"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves" - William Shakespeare
Brief General outlook – from Humanism to Renaissance
The Renaissance was a direct development of Humanism, tracing its date back to 1453, when Constantinople was overtaken by the Turks. At first the Greeks who fled the area sought refuge in Italy where they brought their traditional knowledge with the masterpieces of classical Greece such as Homer’s, Sophocles’ and Plato’s works along with studies about physics and medicine.
The “New Learning”, as Humanism was also called, stressed the importance of human reason through which it was now possible to interpret Man and Nature, philosophy focussed its attention on Man while God was no longer the centre of Man’s concern whose new awareness allowed him to begin considering the idea that he could, in fact, mould his own life and destiny and that not all had to fit in a divine design.
The Renaissance in England
After reaching Italy these new ideas also spread through Europe but the New Learning was delayed in England and the Renaissance movement developed only in the 16th century. At first the delay was due to the fact that England lacked aristocratic patrons that were willing to encourage it, while in Italy there were many patrons who fostered it, moreover, Henry VII was much more concerned with practical matters, and later, Henry VIII, although himself a scholar, after the Reformation, dissolved the monasteries and lost all their treasures of art and literature. Yet, these were not the only factors that marked English Renaissance as different and unique especially if compared to the Italian Renaissance which was prevalent and dominant in the rest of Europe.
The Protestant Reformation and the English Renaissance
As a matter of fact, in spite of the importance recognised to the study of Greek and Latin which were taught in all grammar schools and in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford; the English also struggled to be free of foreign influence, especially of Italian influence which they identified mainly with Rome and the Catholic Church. English Renaissance, on the contrary, was based on Protestant and, in some aspects, on Puritan cultures therefore it lacked the Italian joyful brilliance based on pagan serenity, whereas, instead the English individualism and self-awareness awakened by humanism was more centred on responsibility rather than on self-assertion and enjoyment. Another aspect that must also be considered with English differentiation is that although Latin was considered of great importance their main effort was to develop a modern English that could have the same dignity of other European languages thus they struggled to improve its vocabulary and syntax.
As it has been said the Protestant culture was of the utmost importance and the second very important element that characterized English Renaissance prose was its concern with language. The former moulded the literary themes, Protestants were against any form of entertainment and they believed that books were to educate and not merely amuse so writers described everyday life and characters full of realistic details. The themes that became most sought after by the public regarded reports of journeys to far away and unknown countries, sermons, romances, guides on business or manners; less and less popular were kings, knights and lovers belonging to the Medieval Ages, whereas explorers, teachers, craftsmen and merchants were the ideal heroes of the new writings.
As for the latter influential element, the language, rhetoric was taught in schools and writers experimented extensively with it, they invented new words, adapted old ones with new meanings, they experimented with imagery as well. One of the most popular works of the time which set a fashion among aristocrats was John Lyly’s (ca. 1554-1606) Euphues, a love story full of elaborate alliterations, very long and complicated sentences and witty plays on words. A richness of style that became very popular in young ladies’ conversations and even Queen Elizabeth used it. Yet, the most famous work of the time was William Tyndale’s (ca. 1494-1538) translation of the Bible where he was able to combine its original beauty with the plain prose that will be reproduced in the famous King James’ Bible of 1611.
It’s also worth of notice, as a prose writer, Thomas More (1478-1535) and especially for his Utopia whose themes and ideas from a social and political point of view will prove to be far ahead of his time and will anticipate the Enlightment movement of the 18th century and 19th century revolutions. Furthermore, from a literary point of view he will also pave the way for many other utopian works which range from Swift’s satirical writings through 19th century idealistic reformers or the nightmarish worlds prophesised by Orwell and Huxley right down to future science fiction.
More was a very educated man and lawyer who had served the crown in many diplomatic missions, in 1529 he was appointed Lord Chancellor, he struggled for clerical reforms but opposed Henry VIII’s break with the Pope and never acknowledged him as supreme Head of the Church of England, that is why the king had him arrested and executed in 1535.
Utopia was first written in Latin in 1516 and translated in English in 1551; it is a dialogue between the author and an imaginary character, Raphael Hytholday, who had travelled the world. Utopia is divided into two books, in the first; the traveller describes a land that is a representation of England in the 16th century, prior to the Reformation. More intends to emphasize here the political corruption, the aristocracy’s greed and their misuse of land, as a matter of fact, during this time many landowners had turned to sheep farming, a more lucrative business than farming, reducing drastically manual labour which caused high unemployment and great poverty. On the contrary, in the second book, More’s character describes an ideal world set on a self-sufficient island which is the exact opposite of the previous land. In Utopia there is no private property and no commercial competition; all religious faiths are allowed and people work only six hours a day, furthermore education is guaranteed to all its inhabitants, including women. Laws are simple and clear to all, the monarch is elected by the people and can be deposed if he abuses his powers; war, luxury and hunting are banned.
More starts by analysing the political, social and religious wrongs of his time and proceeds by suggesting solutions that appear to be rooted in medieval principles and values rather than being anchored on a realistic view of the historical issues of the time, yet his proposed reforms are, as it has been said, “astonishingly liberal”.
English best Elizabethan poetry was modelled on the Italian sonnet, the first to use this metrical form was Jacopo da Lentini in the beginning of the 13th century, but it was Petrarch (1304-1374) with his Canzoniere that brought it to its peak while it was introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). The Italian sonnet consists of fourteen lines in iambic pentameters that follow, in the first octave, the rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA and a sestet rhyming CDE CDE or CDC DCD. The first part, the octave, usually deals with a problem or introduces a situation whose solutions can be found in the sestet. Generally the eighth or ninth lines contain a turn of events.
However, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547) soon realised that the English language was poor of rhymes so he modified the Italian sonnet by changing its structure into three quatrains and a couplet that resulted in rhymes of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, the quatrains served the purpose of introducing the theme or three different issues while the couplet contains the conclusion. Surrey also developed the BLANK VERSE, iambic pentameters with no rhyme (blank), its use is very flexible and it gives poetry the flair of the language used in everyday conversation. It is often used in drama, for instance by Shakespeare in the Macbeth. It was in fact Shakespeare who brought it to excellence and who also mastered the Italian sonnet as well.
At the time it was customary to set these poems to music which were sung at court or at noble’s gatherings, they were written for small groups of educated people and were not very popular among the middle class public. The sonnet was also the best poetic style to deal with the most popular Elizabethan poetic theme, love. The sonnets were usually dedicated to a lady whom the poet was in love with and they described the course of the relationship; the initial courting, the lady’s refusal, either because she was already married or for other reasons that made their love impossible, thus the poet’s despair. One of the best figures of speech that serves well this duality is the oxymoron, combining two opposite terms it well describes the poet’s desire for the lady yet his wish that she might not surrender; or the lady is beautiful but cruel because she is cold to him; she is desirable but the poet expects her to be chaste. Moreover, the love of a woman was a very fortunate theme in England since many sonnets were centred on Queen Elizabeth who was at times Cynthia, Georgiana or the Faerie Queen.
Though love continued to be a favourite among sonneteers, Shakespeare introduced in his sonnets new themes such as beauty, decay and art, while Donne and Milton used the sonnet to deal with religious issues or personal experiences.
Unlike prose and poetry which were destined to small groups of educated readers, drama, on the contrary, was accessible to a larger public for quite a number of reasons, among which we may include, first of all a long gone popular tradition that may be traced back to medieval miracle, morality plays and interludes that still resisted during the Renaissance since theatres were open to all and the prices affordable for most. Second there wasn’t any difference between the aristocratic taste and the wider public’s taste, moreover it was understood even by illiterates since the language employed in plays was less refined and more direct than the one that characterised poetry or prose. A third reason is that Humanism roused the public’s attention to classical drama, and many aristocrats patronised it, but, even more so, it came to be society’s mirror since Elizabethan England was quite “theatrical”. Finally, the theatre itself with its peculiar structure proved to be inclusive.
At first plays were performed on stages improvised on platforms set up in the yards of inns. After their great success though, James Burbage, built the first permanent theatres, the “Theatre” (1576) and the “Curtain” (1577) outside of London because they were not allowed within city walls. They were circular or octagonal in shape (Globe Theatre), with three covered galleries for the audience surrounding on three sides and looking down on the main roofed stage, the poorer spectators stood in the yard. This provided a certain amount of interaction. In fact, each performance was unique in its own and it represented an intense moment of communication between the author and the audience whose immediate response was essential, the actors were the intermediates of this special event that changed with every performance since each was different from the other based on the time it was played out, on the director’s choices, on the actors on stage and according to the audience.
The scenes, in the Renaissance theatre, were scant and playwrights relied mainly on conventional techniques and on the audience’s imagination to supply the missing elements. The focus was on what was said and performed through language and the dramatic text. The costumes, for instance, may have been lavish 16th centuries clothes that had nothing to do with the time period that was actually represented on stage.
They were all professionals that worked in a theatrical company under the patronage of a noble. Women were not allowed to perform publicly and female roles were played by young men.
Influences and Themes
As it has already been said medieval drama flowed into Renaissance drama but the origins of the theatre go way back to classical Greece which came to influence English Renaissance theatre thanks to the New Learning that allowed Greek heritage to spread in Europe. The word tragedy comes from the Greek and was linked to the rites of sacrifices that were meant to purify through expiation the participants from a collective sin reaching its peak in what is known as catharsis, another Greek term and it means ‘purification’ these rites included singing. The tragedy is centred on a doomed character, generally a king, a prince or warrior, everything is manoeuvred by fate and the hero or anti-hero must pay for guilt, or sin of which he is responsible for, the punishment is usually great suffering that culminates in death.
The comedy, still of Greek origin is linked to village festivities celebrating fertility, in contrast with the tragedy, it is generally based on everyday situations and common characters; it is humorous and has a happy ending. Meaning that although there may be a number of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, or equivocacies that may cause confusion it all ends well and harmony is re-established while all the characters are reconciled.
As far as the themes are concerned, English Renaissance tragedy was nationalistic and celebrated English history. Moreover, it was permeated by Seneca (4 B.C. – 65 A.D.), a Latin poet and philosopher, from whom it took the division of the action in five acts, the taste for violent, bloody tragic events leading to revenge; at the same time it was also influenced by aspects taken from Machiavelli (1469-1527), such as political intrigues, lies, the conniving subtle actions of the villain that trigger the violent climax. The language was rich and full of rhetoric to emphasise the conflicts underlying emotions and passions. In comedy, instead, the main theme is love, a contrasted love that in the end blossoms happily.
Daiches, D. (1983). A Critical History of English Literature; Vol. I, From the Origins to the Restauration. Milano: Garzanti.
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© L. R. Capuana