The Renaissance

and the Age of Milton




The  Renaissance world picture. Historical background and literary scene. Early Tudor revival and Elizabethan High Renaissance. Renaissance poetry: reinscription and experimentation. Renaissance drama : architecture, rhetoric, types of conflict, plot, generic conventions; constructions of race, gender, and class. The Shakespearian Canon. Shakespeare and history. Shakespeare and the traditions of comedy and tragedy. From the entanglements of history to the aesthetic haunts of the pastoral. Jacobean and Caroline Drama, or the black comedy at the end of a cultural phase. Seventeenth-century poetry.  Jonson's Cavaliers and Donne's Metaphysicals. John Milton and the English Revolution.


In his influential book, The Elizabethan World Picture (1943), E.M. Tillyard defines the Elizabethan Age as a secular period between two outbreaks of Protestantism, when New Humanism was allowed to shape literature. The religious reform, started by John Wycliffe (1320-1384), was completed by Henry VIII' declaration of independence from the Church of Rome (1533). Chaucer's ironic treatment of a Dominican monk's book (Bernard de Louen's Livre de Melibée et Prudence) already points to the existence of growing impatience and discontent with medieval scholastic thought in the late fourteenth century. More material signs of the humanistic turn can be detected during the Tudor monarchs, the Renaissance swelling in its full tide under Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and taking a baroque twist at the hedonistic court of the first Stuart king: James I (1603-1625). The second outbreak of Protestantism was responsible for the Civil War and the execution of an absolutist monarch, who had chosen to rule the country without a Parliament: Charles I (1625-1649). The Restoration of the monarchy, that is the return to England of Charles II and his court (1660-1685), marked a complete change in literary diction in the direction of neoclassicism.

The admixture of styles in the seventeenth century makes periodization difficult. John Donne had already launched his flamboyant baroque lyric in the 90s, and the poetry of his Caroline followers (the so-called “Metaphysical School”) differs sharply from that of the royalists' (the Cavalier School of Ben Jonson), with their neoclassical taste for order, harmony and discipline. John Milton's classical learning and mixed styles (a Spenser in baroque and neoclassical disguise) borrowed a more factious colouring from his Puritan commitment to the Civil War, whose spirit, apart from administrative action (closing down the theatres in 1644), found a more orthodox literary outlet (allegorical form and theological anchoring) after the Restoration (John Bunyan: Pilgrims' Progress, 1678, The Holy War, 1682), ill-assorted with the formal elegance and refined cynicism of the court. Although Milton, Vaughan or Marvell produced the bulk of their work after the Restoration, they do not belong to the characteristic, “Augustan” spirit and movement of the day. Our periodization, therefore, is typological rather than chronological.

For some time now the English Renaissance has been studied less from a morphological viewpoint (inventory of themes, motifs, forms) and more from that of the mode of articulation between history and epistemology. The Renaissance is seen as a poise between the medieval and the modern world, a shift from ontotheology to the centrality of the human being defined through cultural ontology. The prestigious scholastic thought of the twelfth century – Duns Scotus, John of Salisbury, William of Ockham – had supported a theocentric perspective, with the world interpreted as the embodiment of the divine Logos (Salisbury in his Metalogicon: God's signature). Here is Jacques Derrida, describing the logocentric view of the world: res is chose créée à partir de son eidos, de son sens pensé dans le logos ou l'entendement infini de Dieu [1]. The modern revolution means a redeployment of the whole structure of values and signification on a human level, and the Renaissance man, centrally situated in the new world picture, took decisive steps in this direction. The mind no longer looks up or beyond; it turns and feeds upon itself. The experience of interiority (characters brooding upon what they have said or done and being transformed in the process), self-reflexivity, the dialogue of the mind with itself, our own awareness of role-playing) are seen as basic in the shaping of the modern self by Harold Bloom in his recent revaluation of Hamlet [2]. There seems to be no one-to-one correspondence between “thing” and “symbol”. Meaning is not given but constructed through language.  The new world picture is no longer revealed but coming into focus through a plurality of intersecting discourses. What has struck all postmodern commentators (M. Foucault, J.-F.Lyotard, R. Girard) is the remarkable homogeneity of the semantic energy circulated by the Elizabethan discourses. The question is: do they mirror what the Elizabethans thought or were they constitutive of the frames of evaluation against which people measured themselves? Is the writing subjectivity disclosing an order of meaning – like Scotus's and Salisbury's hermeneutic efforts to interpret the divine meaning hiding in the things in the world –, or is it assumed as producing it through discourse? The reliance on the discursive body of the age – whether philosophical, ethical, legal, religious, artistic – the practice of intertextuality and the foregrounding of a process of linguistic ontology  [3] – show that the Elizabethans regarded themselves as meaning beings, bestowing meaning on the world rather than deciphering one already inscribed in it. The “secularization” process replaces the transcendental attitude by cultural constructs:...if thought, language, and social processes are mutually interdependent, then meaning itself cannot be a simple question of reference – the establishment of an equivalent between “symbol” and “thing” – but must be a construction in language. It therefore follows that the mechanisms deployed in the construction of language, and the selection of certain possibilities from within those governed by the system as a whole which takes place in the act of reading, are those which, in principle, determine the way in which particular communities make sense of the world. In other words, the means of establishing a hierarchy of values at the conceptual level correspond to a process of differentiation at the material level of the construction of the signifier [4].

