Renaissance Literature

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Renaissance Literature













c. 1450

It could be argued that no other literary period in history is as rich—or paradoxical—as the Renaissance. Many historians locate the Renaissance from the mid-fifteenth until the early seventeenth century. There are, however, a few writers from other time periods whom historians and critics commonly associate with the Renaissance. The European Renaissance produced some of history's greatest writers and works of literature, yet many historians and critics disagree about when it actually took place. Contemporary Renaissance fairs and many movies set in Renaissance times are often set in England. In reality, however, the Renaissance started in Italy, then spread slowly east to other European countries, most notably France, Spain, and finally, England.

The Renaissance (from the French word for "rebirth") refers to the emergence and new interest in classical Greek and Roman texts and culture that took place between the Middle Ages and the modern period. With the advent of the printing press in 1440, the development of vernacular languages, and the weakening influence of the Catholic Church on daily life, among other historic events, Renaissance writers and scholars had new avenues for expressing their views. Many Renaissance works survive into the twenty-first century as some of the most celebrated in history. Early writers such as Desiderius Erasmus and Thomas More staged direct attacks on the Church and society with works such as Erasmus's The Praise of Follyand More's Utopia. These writers helped open doors for later ones, including William Shakespeare, who some critics consider the greatest dramatist and poet of all time.


Elizabeth Carey (1585–1639)

Elizabeth Carey (sometimes spelled as Cary) was born in Oxford, England, in 1585. She was a voracious reader from a young age and had an aptitude for languages. She married Sir Henry Carey in 1602 when she was only seventeen years old, but her husband was soon gone to fight in the war with Spain. In 1603, she moved in with her husband's family despite his absence. Her mother-in-law forbade her to read, so Carey wrote instead. The Tragedy of Mariam was completed soon thereafter, by 1609 at the latest. Carey also became interested in Catholicism during this time, a dangerous pursuit in post-Reformation England. She and her husband had eleven children together, and, in 1622, Henry moved them all to Ireland where he had been appointed lord deputy of that territory. Part of Henry's duties was the prosecution of Irish Catholics. Carey left her husband in 1625 because of their religious differences and returned to England.

In 1626, Carey was disowned by her husband and made a house prisoner when it was discovered that she planned to convert to Catholicism. All alone, Carey took up writing again, this time to earn money. The following year, Henry was forced to pay Carey's debts, and the couple was reconciled in 1631. Henry died in 1633; Carey died in 1639. She is remembered and celebrated as the first woman to write a play in English.

Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616)

Miguel de Cervantes (Saavedra), son of Rodrigo de Cervantes Saavedra and Leonor de Cortinas, was born on or about September 29, 1547, in Alcaláde Henares, Spain. After studying under a humanist teacher in Madrid, Cervantes enlisted in the Spanish military and helped to defend southern Europe from the invasion of the Ottoman Turks. While involved in this effort, Cervantes suffered an injury that crippled his left hand. On the way back home from the front, Cervantes and other Spanish soldiers were captured by pirates and detained in northern Africa for five years, at which time they returned to Spain as heroes. However, economic times were tough, and Cervantes's status as a hero soon waned. He turned to writing plays but with little success. He finally was able to secure a civic position as a supplies manager, whereupon he was blamed for the mismanagement of food and jailed. Following these misfortunes, Cervantes wrote his masterpiece El Ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha (translated as The History of that Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha), commonly referred to simply as Don Quixote, which details the misadventures of a madman. Cervantes died of edema on April 22, 1616, in Madrid, Spain.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536)

Desiderius Erasmus was born October 27, 1466, most likely in Rotterdam, Netherlands. He attended cathedral school, where he was first exposed to Renaissance humanistic thought, and his desire for the intellectual life was born. He used his religious education to access as many classics as he could find. Unlike many Renaissance writers who followed him, Erasmus wrote entirely in Latin, still considered at this time to be the language of the educated. Although he made plans to obtain a degree in theology, these plans were constantly postponed because of his intellectual pursuits, including several trips to England, where he met influential English humanists such as Thomas More. Following More's lead, Erasmus eventually combined his religious and intellectual interests into a new program of reform, using his literary works to stage satirical attacks on the Church and society. Out of all of his works, Erasmus's satire The Praise of Folly had the greatest influence on later humanist writers, who mimicked Erasmus's style in their own satirical works. It should be noted that Erasmus, like other humanist writers, wished to reform the Catholic Church while keeping it unified. However, in his criticisms of the Church and his scholarly interpretation and translation of the Bible, Erasmus was one of many humanists who inadvertently helped to instigate the Protestant Reformation and subsequent division of the Church. Erasmus died on July 12, 1536, in Basel, Switzerland.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527)

NiccolòMachiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to a middle-class family of civic workers. He studied Latin from an early age and was drawn to the classics, particularly texts about the Roman Republic. He followed family tradition and entered the Florentine political scene during Italy's politically unstable city-state period, when large cities such as Florence acted as independent republics. Within Florence, a number of factions vied for power. In 1498, Machiavelli helped one of them overthrow the dominant religious and political figure. Through a few other political posts he held over the next fourteen years, Machiavelli gained influence, while observing the harsh realities of politics. After the Medici family returned to power in 1512 and exiled Machiavelli to his country home, Machiavelli spent much of his time translating his political experiences into two treatises, or explanatory documents. The most infamous of these is The Prince. Machiavelli died of illness June 21, 1527, in Florence.

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593)

Christopher Marlowe, son of John and Catherine Marlowe, was born in February 1564 in Canterbury, England. Although he embarked on a humanistic education, receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cambridge while on scholarship, Marlowe was initially denied his Master of Arts degree due to his absences during his studies. Marlowe's activities were vouched for, however, by the court of Queen Elizabeth. Historical evidence suggests that during his educational absences, Marlowe was serving as a spy in the queen's service, helping to uncover and foil an insurrection plot by expatriate Roman Catholics. This life of intrigue and suspicion continued during Marlowe's six years in London, where he was imprisoned for a short time as an accomplice to murder. During the six years he was in London, Marlowe wrote plays, the most famous of which is Dr. Faustus. Marlowe died on May 30, 1593, but the circumstances surrounding his death and the evidence given in the inquest that followed it remained matters of debate into the 2000s.

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, son of Pierre Eyquem, was born on February 28, 1533, in Perigueux, France. The Montaigne name was noble, purchased by the author's great-grandfather and first used by the author. At the direction of Montaigne's father, the entire Eyquem household spoke Latin in an effort to instill it into the young Montaigne. Montaigne studied and practiced law for several years and served two terms as mayor of Bordeaux. However, his major focus during his adult life was writing. Despite his background in Latin, Montaigne wrote his major work, TheEssays, in his native French. Montaigne died on September 13, 1592, in Perigueux.

Sir Thomas More (1478–1535)

The records for Sir Thomas More's birth are not exact, although historians surmise he was born February 7, 1478, in London, England. More was the son of John More and Agnes Graunger More. While in his early-to mid-twenties, More lived with monks and adopted their lifestyle. Like his friend Erasmus, More combined his religious and intellectual pursuits into one humanistic ideal that he pursued for the rest of his life. The ultimate expression of this ideal came with the publication of Utopia (1516). In his adult life, More served Henry VIII and Parliament, and in 1521 he was knighted. When Henry declared himself head of the Church of England in 1531, however, More was forced to choose between his king and his Church. Faithful to the Church until his last days, More resigned his chancellor position and three years later refused to swear an oath endorsing the authority of Henry VIII over the Church of England and nullifying that of the pope in England. More was sent to the Tower of London and was beheaded July 6, 1535.

François Rabelais (1494–1553)

Details about François Rabelais's life are incomplete, but it is believed that he was born in 1494 in Chinon, France, into a wealthy family. Rabelais embodied the spirit of the Renaissance, which encouraged the pursuit of multiple vocations and interests. In his varied career, Rabelais worked as priest, physician, scholar, and writer. He also served his brother, the governor of Italy's Piedmont region, as an intermediary in the escalating conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. This was an ironic task, since Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel was condemned by the Sorbonne—the Catholic theological faculty at the University of Paris—as sympathetic to the Lutheran cause, while the Calvinists (Protestants) thought Rabelais's books promoted atheism. Despite this animosity from religious groups, Rabelais's books enjoyed a wide circulation, thanks to his protection from the French crown. Most of Rabelais's work was written in the French vernacular, which inspired other French writers to do the same. Rabelais's writings influenced other European humanists as well, most notably Cervantes. Rabelais died in 1553 in France.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

