What is Renaissance and what are its prominent features?

Discuss briefly the influence of the Renaissance in England and English literature.


Answer: The Renaissance in English literature propelled poetry and theatrical drama to new heights. The Renaissance is a French word which means re-birth, revival or re-awakening. The Renaissance was both a revival of ancient classical mythology, literature and culture as well as a re-awakening of the human mind, after the long sleep of the dark Middle Ages, to the wonder, the glory and the beauty of the human body and the world of nature. “It was a re-discovery by mankind of himself and of the world.” In the words of the M.H. Abrahams Renaissance is “the birth of the modern world out of the ashes of the dark ages.” Renaissance began with the fall of the Constantinople in 1453. Mohamad-II, the sultan of the Ottoman Turks and a crusader defeated the Christians in 1453 and occupied Constantinople. It was the capital of Byzantine Empire and the center of classical learning. The scholars of ancient learning fled away to Italy and different other countries with their books and knowledge. They tried to spread their knowledge there. This revival of the classical knowledge is called Renaissance. Its salient features are– curiosity about more knowledge, desire for unlimited wealth and power, love of adventures, own country, beauty, humanism and the past.

Period of decline after Chaucer:
The literary decline that followed the death of Chaucer was due in considerable measure, to political causes. The dispute in regard to the throne, which culminated in the Wars of the Roses, distracted the country, wasted its energy and finally destroyed in large measure the noble families on whose patronage early literature and art were dependent. The accession of Henry VII in 1485 brought about a period of quiet and recovery. As its Power increased, the country resumed its position in the family of European nations, and began through them to feel the stimulus of the movement called the Renaissance.

The Renaissance:
The Renaissance was in essence an intellectual ‘rebirth’. Like most great historical movements, the Renaissance cannot be said to have begun at any specific movement or to have been confined to any one department of human activity. Literally, “Renaissance” means ‘rebirth’ or “reawakening” and the name refers to the rebirth of classical especially Greek learning, often centuries of comparative neglect. But this revived interest is only part of a larger change in point of view. It is related to a questioning of tradition, the rise of a scientific spirit, emphasis on the complete development of the individual, and a concentration of attention on this present world rather than the next.

The spirit of Individualism and Materialism:
The Renaissance was, in essence, an intellectual rebirth. It showed itself in the effort of the individual to free himself from the rigid institutions of the Middle Ages, feudalism and the church; and to assert his right to live, to think and to express himself in accordance with a more flexible secular code. And thus the Renaissance gave birth to individualism and worldliness. The Renaissance freed the minds of men from the shackles of medievalism. The process started during the age of Chaucer, and it reached its consummation in the Elizabethan period. The medieval mind is other worldly, it subordinates this life to the life after death, and in the interests of the soul shuns all enjoyments of the flesh. Asceticism is its ideal and any physical indulgence is looked down upon as a negation of the ideal. The Renaissance spirit is marked, on the other hand, with a growing sense of beauty and an increasing enrichment of life. The Elizabethan age was therefore an age of Materialism and frank and bold enjoyment of life. Beauty was a passion with the Elizabethans and women were regarded as adorable creatures. England’s trade and commerce flourished and the country grew rich and prosperous.

The Influence of the classics:
During the Elizabethan Age, there was a revival of classical learning. The ideals of the classical Greek literature attracted the men of the Renaissance. The ancient Greeks were worldly men in that their whole lives and hopes were centered on this present world rather than on some future one. The Greek literature also reveals that a strong individualism was a trait of the ancient Greek. The result of this individualism was that the Renaissance men cared not a fig for authority, they were free in making their own decisions, right or wrong and his freedom found expression in the plays of Marlowe.

