Study Guide

English Renaissance Literature Characteristics

  • Theatre

    Between bear baiting and a little gambling, the average Joe Renaissance could take a midday break to enjoy a show in one of the new open theatres. While there, Joe Ren could also hob-nob with the upper crust since the theatre was one of the few places where people of all classes mingled. Well, sort of.

    Titled peeps got the balconies and the peanut gallery was comprised of groundlings who were, um, standing on the ground (as in today's mosh pits). And these "little people" would stand around eating—you guessed it—peanuts.

    They also bought oranges and other handy snacks that could easily be made into impromptu projectiles when they didn't like how a play was going. It took some serious courage to get up on the stage back in those days, Shmoopers.

    To appease the varied tastes of their diverse audiences, playwrights mixed things up by manipulating the traditional genres of tragedy and comedy. These genre-bending works lead to the birth of the tragicomedy.

    Popular playwrights of the Renaissance also embraced "low" art. They so loved to sprinkle quotidian cultural references throughout their more serious endeavors—kind of like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Shakespeare and Co. produced a lot of mash-ups in their day. Before YouTube was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, these guys freely blended tales from classical mythology, the Bible, and British history.

    Turns out that trio was a tasty-frap of awesome. Why? Well, the majority of playgoers in that era—appropriately dubbed "playboys," because they were boys and they went to plays—were young college students.

    These playboys mostly studied law (don't they all?) and grew up on good ole Ovidian myths. Oh, and by the way, these aspiring lawyers loved them some word play. Which may account, at least in part, for why English drama put such a high premium on puns, allusions, figurative language, and all-around smart-aleckry.

    Chew on This

    Want more theatre? Take a gander at one of our favorite plays-within-a-play: the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream. What do you think this tragedy is doing within the broader comedic play?

    There's a lot of acting going on in Othello, but it's really more about charades than theatre. What role does deception play in theatre, do you think? How is it that no one can see through Iago's act? Do the characters using any logical reasoning, much less scientific reasoning, to see through his lies?

  • Mythology and the Classical Tradition

    Greek and Roman mythology are highly entertaining because they offer stories and characters that are truly larger than life. You've got your gods, you've got your heroes, and, most importantly, you've got your crazy vengeful monsters.

    Now, what does this all this mythic business have to do with the Renaissance? Well, sometimes, when you're trying to find yourself, you look back to the past for clues as to the person you want to become in the future. What activities did you really enjoy as a kid? What kinds of friends did you make on the playground?

    Oops, sorry, getting a little off-track here with the nostalgia. Anyway, since Europe was going through a cultural and artistic rebirth of sorts during the Renaissance, artists of that era looked back to the past in order to figure out how to move forward. Re. Birth. See?

    So, they went back to these tales of yore—these awesome stories of heroes and monsters spun by the Greeks and Romans—and decided they were just too cool not to steal. Just kidding, we mean too cool not to… embrace.

    That's what artists are always doing, isn't it? Riffing off of each other?

    And rather than just lather, rinse, and repeat right through those oldies-but-goodies, Renaissance artists used classical myths as the foundations for their own, novel explorations of the major happenings of their era. They used these allegories to try to better understand some of Europe's political and religious upheavals.

    Hey, if you're going to write about how crazy and corrupt a ruler is, you've got a couple of options:

    1. Make the rulers talking animals.
    2. Make it a mythical allegory. These heroes-and-villains tales make for good reading and they may even save your skin when Mr. Monarchy catches wind of what you've written.

    Chew on This

    You know who everyone's favorite myth-maker is? Ovid. Want to know why? Mainly because of Metamorphosis. What's better than a whole book of tales about people turning into tree, bees, and birds? Well, probably a lot of things. But still. It's pretty great.

    Shakespeare was definitely into ripping off Ovid and other mythical work, given that he named some of his characters directly after the gods. But he also does some more subtle name-dropping. Did you catch his references to Britain's pagan past in Romeo and Juliet? Scope out a little Queen Mab, and tell us what you think.

