catholic Church, sparks Protestant Reformation.
1543: Copernicus publishes work arguing that the planets rotate around the Sun, helping begin the Scientific Revolution.
1558: Elizabeth I takes the throne.
1564: Shakespeare born.
1584: Sir Walter Raleigh establishes first colony in the New World.
1588: English defeat of the Spanish Armada ushers in era of English national pride.
1603: Death of Elizabeth I.
English Renaissance (Early Modern) Literature I: Tudor / Sixteenth Century, 1485-1603
Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516/1551
“Thomas More was Lord High Chancellor of England during the reign of King Henry VIII. Utopia was first published in Latin in 1516 for an intellectual audience; it was published in English in 1551. More’s Utopia should best be read as a thought experiment.
“We now think of a utopia as an ideal or perfect place, but More himself coined the word’ utopia,’ which humorously means ‘no-place’ in Greek. More wanted to comment on many of the unjust social and political conditions in England and the continent, especially the practice of enclosure, excessive punishment for crimes, and spendthrift monarchs. The ‘ideal’ society More describes is never meant to be taken seriously. It was meant to be used as a mirror in which sixteenth-century Europe might examine itself.
This prose work is divided into two parts. The first part introduces the reader to a worldly traveler named Raphael and a fictional Thomas More. The two characters consider whether intellectuals should be involved in public life, and if so, how best to advise their monarch. In the second part, Raphael describes the fictional land of Utopia, presented as a real place to the reader, and their unusual way of life.”
Adam groups Utopia with two other important texts from the Renaissance, though they are not written in English. He remarks:
“If the list will include non-English texts, Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, Moore’s Utopia, and Erasmus’ Praise of Folly all seem essential. Their sense of play and performance herald the Renaissance.”
Count Baldassare Castiglione, Book of the Courtier, 1561 edition).
First published in Italian in 1528, this book instructs courtiers (servants, nobles, ambassadors, and advisors of a royal court) how they should behave to please their monarch, stand out from the crowd, and advance their careers.
Even if you don’t read the whole book, it’s interesting to take a peek at some of Castiglione’s advice on how to be a perfect gentleman. A lot was required of the ideal courtier in this era! A Renaissance man had to be good-looking and well-dressed, good at sports and all the skills of battle, have courteous pleasing manners, speak beautifully (even write poetry, if possible), and dance gracefully—and do all of this without appearing even to make an effort! For modern readers, this book captures how people defined the “ideal man” in Renaissance times.
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder AND Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, 1530s-40s, various sonnets listed below.
MJ remarks: A sonnet is a 14-line poem where each line is iambic pentameter (10 syllables long with alternating stresses). This compact and demanding poetic form was developed in Italy and popularized by Petrarch, a classical scholar who revived ancient Greek and Latin poetic forms. Sonnets became extremely popular in England in this era. Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey are the writers who introduced the sonnet to England; they were also good friends.
“Along with Wyatt, Surrey introduced the ubiquitous sonnet form to England in the early Tudor period (1485-1558); and it was the Petrarchan or Italian form that they imported. By the end of the century, the sonnet was firmly established in England.
“Some of Wyatt’s best poems include:
‘Whoso list to hunt,’
‘They flee from me,’
‘My lute, awake!,’
‘Mine own John Poins.’
“A nice sampling of Surrey would include:
‘The soote season,’
‘So cruel a prison how could betide,’
‘Wyatt resteth here, that quick could never rest,’
‘Martial, the things for to attain.’
“It’s interesting to contrast this new sonnet form—small, controlled, introspective—with more sprawling medieval forms of poetry like the romance. At times [Wyatt’s and Surrey’s] work reflects something of the atmosphere under Henry VIII’s absolutist Renaissance court—paranoid, dangerous. Tudor sonnetteers needed a small, indirect, tightly-composed form.”
Renaissance Sonnet Sequences.
Adam notes that many poets wrote sequences of sonnets connected by theme or topic and circulated in manuscript among their friends and court acquaintances.
Here is a brief list of sonnet sequences:
Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella (1591)
Lady Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus
Fulke Greville, Caelica
Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, some addressed to a comely young man and some to a “dark lady.”
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, “Book 1,” 1590
“The next great English poet after Chaucer, Spenser endeavored to give England a national literature written in its native tongue. To do so, he modeled his poetic career on the Roman poet Virgil, beginning by writing pastoral poetry in The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) before graduating to the grander form of epic in The Faerie Queene.
“A massive though incomplete work dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, each book of The Faerie Queene presents a knight who embodies, or rather learns how to embody, a specific virtue.
“I recommend that you read ‘Book 1: The Legend of Holiness’ because it is designed as a complete poem within the epic as a whole, an epic within the epic. In it, Spenser cleverly blends Renaissance genres like epic, allegory, and chivalric romance with a staunch protestant interpretation of reality. The Red Cross Knight, one of the Faerie Queen’s (or Queen Elizabeth I’s) knights, travels with his lady Una (which means ‘the one truth’) and her dwarf to free her parents from a dragon.
