The Influence Of English Renaissance On William Shakespeare
“To be, or not to be: that is the question” (Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1). Everyone knows or has heard this iconic quote from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, whether you have read the written work or not. This recognizable quote illustrates just how impactful Shakespeare’s written works actually were in English Renaissance during the late 15th Century. He not only impacted English Renaissance and theatre of that time but, is still currently influencing theatre in today’s modern society. Even though William Shakespeare influenced and impacted theatre greatly, he would not have been able to get there if it were not for the culture of English Renaissance influencing him and his written works at the time. He was born towards the end of the Renaissance era which had an effect on how he viewed the world since he predominately grew up and learned mannerisms during this time. Growing up during the English Renaissance inevitably had an effect on the way he choose to write each and every one of his pieces of literature. English Renaissance inspired Shakespeare to write his plays according to how everyone in that time was living their day to day life. By doing this it essentially made him stand out above the rest of the playwrights during this time. William Shakespeare brought core values of English Renaissance into theatre by incorporating the culture of humanism into his written works, using and illustrating the social hierarchy of that time throughout his plays to show humanity of each character, and finally exerting his knowledge of past and present religion to include and embrace Catholicism in many of his plays even though it was not really welcomed at the time.
My first topic I will discuss is how William Shakespeare brought core values of England Renaissance into theatre by incorporating the culture of humanism into his written works. Before Shakespeare, many playwrights wrote plays very plan, simple, one dimensional, over the top, and in an unrealistic characterized way. They also incorporated a large amount of supernatural writing within their works. For example, the Greek play Medea written by Euripides uses supernatural characteristic just by giving Medea supernatural powers of magic which she later on uses for evil throughout the play. As opposed to Shakespeare he wrote in a “two-dimensional writing style of pre-Renaissance drama. He focused on creating human characters with psychological complexity” (Jamieson, paragraph 8). William Shakespeare’s style took more of a humanistic approach. Humanistic approach means he wrote characters that were a more realistic form of people how they live their everyday lives, which no one before him ever did. This made Shakespeare’s writing stand out more than past playwrights because when reading his literature his characters made you feel like they were someone who you could relate to or understand since they had mannerism that were common to people living in the English Renaissance era during the late 15th century. Humanism also refers to writing about the value of human beings instead of writing about supernatural things that are not real or realistic in everyday life which the Greek did quite frequently. Although William Shakespeare got most of his writing technique from his knowledge of the Greek playwrights he emphasized more on the human necessities of life, and really illustrated the goodness in his characters. Throughout his plays he also focused on “characters who embody the principles and ideals of Renaissance humanism, or people of tremendous self-knowledge and wit that are capable of self-expression and the practice of individual freedom” (resources from saylor.org, paragraph 3). For example, we can take his written work of Hamlet to explain and illustrate this topic more. Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia exclaims “to thine own self be true” (Shakespeare, Hamlet Act I, Scene 3), this exhibits humanism to its fullest because it shows “a view of personal integrity that is essentially humanist in its stress on individualism rather than on conformity” (Humanism UK, paragraph 1). In this scene Polonius is giving a word of advice to his son Laertes before he embarks on his journey to Paris, France. What Polonius is basically saying is that you should stay true to yourself and do not just change for others because that is how they want you to be or how they want to see you act. This just illustrates how Shakespeare wrote Polonius’s character in a humanistic way because he is giving realistic advice to his son to keep his uniqueness and not to comply with anything or anyone. It shows the goodness in Polonius and his values about the world and about giving rational thought and outlook to his sons’ journey and his in life in general. Another example of how William Shakespeare incorporates humanism in his written works is within many of his characters in his tragic plays. For instance, many of his characters in his tragic written works often die a great and tragic death but, in return are given very righteous and aristocratic characteristics that balance the character out. Othello, from his play Othello dies by stabbing himself but throughout the play his character is given traits like bravery, confidence, intelligence, and being brawny. Another character that is like this is King Lear from the play King Lear. King Lear basically has just survived an attack by killing the executioner that killed his daughter Cordelia by hanging her, and as he is about to assume his position at the throne, his body decides to gives up on him from all the trials he had to face before. He collapses and dies while holding his dead daughter. Such a tragic death but his death is balanced out by the humanistic characteristics of having passion, kindness, and sympathy towards others especially his daughters. More characters he writes about in this way is Hamlet from Hamlet, and Macbeth from Macbeth. Notice that all the characters discussed above are all the characters that the stories are originally written about. I believe this has something with giving them these humanistic qualities that they portray throughout William Shakespeare’s plays and why he wrote them how he did.
