16Th Century English Literature Survey


16Th Century English Literature Survey Essay, Research Paper

Eric Knight

Professor Bowers

English 201

September 12, 1997

16th Century English Literature: An Evolution of the Past

Although the literature of England during the Middle Ages may hardly seem comparable to the more elegant literature present during the Renaissance, England=s early literature actually paved the way for the poems and plays of the 16th century. In this respect, English literature of the Renaissance may be seen as a refinement of its earlier works, helped in part by the collapse of the universal church and the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideas. Many of the things written about during this period– the issues addressed in The Canterbury Tales for example– were not entirely new subjects, but instead ones that been suppressed by the church or upper-class in previous works of literature. Finally, with the growing education of the middle and lower classes, greater diversity of style became apparent.

In order to understand the differences and similarities of these two literary time periods, one must first understand the influences upon the Middel Ages from its predecessor. During the Middle Ages, some of the traditional Old English beliefs were kept, but with a few changes. The patriarchal system remained, although unlike the literature of the 8th and 9th century, women were now finding their place in many written works. For example, when Chaucer writes of The Wife of Bathe, he depicts a colorful character who would never have surfaced in Beowulf. Another change is found in the idea of the Ahero.@ During the Middle Ages, the hero has become less hardened; he has acquired values and morals. The idea of a chivalrous knight has taken the place of a unidimensional warrior who grunts and boasts and drags his knuckles as he walks. The

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most prolific change, however, was in the new presence of the Christian Church, which took the place of the Anglo-Saxon=s fatalistic culture and influenced almost all of the aspects of the society of the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance, with its rebirth of art and science, brought about further change to the literature of England. Where the stories of knights and warriors fighting Grendels and dragons once dominated the literature, beautifully scripted sonnets and tales of romance now took the literary forefront. Take, for example, women=s roles in written works. Women carried very little importance in the literature of Beowulf=s time, but by the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, female characters were more prevalent. Although the Wife of Bathe was a comical character, it is noteworthy that she is also a strong character– stronger, even than some of Chaucer=s male characters:

She was a worthy womman al hir live;

Housbondes at chirch dore she had five,

Withouten other compaignye in youthe–

But thereof needeth nought to speke as nouthe. (Chaucer 90)

The Wife of Bathe is a Aremarkable culmination of many centuries of an antifeminism that was particularly nurtured by the medieval church (Abrams 117). Chaucer shows her as large, ugly, and strong-willed; this last notion was taken by critics of the day as a satirical idea in a satirical work, but now is seen more as an accurate assessment than an ironic one. With the removal of the medieval church, as one of the influences upon literature, women were given more substantial roles, and the suppressed idea of romantic love was allowed to come forward in the works of such Renaissance writers as Spenser and Shakespeare.

Where Chaucer wrote of women such as Alisoun, the unfaithful miller=s wife, Spenser wrote

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of his woman:

Her lips did smeel like gillyflowers,

Her ruddy cheeks like unto roses red;

Her snowy browes lyke budded bellamoures,

Her lovely eyes like pinks but newly spred,

Her goodly bosom lyke a strawberry bed,

Her neck lyke to a bounch of cullambynes (417).

Likewise, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 18, AShall I compare thee to a summer=s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate@ (491). The fall of the Catholic church from dominance enabled sonnets and plays such as these to surface, and with the education of the middle class, the popularity of these kinds of writings was only increasing, while the popularity of morality plays and poems of the Middle Ages was rapidly decreasing. Poems of the 16th century were not epic verses filled with violence, such as Beuwulf, but instead, relatively brief, usually with the purpose of praising some aspect of love or nature.

Another difference can be found in the idea of the literary Ahero.@ The change from Beowulf to the knight in Chaucer=s Tales is equalled only by the change from Chuacer=s knight to the tragic heroes of Shakespeare or Spenser=s Red Crosse Knight. Starting with Beowulf: A. . .bloody from my foes, I came from a fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the waves slain water monsters. . .@ (31). Next, of Chaucer=s knight, ATo riden out he loved chivalrye. Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye@ (80). Finally, Spenser writes of his Red Crosse Knight, Athe eye of reason was with rage [blinded]@ (289). These three quotes show a gradual change from a brutish warrior to a chivalrous fighter, dedicated to his church, his king, and his lady, and from this fighter to a tragic hero with all too human qualities and flaws.

The fall of the Roman Catholic Church, the movement toward literacy of the lower classes,

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and the appreciation of love and nature all helped to bring about the changes in English literature present during the Renaissance. These changes are most recognizable in the gradual change of the literary hero, the lessened influence of the church in literature, and the abrupt acknowledgement and praise of women in literary works. It is this rise in the traditional, more artistic ideas of life shared by the Greeks and Romans that made the Renaissance what it was– a rebirth in science, art and romance.

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