Study Guide

English Renaissance Literature Top Authors

  • William Shakespeare

    This guy. Yeah, you've probably heard of him. He's pretty cool. There's a lot of controversy over whether or not he was, um, himself, or a group of writers working under the same name.

    Either way, we think he's the tops. He pretty much put English drama on the map and is probably the most famous author ever—though J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer might give him a run for his money. Anyway, his works ran the gamut from poetry (mostly sonnets) to plays (he started his career as an actor before writing his own works).

    Tragedy? Comedy? A little of both? You name it, he wrote it.

    He didn't give a hoot about Aristotle's unities, but he was all for mixing it up. His art melded many different, and often even opposing, ideas from philosophy, mythology, history, and religion. Sometimes he wrote plays that could be thought of as pairs or opposites; for instance, there's some funny stuff going on with the way Romeo and Julietdefinitely a tragedy—interfaces with A Midsummer Night's Dream.

    King Lear 

    Speaking of losing faith in the powers that be, King Lear is one of Shakespeare's most serious plays. It starts with a father questioning his three daughters about the degree to which they love him. And it ends with him questioning the universe about the place of people in the world and the purpose of life. Heavy stuff.

    Macbeth

    Macbeth is a triple threat; it mixes allusion, prophecy, and fate to portray our world as a somewhat-avoidable knot of predestined action. See what we meant about Shakespeare grappling with the issues of his day? Things were pretty complicated during the Renaissance, with all those religions and life philosophies competing for primacy.

    Understandably, people had a lot of feelings about the big life questions—is there a destiny waiting out there for us all? do we have any free will?—and Shakes was right there with them.

    Romeo and Juliet

    Okay, you knew we had to mention this one, right? Feuding families, lovers, potions, poisons, street-fighting, Franciscan friars, and crazy parties… oh my. There's been modern adaptation after modern adaptation made of this classic, but you're probably most familiar with this little gem.

    The Taming of the Shrew 

    This play starts as a sibling drama and ends with an ironic statement about married life. At least we like to think of it as ironic… otherwise the play is seriously problematic.

    Hamlet 

    This is one of Shakespeare's most famous plays. He has a lot of those, we know. But from ghosts to madness to overbearing parents to revenge, this play has got something for everyone. Especially scholars of Shakespeare.

    Academics have had a field day speculating about Hamlet's daddy issues, his madness, and his conflict over action vs. inaction. We'd like to point out, though, that Ophelia's got some of the same troubles. If not worse.

    While Hamlet is trying to please what may or may not be the ghost of his dead pops, Ophelia is trying to make everyone happy: her father, her brother, and her boyfriend (Hamlet). Hamlet may be crazy. Or he may be faking it.

    But Ophelia totally loses it—no argument about it. And, spoiler alert: she loses her life, too.

    Chew on This

    Craving a little more Shakespeare? Care for something with a little irony? Well, look no further than Sonnet 130.

    Or, maybe you're tired of irony (because you live in San Francisco—haha, we're hilarious). Maybe you just want a little earnest investigation into the nature of love. Why not check out Sonnet 116? It's lovely.

  • Christopher Marlowe

    Marlowe was a regular pirate. Well, not exactly. But he was a spy who got stabbed in the eye. And that's not even why he was famous.

    He was a bad-boy playwright whose favorite topic was the darker side of human nature. Dude was really concerned with such themes as justice and hypocrisy, deceit and revenge, prejudice and wealth… oh, and the thing that brings all those larger-than-life themes together: politics.

    As you may have gathered, Marlowe loved to know what made people tick. And he suspected there was a lot of evil in that mix. In fact, he was the premiere tragedian of his day… until his untimely death led to the rise of one Mr. William Shakespeare.

    No one's really sure why or how he died. But his legacy lived on in Shakespeare's plays, as Marlowe was said to be a great inspiration to him. Plus, many an English teacher has immortalized Marlowe as one of the greatest writers of blank verse; his plays, while penned in iambic pentameter, did not contain rhymes.

    Doctor Faustus 

    In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe played with the already well-known legend of the title character. See, Doctor Faustus is a great scholar who's looking to cure his ennui. So, of course, he sells his soul to the devil. Say what?

    Yep. Apparently, the Good Doctor thought that was the best option for killing his boredom. Anyway, in this play, Marlowe showcases a whole host of devilish creatures. Which, lucky for Dr. F, are all around to witness his demise.

