Post-classical history

Chapter 6
Rewriting the Renaissance

‘Renaissance literature’: the term is as misleading and anachronistic as phrases we have already encountered like ‘Renaissance humanism’ and ‘Renaissance science’. Petrarch, Machiavelli, More, and Bacon were politicians and diplomats whose writings have only subsequently been labelled ‘Renaissance literature’, and who are now studied in university literature departments across the world. It is only towards the end of the 16th century that the concept of the professional writer develops with the growth of the theatre in countries like Spain and England, and the financial success of printing, that allowed poets and pamphleteers to consider creative writing as a full-time career. The different types of literary expression – poetry, drama, and prose – responded to these social and political changes in a variety of ways, all of which had regionally specific manifestations. What we now call Renaissance literature was written predominantly in the various European vernacular languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. The story of such literary developments involves writers detaching themselves from the international, classical languages of the elite (Greek, Arabic, and in particular Latin) and choosing to write in their particular vernacular languages. Because of the difficulty of doing justice to these specific vernacular traditions, in what follows my emphasis falls on the development of poetry, prose, and drama in specific relation to the English language.


Alongside epic, lyric poetry was esteemed as the pinnacle of literary creativity in the Renaissance. The rise of courtly culture in Italy and northern Europe provided scope for the cultivated sensibility of lyric poetry, with its focus on a beloved mistress, whilst also reflecting on the subjective status of the lover-poet. One of its most influential pioneers was the humanist scholar Petrarch. His writing of Il Canzoniere, a collection of 365 poems written between 1327 and 1374, drew on Dante’s collection of lyrics the New Life. Petrarch refined the sonnet, a heavily stylized poem of 14 lines, broken down into two sections (the octave, or first eight lines, and sestet, or final six lines) with a highly specific rhyme structure. The Petrarchan sonnet idealized the female subject at the same time as it explored the emotional complexity of the poet’s identity. Petrarch complained in one sonnet that ‘In this state, Lady I am because of you’. This intimate, introspective poetic style, which allowed the poet to explore his own moral state in relation to either his beloved or his religion (and the two were often conflated) came to influence courtly Renaissance culture and poetry throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.

The tradition developed in Italy in the poetry of Cardinal Bembo, in Spain with Garcilaso de la Vega, in France with Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard, and in England with Sir Thomas Wyatt’s mid-16th century translations of Petrarch into vernacular English. This English tradition culminated in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (c.1600) that parodied the Petrarchan convention with its famous line, ‘my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ (Sonnet 130). In his sonnets Shakespeare went beyond Petrarch by adding a third dimension to the relationship between the poet and his mistress: a male rival. This triangulated relationship, expressed in supple, punning vernacular English, was unprecedented. It allowed Shakespeare to address male rivalry and the problems of literary patronage and domestic service, ‘Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope’ (Sonnet 29) and to explore the corrosive effects of sexual desire, ‘ Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame’ (Sonnet 129).

In Sonnet 134 the poet admits to having lost his mistress to his male friend:

So, now I have confessed that he is thine,
And I myself am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I’ll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore to be my comfort still.

The poet hopes to retain at least his male friendship with his rival, but the poem concludes that even this is impossible: ‘Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me; / He pays the whole, and yet am I not free’. The poet is ‘mortgaged’ to his mistress, and offers to ‘forfeit’ himself to preserve his friend, but in the end even the friend is in the sexual grip of the mistress. The poet hopes his friend will settle the debt, or pay ‘the whole’, but the pun here is on whole/hole – a graphic sexual image that reveals the power of the woman to ‘ensnare’ both men. The sonnet’s language draws on the specifically Elizabethan experience of legal obligation and financial indebtedness. Its execution is peculiarly English in its rhyme and punning. Shakespeare has moved a long way from the Latinate and classical influence of Petrarch. His poetry anticipates the development of later English poets like the Metaphysical Poets, and signals a departure from the Renaissance style of poetic utterance to the national vernacular traditions of the later 17th century.

Kidnapping language: women respond

While the poetry of Petrarch celebrated women as idealized but silent paragons of chaste virtue, Shakespeare’s sonnets reflected an increasing anxiety about women’s contradictory status in a male-dominated culture. Some women responded by taking advantage of the changing nature of humanist education and the rise of printing to offer a different version of femininity. Their writing suggests that many of the assumptions about relations between the sexes were more actively contested than the predominantly male literary canon has led us to believe.

