The English RenaissanceThe Elizabethan period is called the 'golden age' of English literature. Queen Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603 but in a literary sense the term 'Elizabethan' is used to bracket the period 1580 to 1625, when the great masterpieces of the age were produced. Since the nineteenth century this era has been known as the Renaissance, a term meaning 'rebirth'. European culture was rejuvenated through a redirection of artistic and intellectual initiative. The movement began in Italy in the fourteenth century in the poetry of Petrarch, its effects filtering through to England by the early sixteenth century. Old assumptions were overturned by the new spirit of endeavour. Renaissance thinkers dismissed what they saw as a sluggishly conformist past, and looked outwards with curiosity and daring.
This spirit of inquiry was inspired by the rediscovery of Classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome which precipitated a new confidence in human potential. Old ideas about the world were overthrown. The discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 upset the notion that the earth was flat. Copernicus' theory that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of our planetary system challenged the centuries-old belief that humankind and their world dominated the universe around them. That he was killed for this demonstrates how threatening his theory was. The moral framework was questioned by Machiavelli's ruthless philosophy as expounded in The Prince. He advocated that all scruples be scraped from politics so nothing would hinder the desired end. The conventional ideas governing the spiritual dimension of human life were splintered as the Reformation broke away from the Church of Rome, elevating the individual conscience above ecclesiastical authority and giving people a terrifying, liberating personal responsibility.
The Renaissance was bound by the concept of nationality. The nation states that sprung out of the Middle Ages began to acquire their own identities, distinct from each other. These differences engendered fierce rivalry as countries attempted to seed cultures that would rival those of Greece and Rome. The Faerie Queene, written by Edward Spenser in celebration of Queen Elizabeth, was intended to outdo the achievements of French and Italian poets, and rank alongside the works of Virgil and Homer. English nationalism was enforced by Protestantism. Henry VIII had broken with the Roman Church in the 1530's. Queen Elizabeth was excommunicated as a heretic by the Pope in Rome, relieving the English Catholics of their allegiance to the Crown. This gave rise to a deep suspicion of Roman Catholics as potential traitors, a prejudice fixed in the English conscience by the attempted invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, which was designed to overthrow Elizabeth and restore England to Roman Catholicism. Similarly, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, as a Roman Catholic attempt to destroy the English government, made treachery synonymous with Rome.
Shakespeare's drama epitomizes the innovative Renaissance spirit, challenging the beliefs and assumptions which Elizabethan society had been founded on. His plays explore the effect of disorder on the traditional value systems, but while they always conclude in restoring harmony, critics argue that their main concern is in subverting these values rather than reinforcing them. Convention and censorship required that the status quo should be upheld in the ending of the play, but alternative ideas fester beneath. Authority is always undermined and parodied by comic interludes and dissenting voices rail against the establishment. But this rebellion is accommodated by shuffling offensive feelings on to lawless characters. Their non-threatening position in society allows them to say such things, and officially, they would not be considered seriously. When reading Shakespeare we must consider if his intention is to undermine these views by presenting them in this way, or whether he wished to give his revolutionary ideas covert airing. Stage plays were censored; direct criticism of the monarch or court would be impossible. This explains why Shakespeare's plays are set abroad or in the past.
Shakespeare's drama is intensely nationalistic. His history plays recount how the Tudors' ascent to the throne brought modern England out of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth-century. He also explores the dominance of the court in the Renaissance. The breakdown of medieval feudalism meant that the royal court became the centre of power and patronage. The court was a subject that fascinated writers; not only Shakespeare, nearly all dramatists revolved their plays around the court and its courtiers. This world is often contrasted with one that is apparently very different, but which is revealed to bear a surprising resemblance. Ambition and falsity are very much a part of this culture, with courtiers often made fun of. Sometimes the court ritual is moved out of context to gain a broader perspective and question its assumptions and dictates.
While devoid of obvious religious sentiment, the plays are inspired by Protestantism. Shakespeare's central figures are individuals dogged by temptation and we are led through their inner torments. They are intensely introspective, burdened by the responsibility of following their true course through life in order to progress spiritually.
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