I. Maybe the broadest definition of the Renaissance outlook is that the world out there is something different and inferior to the “making sense of it”. The Titanic drive of the “self-born” spirit to test all habitudes of thought is manifest in all walks of life. Time, personified in The Winter's Tale as a split personality, sees itself either as empty passage, on-going movement, or as meaningful fulfilment  of human intentions and purposes; either as the inflexible law of nature's course, or as the realm of human signifieds („custom”). 

         TIME:      Impute it not a crime

         To me or my swift passage that I slide

         O'er sixteen years and leave the growth untried

         Of that wide gap, since it is in my power

         To o'erthrow law and in one self-born hour

         To plant and o'erwhelm custom. 

The word “custom” here seems to envelop the sphere of Pierre Bourdieu's “habitus” [5]: a set of interpretations that enable persons and social groups to make a virtue of necessity; the perceptual, evaluative, and classificatory schemata, codes of the social imaginary which have a capacity for self-replication within individual imaginations.

The meaning structure of the Renaissance discourse has received several names – “life style”, “heuristic model”, “episteme”, “framework of evaluation”, “signifying practice”, “semantic energies”, “world picture”, “habitus”, “chronotope” (the time and space inscribed in discourse) – which are, in effect, more or less synonymous, designating analogous codifiers of Elizabethan ideology.

The books relating to history, discovery and navigation, in an age of universal curiosity, were breeding a sense of the emancipation of the intellect in the general process of man establishing his empire over nature. Being and meaning-making had grown independent of each other: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so (Hamlet, II/2). The unique narrative of Christianity or history was now competing with several histories, several meta-narratives. Historical distancing was a frequent device, the theme was often a conflict of values, pagan or Christian, or a comparison between the present and the past (Here is Thomas Wilson, the translator of Demosthenes: every good subject should compare the present and the past, when he hears of Athens and Athenians, he should remember England and the Englishmen). The static world outlook nourished by the immobile medieval status was seriously being challenged by the discovery of human communities with different values and beliefs.  In 1492 Columbus discovered America because of an inference made possible by contemporary science. The time had come for new territories to be discovered in the mind before they were discovered on the planet. Or, once discovered, to be reshaped according to the human measure: Many great regions are discovered,/ Which to late age were never mentioned.// Who ever heard of the Indian Peru ?/ Or who in venturous vessel measured/ the Amazon's huge river found true ?/ Or fruitful Virginia who did ever view ?// Yet all these were, when no man did them know;/ Yet had from wisest ages hidden been:/ And later times things more unknown shall show...(Edmund Spenser, prologue to the second book of The Faerie Queene).

II. New worlds were not only discovered, measured out, colonized through translations but also invented by a future-oriented humanity, capable of projective behaviour (Hamlet: looking before and after, IV/4). The convention of the ideal state, not topical but imaginary, which became familiar among the contemporaries of Tommaso Campanella (La citta del Sole) and Francis Bacon (The New Atlantis, 1626) meant pioneer work in Thomas More's Utopia or The Discourses of Raphael Hythloday, of the Best State of a Commonwealth, written in Latin, in 1515. Utopian fictions connect the two poles of a great time for change. Their authors reminded their societies, and not generic mankind, of their responsibility to themselves, and not to God, in improving on their social organization, in advancing upon the road of that kind of knowledge which can benefit everyone during one's life on earth, which is not vain, but can be made glorious. Is truth ever barren? Bacon's rhetorical question in his essay, The Praise of Knowledge, is met with a new pragmatism: Shall we not be able thereby to produce worthy effects and to endow the life of man with infinite commodities ? The ideal of the life of contemplation is forfeited in favour of active involvement, for in this theatre of man's life it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers on (The Advancement of Learning, 1605, a philosophical essay, in the manner of Montaigne).

III. Bacon is the maker of the modern mind also in that combination of empricism and awareness of the need for an adequate method in science, that is of the mind leaning upon itself. As different from Aristotle's “organon”, his new instrument  – Novum Organum, 1620 –, has an inductive character, proceeding through comparison, antithesis, distinction and rejection. The Renaissance mind takes nothing for granted, the epistemological inquiry (into the grounds of knowledge) being the distinguishing mark of modern consciousness. Bacon uses the word  “idol” to describe man's false consciousness coming from philosophical systems, whether empirical, sophistical or superstitious (idols of the theatre), from noncritical assumptions about the world's delusive appearances (idols of the tribe, for instance the deceiving movements of the heavenly bodies, as they appear to the senses, or idols of the cave, originating in individual likings or biases), or from the improper use of language (idols of the market-place). Bacon's denial of Cratylism[6] and the idea that words react on the understanding were some of the earliest critical and analytical approaches to language.  Shakespeare's own awareness of the way language works [7] is worth the attention of contemporary semiologists.

IV. Printing (Recuyll of the Historyes of Troye was the first book published by William Caxton in England in 1474) had an enormous contribution to the dissemination of the new ideas of Humanism and the Renaissance, while the translation of the Bible, begun by Thomas More, and continued by William Tyndale (1536), later revised by Coverdale, Matthew and the English exiles in Geneva, and printed as the Authorized Version in 1611, made available in great numbers an English idiom so refined as to seem touched by the breath of divine inspiration.

The medieval access to the works of the Greek and Latin antiquity had been a limited one, partly through censorship, partly through distorting commentaries (pagan works valued for supposed prophecies of Christiandom). Lorenzo Vala was the founder of philological and historical criticism, while Erasmus himself, who  taught Greek at Cambridge from 15lo to 15l3, distinguished (in a famous letter to Martinus Dorpius, 1515) between theology (philological ignorance and  rigid forma mentis) and bonae litterae (litterae humaniores, studia humanitatis, humanae litterae, humaniora, studia humanista), that is, the liberal studies, including grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy – set apart from theology.