Throughout the 16th century a range of women writers appropriated Platonic and Petrarchan conventions to question male assumptions about women and to try to define their own personal and creative autonomy. In her Rymes (published posthumously in Lyons in 1545), Pernette du Guillet used Neoplatonic ideas and Petrarchan conventions to establish poetic equality with her male lover: ‘just as I am yours / (And want to be), you are entirely mine’ she claims in one poem. Elsewhere she attacks the fickleness and inequality of Petrarchan sentiment, assuring her female audience, ‘Let’s not be surprised / If our desires change’. This rejection of male poetic convention was taken even further by Louise Labé, whose poetic Euvres were also published in Lyons in 1555. Labé used the Petrarchan sonnet to criticize its objectification of women’s bodies, turning the tables by asking ‘What height makes a man worthy of admiration?’ Rather than establishing her subservience to a fictionalized male lover, Labé competes with him, claiming in another reversal of Petrarchan convention ‘I’d use the power of my eyes so well . . . That in no time I’d conquer him completely’.

This sexual frankness was combined with an insistence upon women’s right to educational attainment and creative freedom. In The Copy of a Letter (1567) and A Sweet Nosegay (1573), the Elizabethan Isabella Whitney asserted some independence from the limitations of domestic life, arguing that ‘til some household cares me tie, / My books and pen I will apply’. One poet who freed herself from the domestic limitations explored by Whitney was the Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco. Rime, her collection of poems published in 1575, both demystified the idealism of Petrarchan love from the perspective of a paid courtesan and argued that ‘When we women, too, are armed and trained / We’ll be able to stand up to any man’. Struggling with their relationship to the increasing religious persecution and political upheaval of mid-16th century Europe, writers like Franco and Whitney adapted male literary traditions to present a very different perspective on the nature of women.

Printed tales

Writers also took advantage of the relatively new medium of print to establish their distinctive literary voices. Print transformed literary expression, as it created demand amongst an increasingly literate and predominantly metropolitan audience that was looking for new forms to understand their changing world. In 1554 the Dominican friar Matteo Bandello published his Novelle, short stories of contemporary urban life that, according to their author, ‘do not deal with connected history but are rather a miscellany of diverse happenings’. Giambattista Giraldi, more popularly known as Cinthio, printed another collection of equally influential novellas in 1565. The prologue to his Hecatommithi draws on the traumatic sack of Rome by Lutheran soldiers in 1527. The violent events are described in terms reminiscent of the tragic Roman dramatist Seneca, and Cinthio and Bandello’s stories inspired some of the greatest and bloodiest tragedies performed on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, including Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy(c.1587), Shakespeare’s Othello (1603), and John Webster’s The White Devil (c.1613). Like prose writing, the development of the theatre, particularly in England, was increasingly based on investment and profit rather than courtly patronage or religious piety, a situation that allowed for increasingly complex and naturalistic representations of society and the individual.

The flexibility of the printing process also allowed writers like François Rabelais to respond to criticism of his books and to insert contemporary events into later editions of his work. Rabelais published Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534), which recounted the comical adventures of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. Rabelais uses the adventures of his giants to satirize and parody everything from the church to the new humanist learning. Writing in a fantastic ‘copious’ style that mixed learned languages with vernacular French, Rabelais’s description of Pantagruel captures his abundant mixing of styles. Born to a mother ‘who died in childbirth’ because ‘he was so amazingly large and so heavy that he could not come into the world without suffocating [her]’, the young giant eats whole sheep and bears, causes a scholar to shit himself, and studies the new learning in a bewildering variety of newly printed books including The Art of Farting and The Chimney-Sweep of Astrology. Pantagruel also resolves a legal dispute between the Lords Kissmyarse and Suckfart and, in a parody of seaborne discovery and scientific innovation, he finally sails away to ‘the port of Utopia’.

The four books of Gargantua and Pantagruel’s adventures published in Rabelais’s lifetime were enormously successful; in his prologue to Pantagruel Rabelais boasted ‘more copies of it have been sold by the printers in two months than there will be of the Bible in nine years’. From 1533 the scholastics of the Sorbonne in Paris, who had been mercilessly satirized by Rabelais, took their revenge by condemning all his books as obscene and blasphemous. His publications were banned for the rest of his life. However, other writers adopted his irreverent, abundant style, including the English satirist and pamphleteer Thomas Nashe. In The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), Nashe recounts the picaresque wanderings of Jack Wilton, an itinerant page, across 16th-century Europe, embroiling himself in war, religious conflict, murder, rape, and imprisonment. Like Rabelais, Nashe uses the relatively new form of prose writing to turn the conventions of lyric and epic upside down. Instead of following the romance narrative of epic poets, Nashe’s ‘fantastical treatise’ uses the scepticism and verbal dexterity of earlier humanists like More and Erasmus (who are introduced in the course of the narrative) to defy the moral strictures of more traditional literary conventions. In its exuberant mixing of styles and voices, Nashe’s voice shares affinities with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1604) and anticipates the subsequent development of the English novel. Daniel Defoe was one of many early English novelists who admired Nashe’s work.