    "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love"

    Go read this poem. Right now. We'll hang out here while you do. Done? Okay, cool. Pretty persuasive, huh? Oh, not us. The speaker of the poem.

    He's doing some quick talking to get his love to disappear into the wide, verdant pastoral with him. And Marlowe knew a lot about being persuasive, as he was well versed in espionage and all. But it's always nice to see a dude apply his political prowess to bribing his love interest with clothes, song, and dance.

    Chew on This

    One thing that makes Marlowe's work so powerful is that he treats very serious subjects with a touch of humor. Yes, satire is often assumed to be funny. But, in reality, many satires smack of cynicism. What do you think of the tone of Doctor Faustus? How well does Marlowe walk the line between wry wit and bitter skepticism?

    Alright, time for a little stylistic focus. With all these seemingly disparate elements, how do we make heads or tails of Marlowe? How do his signature rhyming couplets intersect form and function?

  • John Milton

    All Milton ever wanted was to be the best poet ever. Is that too much to ask?

    Now, we're not keeping score or anything, but the guy came pretty close to achieving his goal. His Paradise Lost is one of the most read epics in lit classes across the world. What else made Milton rise above the rest?

    Well, he was super religious—no duh, right? He did write a lot about Satan and heaven and hell and whatnot. And he was also imprisoned for being a threat to the crown.

    In his time, he was something of a player as well. He had three wives. Not at the same time, though.

    And, perhaps most importantly, Milton was deeply concerned with issues of free will, piety, and arrogance. Specifically, the kind of arrogance that might prompt Satan to wage a war against God. Just tiny issues of God and man like that. You know.

    Paradise Lost

    Don't quote us on this one, but we think Satan is the most interesting character in Paradise Lost. It's not that we're rooting for the bad guy or anything. It's just that, creatively speaking, Milton poured his, um, heart and soul into Satan.

    Satan is one of the most richly developed characters in this work, and he grapples with a lot of the same issues your run-of-the-mill mortal might face. Like, how do you take charge of your life in a universe ruled by an all-seeing, all-knowing God? What do you do when you want to control everything, but know that you can't?

    Paradise Lost takes a look at what room there is for freedom and free will in Christian theology. And how the rest of us non-deeply religious folks might fare when we take on fate.

    "Lycidas"

    Can "Lycidas" still count as a tribute to Milton's deceased friend if this poem memorializing his death seems like it's really just a declaration of Milton's own greatness? Seriously, this work is like a giant neon sign proclaiming that the author, Mr. Milton himself, is one of the greats. You check it out and let us know what you think.

    Chew on This

    We've said it before and we'll say it again: Renaissance writers loved their Greek and Roman myths. So, how do you think Milton's work holds up against Homer's Odyssey or Iliad?

    Why do humans suffer? The easy answer is: there just isn't one. Oh, right. But before we get too boohoo about it, let's take a look at Milton's exploration of the nature of suffering in Samson Agonistes. He's got a lot to say on the subject… particularly since he experienced a fair amount of suffering in his own day.

  • John Donne

    John Donne loved language, women, and being an Anglican. Oh, and using very big words to talk about them. His opus focused on themes of love and devotion—both the physical and the spiritual kinds.

    Donne also made serious bank writing poems in honor of wealthy dead people. His artistic patrons often commissioned long poems to commemorate the deaths of their loved ones. Perhaps this is why two of his most famous works deal with sex and death, respectively.

    "The Flea"

    The flea provides a delightful extended metaphor or conceit for, um. Getting into someone's pants. The speaker of this poem tries various tactics to get his love interest to reciprocate his feelings, all while using a little flea as his vehicle for wooing her.

    Hey, it couldn't hurt, right? Well, it kind of stinks for the flea, actually. Womp womp.

    "Death Be Not Proud"

    Here, the speaker gives death one serious talking-to. Who, exactly, does death think he is, rolling into town like he owns the place and taking people's lives? The certainty that the speaker adopts in challenging death arises from Donne's deep religious roots.

    He was a preacher, after all. And, to the very religious, death is not really a threat. Why? Death can only attack the human body, the speaker of this poem argues. The soul will always lie beyond death's reach.

