Renaissance Period in English Literature (1500-1660)

Mofizur Rahman

Renaissance Period in English Literature (1500-1660) History of Renaissance Period

History of English Literature
Renaissance Period in English Literature (1500-1660)
Major Works of English Renaissance Periods
Major Writers of Renaissance Periods
Renaissance Period in English Literature (1500-1660)

The Renaissance Periods

Though renaissance began in 1453, its effect on English life and literature was felt after 1500. For this reason, it is generally accepted that the Renaissance Period began with the beginning of the 16th century and continued till the Restoration in 1660. This period is called the Renaissance Period because renaissance spirit was the main driving force that characterized the literature of this time.

This period of 160 years is sub-divided into four shorter ages after the Names of the political rulers. They are:-

  1. Elizabethan Age(1558-1603)
  2. Jacobean Age (1603-1625)
  3. Caroline Age (1625-1649)
  4. Commonwealth Period (1649-1660)

Elizabethan Age (1558-1603)

This age is named after Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned over England from 1558 to 1603. This is called the Golden Age of English literature.

The Important Facts Which Influenced the Literature of This Period:-

  1. With the accession of Queen Elizabeth I, dynastic problems and political troubles came to an end. Religious and social stability brought about national prosperity.
  2. The religious Reformation inspired religious tolerance and secularism.
  3. Elizabeth I introduced Anglicanism to settle religious problems. It has a long history. In the 16th century Martin Luther of Germany and Zwingli and Calvin of Switzerland protested against the autocracy of the then Pope. Those who supported them were called Protestants and those who still-supported the Pope were called the papists or Catholics. Henry VIII who was the King of England during those years supported Protestantism for his personal advantage. He wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine, and marry Anne Boleyn, his fiancee, but the Pope did not approve it. So he denied Pope's authority, married Anne Boleyn and introduced Protestantism to England. Some of the people accepted King's religious authority but the rest followed the Pope's rule. This caused a bloody civil war which continued till 1558, the year Queen Elizabeth I came to power. She understood the problem and introduced Anglicanism, England's own church. This religious settlement brought stability and prosperity to England in the second half of the 16th century.
  4. Geographical and astronomical discoveries of the previous decades brought unlimited fortune during this period.
  5. Renaissance that had started earlier was now very strongly felt in England. It brought ancient Greek and Roman wisdom to England. Erasmus reached England, and with John Colet, taught humanism and other ideals of renaissance.
  6. The social life of England was marked with a strong national spirit, humanism, liberal religious views, scientific curiosity, social content, intellectual progress and unlimited enthusiasm.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works

Thomas More (1478-1535)

  1. Utopia or Kingdom of Nowhere). The book was originally written in Latin in 1516
  2. Norton (1532-84) and Sackville (1536-1608):
  3. Gorboduc (1562), the first English tragedy

Edmund Spenser (1552-99)

He is called the poet of the poets because many later English poets followed his art of poetry.
  1. The Faerie Queene (1590)
  2. The Shepherd's Calendar (1579)
  3. Nicholas Udall:
  4. Ralph Roister Doister (1553), the first English Comedy

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)

  1. “An Apology for Poetry” (1595), a critical treatise.
  2. Arcadia (1590), a book that bears the embryo of English novel

John Lyly (1554-1606):

  1. He is called a university wit.
  2. Campaspe (1584)
  3. Sapho and Phao (1584)
  4. Midas (1589)
  5. Euphues (1579), a book that bears the embryo of English novel

Thomas Kyd (1557-1595):

  1. He is another university wit.
  2. The Spanish Tragedy (1585)

Robert Greene (1558-92):

  1. He is another university wit.
  2. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589)
  3. James- IV (1591)

George Peele (1558-98):

  1. He is another university wit.
  2. David and Bethsabe (1599)
  3. Arraignment ofParis (1584)

University wits

University wits are a group of young dramatists who wrote and performed in London towards the end of the 16th century. They are called university wits because they were the witty students of Cambridge or Oxford. Marlowe, Kyd, Nashe, Greene, Lyly, Lodge, and Peele were the members of this group. They upheld the classical ideals, and ridiculed the crudeness of the new English plays.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

He is called natural philosopher.
  1. Essays (1597)

Christopher Marlowe (1564-93)

