The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Renaissance. The Literature and Culture of Tudor England

Category: 16th century

The culture, science and philosophy of the ancient world, and especially of Greece, was known to the feudal society of Western Europe in a very distorted form. The great model of Western European literature of the Middle Ages was Virgil, whose works were considered to be sacred, and even to have foretold the coming of Christianity. From the deification of Virgil, a romantically inclined poet who idealized the past and deliberately fostered archaism in his poetry, comes one of the literary influences which helped to shape the chivalrous romance of the Middle Ages.

The very much limited world of the chivalrous romances, however, did not suffice to express the great changes which had occurred within European society during the 14th and 15th centuries. New methods of production, new relations of production, new concepts and ideas about the world had to be expressed in literature and art.The discovery of the beauty of ancient Greek art, the spreading of direct knowledge of Greek classical literature, the acquaintance with Greek philosophy and scientific method, the acceptance of man as the new measure of life and of art — all that we mean when we speak of the Renaissance — arose first in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries and gave a great impulse to the development of the fine and decorative arts, architecture, literature, philosophy, scientific studies and medical and technical experiment. This great development, which spread from Italy to all over Europe, playing a decisive part in the development of English culture in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, was caused not only by the spread of the knowledge of antiquity; the newly discovered learning and art of the ancient world provided a form suitable for the new content given to art and literature by changes in society.

England, where the new class relationships developed very rapidly offered a very favourable soil for the thinking of Renaissance scholars.

In England we may distinguish three periods within the Renaissance: the first period of the end of the 15th and the first half of the 16th century, the second period coinciding with the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 — 1603) and the activities of William Shakespeare (1564—1616) and the final period after Shakespeare’s death, which ended with the beginning of the puritan revolution.

The earlier Tudor period was a time of transition from late medieval to Renaissance culture. The characteristic feature of the mansions, halls and manors built during the Tudor (late Gothic) and Jacobean (early 17th century) periods is on the one hand the mingling of Renaissance elements with Gothic tradition and on the other a greater attention paid to comfortable, peaceful living. Firesides, chimneys, windows, tables, chairs, cabinets show a greater elegance and lightness and a deliberate striving for comfort and adaptation to their purpose. Typical in this respect is Hampton Court, which was built under the supervision of cardinal Wolsey and later presented to Henry VIII.

Henry VIII enlarged and remodelled the earlier Tudor buildings and made~Hampton Court his favourtie home. Through more than two centuries the English sovereigns kept state here. The architecture and the furnishing of the palace in Tudor times showed the foreign influence of the Renaissance. The heavy wood of seats, fireplaces and cup-boards was cut with rich patterns. Greek-shaped posts stood at the four corners of huge beds; and many such beds even had a roof, and curtains down the four sides.

The greatest changes at Hampton Court followed the accession of William III in the 17th century who decided that the old palace of the Tudors should be so reconstructed as to rival the French Versailles. Accordingly, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to add the large Renaissance wing, and Dutch gardeners were imported to lay out the grounds anew. Today it is opened to the public and its treasures of art are seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

However, the Renaissance was more than a development in the work of artists and craftsmen. The spirit of the Renaissance flowed north across Europe and entered England as the New Learning. Its adventurous ideas soon began to affect most levels of English society. The man mainly responsible for causing people to become critics of the church was a Catholic priest. His name was Erasmus (1460—1536) and he was a Dutchman who visited England several times and taught as professor at Cambridge. It was Erasmus, with friends in high places, who had most influence in spreading the New Learning throughout England.

Both men and women of the middle class became affected by the Renaissance. More and more learned to read and write. However, the poor continued to be illiterate because education was beyond their means. A new kind of education which included schooling in arithmetic, history, geography together with Greek ‘ and Latin was found in the grammar schools, attended mainly by the sons of the local gentry and the local merchants.

Followers of the New Learning suggested that government should introduce reforms to cure the evils of society. The chief believer in this view was Erasmus’s supporter and friend, Sir Thomas More (1478—1535) — the giant of the Renaissance. More was a lawyer who was interested in politics. He believed that reform was required in the state. His famous book called Utopia (1516) shows, as though in a dream, the way to a world of peace and plenty, ridiculed both declining feudalism and emerging capitalism. Although the enclosures were one of the worst evils affecting the poor people of his time, More pointed to other, more general evils also. For the first time in history the dream of a way of life based on justice was combined with an extensive and rational system of reforms.

