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Renaissance Notes



The Renaissance (Elizabethan and Jacobean England 1485-1649)

I.            Introduction
             The Elizabethan Age in England is the age of the English Renaissance.  In literature and in living, emphasis shifted from man’s religious life to his secular life.  The pageantry once connected with the Church was replaced by the pageantry of the court, the manor house, and the theatre.  Drama was moved from the church to the innyard and finally into the theatre.  Here it achieved a greatness it has never again reached.  The lyric and sonnet dominated Elizabethan writing and replaced the narrative poetry of the Middle Ages.  This period produced a number of gifted writers—Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Bacon—all eclipsed by the greatest English writer, William Shakespeare.

II.         The Rulers of the Renaissance

A.        At the end of the War of the Roses, a new ruling family emerged.  Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian (though with an illegitimate claim to the throne), took the throne from the Yorkist king, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field.  Henry VII founded the dynasty that would reign throughout the Renaissance.

           B.            Tudor Rulers

                  1.     Henry VII (1485-1509)
                  2.     Henry VIII  (1509-1547)—son of Henry VII
                  3.     Edward VI (1547-1553)—son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour
                  4.     Mary  (1553-1558)—AKA “Bloody Mary”  daughter of Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon
                  5.     Elizabeth I  (1558-1603)—daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn 

            C.            Stuart Rulers

1.     James I  (1603-1625)—son of Mary, Queen of Scots and great-grandson of Margaret, sister of Henry VIII
2.     Charles I  (1625-1649)—son of James I, lost his throne and his head in the English Civil War

III.            Societal Changes           

A.            Religious

On the European continent, a great religious movement, the Reformation, was taking place.  The growing number of churchmen who had abused their privileges had enraged leaders such as Martin Luther, who in 1517 nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany.  Other leaders soon followed his example in breaking with the Roman Catholic Church.  In England, however, no break seemed necessary—that is, until Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his first wife, who was unable to bear a strong male heir.  Henry threw off papal authority and declared himself the head of the Church of England or Anglican Church.  However, growing numbers of Protestants thought he had not gone far enough, and they wanted to further “purify” the church.  Loyal Catholics considered everything done as heresy.  Eventually, this religious intolerance was a contributing factor to the English Civil War.

B.         Political
            1.     The power of great noblemen was passing away and conditions were forming for the transfer of power to commoners.  During the War of the Roses, many noblemen had been killed, and the power of their class had been reduced.  Thriving tradesmen were looked to as sources for state revenue.  Therefore, these merchants received a greater voice in the affairs of the government.  Shakespeare’s England had almost no trace of representative government, but circumstances were shaping for its eventual establishment.
            2.     Another change was taking place in the establishment of power in world affairs.  England’s two greatest rivals were Spain and France.  Both had claims to the English throne.  England could build up enough strength to go to war with either of them, but could never withstand a combined attack.  To play one against the other was of supreme importance in English diplomacy.  Elizabeth I’s greatest achievement was doing just this.
C.     Economic
         England began to change from an agricultural nation to an industrial and commercial country.  New industries developed.  Elizabeth encouraged trade by private companies.  There was great growth in commerce and sea power.  England became the greatest market in the world and laid the foundation for a colonial empire.  There was a general decrease in unemployment and there was an increase in prosperity.  More opportunities developed for the common man.  Shakespeare’s England was changing from a social system of family aristocracy to one of money aristocracy.

D.    Intellectual Changes in the Renaissance

        1.     The Renaissance was an age of questioning.  This was the age of the self-made man.  Printing press opened the world of ideas to any person who could read.  Scientific discoveries, the discovery of America, and the Reformation had changed people’s attitudes about the authority of the Church (spec. the Roman Catholic).   Men began to look around them and make judgments for themselves instead of just believing what the Church said.  Renaissance man began to look for systems of order in the world and felt that man’s duty was to try to put himself and his institutions (family, church, state, etc.) into harmony.  Some of the great intellectual ideas had to do with the correspondence between all levels of living things
        a.           Great Chain of Being—this idea stated that all of creation was arranged in a hierarchical fashion that began at the throne of God and proceeded to the lowest orders of elements.
                             1)           God
                             2)           Nine order of angels
                             3)           Man
                             4)           Animals
                             5)           Vegetation
                             6)           Minerals
                             7)           Elements (earth, air, water, fire)
            Within each link of the chain members are also arranged in a hierarchy. With these correspondences in mind, writers had many metaphors at their disposal.  The oak, the greatest of trees, could represent the king, the greatest of men.  The rose, the greatest of flowers, could represent the love of God.
      b.           Humor Theory—in an age in which medicine was primitive, it was beyond the scope of reason to assume that invisible particles caused illness, yet the old superstitions that demons caused illness seemed invalid, too.  Physicians of the Renaissance, therefore, came up with an elaborate theory that explained both bodily illness and personality.  They believed that in order to achieve physical and mental health, the four liquids of the body must be in balance.  Each of the liquids was assigned a governing element (one of the four that were recognized by the scientists), physical properties, and personality traits.






