The Renaissance

Changing attitudes

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw a changing attitude to religion and the place of humankind in the world, 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 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, in which 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. Its 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 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
  • Shakespeare based the plot of Othello on a story he had read in Gli Hecatommithi (A Hundred Tales) by the Italian Cinthio Giraldi. In the play he also described the mythical creatures called Anthropophagi, which suggests he may have read about them from the writings of Pliny or Herodotus.

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 in Italy during the Renaissance was Machiavelli’s The Prince. This suggested the need for rulers to be prepared to be pragmatic and possibly devious. It was translated into English and certainly known in England by the time of Henry VIII. 
However, ‘Machiavellian’ ideas were soon seen as being 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 Othello, Iago’s scheming and his heartless plot to destroy Othello would have been seen as typically Machiavellian behaviour. Iago also plots to disgrace Cassio and to rob Roderigo. He knows that this will also bring great suffering to Desdemona and Emilia, his own wife, who is Desdemona’s devoted servant. In doing this, he again shows typical Machiavellian behaviour, as he never shows any regret or remorse at the consequences.

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

Michelangelo's PietaRenaissance 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 religious works,also 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 artistic 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. See Impact of global exploration.
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, which Shakespeare well knew and recorded in such plays as The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest.      
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