English Renaissance Literature

Topics: Italian Renaissance, Oxford English Dictionary, Renaissance Pages: 10 (3138 words) Published: June 16, 2011
a companion to



Michael Hattaway

What does it mean to speak of ‘the English Renaissance’? Within the parts of this volume, the first two defining historical contexts and perspectives, the next offering readings of particular texts along with accounts of genres and modes, and the last presenting engagements with a number of critical issues and debates, we approach the question in a variety of ways. The word ‘Renaissance’ designates ‘rebirth’, a metaphor applied, from its beginnings, to a cultural vision that originated in Italy. For the nineteenth and twentieth centuries this was projected in a magnificent synthesis by Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). Burckhardt retrospectively laid out a master proposal to revive the art and learning of the classical world, to emulate the grandeur of ancient cities, to stimulate science and geographical discovery, and to produce art and literature that imitated antique models, an undertaking which was dedicated as much to the profane as to the spiritual. Rival city states of Italy required monuments to enhance their fame, and thus ensured patronage for the writers and artists who duly bequeathed to posterity the texts and great architectural and visual exemplars with which we are all familiar. Burckhardt’s categories, which rest upon notions of ‘genius’, ‘individuality’ and secularization, have percolated into all too many derivative handbooks for the period: they may not, however, fit the English experience. England did enjoy a phenomenal energizing of literature: this is an age that, traditionally, has at its centre, Spenser and Sidney, Marlowe and Nashe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Ben Jonson, exceptionally, did publish his ‘works’ in a manner befitting an author of the Renaissance, although some of the dramatic genres he used have medieval origins. The other writers too are as ‘medieval’ as they are ‘Renaissance’ – although any endeavour to categorize them in these terms would be not only equivocal but misguided. However, none would have written the way they did without a typical ‘Renaissance’ education, in particular a vigorous training in classical rhetoric; none would have written what they did without being concerned with the dissemination and imitation of classical forms.1 The investigation of republicanism in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar


Michael Hattaway

(1599) would not have been possible without Plutarch, the political radicalism of Marlowe and Jonson without Tacitus and Livy refracted through Machiavelli, the satires of Nashe without Juvenal and Horace. Ovid’s influence is pervasive – as it was in ‘the middle ages’ – and Platonic ideas of love became familiar through Italian courtesy books. Many writers prefaced their texts in prose or verse with a definition of the role of an author, and many fashioned themselves on classical models. An agenda for a Renaissance author was comprehensive: this was an age of polemic and satire as well as of madrigal verse, of political engagement as well as of lyric grace. Our own age is also inclined to read the personal as the political; we recognise praise for the ‘golden’ qualities of certain poets at the expense of the ‘drab’ verse produced by their contemporaries as sign of a past generation’s restrained and restrictive ‘literary canon’.2 This volume ranges from roughly the period of Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) until that of John Milton (1608–74), although there is no attempt to be comprehensive. It moves from the period of Humanism, the age of the revival of litterae humaniores, until the time when England had suffered the trauma of its Civil War (to some historians the first significant European revolution) and when Milton had, in Paradise Lost, written an epic that magisterially fused classical and Christian traditions in a text that remembers the scars of recent political and cultural upheaval.3 It was...
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