Black bile


Cold and dry





Cold and wet





Hot and wet



Yellow Bile


Hot and dry


Hot tempered

      c.           Microcosm/Macrocosm Theory—This has to do with man’s place in the nation and the universe.  Concentric circles or parallel planes often represent this idea.  At the center is the smallest unit, man, the microcosm or little world.  The next level out is the state, or body politic.  The largest level is the universe, or macrocosm.  Any disturbance or imperfection at one level will be felt in all levels.  The best example of the use of this system in Renaissance literature is in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in all the unrest that takes place the night before Caesar dies.
The attitude of the mind, linked as it was with the changes taking place in the political, economic, intellectual life of the time, marked the passing of England from Medieval to Modern times.

IV.     Everyday life in Renaissance England

            A.    a period of  change
            B.    an age of action—men crowded their lives with activity—an example is Sir Walter Raleigh, who was an explorer, historian, courtier, and poet.
            C.    Age of the Sea—great captains, pirates, and privateers like Sir Francis Drake
            D.    Physical training was considered as important as the study of latin and greek
            E.    Young English men refused to conform to the established laws of conduct and behavior.
            F.    Manners were often crude.
            G.    Superstitious beliefs dominated the thinking of the people.
            H.    Laws were executed with uncompromising severity.
            I.     Every township had its gallows, stocks, and whipping posts.
            J.     Heretics were burned.
            K.   Old women were drowned as a common past time.
            L.    The church was not respected.
            M.   Pickpockets were common in the church and streets.
            N.   Streets were narrow, crowded, and noisy.
            O.   There were signs, apprentices, and street vendors everywhere.

V.         Queen Elizabeth

            A.    The first part of the Renaissance is often called the Elizabethan Age in honor of the Tudor ruler who ruled the longest and best. She was the embodiment of the spirit of the age.  Both the Queen and the age were madly in love with life; her temperament was carefree excitable, as was the prevailing spirit.  Like many Englishmen, she hated Spain, and her willingness to fight was admired.  She was well educated, and her love of learning was shared by her subjects.  The young loved her because she was witty and loved to laugh; the old lover her because she was wise and had saved England.  The merchants loved her because the people felt secure and shopped more.
            B.     Elizabeth the Ruler
                   1.     Ruled for 45 years
                   2.     Mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded when Elizabeth was three
                   3.     Happy, witty, and well educated
                   4.            Knew Latin and Greek
                   5.            Keen mind and sharp memory
                   6.            Violent temper, enjoyed flattery, deceitful and vain at times
                   7.            Laughed loudly when amused and displayed fits of anger when riled.
                   8.            Could hunt all day and dance all night
                   9.            Placed nation’s welfare above personal interest
                   10.            Sound judgment, firm policies, and great courage
                   11.            Wore a cloak embroidered with eyes and ears, as symbols of wisdom
                   12.            Had an oval face, clear complexion, dark eyes, and reddish hair.
            C.            Problems Elizabeth faces
                   1.            Religious disputes
                   2.            Bankrupt treasury
                   3.            War with France
                   4.            Negotiations with Spain (both marital and military)
                   5.            Mary, Queen of Scots
            D.    The Elizabethan zest for living could not last forever.  During the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, men began to question whether the world was as wonderful as they had thought.  During the Jacobean period, people were as disenchanted with life as the Elizabethans were enchanted with it.

VI.        The Jacobean Rulers

            When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he and his subjects has some vastly different ideas of what was expected.  He had been the king of a poor country, and though he had a wife and three children, he had questionable relationships.  He was thirty-seven years old, had weak legs, stammered and slobbered when her talked, and was generally unkingly.  Yet, he had been king since the age of one, was literate and well educated, and had the potential to make a good king, except he did not handle the English very well.  Puritans thought he would be sympathetic to their cause because he had had Presbyterian tutors.  However, he had has enough in Scotland trying to appease a powerful church.  He also alienated the nobility by selling titles and overtaxing.  James also alienated Parliament, dismissing two when they would not act as he wanted, then dying during the term of the third.