V. The self is generated within new matrices of meaningful social action, which is the most important aspect of man's centrality in the Renaissance world picture. In this we differ from E.M.W. Tillyard [8], who identifies a solidly theocentric... a simplified version of a much more complicated medieval picture, while receiving support from Rene Girard’s opinion that, in Shakespeare, the structure of meaning is based not upon the “stable significance” of the original Logos (natural significance), but on codes built on differences (symbolical order): Le Degree est plus que la source de toute signification stable, plus qu'un mecanisme de différenciation: c'est aussi le principe de l'unité entre les hommes, éminemment paradoxale, puisqu'il est aussi désunion, séparation, distance hierarchie. As this issue is fundamental in any Shakespearean apparoach, let us take a closer look at what Shakespeare himself and the anonymous author of a Homily published in an 1547 collection have got to say. The Shakespearean quote is from Ulysses' famous speech in Troilus and Cressida, I/3.

         When that the general is not like the hive

         To whom the foragers  shall all repair,

         What honey is expected ? Degree being vizarded,

         The unworthiest shows us fairly in the mask.

         The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

         Observe degree, priority and place,

         Insisture, course, proportion, season form,

         Office and custom, in all line of order;

Every degree of people in their vocation,/ calling, and office, hath appointed to them,/ their duties and order, some are in high /degree, some in low, some kings and princes,/ some inferior and subjects, priests and/ lay men, masters and servants, fathers and / children, husbands and wives, rich and poor,/ and every one needs of other, so that in all/ things is to be lauded and praised the goodly/ order of God...  

The author of the homily does not describe an entire social hierarchy, nor does he stick to a unique criterion, which would make any possible (social estate, family ties, ecclesiastical or lay appurtenance, financial means etc.) These are simply binary oppositions on which codes are founded. The Renaissance mind is more interested in the superstructure of meanings created through social intercourse, than in the fixed social estates which none of the Canterbury-bound pilgrims means to transgress.

Ulysses notices the empty Greek tents and the embittering sight inspires him with a disanalogy: as different from a hive (the medieval common trope for society), where all bees do their duty, humans are in a position to choose, either to act their parts or to play truant. The next opposition between vizard and mask shows that nothing about the human being is a given. Man can either insert himself consciously into the social cast, in which case there is an identity between self and mask (an individual socialized as warrior, the man and his socially ascribed role) or become an actor, the mask being an empty marker, having no referent out there in the world. However, the identity between self and eidos has been conventionalized and relativized. Both vizor and mask are not solidary with but they merely stand for the actual face (a relationship of the kind establishing between thing and signifier). The difference is that one signifier is full, validated by a necessary or ideal social order, while the other is an empty marker. The truth of the mask is the link between body and social signifier. The mind is permanently on the watch out in order to harmonize the private and public selves (see the conflict between private desire and the requirements of the public office in Measure for Measure) to give a good example, when in high office, for rulers are permanently observed, not only in their open affairs, but also in their secret passe times (from a sermon, towards the end of the sixteenth century). Failure to fulfil the allotted social role may result in general disaster (see the tragedy of Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville, 1562, about the king whose self-willed abdication ends up tragically or Lear's similar fate in Shakespeare's play, 1605).

The crisis of degree was the result of the emergence of the new world of mobile liquid capital. The Malta where the action of Marlowe's Jew of Malta is set is a fragmented world, lacking historical roots and national identity, a mere knot in the web of financial capital spreading its net all over Europe. The Prologue spoken by Machiavell places this shifting, cosmopolitan world under the patronage of the Italian merchant prince, the archetypal subverter of inherited status and under the sway of money heaped up in the opening scene by Barabas. But even this rich Jew can stabilize not even his own home: his daughter, Abigail (like Jessica, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) shifts her allegiances to Christianity. Allegiance versus inherited status was the defining moment in the new construction of identity. According to Jacob Burkhardt, the Renaissance meant the end of feudal collective selfhood (the individual used to be defined through some form of collective identity: a member of a class, religious or lay fraternity, etc.)  and the beginning of the era of bourgeois individuality: the self-made capitalist, who feels free from the world. Stephen Greenblatt, a contemporary American historicist, supports the idea, coining a term for it: self-fashioning. The individual feels free to choose his status in the world, to shape his own identity, particularly through discourse. Marx's opposite theory, of the Renaissance man being defined through objects, through the material condition of his existence, as, in the new market system, commodities have merely an exchange value, wich depends on offer and demand not on the identity of the producer, was adapted by the French poststructuralist Jean François Baudrillard to his theory of simulacra, or of the empty signs, no longer tied down to a fixed, material referent. Any face can assume any vizor. Money can buy status, power; feudal fixities and aristocratic privileges had come under stress.

In Shakespeare there is a permanent tension between these two constructions of identity. Queen Elizabeth's sumptuary laws had regulated expenditures so as to maintain social distinctions through outward markers of rank, as, for instance, vestments. The Bastard, in King John, alludes quite transparently to the new Machiavellian political philosophy of instrumental rationality (to pursue what is efficient, irrespective of moral aspects) which had ruled out the ancient imposition of honesta utilitas (the useful should also be honest). This is a sort of dematerialization of the world into the emptiness of signs, simulacra („all-changing word”) through the exchange value of marketable goods („Commodity”). The whole world, displaced from origin, enters upon a “bastard” stage. The natural countenance, the lively face mirroring the war of genuine emotions, had smoothed down into the immobility of the social mask.