  1. He is another university wit.
  2. Tamburlaine the Great Part I & II (1587-88)
  3. The Jew of Malta (1589)
  4. Edward II (1591)
  5. Doctor Faustus (1592)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

*The greatest English dramatist, famous for the objective presentation of his deep knowledge about human psychology. He is often called the bard of Avon. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Of the total 37 plays he wrote the following 25 before the death of Queen Elizabeth I:
  1. Henry VI (1st Part 1591-92)
  2. Henry VI (2nd Part 1591-92)
  3. Henry VI (3rd Part 1591-92)
  4. Richard III (1593)
  5. The Comedy of Errors (1593)
  6. Titus Andronicus (1594)
  7. The Taming of the Shrew (1594)
  8. Love's Labour's Lost (1594)
  9. Romeo and Juliet (1594)
  10. A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595)
  11. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1595)
  12. King John (1595)
  13. Richard II (1596)
  14. The Merchant of Venice (1596)
  15. Henry IV (1st Part.1597)
  16. Henry IV (2nd Part.1598)
  17. Much Ado about Nothing (1598)
  18. Henry V (1599)
  19. Julius Caesar (1599)
  20. The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600)
  21. As You Like It (1600)
  22. Hamlet (1601)
  23. Twelfth Night (1601)
  24. Troilus and Cressida (1602)
  25. All's Well That Ends Well (1602)

Thomas Nashe (1567-1601):

  1. He is also called a university wit.
  2. The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

Ben Jonson (1573-1637):

A neo-classicist though he wrote in the time when romantic mode of literature was prevalent. He is called a neo-classicist because he followed the classical rules of drama.
Every Man out of His Humour (1600)
Every. Man in His Humour (1601)

Beaumont (1584-1616) and Fletcher (1579-1625)

  1. Philaster (1611)
  2. A King and No King(1611)
  3. The Maid's Tragedy(1610)

Main Literary Features of the Age:

  1. Elizabethan literature reflects a great variety of creative genius.
  2. It demonstrates experimentation and innovation in dramatic and poetic forms and techniques.
  3. It is deeply influenced by the Renaissance spirit, especially by the Renaissance literature of Italy, France, and Spain.
  4. In style it exhibits romantic exuberance.
  5. Its writers are all men (not women) from all classes of the society:
  6. It is an age of exquisite poetry, unparalleled drama and splendid prose.
  7. It marks a shift from man's Fate to his free will.
  8. It develops English language to a level of stable standard.
  9. Its spirit ranges from the Platonic idealism or the delightful romance to the level of gross realism.
  10. The literature of this age shows a quest for “the remote, the wonderful and the beautiful”.
  11. It reflects original romanticism that revived during the beginning of Romantic Age in 1798.
  12. It initiates literary criticism.

Jacobean Age(1603-1625)

The age is named after James I who reigned over England from 1603 to 1625. The word “Jacobean” is derived from “Jacobus”,the Latin version of James. Some historians like to call the last five years of this age as a part of another age which they call the Puritan Age (1620-1660). They call it so because between 1620 and 1660 Puritanism became the driving force in the life and literature of England.

The important facts which influenced the literature of this period are:-

  • Colonial territories were expanded.
  • Religious conflict that subsided in the Elizabethan Age, revived in this period. Protestants were divided into three sects:-
  1. Anglicans,
  2. Presbyterians and
  3. Puritans.
Renaissance's influence continued.
Scotland was brought under the rule of the King of England.

Major Writers 'of the Period and Their Major Works:-

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare who had started writing in the Elizabethan Period wrote twelve serious plays in this period.
Those plays are:-
  1. Measure for Measure (1604)
  2. Othello (1604)
  3. Macbeth (1605)
  4. King Lear (1605)
  5. Antony and Cleopatra (1606)
  6. Coriolanus (1606)
  7. Timon of Athens (unfinished-1608)
  8. Pericles (in part-1608)
  9. Cymbeline (1609)
  10. The Winter's Tale (1610)
  11. The Tempest (1611)
  12. Henry VIII (in part-1613)

Though Shakespeare wrote these serious plays in the Jacobean Age, he is called an Elizabethan dramatist and never the Jacobean. The period (1590-1616) in which he wrote. his plays, is also called Shakespearean Age.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson who had started writing in the Elizabethan Period wrote his famous plays in this period:-
  1. Volpone (1605)
  2. The Silent Woman (1609)
  3. The Alchemist (1610)

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon continued writing in this period:-
  1. Advancement of Learning (1605)
  2. Novum Orgum (1620)
Some new essays were added to the new edition of his Essays (1625)
King James
King James I, known as the Wisest Fool, instituted the translation of the Bible into English in 1611. The Authorized King James Bible appears in 1611 and its language became the benchmark of English language.