VII.       English Literature
            A.       Literary terms for the unit
                 Lyric, Sonnet (Petrarchan, Shakespearean, Spenserean), Simile, Metaphor, Conceit, Metaphysical Conceit, Apostrophe, Pastoral Poem, Carpe Deim, Meter, Foot, Iamb, Trochee, Anapest, Dactyl, Spondee, Caesura, Scansion, Quatrain, Couplet, Paradox, Parody, Apostrophe.
            B.     Lyricists and sonneteers
                   1.            Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)  Wyatt and his contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, were the most important poets of the early Renaissance,  Wyatt and Surrey were trying to bring English poetry out of a “folk ballad” style into the sophisticated level that French and Italian poetry had found.  Wyatt is generally created with introducing the sonnet form into English.  The first publication of Wyatt’s poems was in 1557 in Tottel’s Miscellany, an influential collection of poetry that featured poems by Wyatt, Surrey, and several others.  Wyatt himself was an aristocrat and a diplomat in the court of Henry VIII.  He also spent time in the Tower, once for committing justifiable homicide and another time for being accused of treason.  Luckily, he managed to regain the favor of the king both times.  One interesting fact about his life is that he was involved with Anne Boleyn before she came to the notice of Henry VIII.  He gave her up, but she inspired many of his sonnets.  He died of pneumonia at age 39.
                               a.            “Whoso List to Hunt”
                             This poem is based on a Petrarchan model, the idea that the beloved is a white deer with golden horns (the hind from Greek mythology).  Here the conceit for love is deer hunting.  No joy is found in the pursuit of the beloved; instead, exhaustion and heartache await.  The final quatrain and couplet seem to indicate the identity of the beloved as Anne Boleyn, since she now belongs to Caesar, or Henry.
                   2.            Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)  Spenser, author of the longest poem in the English language The Fairie Queen, was born into a poor family.  He was educated on what amounted to a work-study scholarship and completed his Masters at age 20-21.  He was appointed to several positions as “secretary” to high-ranking church and secular lords, and at court became friends with Sir Philip Sidney, leading courtier of the age.  His first poetical work was a series of pastoral poems arranged according to the months of the year called the Shepherd’s Calendar.  Soon after, he was promoted to the office of assistant to Lord Grey, Governor of Ireland.  He spent the rest of his life back and forth between the court and Ireland.  While in Ireland, he began writing The Fairie Queen, which combines a Greek epic with a medieval romance.  It uses the ideas and styles from many ancient sources to sum up the values of the Elizabethan Age—the technique is that of an allegory, because personal, political, and religious morals are represented by each character.  When the first three books (he planned twelve, each representing a value) were published in 1590, Spenser was hailed as England’s greatest writer.  However, he never gained the patronage from the Queen that he hoped to receive.  He was called “poor” when he died, but that may be inaccurate.  His estate was in litigation over which children (from which wife) would inherit what.
                               a.            Sonnets from Amoretti, love poems from his courtship of his second wife.
                   1.            “Sonnet 30”—this poem uses a paradox to describe the emotions of love.  The “burning man” is only more intrigued by the “icy lady.”  Their feelings only fuel the other’s feelings.  This sonnet concludes with the conclusion that the power of love can alter the laws of nature.
                  2.            “Sonnet 75”—The poet’s expression of immortality—though people’s lives with perish, their memory will live on because of the poetry.  This poem uses the eternizing conceit.
                   3.            Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)  Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare but had a vastly different career.  He was university educated, supposedly for the ministry, but instead, became an important dramatist of the 1580’s, before Shakespeare.  His famous plays were Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine, which used blank verse for the first time.  His most famous poem is Hero and Leander, a long love poem.  Marlowe’s career, brief as it was, was sensational.  He was arrested for brawling, accused of atheism, and finally murdered in a bar over a bill.  Evidence says, however, that Marlowe spied for Elizabeth on occasion, and many historians think his death was politically motivated.
                        a.     “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”
                             This is a traditional pastoral poem, spoken by a shepherd, symbol of the Petrarchan convention.  This poem of seduction makes promises to the beloved.  Tension in the poem is provided by the final stanza; the speaker has been confident tot his point, but now he brings the “if” part of the proposition.
                   4.            Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618)  Raleigh is best known as a founder of Virginia and as the introducer of tobacco to Europe, but he was more: courtier, poet, historian, and philosopher.  A favorite of Elizabeth, he fell from favor by marrying without the queen’s permission.  He later regained favor by his military expeditions.  When James I took the throne, he became convinced that Raleigh was plotting against him and imprisoned Raleigh for 13 years.  After an unsuccessful exploring voyage, Raleigh was beheaded.
                               a.            “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”
                             This is an anti-pastoral poem.  However, she is not completely cool to the shepherd, though she knows things of earthly love will not last.  Tension is provided by the final stanza, where she says that if youth and love could last, she would agree to be his love.

