English Renaissance Literature
In a Nutshell
Ch-ch-changes… Changes were happening all day, every day in 15th-to-17th-century Europe. Don't take those old movies about this era at face value, though; they might give you the impression that the Renaissance was all tights, puffy sleeves, and feathered hats. There was a lot more to the Renaissance than that.
This cultural rebirth began in Italy, just after a particularly rough period in Europe's history. No, we're not in the camp that thinks the Middle Ages had nothing to offer but doom-and-gloom. But there was that minor inconvenience known as the Plague. It wiped out roughly half of Europe's population.
Just think about that for a second. In 2013, the U.S. population was hovering just above 300 million. Imagine if 150 million people up and died within a week of catching a mysterious disease. A disease that gave them painful boils and turned their limbs black from gangrene.
Yikes. (To say the least. Maybe, "The horror" or "Oh, the humanity" would be better exclamations here.)
After those old Europeans found a way to deal with this awful new disease—quarantine the sick—people had more time to farm. To learn new subjects. To create art and invent things. You know, they suddenly had time to live again.
And then printing presses made literature available to the masses, and church services were no longer given in inaccessible Latin. They were presented in the vernacular of the people, so one and all could participate in religion in novel ways.
In fact, the church itself changed quite radically during that time period. Before, there was only one, unified Christendom under Roman Catholicism. But now, Protestantism and the Church of England entered the holy mix.
And everything was different. People were living in this brand-spankin' New World. And oh yeah, that New World was no longer the center of the universe. Well, to be fair, it never was—but people came to understand that actually, it's our lovely little planet that orbits the sun.
Not-being-the-center-of-the-universe such a big deal at the time that Galileo was excommunicated from the church. Which was, like the second worst thing that could happen to you back then. We maintain that death would still be number one.
He was also put under house arrest. But that actually wasn't so terrible for the guy, because then he could just sit around inventing technology and making scientific discoveries for the rest of us lazy boneses. Soon, he built a telescope. And a microscope. Nothing impressive about that Galileo guy, nope, nope, nope.
Anyway, with G's new tools, both the heavens and the itty bitty, creepy crawly things on Earth were brought into clearer focus. Yep, the unimaginably enormous and the too-tiny-to-see-with-the-naked-eye were now accessible to human experience and inquiry.
And that really freaked people out.
Seriously, how weird is it when you stick a smooth-looking strand of hair under a microscope and discover that it's actually got a really rough and ridged structure? And why are there wiggly-worms in the drinking water? (Oh noez. Proper sanitation wouldn't be invented until later…)
These newfangled ways of seeing physical phenomenal made people rethink how they saw themselves as well. And they started to get all deep and philosophical about stuff, and questioning which of their old beliefs could still hold water.
As much as the English Renaissance was an era of discovery, it was also one of doubt. And skepticism. And scary, scary uncertainty. So what if people didn't fall off the edge of the Earth when they sailed farther than ever before—what lay beyond the next horizon? And the next?
It's no wonder that all these literal and proverbial new horizons sparked a surge of artistic creativity. Poets, playwrights, artists, composers, and all numbers of creative types suddenly had the time and the resources to pour into their crafts. They questioned, they hoped, they daydreamed, and they strove to better understand their world.
Who were these cool cats, you ask? Well, let's start with some of the English Renaissance's heavy hitters: the Johns (Milton and Donne—who did you think we meant?), Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, and a little-known dude named William Shakespeare. Ever heard of him?
Why Should I Care?
Being human is hard. No really, it is. You're walking along, living your life, thinking all the things you may have been raised to believe. You take your thoughts for granted, and don't really examine what it is you think you know.
And then, as you're walking along, you run smack-dab into a tree. It's kind of a big tree. You chuckle to yourself out of surprise. How could you not have noticed this giant plant?
Maybe you're in a good place these days; you just adopted an adorable kitty, and landed that editing job of your dreams. So you can deal with this new information—there's a tree here, and I just ran right into it. You can take it in stride, alter your path, and carry on.
The tree became a part of your world. You two had words. Or, maybe not words, but you shared a moment (an "ouch" and a good laugh) at least. No biggie.
But maybe you're not having such a good time today. You woke up on the wrong side of your twin-sized mattress, and you're a little butt-hurt about this whole tree-screwing-up-your-morning-walk business.
So maybe instead of laughing, you cry. Or you get a little angry—maybe even a lot angry. What is this tree doing here? How could you have missed it before (ugh, so embarrassing)?
You might even go into denial. What, that thing? That wasn't a tree at all. Nope, don't even know what you're talking about. "What tree?" you might ask, as you rub the bump on your head.
Alright, you caught us: the tree we've been blabbing on about is isn't really a tree. The tree's an extended metaphor for unexpected change.
Sorry, you're probably a little angry with us now yourselves. But we think that tree, and our tiresome metaphor, can teach you something. Something about the English Renaissance, yes. But maybe even something about yourselves.
Look, we don't have the answers to all of life's questions. But we've been around the literary and real-life blocks, and we know that sometimes your world shifts; the path you were on is just not what you thought it was.
When the people of the English Renaissance were faced with this kind of new information—like, um, hey guys, the earth actually orbits the sun, not the other way around—some folks just couldn't handle it.
They were happy with the way things were, and didn't want to hear or see anything different. Which is all well and good until a Galileo jumps out of nowhere and hits you in the head with a totally different take on our galaxy. So, sometimes you have no choice but to look up and reevaluate what you know to be true.
Literature and science are both great noggin'-busting tree branches, if we do say so ourselves. But we believe it's literature, above all else, that really helps us understand our worlds. (Obviously, we're a little biased. But hang with us for a hot sec.)
See, it's great to have all these new discoveries in science and travel and art. But it's literature that helps you find a foothold as everything is changing around you. A heart. A center that can hold.
When Milton explores guilt and blame, when Shakespeare evaluates forgiveness, when John Donne challenges death, and Ben Jonson examines immortality, these authors help us to see the world, and ourselves, more clearly.
So, as painful as the revelations of our daily existences can be—there are so many trees in this forest sometimes, Shmoopers—literature is what helps us get through our days. And the story of how the art of the English Renaissance rose from the ashes of the Plague, from such widespread terror in destruction in Europe, is a prime example of literature-as-life force.