The Renaissance

Changing attitudes

Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries there was a changing attitude to religion, part of a movement now known as the Renaissance (meaning re-birth) which affected many areas of life from art to exploration. 

More on the Renaissance: Much of its impetus came from Italy, where the study of ancient Latin, and particularly Greek, manuscripts led scholars to question the ideas that the Church had for so long put forward — especially that the Roman Catholic Church was the holder of all wisdom essential for salvation.

There was a renewed interest in humanity and humanist ideas, strengthened by an influx of Eastern scholars who fled to the west, bringing with them important ancient manuscripts, when Constantinople (the modern Istanbul) fell to the invading Turks in 1453.


Information explosion

The spread of new knowledge was hugely accelerated by the invention of printing in Germany in the mid-fifteenth century (about 1450). In England, the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in London in 1476. The impact was like that of the internet today. 

More on printing: Printing had actually been known in China for centuries, but not in Europe. Prior to this, information, including such lengthy works as Bibles, had to be copied out by hand. This was usually done in monasteries under the supervision of the Church. There were very few books available, and these were very expensive.

Once material was much cheaper and easy to reproduce by printing, scholars could much more easily disseminate information. Adventurous new ideas could spread, including material attacking institutions such as the Church.

Books Shakespeare read

Shakespeare himself read many printed works translated from French and Italian. They suggested the plots of his plays — for example:

  • The Decameron by Boccaccio provided Shakespeare with material for All's Well That Ends Well
  • Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Romans gave Shakespeare the information he needed for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.
More on sixteenth century reading: It is interesting to note that, in Hamlet, both Hamlet and Ophelia appear on stage reading books — an activity which, a little over a century earlier, would have been almost impossible; hand-written manuscripts were so precious that few people, even the wealthy, owned any, and books kept in churches or the libraries of the two universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge) were chained to prevent theft.

Advice on how to govern

The Prince by Machiavelli

Kings and courtiers began to be more aware of political theory and the need to study how to rule. One of the most famous books published during the Renaissance in Italy was Machiavelli's The Prince. This suggested the need for rulers to be prepared to be devious. It was translated into English and certainly known in England by the time of Henry VIII. 

Claudius's actions reflect the sort of behaviour that Machiavelli advocated.

The renaissance prince

Hamlet the ideal

An aspect of renaissance court life was the idea that the ideal renaissance man should be widely accomplished. We see this encapsulated in Ophelia's description of Hamlet as the perfect prince in Act III scene i of Hamlet

‘O what a noble mind …
The courtier's, soldier's, scholars' eye, tongue, sword!
Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th'observed of all observers.'
More on the Renaissance Tudors: Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I certainly qualified as renaissance princes. Both:
  • were scholars
  • were widely read
  • enjoyed writing poetry and music
  • set fashions in clothes and appearance
  • were soldiers / involved in warlike activity;
  • Henry on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France;
  • Elizabeth addressing her troops at Tilbury.

New areas of exploration

Religious art

As interest grew in areas of life not governed by the Church, art began to change too. 

More on religious art: Previously, virtually all art in Western Europe was religious: Bibles and prayer books were illustrated with designs and figures; altar - pieces were painted with pictures of Christ and of the Madonna and Child; and imaginary portraits were made of saints, to be placed in chapels and used for devotional purposes.

Humanism in art

Renaissance artists started to be much more interested in the human form. 

More on the real world in art: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who worked for the Pope and made superb religious works, nevertheless promoted an interest in the human figure, since they made detailed sketches of the torso, working from real models. Paintings of the Madonna now had realistic landscapes as a background, and artists began to be much more interested in exploring perspective and other techniques.

The known world extended

Frequently undertaken at this time were voyages to find out new sea-passages to China and India, and to discover other continents. 

More on exploration: In England, some of the most famous names from the time of Shakespeare are those of explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake.

There were many dangers at sea, however, which Shakespeare well knew and recorded in such plays as The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. In Act IV scene vi of Hamlet we hear of an attack by pirates.
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