Epic poetry possessed a far more distinguished lineage than the relatively new and experimental prose fictions of Bandello, Cinthio, and Nashe. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid offered Renaissance poets classical models of empire-building and myths of national origin structured around the heroic wanderings of a central protagonist – in Homer, Odysseus, in Virgil, Aeneas. The rise of Italian city states in the 15th century, and the later development of the Portuguese, Habsburg, and English claims to global authority, gave epic poets the opportunity to rework the classical epic on a more contemporary global scale.

One of the most influential practitioners of the epic was Ludovico Ariosto, an ambassador to one of the greatest Italian dynasties of the 15th century, the Este of Ferrara. In the opening of his epic poem Orlando Furioso (1516) Ariosto announces, ‘I sing of knights and ladies, of love and arms, of courtly chivalry, of courageous deeds – all from the time when the Moors crossed the sea from Africa and wrought havoc in France.’ This was a backward-looking, chivalric poem about 8th-century conflict between the Christian knights of Emperor Charlemagne and the Saracens. Ariosto was unable to offer a more contemporary setting, precisely because Este power was in terminal decline by the beginning of the 16th century. Reading and listening to Ariosto’s poem, the noblemen of Este could fantasize about defeating Turks, the latter-day equivalent of Saracens, but this was a purely aesthetic fantasy. By the 16th century, real imperial power lay outside Italy.

Luís de Camões’s epic poem The Lusiads (1572) returned to a more immediate past, the fading glory of another European power, the Portuguese Empire. Camões was a soldier and imperial administrator who composed his poem as he worked in Africa, India, and Macau in the mid-16th century. The Lusiads mythologized the rise of the 15th-century Portuguese Empire by focusing on the voyage of Vasco da Gama to India in 1497. Like Ariosto, Camões claimed his epic exceeded the ancients because its heroic and geographical scope – the deeds and exploits of the Portuguese in places never discovered by the Greeks or Romans – surpassed the achievements of the classical world. Camões sang ‘of the famous Portuguese / To whom both Mars and Neptune bowed’. The poem created a literary template for literary imperialism, and was imitated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries of European global colonisation. However, by the 1570s when Camões wrote his epic, the Portuguese Empire was already in decline, and in 1580 the Spanish King Philip II annexed it as part of the expanding Habsburg Empire. As with Ariosto, Camões’s poem was already trading on past glories.

In England, Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney took up the epic tradition but gave it a peculiarly Protestant sensibility. Both men were ambitious Elizabethan courtiers, eager to secure their own political positions by writing epics in line with the prevailing tastes of the Tudor dynasty. Sidney’s Arcadia (1590) mixed narrative prose with pastoral verse spoken by Arcadian shepherds and disguised aristocratic heroes to address a range of issues central to the Elizabethan polity, from political counsel to the need to practise temperance and master the passions in matters of romance and dynastic alliances. Edmund Spenser was a political administrator, like both Ariosto and Camões, but his epic creation celebrated an empire that did not even exist. Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene(1590–6) while enthusiastically colonizing Ireland on behalf of his English sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, the ‘Goddesse heuenly bright, / Mirrour of grace and Maiestie diuine, / Great Lady of the greatest Isle’.

In deliberately archaic English Spenser follows the adventures of a series of individuals personifying specifically Protestant values, such as faith and temperance. He turns Elizabeth into a glorious ‘Faerie Queen’, and reclaims St George from his eastern origins as the patron saint of England. But this was another glorious myth. By the time Spenser completed his poem, Elizabeth was politically isolated in Europe and her only lasting colonial legacy was to have set the scene for subsequent centuries of sectarian violence in Ireland. Nevertheless, in creating an international epic in the vernacular on the birth of the Protestant English nation, Spenser turned away from the more mainstream European tradition, and heavily influenced Milton’s Paradise Lost.


Shakespeare’s drama is a fitting place to conclude this survey of the Renaissance because his career marks a decisive shift from the classical, humanist tradition, that drew its strength from southern European and Mediterranean influences, to the more local and national preoccupations that signalled the end of the Renaissance. In his earliest plays Shakespeare remained deeply indebted to this classical tradition. In The Comedy of Errors (1594), Shakespeare rewrote the Roman playwright Plautus’ comedy Manaechmi, setting it in classical Ephesus. His first foray into historical tragedy, Titus Andronicus, was similarly indebted to Roman history. The play tells the story of the struggle of the empire in its declining years through the character of Titus Andronicus, who watches the ‘barbaric’ Goths gradually infiltrate and overwhelm the ‘civilized’ values of Rome.

