From its beginnings during the 14th century, Renaissance ideas based on classical learning and a focus on all things human–including art, literature, culture, and politics–spread from Italy throughout Europe. Luckily for today’s lovers of English literature, when the Renaissance came to England, it inspired a flowering of magnificent English literature throughout the 15th and 16th centuries that readers still revere and thrill to read today.
This Renaissance era in England (also known as the Early Modern Period), from about 1485-1660, is freighted with famous writers and treasured texts. Spenser, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, Donne, and the incomparable William Shakespeare are just a few names that appear on the Renaissance Writer Roll of Honor.
You can find out about the best-known works of these and many other Renaissance English writers by checking out our literary timelines focusing on Renaissance English Literature, HERE:
Before you dive in to the great works of the English Renaissance, take a few minutes here to read some background on Renaissance life and literature. It will help you understand, appreciate, and enjoy these beautiful, enduring works in the Western tradition.
What was the Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a revival of classical learning and a flowering of arts and culture starting in Italy and spreading throughout Europe in the 14th through early 17th centuries. “Classical learning” refers to the study of ancient Greek and Latin writers, mathematicians, and philosophers. Scholars began to focus less on Christian-related writings and more on pre-Christian art and thought.
Renaissance Wonder and Love of Beauty
Both writers and readers of the Renaissance marveled at the world, which seemed to be designed by a master artist or craftsman. Writers strove to be as creative as the creator of the world.
People of the Renaissance loved design and valued beauty and elaboration. Today’s common minimalist writing style, which strives for the quickest and shortest way to say anything, would neither have impressed nor interested readers and writers of the Renaissance.
On the contrary, they loved to see writers find as many clever, witty, and beautiful ways to say things as they could. But readers and writers prized not only the sound, flow, and beauty of elaborate language; they were also engaged by deep, original, thoughtful, even startling ideas. Writers who could satisfy these literary desires were many. Modern readers who spend some time immersed in “Reading the Renaissance” may find that they too become swept up in the beauty and depth of these wonderful writings.
For instance, what era offers lovelier writing than dramatist Christopher Marlowe’s words just below, spoken by his doomed fictional character Dr. Faustus. In Marlowe’s play, Faustus has bartered his soul in exchange for extensive magical powers. At this point in the play, he has demanded that Mephistophilis, his tempter, conjure up the famous Helen of Troy, whose surpassing beauty was said to be the cause of the Trojan War, fought many centuries before the Renaissance age. Here are the words Faustus speaks upon beholding Helen for the first time:
Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium —
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss. —
[Kisses her.] Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! —
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena. . . .
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!
–Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus
Renaissance drama and poetry is full of the kinds of heightened drama to be found in Marlowe’s plays: life and death, high-stakes power struggles, human passions at their most extreme, conveyed in the most gorgeous language possible.
Along with the renewed cultural interest in all things classical—the history, culture, and writings of ancient Greece and Rome—came a fresh concentration on all things Human, also known as “Humanism.”
Renaissance writers were full of curiosity about humankind. What motivates or inspires people? What angers or pleases them? What makes them good or bad? How will people of different character respond under pressure? What are the limits to the capabilities of men and women?
Writers also pondered the human condition. What is the nature of human life in this world? Is it bad or good? Free or determined? Monumentally important or completely insignificant?
A tour through just a few famous quotes from Shakespeare’s plays suggests how many answers he alone proposed to questions like these; a quick reading of more of his works and of other Renaissance writers would provide many more:
“All the world ‘s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”
(As You Like it Act 2, Scene 7)
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
(Julius Caesar Act 2, Scene 2)
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
(The Tempest Act 4, Scene 1)
“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Macbeth Act 5, Scene 5)
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1, Scene 1)
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
(Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
(Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5)
Related Post: Shakespeare’s As You Like: Is Love Real?
Renaissance Man and Renaissance Woman
Not surprisingly, this celebration of human capability led naturally to the idea that all men should exercise and develop as many human abilities as possible, leading to the ideal of the “Renaissance or Universal Man.” Michael Ray of Encyclopedia Britannica explains the concept:
“The ideal [of the Renaissance Man] embodied the basic tenets of Renaissance humanism, which considered man the centre of the universe, limitless in his capacities for development, and led to the notion that men should try to embrace all knowledge and develop their own capacities as fully as possible.