My next topic I will discuss is how William Shakespeare incorporated the use of the social hierarchy and illustrated it during that time throughout his plays by showing the humanity in each of his characters. Social hierarchy is basically your standard social classes of the era. Lower class being the poor people normally peasants, middle class being the workers that are bakers, bottlers, servants, cobblers, etc., and upper class being your royalty; kings, queens, princes, and princesses. You can go further and separate the lower class into two and the middle class into two sections as well. During the English Renaissance there was so much tragedy going on within the English monarchy with the ruler of Henry VIII then later Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary” and ending on a slightly better ruler Elizabeth I. “The upheaval in social hierarchy allowed Shakespeare to explore the complexity and humanity of every character, regardless of their social position” (Jamison, paragraph 9). In the Renaissance era people looked up to royalty and thought that since they were of noble family, they had to obtain a certain standard so they could do no wrong. Instead of thinking in this manner William Shakespeare really took the social hierarchy and made it his own. He believed that “even monarchs were portrayed as having human emotions and were capable of making terrible mistakes” (Jamison, Paragraph 9). He did not care what class the character in question was in, he believed that everyone could still have idealisms of humanistic characteristics no matter the circumstances you were put in. Shakespeare really exerts this when writing his play Macbeth, he uses the social hierarchy to show you that no matter what position or class you are in you can still have many traits of humanism but constantly do wrong by making bad choices and decisions. For instance, men were seen as having absolute power whereas women not so much. In Macbeth even though Lady Macbeth is a woman without absolute power she continuously persuades her husband, Macbeth to do terrible things. She goes as far as to convince her husband to commit murder so that he can become King of Scotland, which he goes through with. Macbeth has the traits of bravery, ambition, and even kindness, all very humanistic characteristics because once again they value the goodness of the character himself. Lady Macbeth also has many humanistic traits and emotions. She is affectionate, ambitious, cunning, and most importantly she is always aware of her true self and aware of her inner mind. Lady Macbeth uses her noble position and some of her traits to convince her husband to do many wrongs just so they can be in power. She ends up meeting a tragic fate and it is assumed that she took her own life. Another example of how William Shakespeare shows the wrong doings of social hierarchy is in his play King Lear as discussed above. Shakespeare uses the social hierarchy and how noble family can still make terrible decisions even with humanistic traits. He illustrates how King Lear is trying to decide how to split his land evenly between his daughter since he is retiring and stepping down from being King. Using his nobility status and his desire for flattery from his daughters he ask them to answer a simple question. This simple question leads to a spiral of trials, betrayal, and death. If King Lear would not have relied on his flattery trait and just divided the land up and called it a day, he would not have made the mistake of exiling his youngest causing his oldest daughters to betray him and ending in all 4 of their deaths. William Shakespeare really displays his complexity in his character due to the hierarchy. Each daughter has their own personality neither being alike, you also see the spiraling traits of King Lear on how he is in a rage at the beginning then realizing he did wrong and tries to fix all his wrongdoing. They are all very complex characters that show different humanistic qualities, if you are not careful it is easily to get confused.
My final topic I will discuss is how William Shakespeare exerts his knowledge on religion to include and embrace Catholicism in many of his plays even though it was not really welcomed at the time. During the English Renaissance Queen Elizabeth I was in power and although slightly better than her past rulers she still had some issues during her reign. Religion was the biggest issue during these times. It started off with the issues of the Church of England by Henry VIII to Elizabeth I passing the Recusancy Acts. These acts that were passed were very similar on how Henry VIII managed his Church of England sometimes even ending in a death penalty if not complied with. Shakespeare really decided to go against this religious act and embrace the idea of Catholicism in his characters within his plays while at the same time maintaining “a public persona as an Anglican” (Jamison, Paragraph 13). In his written work, Much Ado About Nothing he writes of a character name Friar Francis while in his other work Romeo and Juliet he writes of a character name Friar Lawrence. Both of these characters are portrayed as being Catholic. Shakespeare writes them as the stereotypical and traditional Catholic friar during the English Renaissance. Friars are members of the religious orders who dedicate their life to God. They do essentially everything that a monk does, except they do not live in solitude. In these two play the friars are doing their biblical duties by conducting a marriage ceremony of two young lovers. They also give good advice to each of the couples in the different plays, mainly about self-control, and self-discipline. Friar Lawrence, and Friar Francis both are the lone religious aspects and element of both written works. With that being said they are also the most well thought out and political characters in the plays. They both think about every aspect before doing it and they seem to have a plan and a path for everything they do. William Shakespeare also illustrates both characters as kindhearted and really just written in a positive perspective which really went against what was happening in England. Catholics were seen as substandard, unpleasant, and unwelcomed people in England, which is why they did everything for their religion in secret. Shakespeare decided to go against that state of mind and shed some positivity on the religion making both these characters honest, trustworthy, and faithful.
In conclusion, I discussed three main points as to how English Renaissance in the late 15th century influenced William Shakespeare’s literary written works. I mentioned how he included a sense of humanism in his characters; Polonius from Hamlet, Othello from Othello, and King Lear from King Lear. I explained how Shakespeare used social hierarchy in his works of art to explain his characters in more detail and show how their humanistic traits can still cause them to make mistakes no matter what social class they are a part of. I used examples of characters from Macbeth and King Lear. Lastly, I demonstrated how he went against the prejudice of the Catholic religion during the English Renaissance and created optimistic characters while unveiling positivity on Catholicism in general by using Friar Francis from Much Ado About Nothing and Friar Lawrence from ¬Romeo and Juliet. All in all, Shakespeare had a tremendous impact on theatre during the Renaissance, but it also had a great influence on him as well. Without his distinguished works of art, theatre would not be the same. He truly had a gift to captivate audiences everywhere from his literature and still continues to do it many years later. William Shakespeare will forever be known as one of the greatest playwrights in history. Without all his hard work, determination, and dedication to writing his plays they would not have made the impact in which they did so using the Bard’s famous words, “nothing will come of nothing” (Shakespeare, King Lear Act 1, Scene 1).
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