Tradition holds that William Shakespeare, son of John and Mary Arden Shakespeare, was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, although the specific date of his birth has not been verified. In fact, for a man who is regarded by many critics as one of the most important writers in history, surprisingly little is known about Shakespeare. Most of the details are derived through speculation. Because his father was a man of some civic importance, it is assumed that Shakespeare received a well-rounded, humanistic education. Some scholars also take Shakespeare's references to schools in his plays as proof of his own education. Given the enormous variety of experiences Shakespeare describes in his plays, it is also assumed that he pursued or observed many vocations and activities. Not much else is known about Shakespeare until 1592, when he became popular as an actor and writer in the London theater scene. He wrote more than thirty plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Tradition holds that Shakespeare died in Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 23, 1616, exactly fifty-two years after his birth.


Don Quixote

The two parts of Miguel de Cervantes' The History of That Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote de La Mancha, commonly referred to as simply Don Quixote, were published in 1605 and 1615, respectively. Both parts generally appear in one publication. The story details the misadventures of an old man who has gone mad from reading too many chivalric romances, a form of medieval literature that was popular in Spain during Cervantes' lifetime. True to the form of chivalry, the old man idealizes everything he sees, to much humorous effect. At the end of the novel, Quixote comes to his senses and denounces chivalric ideals before he dies. The novel paints an accurate picture of life in early seventeenth-century Spain and struck a resonant chord with Cervantes' public. Although Cervantes himself thought the work nothing more than a parody, modern critics have noted the book's Renaissance view of favoring realism over idealism and have credited the book with influencing the development of the modern novel. In addition, Cervantes' novel spawned the term "quixotic"


  • Don Quixote was adapted as a television movie in 2000 by Hallmark Entertainment. It was directed by Peter Yates and starred John Lithgow as Don Quixote and Bob Hoskins as Sancho Panza. The movie is available through Turner Network Television (TNT).
  • Hamlet was adapted by Pilgrim Pictures as a classic 1948 film, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in the title role. As of 2008, it was available from Universal-International distributors. Several of Shakespeare's plays, under the following titles, have been adapted for film by Kenneth Branagh serving as screenwriter and director: Love's Labour's Lost (2000), Hamlet (1996), In the Bleak Midwinter (1995, also known as A Midwinter's Tale), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1989). Branagh also stars in the first two and the last of these productions.
  • NiccolòMachiavelli's The Prince was adapted to an audiocassette, titled Prince, and was published by Blackstone Audiobooks in 1997.
  • Sir Thomas More's Utopia was adapted to audiocassette and was published by Blackstone Audiobooks in December 1991.

(the pursuit of foolish ideals), which is still used in the twenty-first century.

The Essays

When Michel de Montaigne wrote his collection of inquiries known as The Essays, first published in 1580, he created the modern literary essay form. However, the book itself—composed of three books of 107 chapters of widely varying length—is not organized into essays as recognized by modern readers. Rather, the term "essays," translated from the original French title of the book, Les essais (meaning "tests" or "attempts"), refers to the introspective, or self-driven, experimental methods that Montaigne used to explore the limits of his own human experience—the dominant idea of Humanism. This method is the only unifying factor in the book. The essays lack chronological order and sometimes contradict each other. In some cases, the essays are about subjects that have nothing to do with the title, and in other cases, the author switches topics within the essay. Although a few critics have attacked this lack of cohesiveness, many have looked past the structure of the book to its idea of introspection and its use of a conversational tone that creates an intimate bond between author and reader. Montaigne's in-depth, critical examination of subjects both large and small emphasized the idea of extreme skepticism popular in humanist thought, which influenced later Renaissance writers, including Shakespeare.


William Shakespeare was first and foremost a humanist, and all of his plays distinctly capture this Renaissance spirit. In his first tragedy, Hamlet, Shakespeare gives his title character an introspective intellect that is both humanist and modern. The play, published in 1600 or 1601, details the internal struggle that Prince Hamlet faces in deciding whether to avenge his father's murder. Although his father's ghost commands Hamlet to kill the murderer (Hamlet's uncle), Hamlet is not so easily swayed and thinks through the problem for himself. In the process, Hamlet considers many ideas about philosophy and human experience, all the while experiencing a spiritual crisis. The play resonated with Shakespeare's contemporary audience and has continued to affect audiences and critics into the twenty-first century, many of whom note its psychological depth.