“Thus the gifted men of the Renaissance sought to develop skills in all areas of knowledge, in physical development, in social accomplishments, and in the arts.”
People who wanted to impress their monarch and win a treasured position in the life of the court had to be incredibly accomplished. Castiglione’s The Courtier, an Italian work known throughout Europe and translated to English by Thomas Hoby in 1561, describes all the accomplishments expected of Renaissance men, whether they were noblemen or simply educated commoners who were hoping for jobs and preferments within the English government.
Castiglione asserts that courtiers had to look well, dress well, speak well, apply rhetoric to debate questions, fight well, dance well, sing well, and if possible, even to write well. Lest all these accomplishments seem too easy, a Renaissance man should also be able to perform all these things with grace and “sprezzatura,” defined as an easy nonchalance that conceals all art and effort. Surprisingly, some living humans did truly embody this Renaissance ideal: Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Philip Sydney are two examples.
Castiglione offers advice to women as well, enjoining them to dress beautifully but pretend not to care about it, to avoid praising oneself or talking too much, and not to appear more in love than a suitor. Such advice suggests that women were relegated to the background of Renaissance society. Though women of the upper and new middle classes did learn to read and write, they were not allowed to become as educated as their peers who were male. Women were enjoined to play a graceful though background role at court, and to focus their efforts on home and children.
However, the prominence, strength, and political skill of Queen Elizabeth I may have helped gain respect for the female sex. That’s true at least in the pages of literature: many Renaissance English writers included strong women characters in their works, in part to show admiration for the Queen, and perhaps also to engage in a little prudent flattery.
Whatever the reason, readers are the gainers, since strong women such as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” Rosalind in “As You Like It,” and Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” feature prominently in much Renaissance literature.
Historical Background: What was going on in the Renaissance/Early Modern Era?
The reign of the Tudors–Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth–followed by the reign of James Stuart were years of rising nationalism and pride in England as a world power. The population of London grew from around 50,000 in 1520 to an estimated 200,000 in 1600, as political and economic power became more focused in the English central government.
These years were full of voyages and discoveries. Check out this article by Liza Picard to see how English explorers under Queen Elizabeth began challenging the world dominance of Portugal and Spain. Pride in England as a national power grew when England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Religion in the Renaissance
In matters of religion, these were tumultuous years. The Protestant Reformation sparked by the publication of German Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” in 1517 challenged the theology and power of the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation proceeded in England with discord and violence throughout these two centuries.
The English revolt against the Church in Rome began in earnest in 1534, when Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII rather than the Pope to be Supreme Head of the English Church. Two years later, Henry VIII began the “dissolution of the monasteries,” in which all property formerly belonging to English Catholic monasteries became property of the Crown.
Simultaneously throughout these years, many members of different Christian religious factions, holding different beliefs based on their interpretations of scripture and tradition, agitated for freedom to practice religion their own way. Many were persecuted and jailed because of religious belief.
Puritans figure largely in English political history toward the end of this era as they amassed enough power under Oliver Cromwell to fight King Charles I in the English Civil War. In 1649 the Puritans beheaded Charles and took over the government of England until 1660.
Readers and Writers in the Renaissance
All of these historical and cultural events, of course, had huge influence on Renaissance English literature. In the Renaissance, social and cultural life was centered around London and the Royal Court. Many of the original readers of the literature we treasure today would have been associated with court life, and therefore were highly educated and sophisticated in the devices of rhetoric and literary writing.
Such readers appreciated writing that adhered to well-known conventions of favorite literary genres such as the sonnet, the pastoral, or the revenge tragedy; but they also enjoyed writing that played creatively with conventions. Renaissance readers loved beauty, design, elaboration, wit, and cleverness; the writers supplied those things in plenty.
