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English Renaissance

This article is about the cultural movement known as the English Renaissance. For more general historical information about Britain in this period, please see the article on Early Modern Britain.

"English Renaissance" is a term often used to describe a cultural and artistic movement in England from the early 16th century to the mid-17th century. It is associated with the pan-European Renaissance that many cultural historians believe originated in northern Italy in the fourteenth century. This era in English cultural history is sometimes referred to as "the age of Shakespeare" or "the Elizabethan era," taking the name of the English Renaissance's most famous author and most important monarch, respectively; however it is worth remembering that these names are rather misleading: Shakespeare was not an especially famous writer in his own time, and the English Renaissance covers a period both before and after Elizabeth's reign.

Poets such as Edmund Spenser and John Milton produced works that demonstrated an increased interest in understanding English Christian beliefs, such as the allegorical representation of the Tudor Dynasty in The Faerie Queen and the retelling of mankind’s fall from paradise in Paradise Lost; playwrights, such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare, composed theatrical representations of the English take on life, death, and history. Nearing the end of the Tudor Dynasty, philosophers like Sir Thomas More and Sir Francis Bacon published their own ideas about humanity and the aspects of a perfect society, pushing the limits of metacognition at that time. As England abolished its astrologers and alchemists, it came closer to reaching true science with the Baconian Method , a forerunner of the Scientific Method. All of these developments would lead England to reach a level of understanding like never before.

William Shakespeare, chief figure of the English Renaissance, as portrayed in the , artist and authenticity not confirmed
William Shakespeare, chief figure of the English Renaissance, as portrayed in the Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity not confirmed

Comparison of the English and Italian Renaissances

The English Renaissance is distinct from the Italian Renaissance in several ways. First, the dominant art form of the English Renaissance was literature, while the Italian Renaissance was driven much more by the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture. Second, the English movement is separated from the Italian by time: many trace the Italian Renaissance to Dante or Petrarch in the early 1300s, and certainly most of the famous Italian Renaissance figures ceased their creative output by the 1520s. In contrast, the English Renaissance seems to begin in the 1520s, reaching its apex around the year 1600, and not concluding until roughly the restoration of Charles II in the 1660s. Finally, the English seem to have been less directly influenced by classical antiquity, which was a hallmark of the Italian Renaissance (the word "renaissance" means "rebirth," an allusion to the Italian belief that they were merely rediscovering or reviving lost ancient knowledge and technique); instead, the English were primarily influenced by the Italians themselves, and rediscovered the classical authors through them.

On the other hand, the Italian and English Renaissances were similar in sharing a specific musical aesthetic. In the late 16th century Italy was the musical center of Europe, and one of the principal forms which emerged from that singular explosion of musical creativity was the madrigal. In 1588, Nicholas Yonge published in England the Musica transalpina--a collection of Italian madrigals "Englished"--an event which touched off a vogue of madrigal in England which was almost unmatched in the Renaissance in being an instantaneous adoption of an idea, from another country, adapted to local aesthetics. (In a delicious irony of history, a military invasion from a Catholic country--Spain--failed in that year, but a cultural invasion, from Italy, succeeded). English poetry was exactly at the right stage of development for this transplantation to occur, since forms such as the sonnet were uniquely adapted to setting as madrigals (indeed, the sonnet was already well-developed in Italy). Composers such as Thomas Morley, the only contemporary composer to set Shakespeare, and whose work survives, published collections of their own, roughly in the Italian manner but yet with a unique Englishness; many of the compositions of the English Madrigal School remain in the standard repertory in the 21st century.

Not all aspects of Italian music translated to English practice. The colossal polychoral productions of the Venetian School aroused little interest there, although the Palestrina style from the Roman School had already been absorbed prior to the publication of Musical transalpina, in the music of masters such as William Byrd.

While the Classical revival led to a flourishing of Italian Renaissance architecture, architecture in Britain took a more eclectic approach. Elizabethan architecture retained many features of the Gothic, even while the occasional purer building such as the tomb in the Henry VII Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey, or the French-influenced architecture of Scotland showed interest in the new style.

Criticisms of the idea of the English Renaissance

The notion of calling this period "the Renaissance" is a modern invention, having been popularized by the historian Jacob Burckhardt in the nineteenth century. The idea of the Renaissance has come under increased criticism by many cultural historians, and some have contended that the "English Renaissance" has no real tie with the artistic achievements and aims of the northern Italian artists (Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello) who are closely identified with the Renaissance. Indeed, England had already experienced a flourishing of literature over 200 years before the time of Shakespeare when Geoffrey Chaucer, possibly the second most important writer in the English language, was working. Chaucer's popularising of English as a medium of literary composition rather than Latin was only 50 years after Dante had started using Italian for serious poetry. At the same time William Langland author of Piers Plowman and John Gower were also writing in English. The Hundred Years War and the subsequent civil war in England known as the Wars of the Roses probably hampered artistic endeavour until the relatively peaceful and stable reign of Elizabeth I allowed drama in particular to develop. Even during these war years, though, Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte D'Arthur, was a notable figure. For this reason, scholars find the singularity of the period called the English Renaissance questionable; C.S. Lewis, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge, famously remarked to a colleague that he had "discovered" that there was no English Renaissance, and that if there had been one, it had "no effect whatsoever."

Historians have also begun to consider the word "Renaissance" as an unnecessarily loaded word that implies an unambiguously positive "rebirth" from the supposedly more primitive Middle Ages. Some historians have asked the question "a renaissance for whom?," pointing out, for example, that the status of women in society arguably declined during the Renaissance. Many historians and cultural historians now prefer to use the term "early modern" for this period, a neutral term that highlights the period as a transitional one that led to the modern world, but does not have any positive or negative connotations.

Other cultural historians have countered that, regardless of whether the name "renaissance" is apt, there was undeniably an artistic flowering in England under the Tudor monarchs, culminating in Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Major English Renaissance figures

The key literary figures in the English Renaissance are now generally considered to be the poet Edmund Spenser; the philosopher Francis Bacon; the poets and playwrights Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson; and the poet John Milton. Sir Thomas More is often considered one of the earliest writers of the English Renaissance. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were the most notable English musicians of the time, and are often seen as being a part of the same artistic movement that inspired the above authors.

See also

Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46