Books and printing in the Renaissance

Information explosion

The spread of new knowledge in the Renaissance 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

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
  • The Italian drama I Suppositi, published in an English translation by George Gascoigne in 1573, provided Shakespeare with the framework for the subplot in The Taming of the Shrew featuring Bianca and her suitors.

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 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?’ 

Machiavellian Petruchio

Elements of Petruchio’s ‘rule’ in The Taming of the Shrew seem to echo Machiavelli’s advice in his treatise The Prince, for example, where he recommends that a man’s approach to Fortune be similar to his approach to women who need to be mastered and beaten down. After the marriage ceremony Petruchio quickly establishes his authority by taking Katherina away from her family and subduing her shrewish temper. However, Petruchio more closely follows the taming techniques of a falconer who works tirelessly to train the falcon to hunt and follow the lure and himself suffers the same deprivations of food, sleep and rest.
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