The Praise of Folly

Desiderius Erasmus published his satire The Praise of Folly in 1511. Making use of the goddess Folly, the book features biting commentary on the injustices the author perceived in his world, most notably examples of religious foolishness such as the sale of indulgences (vouchers people could buy to absolve themselves of sin). The work immediately angered conservative Church officials. In Renaissance fashion, Erasmus incorporates classical references throughout the work and parodies the blind idealism of medieval times, a technique which influenced later humanist writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including Cervantes. Erasmus's various uses of the word "folly" have perplexed readers for over four centuries.

The Prince

It can be argued that no other work in the history of literature has inspired more longterm, widespread distaste than Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, published in 1532, five years after the author's death. Although Machiavelli intended the work to be a handbook for political leaders, most readers in the sixteenth century were openly disgusted by the book's cold discussion and support of the unethical methods, such as murder, that successful leaders used to acquire and remain in power. At the time of its publication, the book was condemned as a manual for tyranny, and many critics since that time have had a similar response to the work. Largely due to the deliberate spread of mistranslations of The Prince, English Renaissance writers such as Shakespeare and Marlowe incorporated negative depictions of Machiavelli into some of their works. The book even inspired the term "Machiavellian" (meaning duplicitous), which remains in use into the twenty-first century.

Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was The Prince accurately translated and reevaluated in its historical context. In this modern light, the intentions of the author have been hotly debated. Some critics have conjectured that Machiavelli was simply reporting on behaviors that he observed, while others believe that Machiavelli wrote the book as a satiric attack on tyranny. In any case, through works such as The Prince, Machiavelli has been referred to as the founder of empirical political science.

The Tragedy of Mariam

Elizabeth Carey's The Tragedy of Mariam is celebrated as the first play written in English by a woman. Carey wrote it between 1602 and 1604 when she was a young woman, but it was not published until 1613. Her source was Antiquities of the Jews, by Josephus, which recounts the story of King Herod's cruelty toward his wife Mariam. In Carey's version, the events take place in a single day. Carey's Mariam is a tragic figure torn between being a good wife and despising her husband for the murder of her grandfather and brother. In the end, she speaks her mind and stands up to her husband's ex-wife Salome, which results in Mariam being condemned to death. Carey paints Mariam as a martyr, a strong woman living with the corruption and sin of her husband's household. Carey's play is a closet drama, which means it is meant to be read aloud rather than performed on a stage.


Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516, is one of the most influential works written during the Renaissance. The book has two parts. The first critiques the social and political problems More saw, while the second describes life in an idealistic fictional society called Utopia. Utopians employ various communist methods to prevent problems experienced in sixteenth-century England. In both parts, More himself is the narrator and, as such, acts as the Renaissance skeptic for the reader. In addition to criticizing his own society, he also criticizes as absurd the methods that the utopians use, causing critics to debate what More's true beliefs were. The author never resolves the issues, leaving the book open-ended instead of trying to provide a clear solution. Critics have noted that this ambiguity invited his readers to join in the discussion on these topics, a call heeded by other Renaissance writers.



The Renaissance was sparked by a return to a classical style of learning, which had largely been ignored during the Middle Ages, when most writers glorified the Catholic Church and its teachings. As cities began to prosper, religious corruption increased and the influence of the Church waned; however, writers rediscovered the classics and began to incorporate them into their own works. "My father was neither the Chaos, nor Orcus, nor Saturn, nor Jupiter," says Erasmus's personified Folly in The Praise of Folly, referring to four gods, who were figures from the stories of the successions of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. With the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, the age of mass-market print distribution began, and more writers were able to receive a classical education.


  • Do some research on Aristotle' Poetics and then select a Shakespearean play with which you are familiar and analyze it in light of some of the characteristics Aristotle explains, such as the unities, the nature of the hero, and the idea of catharsis. Does Shakespeare's play satisfy Aristotle's esthetic or not?
  • Read about the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's day and the recreation of that theater in modern times. Write an essay that explains how the Globe was arranged and in what ways it uses ideas first employed in Ancient Greek drama and in what aspects it departs from the ancient model.
  • Although the humanists did not intend this, their writings helped to spark the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. Research the particulars behind each of these movements, and then compare the two views of religion. What is the same? What is different?