         That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,

         Commodity, the bias of the world;

         The world, who of itself is poised well,

         Made to run even upon even ground,

         Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,

         This sway of motion, this Commodity,           

         Makes it take heed from all indifferency,

         From all direction, purpose, course, intent:

         And this same bias, this Commodity,

         This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word...:                       

The loss of property turns both Lear and Edgar into zero figures (according to the current ideological construction of identity). However, both characters will finally assert their intrinsic human worth, which survives the loss of property. The redeemed Lear, who has learned that the clothes of the rich only serve to hide vices, will freely discard outward garments (Undo this button...), as the medicinal effect of changing places with the wretched had taught him the true value of “pomp”.

Unlike such attempts to resist the solvent effect of capitalism upon social and human ties, more characteristic of the chronicle plays, lost in legendary times, or of the romances, removed from historical time, the black comedies, or Troylus and Cressida, an early example of theatre of the mind, privilege a new form of character construction, which anticipates pragmatist theories of identity as constative, shaped by public discourse, or the recognition one gets from his social others. Whereas Ulysses's address to the army stresses the importance of each man's duty according to his degree or place in society, for obvious military purposes, in his conversation with his friend, Achilles, as his purpose changes (to end his sulky and indolent retreat to his tent), this sly, shape-shifting leader of the Greek armies defines human worth as that which resides in the eye of the beholder. If Achilles does not fight, like an actor whose fame depends on uninterrupted acting, his reputation will go over to Ajax. Inherent worth, essential human nature is no longer the issue, it is the “applause”, the public ratification that consecrates one's social status.

In All's Well that Ends Well, friendship, loyalty, love or virginity are all turned into commodities, goods to be exchanged for the best offer at the timely moment of demand...

The rejection of natural law, of morality, the new politics, no longer constrained by the practice of virtues, represent, according to Leo Strauss, the  first wave of modernity” (“The Three Waves of Modernity”), whose signs Shakespeare, Marlowe or the metaphysical poets intercepted with the sensitivity of the immunological system to the noxious germs entering the body.

VI. A more valuable aspect of modernity dawning on the world at the time of the Renaissance was the end of medieval dogmatism and totalitarianism. Modernity, according to Gabriel Josipovici (The Lessons of Modernism) meant the end of transcendental authority, contributed by three potent challengers: Science (everything was being reexamined in the light of truth and rational investigation), Protestantism (according to Calvin and Luther, the Church was no longer needed in the dialogue of the alone with the Alone: the believer and God) and the Bourgeoisie, a social class which disturbed the pre-existing hierarchical arrangements.

Two more challengers of medieval hermenutic and of a unified body of belief should be further considered, as they fostered modern relativism, whose first articulations, from Montaigne (16th century) to Chladenius (his concept of “Sehepunkt”, in the 18th century)  bore upon the structuring devices of the arts and their modes of representation: Copernican perspectivism and Bacon's critique of language and representation.

The previous age had been dominated by Ptolemaic cartography, which meant the neutrality and stability of the geometrical vision in constructing maps of the world. The eye was diametrically opposed to the first chosen meridian. Latitudes and longitudes stretched out from this spot to produce a two-dimensional representation. Copernican astronomy had rendered this representation problematic. The viewer's correct representation depended on astronomical referents and on the instruments of measurement. It was correct only if the eye was lined up with the North Star. The rules of perspective, laid down by the Italian painter Alberti (Della Pittura) exposed artistic representation for an illusion, an artifice, as the artist no longer copied over or faithfully mirrored the world; he set it in perspective. One's sense of reality was going through a crisis, as perspectivism did not echo, it doubled up being. In King Lear, Edgar induces his father to believe that he is standing up at Dover, by imaginatively describing a mound of small height according to the rules of perspective. Blind Gloucester jumps from it to his safety, and his belief in a miracle restores his faith in life and divine justice. The time honoured tyranny of the mimetic principle is overthrown, and Philip Sidney can safely proclaim art's emancipation from reality in his Defence of Poesy:

... the poet's persons and doings are but pictures what should be, and not stories what have been, they will never give the lie to things not affirmatively, but allegorically and figuratively written.  And therefore as in history, looking for truth, they may go away full-frought with falsehood, so in poesy, looking but for fiction, they shall use the narration but as an imaginative ground-plan of a profitable invention.

Pesrpectivism nullified Aristotle's distinction between the historian's discourse of truth as against the poet's invention. The positionality of the observer, the accuracy of his methods or instruments intervened as uncontrollable variables in his mediation – rather than discovery – of truth. In the playhouse for the Stuart court, built by Inigo Jones according to the rules of perspective, it was only the king's seat that permitted the central viewing position. Only the king's vision was correct...

Bacon's theory of idols precipitated the sense of “homini confusio” permeating the arts of the baroque. Ideas of the world can be fallible, he says, on account of misrepresentations, which he calls “idols”.

Cratyllic language (words having some precise meaning according to their eidos – their image in the divine mind) gives way to signs as empty stand-ins, whose meaning is negotiated in communication. The theory of the conventional nature of language was to be completed by John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

Such early manifestations of modern scepticism and relativism take us over to the other, dark side of the Renaissance, traditionally associated with the birth of rationalism, the scientific spirit and man's increasing control of the universe.