  • Humanism

    During the Middle Ages—sometimes disparagingly referred to as the Dark Ages, because a lot of dark and unpleasant stuff like the Plague happened then—people focused a lot on heaven and the afterlife. They tended to believe that this life was simply a test of your goodness. Then, if you were deemed goodly enough, you could move on to the godly next world.

    So most everything Middle Ages Europeans did was not for the sake of the here-and-now, but for life-after-death.

    But, after experiencing the widespread deaths of the Plague, people began to adopt a new attitude toward this life. They expanded their art and music and literature to open the door for meditations on the present. And, in concert with that thinking, they began to consider the human being as more than just a body-as-vehicle-for-the-soul.

    Practically speaking, a renewed interest in people as people led to the reemergence of classical education. Once again, students were expected to study a variety of subjects, ranging from philosophy and history to literature, geometry, and physics.

    As people re-focused on the human and the real, they made a lot of really cool scientific discoveries. And came up with a buncha cool new inventions, too. What's that? We live in a sun-centered solar system? Oh, and here's a printing press, for all your mass-printing needs.

    As people started taking themselves more seriously as interesting art-and-technology-makers, and these lives on earth more seriously as birthplaces of creativity, Europe began to undergo some really exciting changes.

    After all, if we can build boats that sail around the world, not fall off, and bring back Sriracha sauce to season our food, what can't we do? Seriously, we should do everything. In fact, that's where the term for a person with a wide range of well-honed skills—a Renaissance man—comes from. Those Renaissance men really did do all of the things.

    Literarily speaking, a focus on the human also led to some funky experimentation with form and the idea of possible other worlds within our known world. Like, behind mirrors, inside pools of water, or even inside of our own bodies—like in Margaret Cavendish's lyric poems on atoms.

    The human body quickly became a central metaphor for just about everything, actually: political bodies, planetary bodies, continental bodies, you name it. This metaphorical line-of-thought also opened the door to new philosophies about alternate realities, as in John Donne's "The Computation."

    Chew on This

    After Metamorphosis, Virgil's Aeneid may just win the award for Myth Containing the Most Allusions. Any guesses as to why an epic about the fall of Troy (and the start of Rome) would be so inspirational? Hint: the answer's got a lot to do with political bodies. And other kinds of bodies.

    What's the political body that mattered most to Shakespeare? Elizabethan England, of course. What's the political body he just loved to use as a stand-in for it, allegorically speaking? Ancient Rome. His bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, examines the problems of Elizabethan England with a double allegory: England as Rome as Lavinia's body. What happens to these bodies in the play? How does what's happening to her body represent what's happening to Rome? To Elizabethan England?

  • Religion vs. Magic

    It's no surprise that a rise in humanism—i.e., the basic belief that humans are good and have got something to offer—did funny things to religion. But humanism wasn't even the half of it. Never mind the religious Reformation that created Protestantism, England's religious Renaissance was really sparked by a racy love affair between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

    Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's wife at the time, didn't give Henry a male heir. And back then, they had some odd notions about how a child's sex is determined; Henry thought it was Catherine's fault he never had a son. So ole HVIII figured he'd trade her in for a new woman and try again.

    Nice. (Heavy on the sarcasm here, of course.) Getting a divorce from Catherine wasn't easy. In the end, HVIII went all see-ya-sucka and decided to found Anglicanism and make himself the head of the Church of England. Which meant that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

    Well, that's one way to ditch your wife.

    Along with the Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans who were then duking it out for people's eternal souls, there were still pockets of fairy magic in the Europe of the Renaissance. Especially in rural towns, people would turn to magic, spells, and incantations to solve the problems of the heart and the head.

    Now, we're not saying witches are real. Or that they ever were. But all the townsfolk back then who burning their neighbors at the stake sure seemed to believe in them.

    What this panoply of religions provided for literature was an ever-present juxtaposition between magic and the Christian world. This was doubly (triply?) compounded by the influence the Greek and Roman gods seemed to wield over people's fictional worlds.

    As we've said, the poets and playwrights of the day were pretty obsessed with Greek and Roman myths. For instance, most of the themes in The Winter's Tale are ideas stressed in Christianity. But the play itself comes to life through its allusions to classical literature, particularly the myth of Pygmalion.