“Some famous passages include the catalogue of trees and the episode with the monster Error in ‘Canto 1,’ the parade of the seven deadly sins in ‘Canto 4,’ and the incredible, cinematic poetry of the final battle with the dragon in ‘Canto 11.’
“Queen Elizabeth loved the poem so much that she awarded Spenser an annuity for his efforts. If you enjoy Spenser, I recommend his sonnet sequence Amoretti (1595) and his two wedding poems ‘Epithalamion’ (1595) and ‘Prothalamion’ (1596), all of which have very famous lines and have inspired subsequent poets like Keats, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot.
MJ remarks: For The Faerie Queene, Spenser invented an incredibly elaborate stanza form that he used throughout this long and intricate work. Click here to visit a post where the Spenserian stanza is described.
Sir Phillip Sidney, The Defense of Poesy, 1590; Astrophil and Stella, 1591
The true “Renaissance” man, Sir Philip Sidney would not have thought of himself as a poet by vocation. Sidney was one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers; he was a horseman (“philippos” means “fond of horses” in Greek), an ambassador, and a soldier, who died at the age of 31 in the battle of Zutphen, fighting for the protestant cause in the Netherlands against the catholic Spanish.
Sidney wrote primarily to amuse his sister, Mary, the Countess of Pembroke, who worked with him on several of his projects like their translation of the Psalms into English verse.
“’The Defense of Poesy’ is an argument for the timeless value of poetry and the preeminence of the poet above other kinds of intellectuals such as the philosopher and the historian.
“In Astrophil and Stella (108 sonnets and 11 songs written by the ‘star-lover’ to his ‘star’), Sidney composed some of the most beautiful poems in the English language. They were likely written about his infatuation with Penelope Devereux, whom he never married and who was forced to marry a man she did not love.
“In his ‘Defense of Poesy,’ Sidney identifies energia or ‘forcibleness’ as the driving force of exceptional poetry. The ‘cult of Sidney’ that developed later in the sixteenth century held energia as his poetry’s best quality. ‘Astrophil and Stella’ is fraught with a kind of angst as he continually endeavors to ‘[love] in truth, and fain in verse [his] love to show.’ This quality keeps the sequence in perpetual motion.”
Though I have read many famous works from the English Renaissance, I never happened to pick up anything by Sir Phillip Sydney until recently, when I began research for this timeline. To my delight, I found him charming! His works exhibit “forcibleness,” certainly, and also intelligence, deep analysis, warmth, humor, even appropriate humility. Modern readers may find some of his language over-quaint or otherwise difficult, but those who overcome that slight barrier will meet a captivating Renaissance man.
Christopher Marlowe, David’s picks: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus,” 1588-9; Hero and Leander, 1598; “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” 1599-1600
“Helen’s face may have launched a thousand ships, but it was what Ben Jonson called ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’ that established blank verse* as the national verse form of England. You can encounter this verse form in his play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which tells the story of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil to gain temporary supernatural powers.”
*[Note: Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Check out this post Rhythm and Meter in Traditional Poetry in English: How to Read Poems Part 9 on poetic form for an explanation.]
“If you prefer a shorter introduction to Marlowe, read his erotic poem ‘Hero and Leander,’ or the much shorter cosmopolitan poem ‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,’ [in which a shepherd offers gifts and other temptations to convince a shepherdess to ‘come live with me and be my love.’] After you read ‘The Passionate Shepherd,’ you’re sure to discover many of the amusing responses to the poem.” [Note: many poets wrote replies on behalf of the shepherdess while others wrote parodies of the poem.] “Two famous ones are Sir Walter Raleigh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply the Shepherd’ (1600) and John Donne’s ‘The Bait’ (1633).”
Christopher Marlowe, Adam’s picks: The Tragical history of Doctor Faustus, 1588-9; Tamburlaine, Parts I and II (1588); The Jew of Malta (1589); Edward II (1593)
“Some scholars like to say that if Shakespeare had died at 29 as Marlowe did (murdered, perhaps for his work as a spy), we would remember Marlowe as the greater writer.
“Marlowe’s iconic figure is the overreacher—a grasping male who wants everything. Most get punished, but Tamburlaine never does, exactly, though he does die at the end of Part II.”
Revenge Tragedies: Adam’s picks
The Revenge Tragedy was a favorite English genre during the English Renaissance. Adam lists and remarks on these:
Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy (1587)
“This play, performed in 1587, kicked off the craze for revenge tragedies in Elizabethan England. The revenge genre found its model in the classical Roman tragedies of Seneca.”
Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606)
“At one point, a character remarks philosophically (and, I think, very funnily) on his brother’s murder: “I see now there is nothing sure in mortality but mortality. Well, no more words. Shalt be revenged, I’faith” (3.6.102-203). That skepticism—nothing certain in mortality—is common in Early Modern tragedy.”