    Chew on This

    The only thing Donne loved more than women and God was writing about these topics in complicated ways. Specifically, he loved using conceits like the one in "The Flea." That's definitely about a woman. But "Batter My Heart" (Holy Sonnet 14) tackles more spiritual topics. Put your eyeballs on that sonnet and see if Donne's metaphors hold water in that arena.

    Now that you've got a bit of practice, see if you can wrangle Donne's conceit in "The Computation." What do you think: pretty straightforward? Or deceptively complex?

  • Ben Jonson

    We're not going to lie. Ben Jonson is fun. Like Shakespeare, he wrote poems as well as plays. He is best known for his satires, but actually made his career creating masques.

    Masques were elaborate, parade-like plays that included intricately designed sets, costumes, mini-plays, songs, and dances. They were often performed in honor of royalty. And they were often performed by the nobility. (Well, the courtiers had the non-speaking parts, anyway…)

    In fact, the party that Romeo crashes at the beginning of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a masque. What does that tell you about the Capulets' social standing? 

    Volpone

    Volpone is a satire and an animal allegory, kind of like Animal Farm. Once again, animals are making mischief. And this time, a greedy, evil fox gets embroiled in a courtroom drama with as many costume changes as a Shakespearean play. Despite displaying some pretty nasty personality traits, though, this play's characters act out a lot of concerns shared by their audiences. During the Renaissance, pretty much everyone would have been fretting over inheritances and rapacious old men.

    "On My First Son"

    Far from a satire or a backbone for colorful sets, "On My First Son" is a short, heartbreaking poem. It was penned in honor of his son's death. All that exists in this piece is a father's love, loss, and grief. So we think Jonson's work here reveals the most important thing about people during the English Renaissance: they were just like us.

    Chew on This

    "Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount" is a poem Jonson placed in one of his masques. In addition to doing some interesting things with allusion (he's pointing to the Echo and Narcissus myth here), he's playing with a major symbol from that myth. How do you think he's turning the original meaning of the flowers on its head?

    Ready for more flowery symbols? What is Jonson trying to do when he compares nature to poetry in "Song to Celia"? How does nature interact with art? How does constructing something like a wreath (or a poem) add to or detract from natural beauty?

  • Edmund Spenser

    You know you're a celebrated poet when other poets carry your casket during your funeral. Oh, and they offer up pens and lines of verse along with their tears.

    Spenser lived and wrote during the early years of the English Renaissance, and he heavily influenced other Renaissance writers. Milton alludes to him in much of his work, including his two most important works: "Lycidas" and Paradise Lost.

    By day, he worked in various government posts in Ireland. But, ultimately, he sought a place at court through his poetry. What better way to try and do that than by courting the queen's favor?

    He didn't receive a noble title, but he remains one of the most celebrated poets in English history. His influence lasted far beyond the reaches of the Renaissance. You can find him popping up in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" during the Romantic period, and T.S. Eliot's modernist work, The Waste Land.

    The Faerie Queene 

    Okay, so we've mentioned this epic quite a bit because it's actually quite… epic. No, seriously, this is a tome that could be as daunting to finish as Finnegan's Wake. (Though, arguably for different reasons.)

    Despite its length, it's technically unfinished. Fear not, you can still reap many of its rewards, no matter its inchoate state. In fact, in addition to being an allegory praising the good Queen Elizabeth, it is an examination of virtues.

    This focus is meant to make the reader become a better person. But don't worry, it's not a boring tale at all. The Fairie Queene takes themes and values from Medieval literature and Arthurian legend to create a fantasy journey through magic lands. Merlin even makes an appearance. Whee.

    "Epithalamion"

    The title of this work is the Greek word for celebrating a couple on their wedding. Spenser wrote his "Epithalamion" in honor of his marriage to his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle.

    It's an intricate poem that repeats key ending lines of each stanza with slight differences that shift the reader's perspective through the poem just a little—just like the changing of a day from morning to night. This works particularly well with the poem's content: it starts giddy and joyous in the morning-like hours, and grows more somber as the day meets its end.

    Chew on This

    The sonnet is one of the most famous poetry forms. Even though Spenser is best known for his epic, take a peek at why he's got one of these shorter forms named after him: the Spenserian sonnet.

    Coleridge isn't the only author to riff on Spenser's bower of bliss. Shakespeare takes a stab at it much earlier in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Critics seem to be really interested in the geography of this play. Any ideas as to why it's so important to figure out if we actually see Titania's Bower?