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The English Renaissance flourished during the 16th century and it was very different from Italian one. In Italy there was a period of great instability, a great explosion of individual expression. In Northern Europe the reformation promoted individual genius and encouraged the study of various different subjects: philosophy, literature, morality, sociology, science and religion. This boost was helped by the printing press, brought to England by Caxton in 1476. For example the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge expanded greatly during the Renaissance. The human figure and human thought began to be more important than the Divine sphere; this idea influenced the new cultural movement called Humanism. The spirit of the Renaissance was characterized by intellectual curiosity, in particular towards the culture of Ancient Greece, which had been somewhat opposed by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages because of its paganism and spirit of free analysis. A key figure of Renaissance humanism was Erasmus of Rotterdam, who translated the Bible. By spreading Latin throughout Europe, he hoped to create a lingua franca and his humanist way of thinking had a strong influence on a generation of writers. The Renaissance was an age of confusion, because the old mythical medieval ideas coexisted with the new progressive discoveries of science. The most important science discovery by Copernicus was that Earth and the other planets orbit around the Sun, but he didn’t publish his theory until his death, in 1543, for fear of Church censorship. In fact, this new view of Earth’s position made it more difficult to give man the cosmic importance assigned to him in Christian theology.


After the war of the two Roses a new dynasty emerged: the Tudors. The first king was Henry VII; during his reign England lived an era of stability. In 1509 Henry VIII came to the throne: he was a typical Renaissance prince who maintained a magnificent court because he liked music and dancing. He married six times. To marry Anne Boleyn and be divorced from Catherine of Aragon, who had given him Mary I, Henry parted from the Catholic Church with an Act of Supremacy in 1534 and declared himself ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’. After the marriage, Anne Boleyn eventually gave him a daughter, Elizabeth I, but was executed. Thomas More, the great humanist and King’s chancellor, was also executed for continuing to object the King’s decision to divorce. With the third wife, Jane Seymour, Henry had a male heir: Edward VI, but he died at the age of sixteen. Mary I was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her persecution of protestants to restore the Catholic Religion.
In 1558 Elizabeth became Queen. She had received a very good education and learnt to speak many different languages. She invited musicians, actors and poets like Shakespeare to her court. She suppressed several plots against her (Mary Stuart). The reign of Elizabeth coincided with the beginning of the British Empire and she also encouraged the exploration of new lands. In fact Britain was engaged in an empire building race with its most powerful rival, Spain. The naval battle began during her reign. Elizabeth supported Drake against Spain. In the historical battle of 1588, the English navy defeated the Spanish forces and became the greatest naval power in the world.
After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, James I, Mary Stuart’s son, succeeded her on the English throne: the Tudor dynasty came to an end. After James, Charles I became King. He had absolute power to make law, to rule without the Parliament’s consent and reject their laws. In this period in England the wealth of the nation had shifted from nobility to the landed gentry and middle class. Parliament was determined to control finances and when it refused to give the King money, the conflict between the King, supported by the Royalists, and Parliament, supported by the Roundheads, middle class citizens, led to civil war in 1642. The Parliament faction was led by Oliver Cromwell, who, after the King was taken prisoner in 1647, took control of London and arrested the members of Parliament loyal to the King. The members that remained voted for Charles I’s execution in 1949. Cromwell established a republic named “Commonwealth”, but he actually acted like a dictator and made himself Lord Protector until his death in 1658. In 1660 the son of Charles I was invited to return from his exile in France and he became King Charles II; he was a supporter of art, which he had discovered at the courts of Versailles. During his reign London was struck by a plague and a great fire.
His son James II (1685) wanted to impose the Catholic religion, even though England was mainly protestant. In 1688 he was forced to abdicate after a non-violent revolt, the Glorious revolution. Parliament offered the throne to William of Orange, a Dutch protestant, with a contract called the BILL of RIGHTS in 1689, which stated, among other things, that the monarch couldn’t raise taxes or form an army without Parliament’s consent.


Petrarca’s sonnet was composed by two quatrains and two tercets, Shakespeare’s was composed by three quatrains and one couplet, for a total of fourteen lines. The final couplet is a conclusion to what is presented in the quatrains. Iambic pentameter. Elizabeth’s sonnet is more dynamic than Petrarca’s. The main theme is love for an unreachable woman. The lady is an idealistic figure, derived from the Platonic ideas of love and beauty. The poet desires the lady, but at the same time he hopes she will not surrender.
Renaissance drama originates from the Miracle and Mystery plays, but now the man chooses his own destiny. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is the first great playwright of the English language. His most famous play is Doctor Faustus, which is an allegory of the humanist revolution as well as a violent tragedy. Shakespeare took inspiration from Marlowe’s tragedy. Copyright didn’t exist so a poet could copy elements from other works. The importance of Shakespeare’s drama is that he was able to analyse and study human nature. He managed to reproduce human feeling on the stage and audiences identified themselves in the plays.
Actors weren’t considered good people, they didn’t have a good reputation, because they travelled a lot. Woman couldn’t act. The performances of travelling players were staged on movable platforms without scenery. The first permanent playhouse was the Globe theatre, built in London in 1599 on the south Bank of the Thames. It was an open air theatre, without stage curtains and few props. The stage was a rectangular platform with three galleries of seats. When the theatre was full, the players and audience were very close to each other. This meant that the relationship between actors and spectators was more intimate than nowadays. In 1613 the Globe theatre burned.


Shakespeare’s birth is traditionally celebrated on 23 April 1564. He was born in Stratford and his father was a glove-maker, while his mother came from a wealthy family. In 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than him, and they had a daughter and a son. Nothing is known for certain about when he began his career, but we know he was already famous in London by 1592. He wrote 154 sonnets and 37 plays. He lived during the reign of Elizabeth I and James I, great supporters of art. His patron was the Earl of Southampton and he became a leading member of the theatre company ‘The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’ in 1594 (later renamed the King’s Men when James I came to the Throne). He eventually died at the age of 52.


The plot: Bassanio, a noble but poor Venetian, asks his friend Antonio, a rich merchant, for money to be able to woo the rich heiress Portia. Antonio is also short of money, because all his wealth is on ships which are still at sea. However he wants to help his friend, so he borrow the necessary amount from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, who demands that if the money is not returned, he may extract one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Meanwhile Lorenzo, a close friend of Bassanio’s, elopes with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. Antonio can no longer pay his debt, because his ships have been lost at sea. Shylock and Antonio go to the court of justice, where Portia is masked as a lawyer. She declares the validity of Shylock’s claim, but warns him that he must cut off exactly one pound of flesh, without spilling one drop of blood. Eventually Shylock is forced to ask for mercy and become a Christian.
The character of Shylock: he is a dark and menacing presence and he can be considered the play’s villain, but he is also given a tragic sense of pathos: as a Jew he has traditionally been persecuted by European Christians. Shylock justifies his claim by referring to the brutal way the Jews have been treated in past. Shakespeare, however, must please his Christian audience and he turns our sympathies against Shylock through the nature of the penalty he asks for: a pound of flesh.

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