John Webster

John Webster (1580-1625) his famous plays in this period:-
  1. The White Devil (1612)
  2. The Duchess of Malfi (1614)

Cyril Tourneur

Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626) his famous plays in this period:-
  1. The Revenger's Tragedy (1600)
  2. The Athelst's Tragedy (1611)

John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633) the metaphysical poets, started writing in this period.

Main Literary Features of the Age:-

  1. The elegance and felicity of Elizabethan verse disappear.
  2. The Platonic idealism which had been the main spirit of the Elizabethan era almost dies out.
  3. Renaissance's spirit still remains the main influence.
  4. Drama continues to dominate the literary scene.
  5. Classical rules of drama are maintained by Ben Jonson.
  6. Poetry takes a new and startling term.
  7. Decadence of art begins.
  8. English language develops further.
  9. Masque is innovated.
  10. Satiric art begins.

Caroline Age(1625-1649)

This age is named after Charles I who reigned over England from 1625 to 1649. “Caroline” is derived from “Carolus” , the Latin version of “Charles”. This age is also a part of the Puritan Age (1620-1660).

The important facts which influenced the literature of this period are:-

  1. There was a civil war between “Cavaliers” and “Roundheads”. Those who supported the King were called “Cavaliers”. Most of them were lords and their dependents. “Roundheads” were those who supported parliament. Most of them were puritans. A group of lyric poets associated with the “Cavaliers” are called “Cavalier poets”. Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, Robert Herrick and Thomas Carew were the members of this group. These poets are also called Sons of Ben as they were the admirers and followers of Ben Jonson. Their poems are trivial, gay, witty and often licentious.
  2. In 1642 English theatre was officially closed. On 14 June 1643 Licensing Order for printing was passed.
  3. The Cavaliers were defeated; the King was caught and publicly beheaded on 30th January, 1649. His death marked the dissolution of monarchy for the time being.
  4. English colonies were further expanded.
  5. Oliver Cromwell emerged as a puritan leader and came to power in 1649.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works:-

Donne and Herbert

Donne and Herbert continued writing their metaphysical poetry.

Henry Vaughan (1621-95) and Andrew Marvell

Henry Vaughan (1621-95) and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) also wrote metaphysical poetry.

John Milton (1608-74)

  1. Comus (1634)
  2. Lycidas (1637)
  3. “Of Education” (1644)
  4. “Areopagitica” (1644)

Main Literary Features of the Age:-

  1. Drama declines significantly.
  2. Literature reflects revival of moral and intellectual awakening.
  3. Elizabethan enthusiasm and national spirit disappear.
  4. Literary scenario is overshadowed by gloom and pessimism.
  5. Critical and intellectual spirit replaces natural outpouring of heart.
  6. Renaissance's influence continues.
  7. Three types of poetry appear: puritan poetry, metaphysical poetry and cavalier poetry.
  8. Cavalier poets appear and disappear; their straightforward, erotic short poems with the motto “carpe diem” disappear with them.
  9. Sermons, pamphlets, history and philosophy are written in prose.

Commonwealth Period (1649-1660)

This period, like the previous two periods, belonged to the Puritan Age. Only in this period there was no monarch in England. After the death of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, the puritan leader, came to power. He died in 1658 when his son Richard Cromwell became the ruler of England. He ruled England till 1660. In this period Puritanism became gradually unpopular. The English people realized that monarchy was essential for them.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works:-

John Milton

John Milton did not write anything important in this period.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a political philosopher:
  1. Leviathan (1651)

Jeremy Taylor (1613-67):

  1. Holy Living (1650), a sermon in prose
  2. Holy Dying (1651), a sermon in prose


Vaughan (1621-95) and Marvell (1621-78) continued writing
The influence of Renaissance and Puritanism died out by the end of this period. The Elizabethan romantic exuberance ended in this period.

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