Although both these early plays show Shakespeare’s debt to the classical past, they also reflect specific Elizabethan concerns and preoccupations. The comedy of mistaken identity and financial confusion in Comedy of Errors performs a growing English unease with the liquidity of money and the complexities of long-distance commercial transactions at a time when England was entering international markets in the Muslim-controlled Mediterranean. Titus Andronicus also shows Shakespeare writing a history of the pastness of the past, and trying to come to terms with English encounters with different cultures, personified in the attractive but sinister figure of Aaron the Moor, a precursor of Othello.

Shakespeare’s growing confidence with historical sources led to an increased interest in more local, specifically Elizabethan issues in his subsequent comedies and histories. His cycle of history plays from Richard II to Henry V began to move from religiously inspired chronicle history to a more ambiguous and contingent understanding of England’s recent past and its relationship to the present. Although these plays have been traditionally regarded as providing the Tudor state with an ideological justification of its political legitimacy, they also disclosed the cycle of bloody violence and usurpation undertaken by Queen Elizabeth’s forebears. There is evidence that Richard II was performed in support of an unsuccessful coup against Elizabeth, and that Henry V was censored for its sensitive references to political difficulties in Ireland and Scotland.

The comedies reflect the growing linguistic confidence expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown tells the cross-dressed, Viola ‘A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!’ (Twelfth Night, 3. 1). The ability to turn language inside out, and argue for and against a particular position was an inheritance of humanist rhetoric, but in the commercial theatre of Elizabethan London, such techniques were used to perform and enact issues of direct relevance to the play’s audience, be they rich or poor. The first Shakespearean play at the new Globe Theatre, Julius Caesar, returned to the classical past in its dramatization of the fall of the Roman republic with the assassination of Julius Caesar. But it also explored how rhetoric shaped political action. The legacy of republicanism, discussed in the contrasting funeral orations of Brutus and Mark Antony, was a potentially dangerous subject to discuss within the context of Elizabethan absolutism. However, as with many of the comedies, Shakespeare is more interested in how rhetoric shapes and persuades an audience, rather than endorsing a particular political ideology. The hopes and fears of an agrarian society struggling to adapt to a credit economy, the concerns of the status of women and changing familial relations, and the ever-present religious concerns of political authority and personal salvation were all recurrent issues that shaped Shakespeare’s dramatic career.

‘He was not of an age, but for all time.’ This was Ben Jonson’s epitaph on the death of his great rival, Shakespeare. Today, many would agree that Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes – Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and Othello – are indeed enduring creations that transcend the time and place of their creation. But we should remember that a defining feature of the Renaissance is the ability of its greatest artists to self-fashion a belief in the timelessness of their work. As much as Hamlet is the quintessential Renaissance man, a complex, multifaceted harbinger of modernity who prefigures the insights of Marx and Freud, he was created amidst the particular pressures and anxieties of Shakespeare’s time. It is easy to see his introspective speeches on death, and his puzzling inability to avenge the murder of his father, as reflecting the hopes and fears of every modern, alienated male teenager. However, it is important to understand that his actions were also shaped by England’s reformed Protestant sensibilities, and the consonant fears concerning salvation and the afterlife, ‘the undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns’. Similarly, whilst Othello’s murder of Desdemona appears to be a timeless reflection on the corrosive, and potentially fatal consequences of jealousy, it is also an exploration of Othello as an outsider, ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and every where’, a Muslim convert to Christianity familiar to those Englishmen openly trading with Morocco and the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

The Tempest provides a fitting conclusion to Shakespeare’s career, and to this study of the Renaissance. Traditionally the play has been regarded as a meditation on the power of art, and represents Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It is also one of Shakespeare’s most classical plays. The action takes place in one day on the island, and its action draws on Virgil’s Aeneid; Alonso the King of Naples is sailing home from Tunis, where he has married off his daughter Claribel. Shipwrecked on Prospero’s island somewhere in the Mediterranean, the voyage draws on Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Rome via Carthage. However, the play also contains powerful associations with European colonization of the New World of America. The play looks both ways, to the eastern Mediterranean and the classical world that provided such a rich source of inspiration for Renaissance thinkers and artists, and westwards to the Atlantic world that would increasingly shape later 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment thinking. If this shift in the literary, intellectual, and international outlook signalled the end of what defined the Renaissance, it also offered the beginning of a different, definably modern understanding of culture and society.

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