The Renaissance

Changing attitudes

The thirteenth and sixteenth centuries saw 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 origin of 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.

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.

It is possible to see the Duke in Measure for Measure as devious in his treatment of Angelo and in his spying on his citizens. However, his character is commended by Escalus who describes him as:

‘One that, above all other strifes, contended especially to know himself … A gentleman of all temperance.' (Act III sc.ii)

The renaissance prince

An aspect of renaissance court life was the idea that the ideal renaissance man should be widely accomplished. This is reflected in Measure for Measure when, in Act III, sc ii the disguised Duke describes himself as ‘a scholar, a statesman and a soldier'. Shakespeare had already suggested that these were the qualities of an ideal renaissance prince in his earlier play 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.'
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.

James I was not physically attractive nor a soldier, but he certainly saw himself as a scholar. As well as writing about his belief in the ‘divine right of Kings' (see also Religious/philosophical context: Divine right of kings) in his book Basilikon Doron, he enjoyed creating poetry, some of which was published as His Majesties Poeticall Exercises at Vacant Hours.

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 the dominance of 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 human aspects of 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.

Radical changes in the Christian church

For some centuries there had been criticism of the way some supposed churchmen behaved.

More on criticism in literature: Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was written towards the end of the fourteenth century. As Chaucer introduces each new character, he makes increasingly scathing attacks on corruption within the Church, contrasting the greed, pride, deceit and sexual immorality of some churchmen with the Christian ideals and practices of the Poor Parson.

Martin Luther

Moral outrage

Perhaps the most famous reformer of the Church was Martin Luther (1483-1546). He was a German friar, who, on a visit to Rome, was appalled at the luxurious way of life and sexual immorality of the Pope and cardinals. Luther returned to Germany, where he lectured at the University of Wittenberg.

He was then even more appalled by the arrival in Germany of the Pope's representative Tetzel, who had come to sell indulgences.

More on indulgences: There is a powerful re-enactment of Tetzel's speeches to the German crowds in John Osborne's play Luther published in 1961.


Indulgences were documents issued by the Pope and on sale to the public. They were a way of raising money. Pope Leo X (who had become Pope in 1513) hoped to rebuild the Church of Saint Peter in Rome.

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