Sons of nobles and the wealthy, as well as those of the merchant or yeoman middle class, would have had a classical education, which taught Latin and Greek, Greek and Roman writings, mathematics, music, and rhetoric. As part of this education, the students and future readers of the latest literature, learned and practiced techniques of classical rhetoric and debate, in which they learned to argue for all sides of a complicated question.
Thus, not surprisingly, both writers and readers enjoyed watching literary characters take up an issue and discuss it from every angle. We see that happening in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” for example. Indeed, the characters seem specifically created to represent different sides on the question of whether court life or country life is better, and also to illustrate all different types of love relationships.
For an excellent article by Andrew Dickson on how classical education in debate influenced Renaissance writers, click here.
Going to the theater became a very popular form of entertainment for all social classes in the Renaissance. The various genres of plays had their roots in classical dramas, as writers rediscovered and appropriated types of plays by ancient writers like Euripides, Seneca, Plautus, and Terence. Though English dramatists followed some rules established for each genre by the ancients, they also felt free to vary, adapt, and create something new, similar to writers, directors, and “mash-up” creators today.
The Writer’s Life
One more note on writers in the Renaissance: very few would have considered themselves as “Writers” only, since it was practically impossible to make a living as a writer. Besides writing poetry, writers were soldiers, courtiers, noblemen (and in some cases, noblewomen), administrators, or priests, who wrote literature on the side to exhibit just one more accomplishment of a well-rounded Renaissance person.
Thus, much literature was written in manuscript and circulated among friends at Court, much of it only to be printed after their deaths, if ever. Some writers were sponsored by noblemen to whom they dedicated their work, though sponsorship seemed hard to find and harder to maintain.
Edmund Spenser, for instance, dedicated his vast epic The Faerie Queene to Queen Elizabeth and obtained a £50 yearly pension as a result. But he lost the chance for more preferment when he antagonized her principal secretary, Lord Burghley, with a later publication.
Shakespeare made good money from literature, enough to buy an estate in his old home town of Stratford and retire when he was 47 years old. However, he did it not by selling books of his plays or poems, but by investing in the theater company that produced his plays. He also had a side business of money-lending.
Some years after Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Milton, as well as other writers, were employed by the Court to write “Masques,” which were huge poetic dramas meant to be staged as elaborate Court entertainments. However, both Jonson and Milton struggled to stay in favor or to make a good living from writing alone. Milton served as secretary for foreign languages in Cromwell’s Puritan government, just one source of income other than writing.
Other than writing and practicing their professions, writers of the Renaissance led very colorful, dangerous, and sometimes scandalous lives. Many were arrested for treason, either because their writings fell from favor or some other reason; some were involved in duels or killed in fights; some were known as profligate livers. Find out more about the more exciting of Renaissance writers’ lives here.
Advice for Reading the English Renaissance
Renaissance texts were written 5-6 centuries ago, and language has changed a lot since then, sometimes making challenging reading for today’s readers. Also, as we have seen, Renaissance readers and writers loved beautiful, elaborate language. They enjoyed seeing how many different ways writers could phrase an idea, very different from how writers tend to communicate to readers today.
Here’s some advice for how you can cope with older-style language in order to unlock the deep ideas, incredible beauty, and enthralling dramatic conflicts and characters in Renaissance English writing:
- Read from a good edited text, in which scholars have provided notes to help you with difficult or out-of-date language.
- Expect to be amazed by multiple meanings, sudden turns, and unusual ways of seeing something.
- Expect to read the text more than once. During your first read, relax and enjoy the beauty of the language for its sound and beautiful pictures, even when you don’t immediately understand the whole meaning. Come back again later, when you may find the meaning dawning on you more fully.
Check out these posts on Read Great Literature that may be especially helpful in understanding Renaissance poetry:
I hope you will take some time to visit the Renaissance through reading its wonderful English literature! If you’re not up for total immersion, you can spend just a little time reading our Renaissance Literature Timelines to learn something about the most famous works and authors from these two eras:
Most photo credits appear on Tudor Era and Jacobian Era timelines, where the same photos are used. Links to those pages where photos are credited are just above.
Not previously credited:
Issac Oliver. Man Under a Tree. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
Modern Day Globe Theater, Re-Created. Jack1956 [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.