The Renaissance: Literary Background

The Renaissance: Literary Background
• Writers no longer believed in fixed ideas of truth and morality
(imposed by the Church) but wanted to enquire about the
role of man in the cosmos and asked themselves questions
about the meaning of human existence.
• On one hand society was based on an idea of order and
stability (derived from the Middle Ages), on the other hand
literature expressed the intellectual uncertainty of the age
(typical of an age of transition).
Renaissance Prose
• In the Renaissance there was no separation between
different fields of knowledge (religion, philosophy,
science, maths)
• Prose was mainly used for philosophical, scientific or
religious essays and sermons.
• The two main works of the period were about an ideal
• Utopia by Thomas More: written in Latin, it describes a
society ruled by harmony and justice, without private
property, with free education for everybody.
• The New Atlantis by Francis Bacon: a study on an imaginary
culture dominated by philosophers.
• 1611: the first English version of the Bible (King James Bible)
influenced the English language, literature and the
development of religion in England.
Renaissance Drama
• Renaissance drama (differently from medieval drama) began
to explore the human condition and the many sides of human
• The greatest dramatists of the age were:
• Christopher Marlowe, whose most famous play is Doctor
Faustus: the protagonist is a symbol of the humanist
revolution, of man’s will to reach absolute knowledge and to
go beyond the limits set by God. Faustus sells his soul to the
devil in order to acquire unlimited power and knowledge.
William Shakespeare
• According to many critics Shakespeare wasn’t only the main
playwright of the Renaissance but of all times.
• Why?
• First, because his plays explore every aspect of human life.
• Furthermore, he was the first to consider the problems of
existence without following fixed models of thought.
• Finally, his works formulate universal, unanswerable
questions for men and intellectuals of all times (about the
self, love, evil, sanity and madness etc…)
Elisabethan theatre
• In the Middle Ages actors toured around, and performances
were staged on movable platforms.
• In the Renaissance plays were performed first at court and
then in proper theatres. All social classes enjoyed drama.
• The first permanent theatre was called “the theatre”, built by
James Burbage just outside London in 1576.
• The most famous theatre of the time was the Globe (used by
Shakespeare’s company), built in 1599 on the South bank of
the river Thames. In 1613 it burned (the fire originated during
a performance of Henry VIII). It was then rebuilt and closed
down by the Puritans in 1642.
The structure of the theatres
• Theatres were circular or polygonal
• There were galleries around the theatre walls, where richer
people sat. The seats cost 2 pennies.
• Lower classes usually stood in the arena which surrounded
the stage on three sides. They paid one penny.
• The theatre was open air , no artificial light, so performances
took place in the afternoon.
• The stage projected out into the audience
contact between actors and audience (different from today).
• The stage was half covered by a roof, often called “heavens”,
sometimes used to lower down heavy props. There was also a
trap door on the stage floor, from which actors could suddenly
The Globe Theatre
The production of plays
• No use of scenery
importance of costume (more
symbolic than realistic)
• There were no women actors (young boys played female
• Use of formal speech and gesture; rhetoric (=the art of
speech) and metaphors were often used (especially in
monologues and soliloquies).
• Mixture of tragedy and comedy, of cultivated language and
indecent behaviour, to entertain people from different social

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