RENAISSANCE AND ITS IMPACT ON ELIZABETHAN LITERATURE
Meaning. Renaissance is a French word. It means rebirth or revival or reawakening. Renaissance means revival of classical learning. In other words, the Renaissance was both a revival of ancient classical mythology, literature, and culture as well as reawakening 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 as if mankind were awakened from a long sleep and looked at the glory of nature with astonishment.
The Medieval world was curiously limited and narrow. It was limited spiritually, intellectually and physically. Geographically, its boundaries were narrow; to the North, it was bound by the frozen seas, to the West by the Atlantic, and to the South and the East by the Mediterranean. Astronomically its boundaries were fixed by the closed system of Ptolemy, with the earth at its center, and with the heavenly bodies revolving in a fixed circle.
Intellectually, it was limited by the fact that all books were written by hand and so literary culture was confined to a few. Spiritually it was confined with abounds of Catholic Orthodoxy, which nobody could question, and by scholastic philosophy.
However, even as early as the fourteenth century, this limited narrow world had begun to decay. It was especially so in Italy where the study of Greek literature had been revived and keen interest was being taken in the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. There was an attempt to rebuild medieval culture according to the ancient Greco-Roman pattern of life.
The classical masterpieces fired the imagination of the Italian scholars and it was felt that the ancient Greco-Roman culture was more modern than their own and that their own culture should be reconstructed according to this ideal. The invention of the printing press multiplied books and carried the fruits of the classical renaissance to the people at large, in the various countries of Europe.
Rediscovery of Ancient Learning
The geographical and astronomical methods of the ancients were also revived and in this way, there was a breakdown of the closed universe of the Middle Ages. Astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo — rediscovered the spherical shape of the earth and that it moved around the sun, and further that it was not the center of the universe.
The warped and narrow medieval cosmology suffered a blow that in shaking it shook also religious faith. The man was spiritually liberated and free-thinking was stimulated. The imagination of Europe was fired by the accounts of travelers, of the sights and scenes they had seen, and of the wealth that could be had in the East. The romance and mystery of the untried seas could not but have a profound influence on the thought and literature of the period.
In England, the Renaissance influences were aided and strengthened by the wise policies of queen Elizabeth. She was cultured and refined, she patronized men of letters and encouraged literary activity. She followed a wise policy of compromise and religious peace and restored to the country. Similarly, her political policies resulted both in internal peace, and freedom from the fear of external aggression. Literature and art are peace-time activities, and the policies of the glorious queen did much to promote art and literature.
Impact of Renaissance
Thus both influences of the Renaissance and the influence of the Queen combined to make the age, “the golden age of English literature”. “The revival of ancient Greco-Roman culture had a profound impact on the ideals of life. The ascetic ideal of the Middle Ages was replaced by the new ideal of the enjoyment of life. Man had again grown conscious of the glory and wonder of the Creation and the beauty of human life and the human body.
This new ideal found reflection everywhere in Renaissance literature. The zest for life instinctively and naturally found its expression in song. England was transformed into a veritable nest of singing birds. Everyone sang, down from the flowery courtier to the man in the street. Men craved for entertainment and in response to this demand, there came the drama and the novels. The drama and the short story are the characteristic modes of expression in the Elizabethan era.
The great Elizabethan literature had its rise in the midst of a multitude of works of ancient and foreign literatures. There was a spurt of translations. Such was the fame of the New Learning that practically all the great works both ancient and modem, were translated within no time. The printing press swiftly placed these rich spoils within the easy reach of the common man.
These translations opened for the English people, “a window on the enchanted world of classical antiquity, which appeared with all the freshness of new discovery, the world of the gods and goddess of Greece, and great soldiers and statesmen of the Roman Empire. Moreover, they brought their readers into contact with the life and thought of contemporary Europe and especially of Renaissance Italy.”
In this way was prepared the audience which could understand and appreciate the allusions and references to ancient literature and mythology with which renaissance drama is heavily overloaded. It was the classical drama that gave to English drama its division into scenes and Acts and unities of time, place and action, its rules of artistic composition. These translations and borrowings provided the dramatists with an endless variety of themes.
The Elizabethan dramatists do not invent his own plot, for there is no need for him to do so. Plagiarism was the order of the day because the temptation was too great. It is the Renaissance impulse which accounts for the Roman or Mediterranean setting of Elizabethan drama, and for the extensive use of blank verse.
The language was enriched with new words and the translators learned the art of using words with power and dignity. English style and prosody were formed by these countless translations. They provided the English writers with the necessary discipline and training.
There was practically no writer of the age who remained untouched by the great wonders that were coming to light every day. The achievements of the mariners set the whole of the later part of Elizabeth’s reign, “against a vast background of wonder and enchantment.” Over the newly discovered regions, there still hung the magic romance and legend. The poets had heard such wonderful accounts of this world that it appeared to them that almost anything might be possible.
Spenser makes the new discoveries his justification for excursions into fairyland. Great wonders undreamed of by men of a few years ago had been brought to light, and it was just possible that “later times things more unknown shall show.” Fairylands, like those described by him in this Fairy Queen, might still be hidden and may soon come to light. What appears shows the effect of the voyages 011 the English imagination. It was this which made the great English drama and poetry possible. It accounts for the spirit of romance which marks all Elizabethan literature
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