VII. Is there an occult side to the Renaissance as well, as Hélène Vedrine would have us believe in her Philosophies de la Renaissance? [9]. If Renaissance belief in the validity of social structures of meanings and values is above all disputation, the interest in the occult or in metaphysical schemes appears to us as a purely rhetorical stratagem. Did people really believe in the validity of their representations of the world, summed up by Tillyard as “chain of being”, “cosmic dance”, “the doctrine of the four elements” or “correspondences between planes of being” as firmly as the medieval spectator who felt his blood freezing on watching Everyman, or were they just tropes? The very amalgamation and repetition confirms the latter suspicion. In his Fairy Queene, (The Mutability Canto) Spenser tropes the dissolution of the world both as regress from subtler to more inferior elements (fire, air, water, earth) and as the Christian apocalypse. In his sonnets, Shakespeare too inscribes both figures: in sonnets XLIV and XLV, his person appears to be divided between that part made up of earth and water, which pulls him downwards, when his love moves away, and the other two, slight air and purging fire, which are his better self, activated in the presence of his love. In sonnet CXLIV, he appears as the Christian split double nature, with his better angel outwardly projected as the fair youth, and his base, or evil self, personified by the Dark Lady. The recurrent motif of the warring body and soul have become a metaphorical way of speaking about a psychological polarity: the mortality of the body and the slavery of passions and instincts in counterdistinction to the freedom of the spirit, participating in the immortality of books or seeking eternal glory through them (Castiglione's Courtier, XLIII, translated by Thomas Hoby). Ancient and contemporary masters are ransacked for models and precepts: Aristotle' Nicomachean Ethics, Cicero's De Officiis, Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, A Mirror for Magistrates (interrogating aspects of conduct in historical figures), Thomas Elyot’s The Book Named the Governor.  The “chain of being” points to the vector of a human meliorist project, which replaces natura naturans by the dramatist's art: Prospero's brave new world, rescued from the sub-human Caliban stage – that is man in his natural state) – and dimystified from Ariel's enchantment. Dropping the magic of the magician's book and staff, Prospero claims applauses for the illusionary power of artistic representation. The self, permanently confronted with models and paragons, is often self-dramatized, and cast into a self-reflexive type of discourse: play within the play, framing and comment on the main action through parallel plots, dumb shows, prologues etc.  

Under Henry VII, the court became an artistic centre, where drama could grow more secular and less other-worldly. Under Henry VIII, it also became anti-clerical, launching fierce attacks on the Catholic Church. The new sites of dramatic performances (in colleges, at court, in aristocratic households) encouraged an appropriation of classical learning and a more developed language and structure. Native roots should not be underestimated, however (encouraged even by the breaking down of the European religious community into national churches). A metamorphic process, with help from classical models, led naturally from the morality play to the Renaissance historical play, with the nation removed from an eschatological frame and set within a historical one (Kynge Johan, by John Bale, dated around 1539); from interludes to the comedies of the professional scholars from the universities, full of farcical situations, structured into acts and scenes according to classical models, yet dealing with native topics and characters and experimenting with songs, in the unrestrained manner of  popular festivals. Udall's Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton's Needle, by an identified author, are the best known. In the latter, the whole sophisticated machinery of classical comedy – a Prologue introducing the subject, division into acts and scenes, the unfailing end-line rhyme of the couplets, in sharp contrast to the rudimentary language of the folk songs – is employed for a farcical situation of the basest sort. An old woman loses her needle, a fact which causes an entirely disproportionate despondency and agitation (so fearful a fray), only to find it finally in her servant's breeches which she has mended. The homely goods of a village kitchen, the popular superstitions, the colourful language are among the first attempts in the way of a realistic comedy. The prevailing mode, however, is the mock-heroic. Tudor drama converted the morality play, preaching humility, faith, obedience to God, into a heroic play, celebrating power, riches, beauty or knowledge, no longer of divinity but of the world, or into a kind of theatre having a political agenda and targeting specific goals in the context of an altering political map. Characters are no longer disembodied abstractions. In Henry Medwall's Nature, Pride is a courtly type representing himself in terms of materialistically determined social status: ancestry, a large estate, fashionable dress, being served at the table. Vestments, lifestyle, possessions ascribe him to some particular social class. As Cardinal Morton's chaplain, Medwall served his patron's interests by staging a performance in honour of the Spanish and Flemish ambassadors gathered at Lambeth Palace on the Christmas Eve of 1497. The Cardinal had not been born but appointed to a high social position, therefore he was interested in reclassifying status as individual talent and accomplishment. Henry VII himself, who could not make a very strong case for his accession to the throne, and who was relying on the Commons and on the gentry in his attempt to curb the power and arrogance of the baronial class, was encouraging the new definition of nobility as an acquisition rather than a given. In Medwall's Fulgence and Lucrec, a Roman senator's daughter is faced with the problem of choosing a suitor: will she settle for Publius Cornelius, an aristocrat by birth, or for Gaius Flaminius, who had worked his way up in society through virtuous conduct and services to Rome? Unlike the Roman senators, the servants in the subplot mirroring the main plot support the privilege of blood. A and B, in love with Joan, “the flower of the frying pan”, will solve their rivalry over the same woman according to the rules of courtly love and courtship by tournament. The worthlessness of the aristocratic values is suggested through this parody set in low life.

