Heroes and Heroism in Renaissance Literature

Topics: Renaissance, Hero, Epic poetry Pages: 9 (3245 words) Published: October 24, 2014
Heroes and heroism in Renaissance
Marie van Caster

Master Vergelijkende Moderne Letterkunde
Faculteit Letteren & Wijsbegeerte
Academiejaar 2013-2014


Heroes and heroism in Renaissance literature
Marie van Caster

Heroes and heroism in Renaissance literature

What makes a good hero? How do we define heroism and how is it linked to the period and social climate we live in? These questions shed an interesting light on the history of literature and how we identify heroes depending on the social, political and religious contexts. The social climate of a time and the associated values and norms will determine how characters are presented as a hero and how others are not. This paper will analyse how heroes are portrayed and how heroism is defined in Renaissance literature. To do so, we will have to look back at two literary periods which influenced the Renaissance significantly, namely the classical epics and poems, and medieval literature. This is necessary as it is impossible to analyse a literary movement without acknowledging its predecessors because art movements are often a reaction to its forerunners.

The classical epics, poems, narratives and plays were essential in Ancient Greece and Rome. They were the main source of entertainment and were used to educate the people in these polytheistic societies. The hero in these texts were typically from noble and wealthy descend and they were sometimes portrayed as god-like characters. During these times, people valued ideals such as courage, honour, the warrior code and the importance of preserving the family’s “good name”. For example, epic heroes will not take on a fight with a weaker foe and he will respect the honourable heroic code. The characterization and portrayal of the heroes were done in a stereotypical way. A possible reason for this could be the fact that these stories were part of the oral tradition of telling stories which means that events, characters and plots needed to be relatively simple and easy to remember. A typical protagonist would try to achieve a goal, but would not succeed and was likely to die in the process of trying to achieve it. He or she had one main, tragic flaw which would be his downfall and therefore would lead the hero to a tragic death. As his unlucky fate approaches, the hero will often have a lengthy lamentation where the character reflects on his unfortunate fate, sorrow existence, unjust times and the will of the gods.

Examples of these tragic, epic heroes can be found in tragedy plays by classical playwrights such as Sophocles and Euripides and authors such as Virgil and Homer. Characters like Oedipus, Odysseus and Antigone are typical tragic heroes. For example, Antigone’s tragic flaw is her pride and her unwillingness to accept the rules of the King. She is a good example of a character whose tragic story turned out to be very influential to future authors.


Heroes and heroism in Renaissance literature
Marie van Caster

As the Classical Era came to an end, new values from the Middle Ages were gradually making their way into literature. The culture was undergoing a change as Christianity became more prominent in society. This religious change had a significant impact on social rules and values and this had a long-lasting influence on literature. Due to the high degree of illiteracy, people relied on monks and other members of the church to write down stories. Coincidently, there were a lot of religious overtones in medieval texts. Early medieval poems such as Beowulf can be seen as transitional texts because both heathen values such as revenge, and some Christian elements such as grieve, are present in the text. Heroes in these early medieval texts could still be considered to be epic heroes, they share similar values and norms, but they are no longer noblemen by definition. “The epic heroes are simple men, versed in the activities of common life. They are leaders not through class...
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