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The Renaissance and It’s Affect on William Shakespeare’s Works

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It’s very easy to see William Shakespeare as an amazing literary genius who had a perspective on life that, to simply put it, no one else has ever had. However Shakespeare was the product of the English Renaissance. The English Renaissance was a cultural and artistic movement spanning from the later 15th century until the early 17th century, it is associated with the Italian Renaissance which started in the 14th century. Like most of northern Europe, England did not get the full effect of the Renaissance until about a century later and the height of the English Renaissance is considered to be in the Elizabethan Era (1558–1603). The Renaissance was how all of Europe moved away from the Middle Ages and into the new world. The Renaissance was not only a rebirth of society; it was an age of new discoveries – both geographical and intellectual. Europe was discovering the Americas and settling there, expanding their horizons. From the 15th century onwards people were challenging everything they knew: Copernicus challenged science; Martin Luther challenged religion; and society challenged society.

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 right in the midst of the Renaissance; it only makes sense that his work would have Renaissance ideas embedded in them. William Shakespeare used different Renaissance practices and beliefs to make his plays more relatable and sophisticated; and by using Greek and Roman influences, the ability to explore new characters, and incorporating many different Renaissances ways, that is what he accomplished. William Shakespeare is often referred to as England’s “National Poet” due to the amount of work he has produced and the widespread love of it, Shakespeare has written 38 plays, 154 sonnets and many more poems and all of his plays have been translated into every major living language.

Shakespeare used his knowledge of Greek and Roman history and mythology for ideas in his plays. Before the Renaissance age these texts would have been suppressed by the Church. The genre of tragedy is rooted in the Greek dramas of Aeschylus (525-456 B.C., e.g. the Oresteia and Prometheus Bound), Euripides (ca. 480?-405 B.C., e.g. Medeaand The Trojan Women) and Sophocles (496-406 B.C., e.g. Oedipus Rex and Antigone). While Shakespeare probably did not know Greek tragedy directly, he would have been familiar with the Latin adaptations of Greek drama by the Roman (i.e. Latin-language) playwright Seneca (ca. 3 B.C.-65 A.D.; his nine tragedies include a Medea and an Oedipus) (Schwartz, 2005). Shakespeare never uses a mythological name or place name inaccurately, suggesting a genuine knowledge of the sources.” (Showerman, 2004). One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Julius Caesar, believed to be written in 1599 (Shakespeare, 1998), was based off of the work of Plutarch, a Greek historian, biographer and essayist.

Plutarch documented the lives of over 46 notable Greeks and Romans (Blackburn, 2008). Although Shakespeare found use for most of the material through his several Roman plays, for Julius Caesar he focused on Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar and Marcus Brutus (Mabillard, 2000). Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s later plays (1608), was based on Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus. The play follows the novel closely, staying true to many , if not all, of the main elements. The play itself is very different from others written at the same time, the main character, Caius Marcius Coriolanus, is possibly one of the most opaque of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. In the duration of the play he rarely pauses to soliloquise or reveal his motives. His character is more like the characters from ancient classic literature, such as Achilles, Odysseus and Aeneas. Shakespeare would often blend different cultures together. Christianity and Greek and Roman myths were the two that he put together most often, especially in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and also in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

One of Shakespeare’s later plays, The Tempest, features the characters of Iris, Ceres and Juno. Each of these is a Roman goddess, Iris being the only Greek goddess. Iris is the messenger of the gods, Ceres presides over agriculture and Juno is the queen of the gods. Shakespeare did not limit himself to Greek and Roman texts, one of his most famous play, Hamlet, was based on a Norse legend composed by Saxo Grammaticus around 1200 AD (Mallibard, 2000). “Roman dramatist Seneca was a major influence on the plays of William Shakespeare, particularity the tragedies Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, and Macbeth and the history play Richard III.”. The plays of Seneca that most contribute to aiding Shakespeare’s plays listed above are: The Trojan Women, Phaedra, Thyestes, Agamemnon and Hercules Furens. Many of the elements that appeared in Seneca’s plays are evident in Shakespeare’s plays, including: a preoccupation with torture, mutilation, incest and corpses (Titus Andronicus), a stress on witchcraft and the supernatural (Macbeth), the existence of vaulting ambition in the prince (Macbeth and Richard III), the ghost that calls for revenge (Hamlet and Macbeth), the self dramatization of the hero, especially in death (Hamlet and Macbeth) and the frequent use of stichomythia# (Richard III and Hamlet). (Egendorf, 2000).

Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies was based on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who were two character of Roman mythology. (Ovid, 1 ACE). A scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream also features the poem Pyramus and Thisbe. All of Shakespeare’s plays that were set in Rome have four distinct elements in common: first; violence, blood and mayhem are always important feature of the plays, second; that violence often turn on itself, third; suicide is an important Roman custom and fourth; Shakespeare depicts Rome as self-conscious, theatrical and historically aware. (Leithart, 2004). In ancient Greek plays there were always 5 episodes and in every Shakespearean play there are always 5 Acts. Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek and Roman history and mythology were useful in his plays, as they gave them more depth and created an air of knowledge.

Due to the upheaval of social hierarchy, Shakespeare was able to explore humanity within his characters, allowing them to make mistakes and be different. “The Taming of the Shrew is a text deeply invested in the idea of education–scenes of pedagogy fill the play, from Katherine’s attack on the music teacher to Bianca and Lucentio’s love lessons to Petruchio’s taming of Katherine.” (Hutcheon, 2011). The Taming of the Shrew was one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays and represents Shakespeare’s beginning use of shrew characters, after Katherine came: Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; Rosalind in As You Like It and Viola in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s ability to explore this trait within these characters was brought about by the freedom that came with the Renaissance. Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is not only his longest play, but one of his most influential tragedies and one of his most popular during his lifetime.

