The European renaissance was a time for people to rediscover philosophies from the Greek and Roman culture. These influences changed aspects to the English literature for the better. During the medieval times, dramas consisted of focusing on religious themes but with the rebirth the renaissance brought tragedies and comedies became the norm for stories and plays. Authors, such as William Shakespeare and Chaucer, began creating works that the held their beliefs on what the world and life were like. This paved the way for many other authors to base their literary works off of what they believed instead of following secular texts. Some of the stories shadow the myths from ancient Roman and Greek times and include mythical creatures or an epic hero of some sort. This paper will describe how The renaissance influenced British literature by examining four different literary works: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Romeo and Juliet, The Canterbury Tales, and The Rape of the Lock.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Pearl Poet uses many symbolisms and allegories throughout the tale to connect various themes to each other. During The renaissance, there was an increase in people being aware about the nature that surrounded them. This influence can be seen with the symbolism of the color green in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The color green became to represent many things throughout the tale, such as peace, lust, and harmony, but one of them was nature and the will to live. One example of this is when the Green Knight is first introduced he is welding a holly branch and an axe. Holly branches are used as symbols to represent peace, and with the Green Knight welding one shows that his intentions in King Arthur’s Court was not entirely evil. Nature was a big theme during the renaissance because people wanted to understand and study what was around them. It was also a time where people shown a higher desire to live thanks to the circulation of information and the new sociological ideas that where emerging from some of the great thinkers from the era. Towards the end of the story, Sir Gawain showed his will to live by accepting the green girdle from Bertilak’s wife. The girdle promised to protect Sir Gawain from a life-ending strike from the Green Knight’s axe. The Pearl Poet incorporated many more ideas and symbolisms that came the renaissance into his literary work. William Shakespeare took a lot more inspiration from the renaissance when he was crafting his plays and sonnets.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare used the story of the star-crossed lovers as a tragedy and cautionary tale of what can happen to a person when they are too hasty in decision making. The renaissance was about enlightenment thinking in various aspects such as life, education, and even spiritual beliefs. The ancient philosophies of Socrates, Aristotle, and many more Greek philosophers were poured over during the renaissance to have a better understanding of how a person should live their life and make decisions. However, in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare takes those ideas and shows what can happen to a person when they do not stop and think about the possible outcomes to their actions. The first instance of hasty behavior came in Act 1 of the play when Romeo left Rosaline to pursue Juliet. He did not consider whether Juliet, or her family, would accept him or what Rosaline’s feelings were at the time. The second time that hasty decisions caused Romeo’s downfall was in Act 3 and Scene 1 when he murdered Tybalt. If he had of waited, he would have saw that Tybalt did not kill Mercutio on purpose but it was an accident. Ultimately, the hasty decisions throughout the play lead to the death of both of the characters. Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s nurse play the role as guide mentors to try and persuade the two to think about their actions before acting upon them. Shakespeare provides a glimpse of the human nature by showing how these two were hasty and impatient when it came to fulfilling their needs. This themed show that people require quick fulfilment for the plans that come to their mind. Understanding the human nature was a prominent movement during the renaissance and Shakespeare incorporated the human mind in his play. The next two plays do not focus on the human mind, but instead goes beyond the realm of realism. The authors explore the supernatural when writing their tales and moves away from using religion in their literary works.
In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, specifically The Wife of Bath’s Tale, uses magic and supernatural to get her story across. This is a new theme since many of the texts of the medieval era strictly adhered to religious texts and meaning. For an author to mention any form of supernatural that did not come from The Bible would make people assume that the author was a heretic or pagan. However, the renaissance embraced the outlook of discovering things outside the realm of realism. People were encouraged to think outside the box and that is what Chaucer did when he wrote the Wife of Bath’s Tale. There were also two other stories and used “magic” within The Canterbury Tale, such as the Franklin’s Tale and the Canon Yeoman’s Tale, but the Wife of Bath’s Tale is centered on the supernatural. The tale is set back in the time of King Arthur’s court in a land where faeries and magic still roamed. The supernatural aspects of the tale is similar to many medieval romances. The “magic” reveals itself in the form with women who disappear while from dancing and leaving the knight with an old hag. In the end, the hag transforms herself into a young beautiful woman for the knight to marry. The magic of the tale lead to another fact that came about during the renaissance: women’s rights. The Wife of Bath was a businesswoman and married multiple times and knew how to carry herself. This was rare seeing as women during those times were seen as property to either their husbands or fathers. Chaucer’s tales takes into account the changing social norms in society that the renaissance brought. The Wife of Bath’s Tale also reflected this because her tale consisted of women being in power and governing the knight in what he should do to redeem himself. The Rape of the Lock takes a more humorous approach on the supernatural.
In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, he creates a literary work that uses both religious and supernatural aspects together. The main character, Belinda, has sylphs, creatures that live in the air, that help her get ready in the morning every day. They act as her guardians to warn her of people that they view as bad, which is mainly men. Belinda is described as having an army of them protecting her and that they were once women who lived as humans. On her outings, she is also surrounded by women who are described as nymphs. In Canto I, Pope uses symbolism and religious imagery to show how Belinda views herself. There is a play on words that shows that Belinda’s dressing table is her alter, and the heavenly image that she worships is herself. Before the renaissance, a line like that would not be seen in any form of literature because no one would worship themselves more than a higher power, God. More symbolism can be seen during Canto II when the cross that Belinda wears is reduced to being a mere fashion object instead of a holy item. Also in Canto II, the Baron has a similar “alter” like Belinda’s where he worships himself more than God. The way Pope makes a mockery of religious items and motifs would offend many people during the medieval era, but the enlightenment of the renaissance allowed for people to look at things from a different angle.
The English renaissance changed British literature for the better by breaking away from the expected story-telling that were prominent during the medieval era. Authors were allowed to explore their creativity more without fear of defending people from the church. Authors like the Pearl Poet and William Shakespeare incorporated the human nature into their literary works. The renaissance inspired the Pearl Poet to focus on the natural aspect of the world and one’s will to live in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet focused on how people making hasty decisions can ruin one’s life. The supernatural was also common during literary works in the renaissance. It changed from being something evil and unholy to entities that can help and govern people. In Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale, the supernatural was being destroyed by humans. The supernatural was also governed primarily of women which lead to the women being in charge in the tale and reflected the changing gender roles that were happening during the renaissance. The supernatural aspect of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock was more of a mockery of religious beliefs. Holy items, such as the cross, became to mean nothing during the tale and many of the characters were sylphs or nymphs who surrounded the protagonist. The renaissance greatly improved how British literature was written and allowed more creative ballads, plays, and dramas to be created without adhering to strict rules that were set forth in the century beforehand.
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Poet, Pearl. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Trans. Jessie Weston. New York University. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_weston.pdf>.
Pope, Alexander, and Aubrey Beardsley. The Rape of the Lock: An Heroicomical Poem in Five Cantos. New York: Dover Publications, 1968. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” Literature and Language. Illinois: McDougal, Littell and Company, 1992. 722-842