Another important facet of individualism was the insistence on the well-rounded man. If a man is only a unit in a social mass, there is a strong obligation to be as much like the other units as possible. But if a man is an individual, an end in himself, then there is a value in his differences, in his uniqueness. Furthermore, he should be complete, with all his potentialities developed, instead of being a mere specialist who must be completed by other specialists. The accomplished courtier of the Renaissance was supposed to be able to fence, to ride, to read Latin and Greek or organize the siege of a city or to write a graceful sonnet to a lady. Worldliness is connected with all round development in that it takes the form of a hunger for all the experiences that this world has to offer. The plays of Marlowe, the prose of Bacon, and the poetry of Spenser are the best expression of this worldliness in the Elizabethan age.

Renaissance scholars of the classics, called Humanists revived the knowledge of the Greek language and gave birth to a new culture that is Humanism. The humanist led by Erasmus began to take interest in life and in mankind. The term humanism includes revolutionary qualities of liberal thinking and Athenian democracy. Man was discovering himself. This was enabled by the shift from the orthodox religious outlook to the secular one. Man began to take interest in his own world rather than the other world, gaining confidence in his powers and abilities and by using these powers, vast new regions of speculation of aesthetic enjoyment and conduct were opened up. The importance of church as a consolation and guidance for life began to be doubted and debated as the Lollards and later Reformation movement showed and man’s own soul and individuality became the source of his expecting and aspirations. Human life and human affairs began to occupy the writer’s minds in greater measure as we find in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. Humanism organized the great importance of human being by placing him at the centre of the universe.

Romanticism: Spirit of Adventure:
The influence of the spirit of discovery and adventure runs through all the literature of the Elizabethan Age. The exploits at English sailors and the wonderers of the New World fired the imagination of the people, the poets and dramatists of the age. The Renaissance did much to enlarge the boundaries men’s minds, and to kindle fresh ideas. It was an age of great curiosity t and the thirst for knowledge was so powerful that scholars like Bacon took all knowledge to be their province. The romantic quest is for the remote, the wonderful and the beautiful and the Elizabethans were the first and the greatest romantics of England.

Thus the immense widening of men’s intellectual, spiritual and physical horizons which we term as the renaissance was the result of two impulses: (a) The inspiration derived from the rebirth of classical learning, and
(b) The stirring of men’s imagination by the great voyages of discovery. These twin threads run through all Renaissance literature.

The effloresce of the Renaissance spirit appeared in the Elizabethan literature which was marked by fullness of national life, i.e. patriotism, a passion for knowledge, a spirit of daring adventures and an ambition to achieve great things. The many sided intellectual activities of the Renaissance were full reflected in the literature of the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the 16th century the prose writings of Bacon are the true specimen of the materialistic and Machiavellian facet of the Renaissance. His Essays is the fullest and the finest expression of the practical wisdom.

The plays of the University Wits bubble with the spirit of the Renaissance. Among the University Wits, Marlowe has been called, “the true child of the Renaissance” In his four plays Tamberlaine, Dr. Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Edward II, we notice a full-blooded expression of the entire age with all its new aspirations, hopes and dashing adventure. His plays are the epitome of what the Renaissance people felt and lived.

The Moral Temperament:
It was due to the influence of the Renaissance that literature became individualistic, scientific and secular. New learning and the emergence of scientific spirit of enquiry helped the growth of rationalism; emphasis was on the practical and empirical matter. Literature and writings had a definite moral slant which derived from such varied sources as classical and medieval philosophy and Christianity. In fact, the whole of Elizabethan literature is based on the author’s clear moral perception.

So, in conclusion, we can say that the age of Renaissance is a glorious period. It is like sunrise after a long period of darkness. In the words of Milton we suddenly see England, “a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks.” It is an age of great thought and great action, an age which appeals to the eye, the imagination and the intellect. It is a great age of intellectual and spiritual liberty, of economic content and of political and social peace and stability. In short, it is one of those great periods in the history of mankind when great art and literature flourish and come to flower. It was a glorious age in which men of genius like Shakespeare, Spenser, Bacon and Marlowe could make their mark.