John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (1613) and The White Devil (1612)
“Webster more than his contemporaries seems interested in women’s experience, even if his female characters do die tragically. “
Shakespeare, Hamlet (1600)
Hamlet is even more interesting in the context of these plays. Like Hamlet, every revenger delays until act 4 or 5; otherwise the play would end too soon! But unlike the others, Hamlet remarks on his delay.”
William Shakespeare, David’s picks:
- Two Gentlemen of Verona (ca. 1590)
- Titus Andronicus (1591)
- Richard III (1592)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595)
- Romeo and Juliette (1595)
- The Merchant of Venice (1596)
- Henry IV Part I (1596)
- Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
- As You Like It (1599)
- Henry V (1599)
- Twelfth Night (1601)
- Hamlet (1600),
- Othello (1603),
- King Lear (1605)
- Macbeth (1606)
- The Tempest (1610)
“Shakespeare and Milton are the two authors with which all later writers would have to reckon. They cast long shadows: their aesthetic achievements are immense. You probably recognize the cultural authority of Shakespeare by having already encountered many of his plays and poems already.
“Shakespeare’s early plays include histories about England’s feuding medieval kings and nobles and some early attempts at comedy and tragedy. Two early plays are The Two Gentleman of Verona and the violent, Senecan tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Two Gentleman is featured in the beginning of the film Shakespeare in Love (1998).
“As Shakespeare developed as a playwright, the plays became stronger. Middle period plays include histories like Richard III, Henry IV Part I, and the magnificent Henry V; and the tragedy Romeo and Juliette.
“This period also includes a multitude of clever, romantic comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘The course of true love never did run smooth’), The Merchant of Venice (‘If you prick us, do we bleed?’), Much Ado About Nothing (‘For which of my bad parts didst though first fall in love with me?’), As You Like It (‘All the world’s a stage…’), and Twelfth Night (‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them’).
“Hamlet, however, which falls at the middle of Shakespeare’s career, is his supreme achievement, and marks a turn for the dramatist to his more well-known tragedies: Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
“His final play, The Tempest, is generally viewed as his farewell to the stage, although The Tempest isn’t technically his last play. Shakespeare wrote at least one more play and may even have collaborated on a few others.
“Shakespeare’s great strength as a writer is his ability to endlessly create complex characters, as if he could draw from an infinite well of imagination. Cleopatra, Falstaff, Lear, Hamlet, Juliette’s nurse, and Beatrice and Benedick all impress upon us the sorrows and pleasures of being human, full of hot, red blood.
Can’t Miss Shakespeare: MJ’s picks:
David chose a superb and thorough list of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, which necessarily is quite extensive.
But what if you just want to read a few of the very best and most famous plays? Here are my picks for “can’t miss” Shakespeare:
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the funny play that even bad acting can’t ruin).
- Hamlet (we all quote this play so often without knowing it—read the play to see how pervasive Shakespeare’s language has become, even centuries later).
- Romeo and Juliette (Who doesn’t know this story? Don’t miss the first, best, greatest version!)
- Othello (Iago as evil manipulator is not to be missed).
- Macbeth (in many ways the easiest to read, this play is a stark presentation showing that a person who destroys another also destroys himself, and along with all his sense of life’s meaning).
Side note: I love all the plays David listed, and also two more that he didn’t. If you want more great plays by Shakespeare, check out Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.
I also recommend these Shakespearean sonnets: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” (18), “That Time of Year Thou Mayest in Me Behold” (73), “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” (116), and “My Mistress’ Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun” (130).
MJ: Help for Reading Shakespeare
If you are intimidated by tackling Shakespeare’s elaborate Elizabethan language, I have three suggestions:
- Begin by seeing a good stage play or movie of the play you want to read.
- Then read the play from an edition with good notes and explanations of unfamiliar words and cultural practices.
- If you are still confused, take a look at the “No Fear Shakespeare” versions, which show a modern translation side by side with Shakespeare’s original. You can find No Fear Shakespeare versions online here.
If you do resort to “No Fear,” please then go back and read each play in Shakespeare’s own language, because nothing can surpass the beauty, wit, and cleverness of his words. Reading Shakespeare has also been shown scientifically to be good for your brain!
MJ: Help for Reading Renaissance Poetry in General
If poetry poses difficulty for you, don’t give up! Read my series of short posts on How to Read Poems Step by Step, with tutorials on how to unlock the meaning of a poem and enjoy its myriad beauties. When Reading the Renaissance it might be especially helpful to read “Expect the Mind Twist, the Turn in Meaning: How to Read Poems Step 7 which refers specifically to Shakespeare’s sonnets, among other famous poems.
Good luck, just dive in, and enjoy Reading the Renaissance!
Hilliard “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I. Walker Art Gallery [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]
“The Field of the Cloth of Gold” painting. Royal Collection [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]
Nicholas Hilliard’s Renaissance Courtier [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]
Red Cross Knight illustration by Naomi Gwladys Royde-Smith, [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons].
Probable portrait of Christopher Marlowe, 1585, unknown artist. Corpus Christi College [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.]
Chandros portait of William Shakespeare. Possibly by John Taylor who was an important member of the Painter-Stainers’ Company.[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]