However, even Elizabethan or High Renaissance drama continues to incorporate elements of medieval drama as well as of popular culture – folk songs and dances, figures and motifs of the carnivalesque low tradition of village festivals – as well as the double plot mingling the serious and the comic threads of the miracles and interludes, for the sake of a more complex effect, secured by the existence of multiple perspectives on the subject. Elements of medieval morality steal into Elizabethan tragedy, usually broadening its appeal: allegorical characters and pageants of the Seven Deadly Sins in a heroic play (thematizing the thirst for knowledge and power) like Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe allegorical dumb shows, commenting on the main action through archetypal or hic-et-ubique projections (Gorboduc, by Sackville and Norton, Hamlet, romances). Apart from being tardy, English Renaissance also chose to take its original course. The Shakespearean genius broke all rules and created its own dramatic forms. As a matter of fact, Aeschylus and Sophocles were not translated at all over this timespean, while Euripides was only known through a paraphrase of the Phoenissae (1566).  Machiavelli's Prince, which challenged the medieval view of a fixed system of hierarchies, divinely ordained, was not translated into English until well into the seventeenth century (164o), Bacon objecting that one ought to write what one should, not what one thinks. The Faustus figure was played down as a conjurer, satisfied to play childish tricks on the potentates of the day. Elizabeth, who was a new type of woman, learned, emancipated, undertook to translate a medieval philosopher, Boethius, while her champion of the sea, Walter Raleigh, was not only a discoverer but also a theologian. Erasmus was more influential through his Enchiridion Militis Christiani (The Christian Soldier's Textbook), echoed in various writings of the time, than through the cunning social satire of Encomium Moriae (The Praise of Folly). It is true that Alexander Barclay's Ship of Fools (1509) was published shortly after Sebastian Brant's invention of this new narrative convention (Das Narrenschiff, Basel, 1494), which is a Renaissance version of the medieval Danse macabre or estate satire: representatives of all social estates are gathered together for satirical purposes. Unlike him, Shakespeare was an explorer of past worlds and past narratives alike (apart from the longue durée of his atemporal romance worlds), and attempts to establish an underground political allusiveness to real people are dismissed with an ironical comment by Northrop Frye, in his book On Shakespeare. Frye remarks the absence of any reference to contingent political events in the histories, as well, such as of Magna Carta in King John or of the peasants' revolt in Richard II: I make this point because every so often some director or critic gets the notion that certain characters, such as Titania, refer to her. The consequences to Shakespeare's dramatic career if the Queen had believed that she was being publicly represented as having a love affair with a jackass are something we fortunately don't have to think about [10]. Censorship was exercised as a royal prerogative through the Master of Revels who licensed companies, read and approved all plays, for a considerable fee, often demanding changes before they got his assent. Printing was controlled by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Privy Council through their ecclesiastical authorities and court officials, and enforced through the Stationers' Company, a state-licensed monopoly.  What was being suppressed? According to Margot Heinemann,  [11] Questions of morality or taste scarcely arose except for the banning of oaths in 1606; rape, incest, mutilation, and brothel realism seem not to have troubled the censors at all.

Apparently a history of censorship will reveal what potentates mostly dislike or fear. The licentious court of King James I, with the king himself guilty of erotic transgression and the queen presiding over an endless revelling in her “dancing barn” of  White Hall, to say nothing of a nobleman murdered by his wife and her lover under the court's protection, did not make much fuss about morality. It was only political transgression that mattered.

The sore points of court politics changed from the Elizabethan to the Stuart reign. Elizabeth, who had ordered the maiming of a man who had written a pamphlet on her prospective marriage to the French dauphin (he had his right hand cut off), mostly feared issues of legitimacy and succession, as well as of religious extremism and fanaticism. The Elizabethan Settlement had restored the power of the bishops, according to the principle “no bishop no king”, while the Stuarts made further progress on the way to a restoration of Catholicism, dramatically ended by the Civil War. A proclamation of 1559 had even forbidden the treatment of religious and political issues except in front of persons endowed with “discretion” (wisdom, the capacity to discern and discriminate). Marlowe wrote different prologues and epilogues for his Jew of Malta, depending on the site of performance. The prologue for the White Hall play alluded to the fact that the play had passed censorship and could now gratify the spectators’ judicious “princely ears”, while the prologue for the Druary Lane (Cockpit or Phoenix) theatre only advertised the author as the “greatest poet” of the age and commented on aesthetic issues. With all his precautions, his daring idea that hell is only a state of conscience (Doctor Faustus) and his opinion that Thomas Harriot, the Queen's mathematician, was a Juggler who used religion to enslave the naive minds of the primitive people in Virginia (see Stephen Greenblatt, Shakepearean Negotiations, pp. 21 and the following)  put down in a police report might have contributed to his early and suspect loss of life.

The state control of dramatic performance made all dramatists dependent upon patronage for security and a livelihood. Shakepeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, was a friend of Robert Devreux, Earl of Essex, who began by asking subversive question, such as whether a King might not err, and ended in overt rebellion leading to his execution. Shakespeare's contribution to the cause was probably The Tragedy of King Richard the Second, putting on the map questions about a king's worthiness, legitimacy, and deposition shortly before the outbreak of the Essex revolt.

Under James I, it was the king's bent toward absolutism that represented the main concern of his subjects. The king claimed that he was ruling by divine right (no longer, like Elizabeth, “with their love”, as she had stated before a deputation of the Commons), that his subjects’ lives depended on him, that he could dispose of them as he well pleased, and that he was the father of the nation like a patriarch in his family. The pastoral mode was the frequent attempt at the time to mitigate the asperities of a totalitarian regime. Its founding convention was the oneness of existence, and its integrative poetics spanned the range of drama and poetry from Shakespeare’s late romances to Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island, published in 1633, i.e. shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. The difference is that, whereas Shakespeare modulated the pastoral stuff into an aesthetic parable, Fletcher shows the new concern of the baroque poet with the human body:

Phineas Fletcher's allegorical atlas of the human body, The Purple Island; or, The Isle of Man (1633), models both the geophysical composition and the social character of a fictional Pacific Island on the skeletal structure and anatomical systems of the human body. (...) What is intriguing in Fletcher's treatment of this trope, in his celebration of tributaries as what is perhaps the smallest organ of the human body, is the implicit claim that political agency resides in all aspects of the state and not exclusively in the head of the monarch. Fletcher diverges from the centralized political theodicy offered by the Stuarts and redistributes political agency to the most minute parts of that body politic. Because this strategy is inimical to the prevalent Stuart ideology that sought to redefine the unity of wills between ruler and subject (unitas in voluntaribus) as the governing and regulating will of one man (unitas una et regulatrix), I argue that Fletcher contributes to alternate traditions rooted in primitive notions of pietas and richly adduced poetically throughout the pastoral tradition. The pastoral tradition, which reached its apogee under Elizabeth, itself becomes increasingly saturated with discussions of a unitary model of political will which will, at this time, also provides the model for poetic patronage in a new political climate. As poets adjust to the absolutism of James's rule, the pastoral landscape becomes increasingly structured from above; it is overseen by a single ruling entity rather than a group of shepherds working in the harmonious pursuit of common interests, necessitating a generic renegotiation to reflect the disparate ruling ideologies in the shift from Tudor to Stuart. [12].

Poetry's coverage at the time was much more comprehensive, though. It turned to politics as well as to religion, science or the sister arts. William Harvey's recent discovery of the circulation of the blood had probably spurred Fletcher's imagination, yet a look at the larger historical context can always enrich a literary historian's explanatory narrative.

Renaissance Poetry: Reinscription and Experimentation.

English poets displayed an unhibited handling of generic conventions, working freely with forms, thematic elements, topics and conventions.

All the literary forms the English revived from the antiquity or borrowed from the recent developments on the Continent underwent significant transformations, so that the argument on the comparable value of the moderns and of the ancients, imitated in a servile spirit, needed to be imported from France to England towards the end of the seventeenth century, where it knew an unglorious career (settled in favour of the native genius by Dryden and ridiculed by Pope). Instead, the first book of Don Quixote was translated into English before the second appeared in Spain, and the “fantastic Spaniard” who loves by the book in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost was the kindred offspring of another comic genius. The literary heritage of Don Quixote was to be a lasting one among the English authors, interested ever since the Renaissance in the epistemological aspects of textuality (life by the book), in the pilgrimage of books (“errant texts”) in the indifferent world of things[13].

The ancient literary forms were first recovered either through translation or imitation. Or both, we should say, as the Scot poet, Gavin Douglas, translated the Aeneid keeping to the original sense and proportions, yet recasting it into heroic couplets, while the great innovator, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, reshaped it to blank verse, that is unrhymed, enjambed (run-on, instead of end-stopped lines) pentameters – the first in English.

The extensive use of the pastoral mode (originating in the Idylls of Theocritus, 3rd cent. B.C.) both in poetry (the pastoral eclogue) and in prose romances (Robert Greene, Philip Sidney) was, according to William Empson (Some Versions of the Pastoral, 1935), the expression of an attempt to break through the strong class system, making the high and the low in status (country and city, shepherds and royalty) feel at home with each other. A deconstruction of social hierarchy in order to reconstruct it as moral hierarchy. The dialogue between shepherds in a world free from conflict and temporal decay (a Golden World in stasis) is propitious to ecclesiastical and political allegory (“pastor” meaning both “shepherd” and “priest”). Edmund Spenser's Shepherdes Calendar, a series of twelve eclogues, combines the elegiac autumnal mood with an emphatic tone of political denunciation, reminiscent of Langland. As required by the literary convention, the decorative and graceful imagery of a stylized countryside is coupled with a taste for obsolete words, indicative of no particular locale. Another foreign model which Spenser appropriates and transforms in his Faerie Queene is the poema cavalleresco, the Renaissance version of the epic, created by Lodovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso (Orlando furioso and Gerusalemme liberata, respectively). Spenser, however, is not interested in a time-bound literary form (with topical allusions to the relatively recent crusades and wars, a recital of adventures and romance, with sensational fits of madness and recovery by simply breathing in one's lost senses, brought back to earth in a phial...). Spenser does not write just for entertainment, being intent upon a very serious moral allegory, whose initial design included twelve books dedicated to Aristotle's twelve moral virtues, out of which only six and one fragment (the Cantos of Mutability) were written. Apart from the moral allegory, the poem has two more layers of meaning: the legendary story of King Arthur seeing Gloriana, Queen of the Faeries, in a dream and setting out to seek her out in faery land, and a political allegory (Gloriana standing for Queen Elizabeth, to whom the poem is dedicated, other parallels to contemporary persons and events having been identified as well). Framing and allegory make any approach of contingent realities remote and only relevant through re-contextualization. The twelve days of Gloriana's feast may be also linked to the twelve nights of the Christmas Holidays at Elizabeth's court, suggestive therefore of the moral rebirth of the nation which accompanied the expansion of the Empire under the glorious queen. On each day the queen sends forth one of her knights (embodying one of the cardinal virtues – Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, Courtesy, Constancy – which are tested and reinforced in the adventure) to aid one of her subjects in distress. The poem opens thus to the world of philosophical vision and moral admiration, while the descriptions of nature are the fruit of observation of the Irish countryside, where the poet spent some time as secretary to the governor (1580-1599). From the splendour of the romance world we step down into a homely environment surveyed with the peasant's pragmatic eye for the human relevance and use of nature: the builder oak, the aspine good for staves, the birch for shafts, the sallow for the mill etc. (I/1,8-9). Traditional themes, like the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins (I/4), the “ubi sunt theme”: (All things decay in time and to their end do draw, III/6) of medieval literature, combine with the newly revived pastoral convention of the “delightful garden”, used, however, as the site of socio-political allegory (Queen, the New World and the civilizing mission), in the manner of Baptista Spagnuoli. The easy flow and musicality of the line is ensured by the metrical pattern, the famous Spenserian stanza consisting of nine lines, eight iambic pentameters, followed by a solemn hexameter.