    Chew on This

    Romeo and Juliet takes place in Verona, Italy. Italy also happens to house the Vatican, which is where the pope lives. Could this backdrop be the reason why some much of the love language in Romeo and Juliet sounds like religious worship? Food for thought, Shmoopers.

    Speaking of Italians and their awesome literature, don't you just love Dante's Inferno? And, we were wondering: is there any chance this dude's take on hell had anything to do with how Renaissance writers felt about religion?

  • Queen Elizabeth

    So, say you're British royalty. And one day, your dad and siblings drop a messy, bloody nation into your lap—one that's torn apart by in-fighting over religion, politics, and power. What do you do?

    Well, if you're Queen Elizabeth, you'll rein in your countrymen and usher in an age named after you. And that age will be really, really great—it'll be a time of relative religious tolerance, when infighting is put on the back-burner, so education, innovation, and art can take center stage.

    Oh yeah, and you'll refuse to marry so that you can keep control of England. Defeating the Spanish Armada and establishing your country as the heavyweight champion in Europe isn't too shabby neither.

    Don't get us wrong, Queen Elizabeth had some critics. But, for the most part, she was so popular that Edmund Spenser even wrote a super-long, epic poem about her called "The Faerie Queen." Other writers seemed to like the idea of immortalizing her, too; some speculate that Shakespeare's Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream is a stand-in for his own good patroness, the Queen.

    Chew on This

    The epicenter of the whole Renaissance shebang was Italy, and, within Italy, Florence. In that highly political city, one Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince. This was his treatise on just what it takes to be a ruler. Do you think Queen Elizabeth followed some of his advice? What of The Prince did Queen Elizabeth seem to ignore?

    What happens when the reigning Queen idolized in literature the world-round starts to get on in years? Shakespeare pens Julius Caesar, that's what. This play asks the audience to consider the state of the nation, as an exercise in contemporary political analysis. Hm. How similar was the political situation in Renaissance England to that of ancient Rome, do you think?

  • Math, Science, and Technology

    The university was the place to be during the Renaissance. While most people who went to school were studying law or were members of the clergy, this was also a super-awesome time for math, science, engineers, and medicine. Well, maybe not medicine.

    See, Renaissance docs were def conducting surgery. But whether or not you really wanted to be operated on during this era is a whole 'nother barrel of limbs. On the upside, you could totally avail yourself of some cutting-edge geometry, physics, astronomy, and alchemy.

    Renaissance writers had a field day applying new scientific discoveries to their work in order to show off how learned they were. But math, in particular, opened up new opportunities for writers. Poets used mathematical concepts to create new poetic forms of rhyme and rhythm.

    And visual artists who wanted to start portraying the real applied evolving geometric principles to represent the world as they saw it—not like those old, flattened, symbolic images you see in Medieval art.

    But before we get too ahead of ourselves, we do have to mention the single most important invention influencing literacy, religion, literature, and even politics during the Renaissance: the printing press. You had to know that was coming, right?

    Gutenberg printed his first book, a copy of the Bible, in 1484 or 85. And it pretty much rocked everyone's socks. Now that books could be quickly reproduced—relatively speaking, anyway—the whole world became the writer's oyster.

    Chew on This

    While modern science may not want to touch astrology with a ten-foot pole, this wasn't always the case. Looking at the stars to interpret the course of future events drew a lot of attention during the Renaissance. Just think of all the star language in Romeo and Juliet; there's more to the whole astronomy and astrology of this play than just its star-crossed lovers.

    Medicine, surgery, and doctoring in general were big deals during the Renaissance. Especially since this era came right after the Plague years. What do you make of the fact that, in order to win her one-and-only love, the first of Helen's trials in All's Well That Ends Well is a little healing of her own? Go ahead and scratch your chins, Shmoopers. We'll allow it.

  • Exploration

    So people really like throwing around the appellation "The Age of X," and those who dubbed the Renaissance the "Age of Exploration" were no different. So stop us if you've heard this one: Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

    Inaccurate. He sailed way before that. But in 1492, he just happened to land on what we now call Cuba and assumed that he had hit India. Suffice it to say that people who spent their time drawing monsters on the edge of every map when they were stumped prob didn't have the best grasp of what was where.