“Hamlet epitomizes a characteristic theme of early Renaissance humanism, the dignity of man, when he celebrates the excellence of our nature in these terms: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals” (2.2.293-8).” (Rhu, 1998). Hamlet is a struggle between humanism and counter-humanism, by giving his characters the choice between those Shakespeare was telling how the Renaissance was and what its ideals were. “…religion is rarely a major force or motivation in their lives; moral choices are made for human – rather than religious – reasons…” (BHA). Each and every one of Shakespeare’s characters has flaws, some of them major some of them not. One of the most common character flaws used by Shakespeare is the tragic hero. Macbeth (Macbeth), Brutus (Julius Ceasar), Hamlet (Hamlet), King Lear (King Lear) and Othello (Othello), are all example of tragic heroes.

Nowadays characters flaws are normal, they’re in every book, every television show and every movie that is out there come into contact with. When the Renaissance began and when Shakespeare began to write he was able to explore his characters, giving them flaws and making them imperfect. Monarchs in Shakespeare’s plays have been plentiful, beginning with the history Henry VI Parts I – III, and going on to write Richard III and II, King John, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V and Henry VIII. In each of these plays the monarchs are portrayed in close capacity, during their lives. The audience isn’t just seeing their public face; they’re seeing the monarchs’ private lives. In doing this Shakespeare was able to give the monarchs emotions and problems, in turn making them more relatable to people of that time. Shakespeare’s work. William Shakespeare’s works are full of humanistic beliefs and although there is little to no evidence as to whether or not William Shakespeare was a humanist, it is practical to believe that even if he was not a humanist, he embodied the essence of Renaissance humanism into his work.

Shakespeare incorporated many Renaissance ways into his plays. The Renaissance spanned from the 14th century to the 17th century and as Shakespeare was born in the middle of the 16th century; his beliefs were probably those of the Renaissance. The value of fame and an increased concern of worldly fame was an important characteristic of the Renaissance. Many artists came to desire fame in the sense of creating something and having it last and be respected for future generations. (Burckhardt, 1990). According to Burckhardt this concern for literary immortality came to replace traditional Christian notions of immortality among some sections of society. In two of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, Sonnet 55 and the famous Sonnet 43 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) is described in what way these artists wanted to be remembered. In Hamlet, during the titular character’s death scene he worries that his ‘wounded name’ will outlive him “in this harsh world”; he tells Horatio, “draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.” (Wilberg, 2011).

“Shakespeare is sometimes thought of as expressing a non-religious, even atheistic, point of view in his plays and poems. (…) Nevertheless, the scholar Jeffrey Knapp interprets him as contributing to the contemporary debates about the future of Christianity. He points to Henry V in particular; a play which contains sophisticated debates between the king and the clergy, as demonstrating Shakespeare’s commitment to reforming Christianity.” (Wilberg, 2011).When Shakespeare began writing it had been about 60 years since the Reformation had started, the religion of England was not just Catholic anymore. “Shakespeare was a humanist in everything he wrote. In an era preoccupied with religion, Shakespeare’s plays and poetry are remarkably secular in subject matter and outlook, and Shakespeare seems to have been influenced by classical and Renaissance ideas about the importance of reason and of mankind and human individualism” (BHA). “At its core, the Renaissance was a movement dedicated to the rediscovery and use of classical learning, that is to say knowledge and attitudes from the Ancient Greek and Roman eras.” (Wilde).

As discussed in the first paragraph, Shakespeare used many different sources from Greek and Roman myths and biographies. To thine own self be true – Polonius in Hamlet, being true to who you are – this is the very essence of what the Renaissance was about. The renaissance is a time when the “ordered social structures of the Middle Ages began to break down, capitalism began to take root, and individual identity became more important.” (Wilberg, 2011). In almost all of Shakespeare’s play individualism is a large portion of the dispute. However, making minor character more important was the route that Shakespeare took: the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and the porter in Macbeth. Each of these characters are both important to the story, however from a classism point of view they are very unimportant. These characters show Shakespeare’s desire for individuality and how he takes the Renaissance interest in the value of that to a new height.

Human potential and beauty – both physical and verbal was a big emphasis in Renaissance humanism, in Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare displays that each character has a sense of individualism and potential. By creating strong characters with these beliefs and ideals, he creates the sense of a Renaissance world. The status of women was an element of the Renaissance time, although they did not have any of the rights that women have today, their status was much improved. In Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice is a reflection of how the women of the Renaissance are changing – she is strong-willed and very verbal about who she is and what she wants. She also embodies the trait of individualism, engaging in a ‘merry war’ with Benedick and proves that she does not need a man “I had rather hear by dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me”(I.i.107-108) (Shakespeare, W, 2008). William Shakespeare’s use of Renaissance beliefs and ideas in his works have made his plays relatable to the people of his time and also to those in the present.

Due to the fact that Shakespeare was writing and performing during the Renaissance meant he had access to resources that would have been unavailable had he been doing so earlier. The Renaissance was, in fact, the perfect time of Shakespeare to be creating. Active during the final stages of the English Renaissance he used this to his advantage, and because he did that his work was better: the influence of Greek and Roman texts and mythology; his exploration of new characters and character types; and his use of different Renaissance ways are all contributing factors in the greatness of him and his work. William Shakespeare created some of the most beautiful, relatable and timeless literature in the English language. By using Renaissance practices and beliefs William Shakespeare made his plays more relatable and sophisticated. Shakespeare himself can be understood as the ultimate product of Renaissance humanism; he was an artist with an understanding of humanity and an uncanny ability for self-expression who openly practiced and celebrated the ideals of intellectual freedom.

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