The reign of Henry VIII was a period of great flourishing of music, art and architecture. Henry himself seeking to acquire a reputation as the patron of learning and being himself an active participant in literature, art, music encouraged architects and painters to come from Italy and other European countries. Many of them enriched English culture and today are considered to be the founders of the English school of painting, as for instance, Hans Holbein Junior (1497 —1543), the famous master of the portrait. Most eloquent is his portrait of Henry VIII in the prime of power and life. Rubens and Van Dyck, though Dutchmen by origin, seriously influenced English painting too.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth saw the development of the English language to the height of its power as an instrument of prose and especially”‘ 6f poetry. In poetry, Elizabethan literature is especially rich in lyric forms, which are often closely related to folk traditional forms. In this respect outstanding were Edmund Spenser (1552 —99), author of the beautiful The Faerie Queene, which is a combination of chivalric romance and allegory, Philip Sidney (1554—86), poet, critic, statesman and soldier, author of the Apology for Poetry and others. Sir Walter Raleigh, an outstanding explorer of his time was also a fine lyric poet, though he is better known for his History of the World.

The drama, and that not only the drama of Shakespeare, is the crowning glory of the Elizabethan age. It was the time of the morality play and the ‘mystery’ though with new political implications. There were classical Greek and Roman plays staged by university students, there were plays written on subjects from the Bible. The sites chosen for these plays were usually taverns and inns.

In 1576 the first theatre was built in London by a group of actors and soon theatres appeared everywhere. The actual structure of the Elizabethan theatre, with its resemblance to the inn courtyard where the first companies of actors performed, well expresses the relation of the theatre to the audience. Immediate contact with the audience of craftsmen, peddlers — the populace was well maintained. Women did not act on stage, their roles were played by young boys. They were neither supposed to attend unless wearing a mask because many plays were obscene.

It was due to the talents of the ‘University Wits’, as the pre-Shakespearean dramatists were called, of Christopher Marlowe (1564—1593) and the genius of Shakespeare himself, that England developed the finest drama the world had ever known.

William Shakespeare (1564—1616), Thomas More (1478 — 1535) justify Engels’ evaluation who said the Renaissance was an age that demanded giants and created them. Thanks to his great poetic gift and powers of observation and generalization, Shakespeare was able to use the contemporary traditional forms, to enlarge and transform them, and thus to express the new content given by a changing society in vivid, passionate and convincing images. Like his great predecessor, Christopher Marlowe, he makes a study of passions. But with Marlowe the bearers of those passions resembled the morality play characters, who were supposed to represent one particular passion (Doctor Faustus — a desire of unlimited knowledge as a tool to gain unlimited power). Shakespeare’s characters are real, lifelike, typical of his time and of the passions of his time. Despite Shakespeare’s close acquaintance with the royal court and the brilliant courtiers of his time he regarded the ruling class critically, clearly, dispassionately.

The third period of the Renaissance associated with the names Francis Beaumont (1584—1616) and John Fletcher (1579—1625) was a period of increasing decline of the drama due to the superficiality and shallowness of the plays, devoid of a profound study of human behaviour and created merely for entertainment.

The Renaissance gave a powerful fillip to the development of science. William Gilbert (1540 —1603), a physicist, wrote his famous work De Magnete, John Gale, a physician, wrote a treatise on rifle wounds and Francis Bacon (1561 — 1626), who indicated the necessity for experimental science rather than purely speculative reasoning. In his work Advancement of Learning he outlined the methods of scientific research. The development of science and philosophy in England, especially the formation of the Royal Society (1662), owe very much to Bacon’s initiative.

Though Bacon by birth belonged to the new bourgeois-aristocracy, and was a high state official in the royal service, he in his intellectual life was serious, single-minded, wholly devoted to the search for scientific truth.

Song, lute music played an important part in the everyday life of the wealthier and educated classes; organ music in the life of the church. Of composers of the period best known is William Byrd, who contributed to English secular and church music. The most typical form of Tudor composition is the madrigal, the words of which consist of an elaborate love lyric full of metaphors.

As a whole the historical period under review may be regarded as a prelude to the bourgeois revolution of the 17th century. This was reflected in all fields of life and human thought.

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