The Renaissance

Changing attitudes

The fifteenth 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. This movement was 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. This led to a new direction in art, where non-theological painting, drama and music all began to flourish.     


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, texts, 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 easier 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 made extensive use of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577-87) for all his History plays and for King Lear, a monarch presented by Holinshed as historical rather than legendary.
The DecameronShakespeare 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 
  • Some of Shakespeare’s references in The Winter’s Tale seem to be drawn from the Latin work Metamorphoses, by Ovid, which Shakespeare probably read in Latin as well as in the translation by Arthur Golding in the mid-C16th
  • In King Lear there is evidence that Shakespeare made use of ideas and language he found in John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays.

Advice on how to govern

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. 
However, ‘Machiavellian’ ideas were soon seen as despicable, and the term became synonymous with villainy. For example, in 1592 the writer Greene had one of his characters remark: 
‘Is it pestilent Machiavellian policy that thou hast studied?’ 
In King Lear, Edmund’s scheming and his heartless plot to gain power and wealth by destroying his father and brother would have been seen as typically Machiavellian behaviour.

The renaissance prince

An aspect of renaissance court life was the idea that the ideal renaissance man should be widely accomplished. 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.’     
More on Renaissance Tudors and Stuarts: 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 or involved in warlike activity
    • Henry on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France
    • Elizabeth addressing her troops at Tilbury.
James I was neither 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 background > 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 lands. 
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.   
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