Renaissance Literature

          The Renaissance, or early modern, period refers to the
era of British cultural history that spans roughly two hundred
years from the late fifteenth to the close of the seventeenth
century. This is a period of extraordinary intellectual and
creative activity in which poets, dramatists, essayists, and
others crafted a richly complex national literary culture. Although
manuscripts continued to circulate in great numbers, the
development of printing in England, in 1476, fostered increased
literacy and scholarly productivity. About a century later, the
public theaters, first established in the 1570s, afforded spaces
for the development of widely popular dramatic entertainments
by Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and others.

          The great literary works of the age, including
Shakespeare's Hamlet, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and Milton's
Paradise Lost, were created during a period of considerable
continuity with the medieval past, on the one hand, and one of
rapid growth and change, on the other hand. This was an age
in which the Church dominated the social and political
landscape while, at the same time, new ideas about individuality
and the world were beginning to take hold. During the early part
of the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation helped to
foster new ideas about self and nation at a time when reading
the Bible in English could constitute grounds for execution.
During the middle part of the seventeenth century, a civil war
between Parliament and the monarch ended with the king's
beheading. This action extended and built upon earlier writers'
debate concerning law, history, 'good' government, and other
topics.

          As a period of study, the Renaissance has much to offer students. From the plays of Shakespeare to the poetry of Isabella Whitney (the earliest published women poet in English); from vigorous prose polemic to erotic verse, from epigrams to epics, from recognizable verse forms to challenging genres and literary modes, the literature of the Renaissance delights and teaches.


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