    Once everyone figured out that (parts of) the New World hid untold mounds of gold, however, they weren't too shy about sending more and more ships out into the wild blue yonder. Greed is a powerful motivating force, you know?

    Anyway, the New World changed people's internal and external boundaries—it expanded people's notions of what was and wasn't possible. It allowed writers to think of the great unknown as a place inhabited with all sorts of different creatures, both real and imaginary.

    Unfortunately, this intrepid outlook led to some pretty nasty encounters between European explorers and people in the New World. As it turns out, since they had been living there for as long as their ancestors could remember, their part of the world didn't seem so new to them.

    But for playwrights, poets, and treatise writers, the exploration of the New World expanded the scope of where they could go—figuratively, if not literally. Renaissance writers tended to veer away from reality, as they embraced a classic "I can now go and do whatever I like" attitude.

    Thomas More created his own world to discover in Utopia. And Shakespeare's The Tempest plays with the idea of exploration by taking a poignant look at worlds divided. Nice.

    Chew on This

    The currency of the Renaissance was the new. It was a rebirth of culture and art, after all. So what do you make of a play that's more concerned with the aging—with fading away into the darkness? We're talking about Twelfth Night here; it starts with a (ship) crash and ends with a bang. Let us know what you think about its spin on the Age of Exploration.

    We can never really shake the feeling that even when something isn't about exploration and the rise of the merchant class, it's always there. Like, just behind the scenes, shaping what's happening on the stage. Like in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. How is it that all these peeps are on an island together in this play? And what does it all have to do with trade?

  • Rise of the Merchant Class

    Anyone who was anyone in Renaissance Europe was a merchant. Unless, of course, you were a noble. At first, merchants were the new kids on the block. But before long, even the nobility, wealthy landowners, and the farmers took notice of these dudes. Why?

    People peddling their wares started accruing vast fortunes through international maritime trade. Who knew buying a boat and risking it all on the sea would be so profitable? Well, that's kind of the point. You could never really count on the good fortunes of maritime trade; at the time, sailing the high seas still involved taking huge risks. Many merchants' lives ended in bankruptcy or early death.

    When things were going well, though, people were definitely talking. And the way money was spent was definitely changing. The influx of international goods to local markets, and the great fortunes that sometime came from these goods, sparked the first stock markets.

    People began to speculate about what new stuff might cost. Hey, if you don't want to do the heavy lifting and brave rollicking waves, why not risk your savings on that great tip about tulips? Or the price of cheese in Denmark?

    And shifting the tides of the money markets meant shifting the structure of Europe's social classes. Merchants' little ones were now able to go to school alongside kids whose parents had money from, oh, you know, looting during the Crusades a couple centuries back.

    This reworking of the social hierarchy not only complicated politics, it changed the way people defined their everyday roles in society. Before, you had the king, the nobility (friends and relatives of the king), the gentry (people who owned farmland), farmers (people who rented land from the gentry and grew stuff on it), and peasants (the hungry, angry dudes and dudettes with pitchforks).

    So where did the merchants fit into all of this? Well, smack dab in the middle. They were considered to be below the gentry in social status, but, wouldn't you know—a good lot of them ended up with way more wealth than the nobility.

    You can kind of see how the king's friends, what with their shiny titles and new carriages and all, might get persnickety when a bunch of no-name merchants started way out-growing their assets. And then, these same merchants often turned out to be behind some of the most important movements during the Renaissance. Because what did they do with all that cash?

    Become patrons of the arts, of course. They funded and operated explorations and, sometimes, wars. Oh, and they basically invented banking. No big deal.

    Chew on This

    The merchant class was such a big deal that there's even a Shakespeare play called The Merchant of Venice. How much of this play is really about Antonio (the merchant), though? If he's not really a major player in terms of stage time, why do you think his place in society gets top billing?

    The rise of the merchant class sparked social changes within other laboring factions of society as well. Inspired by the merchants' successes, people who worked as carpenters or weavers and the like formed guilds during the Renaissance. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, a group of these tradesmen put on a play for the royal wedding. Want to talk about class conflict? Take a gander at how worried these guys get about offending the nobility. Yikes.