Renaissance Theater

I. Beginnings of Drama

    1. Drama began in the Medieval Catholic Church as a teaching tool for an illiterate congregation in the form of mystery and morality plays.

    2. Three types of Medieval plays

      1. Morality plays—plays like Everyman.  Teaches the people how to live and die.

      2. Mystery or miracle plays—plays like Noah’s Flood.  Teaches Bible stories and saints’ lives.  The mysteries of the Bible.

      3. Interludes—sometimes little different from morality or mystery plays, sometimes rowdy and bawdy.  These were short one-act plays

C.         Drama moved from the church sanctuary to the church steps to the streets.
D.         When plays moved onto the street in the form of cycle plays, each of the trade guilds became responsible for a play in the cycle.  Each guild would construct a “pageant wagon” on which they would perform their part of the cycle.  The carpenter’s guild might be responsible for Noah’s Flood, while the weaver’s guild might be responsible for another play like The Second Shepherd’s Play

II.     Renaissance Theatre

          A.    By the mid-16th century, English drama was more than 300 years old.  However, the idea of a permanent theatre building was new.  James Burbage built the first public theatre in 1576.  It was called The Theatre.  Other theatres soon followed:  the Curtain, the Rose, the Swan, the Red Bull, the Hope, and the Globe.
          B.    The Globe
                  1.   Shakespeare theatre and the most famous of the Renaissance theatres.  It is built on the banks of the Thames River.  Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, sons of James Burbage, inherited the Theatre after their father’s death.  However, their lease on the land the Theatre was on was not renewed.  As a result, they, under the direction of Peter Street, along with Shakespeare and others, dismantled the Theatre during the night and moved it across the street where they built the Globe.  They renamed it the Globe because of the burden that Hercules bore for Atlas.  Of course, dismantling and moving an entire building was a Herculean task.
                  2.   The Globe could house about 3,000 spectators which was normal of the theatres during this time.
                  3.   The Globe burned in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII.  It was rebuilt in 1614, closed by the Puritans in 1642, and razed to the ground in 1644 to make rooms for homes.
                  4.   In 1970, American actor, producer, and director, Sam Wanamaker began a drive to rebuilt the Globe.  In 1989, after he convinced the British to allow the rebuilding, construction began.  The new Globe opened its first season in June 1997 with a production of Henry V.

III.     Parts of the Globe The New Globe Theatre

          A.    The structure—the Globe was a three-story structure.  Seating went around the entire building.  The seats around the building were more expensive than entrance into the yard, which could be purchased for a penny.  The stage was a thrust stage; there was a tiring house, which is the equivalent of the backstage area of theatres today.  The flag was flown only when there was a play that day.  The color of the flag indicated the type of play—tragedy, comedy, or history.
          B.    The Props—there were minimal sets in a Renaissance play because the stage thrust into the audience and had audience on three sides.  However, the props were extensive.  Phillip Henslowe, a theatre manager, kept thorough notes of his props which included dragons, beds, chariots, fountains, tents, thrones, booths, wayside crosses, and much more. 
          C.    The Costumes—costumes were rich, elaborate, and expensive.  Acting companies often received clothing from wealthy patrons.
          D.    The Music—Renaissance audiences expected music in all plays.  However, this music did not have to take the form of song and dance.  Often the music indicated the entrance or exit of lead characters.  In comedies there were often short songs included.
          E.    The Power of Make-Believe—the Renaissance audience understood that the stage could not present reality, but only a reflection.  They willingly suspended their disbelief and “filled in” the missing sets with their imaginations.  Renaissance drama was a “drama of persons, not a drama of places.”
IV.     The Blackfriars—Eventually, Shakespeare’s acting company acquired the Blackfriars in 1607.  This venue was a fully covered building which required artificial lighting at all time, unlike the big public theatres, which did not have roofs.  This allowed Shakespeare troupe to perform anytime day or night and in any weather, which only increased their profits.

V.            Shakespeare’s Company—his company was originally the “Lord Admiral’s Men” because their patronage came from the Lord Admiral.  Having a wealthy patron to help fund the company was a common practice at the time.  When King James I came to the throne, Shakespeare’s troupe became the “King’s Men” because James gave them special papers that allowed them to travel where they wanted to and perform.