The Italian canzone is merged with the classical and Renaissance wedding ode in one of the most beautiful love-songs in the language: Spenser's Epithalamion, occasioned by the middle aged poet's second marriage, which concludes his 89 sonnet sequence entitled Amoretti. Elizabeth Boyle is transfigured into the eternal bride, who finds her prototype in Solomon's Song of Songs (her snowy neck is like a marble tower), for the planes of meaning in the ceremonious proceedings of the day, from sunrise to the rise of the moon, engage,  just like in the celebrated  Hebrew poem, all levels of existence, from natural landscape and  the mortal wedding guests to God Bacchus and the Graces, in a pastoral Echo-world of the universal One:

                        The whiles the maidens do their carol sing

                        To which the woods shall answer and their echo ring.

The processional pageant or masque of Hymen is accompanied by the music which Plato will have imagined at the birth of the universe (The Republic), as well as by the homely carol, natives and myhological figures, Graces (let the Graces dance) and maidens (carol: dancing song) joining in a cosmic dance.

The sonnet was a new form, invented by Jacopo da Lentini (first half of the thirteenth century). Its original, Italian form consists of fourteen lines, divided metrically and rhetorically into an octave (eight lines rhyming abba) and a sestet (six lines rhyming cdecde)  Thomas Wyatt borrowed it on one of his diplomatic missions on the Continent, yet changed its form to three quatrains, rhyming abba and a couplet, forcing a cumulative effect  into some generalized, sententious statement. The personal experience of the Italian sonneteer is thus made into something of a more universal appeal, in the manner of the sage discourse:

                        For as there is a certain time to rage,

                        So is there time such madness to assauge.

The thought content is pretty conventional: codified love attitudes, professions of faith and truth, love complaints (the mistress is cruel or indifferent, as inaccessible as the lady of the amour courtois tradition), love pleas. Nevertheless, a decay of fortune could wring from the poet's pen the following touching plaintive tones of sublimated emotion, which were quoted in a story by the 20th century American Thomas Wolfe, on the lost happiness of irreversible time which, Dante says, hurts the most in times of sorrow:

         They flee from me, that sometimes did me seek

         With naked foot stalking within my chamber,

         Once have I seen them gentle, tame, and meek

         That now are wild, and do not once remember

         That sometime they have put themselves in danger,

         To take bread at my hand, and now they range,

         Busily seeking in continual change.

                     Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise

         Twenty times better: but once especial

         In thin array, after a pleasant guise,

         When her loose gown did from her shoulders fall,

         And she me caught in her arms long and small,

         And therewithal, so sweetly did me kiss,

         And softly said: dear heart, how like you this ? 

The sonnet form was taken up by Henry Howard, who gave it the so-called “Shakespearean form”, as it was employed by his brilliant successor: three quatrains rhyming abab and an epigrammatic couplet. The second half of the century produced the English sonnet sequences, in imitation of Dante  (Vita Nuova) and Petrarch (Il Canzoniere).

The sonnet sequence is made up of sonnets interspersed with other lyric genres: songs, madrigals, complaints etc. The first in English was Thomas Whatson's Hekatompathia (1582), a conventional encomium. The poet con-fesses he has written a derivative song of praise giving fame to a type-cast mistress. He does not mean to be original, confining himself to working up the received conceits of the modish sonneteering image-makers. The female type of the Renaissance emerged from his pen in a form apt to exasperate Shakespeare, who wrote his own Sonnet CXXX as an anti-encomium, in response to Whatson's: Her yellow looks exceed the beaten gold/ Her sparkling eyes in heaven a place deserve/ (...) Her words are music all of silver sound./ (…) On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies/ Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame / Her lips more red than any coral stone. 



[1] J. Derrida, De la grammatologie, Les Editions du Minuit, 1972, p. 22

[2] Harold Bloom, Hamlet. Major Literary Characters, Chelsea House Publishers, 1990, p. 214.

[3] See S.C. Boorman, Human Conflict in Shakespeare, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

[4] John Drakakis, Introduction to Shakespearean Tragedy, Longman 1992, p.2l.

[5] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in Big-Time Shakespeare, edited by Michael D. Bristol, Routledge, 1996, p. 128

[6] See Paul de Man on the phenomenal link between word and thing in Plato in The Resistance to Theory, Theory and History of Literature, vol. 33, University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

[7] Maria-Ana Tupan, The Mirror and the Signet. The Shakespearean Search for Archetypes, Institutul de Studii Sud-Est Europene, 1993, pp. 103-106.

[8] E.M.W. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Chato & Windus, 1973.  p. 2

[9] Hélène Védrine, Les philosophies de la Renaissance, Presse Universitaire de France, 197l.

[10] Northrop Frye, On Shakespeare, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986, p. 38.

[11] Margot Heinemann, “Political drama”, in The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama. Edited by A.R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 167.

[12] Mark Bayer “The Distribution of Political Agency” in Phineas Fletcher’s Purple Island in Criticism. A. Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Summer 2002, Vol. 44, No. 3, pp. 249-50.

[13] Michel Foucault, Les mots et les choses, Editions Gallimard, 1966.




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