Study of the classical languages and values moved Renaissance writers to incorporate the classical style into their own works and encouraged a more worldly view than that of Middle Age religious writings, so that writers and scholars began to look beyond the Church's teachings and to take matters into their own hands, including the interpretation of the scriptures. This dramatic shift in thought, from relying totally on the wisdom of the Church to developing understanding through scholarship, led to the intense examination and appreciation for the human individual. This movement was called Humanism. The glorification of humans and human experience eventually led to the idea that humans could achieve perfection in this life as opposed to only in a divine paradise. Shakespeare's Danish prince Hamlet echoes this sentiment in a famous passage from Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties!" (Faculties in this sense means "abilities.") Othello, from Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name, was unable to rise to this perfection. Millicent Bell argues that contemporary beliefs about race dictated that he be characterized as a man who was seriously flawed. Race determined his character despite his evident honorable bearing.

Faith in Reason

With the resurgence in classical learning and the focus on more secular, or nonreligious, human issues, scholars and writers embraced a spirit of skepticism and began to place a greater importance on reason. This belief was directly contrary to Church teachings, which encouraged people to have faith in the Church alone. However, it is important to note that the humanists were not against the Church. On the contrary, most humanists believed their faith was strengthened by reason, and when they used rational or skeptical arguments against the Church, it was in an attempt to inspire reform of the Church practices. In addition to their application of reason to Church practices, humanists also used reason to rebel against the unrealistic ideals popular in medieval literary works, most notably the chivalric romances. Cervantes's Don Quixote embodied this application. The old man in the story is so blinded by the idealism he has read about in medieval romances that he can no longer see the truth, thinks he is a knight, and goes seeking adventures. In one of the most famous examples from the story, Quixote attempts to fight a number of windmills, which he mistakes for giants. Says Quixote: "This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."


Education was extremely important to Renaissance writers, and they pursued their own educations with diligence. As literacy increased due to the printing revolution and people other than scholars were able to read, writers also turned their focus outward. Historian Norman Davies writes in Europe, "The humanists knew that to create a New Man one had to start from schoolboys and students." From students, Renaissance writers turned to other specific sections of the public, toward whom they aimed a number of educational publications detailing the proper ways to do just about everything. In 1518, Baldassare Castiglione wrote The Courtier, a manual for courtly behavior. In 1530, Erasmus wrote Manners for Children. In 1532, Guillaume Budé emphasized the importance of learning itself in The Right and Proper Institution of the Study of Learning, while in the same year, Machiavelli wrote The Prince, his handbook for government leaders.



The Renaissance began with resurgence in classical learning, including the study and proper use of Latin. However, Latin was the language of scholars, not the common people. As more people became literate, many authors began to write in their vernacular, or native language, to reach this wider audience. At the same time, many writers attempted to demonstrate that their native languages were just as good as Latin, as Rabelais did when he published his Gargantua and Pantagruel in his native French. In addition, many writers produced works defending the decision to use vernacular, of which Joachim du Bellay's Defence and Illustration of the French Language is one of the most famous. "I do not, however, consider our vulgar tongue, as it now is, to be so vile, so abject as do these ambitious admirers of the Greek and Latin tongues," says Bellay, arguing against the prevailing belief that only the classical languages could produce literary greatness.


Irony is used in various ways. Two of these are verbal and situational. In its most basic sense, verbal irony entails saying one thing when meaning the opposite, often for a humorous effect. Situational irony occurs in the contrast between what a given set of circumstances appear to be and what in fact they are. For example, in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the title character is given false confidence from a prophecy by three witches, stating that he cannot be killed by a man born of a woman. At the end of the play, Macbeth relies on this prophecy when he fights Macduff. He is so sure of his success that he taunts him, telling Macduff about the prophecy that he cannot be killed by a man of woman born. However, as Macduff tells Macbeth:

    Despair thy charm;
    And let the angel whom thou still hast serv'd
    Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother's womb
    Untimely ripp'd.

Because Macduff was born by caesarian section rather than vaginally, he was not technically "born" of woman, and he can kill Macbeth, which he does.


Satire is an attack or protest, created by portraying the object of the protest in an unfavorable manner and hoping to bring about change. In Renaissance times, writers such as Erasmus and his friend More responded to the social injustices they saw with satirical attacks, as an example from Erasmus's The Praise of Folly demonstrates. When speaking about Christians, who he says are "enslaved to blindness and ignorance," Erasmus writes that priests encourage this blindness because they have wisely foreseen "that the people (like cows, which never give down their milk so well as when they are gently stroked), would part with less if they knew more." Erasmus is saying that if people were more educated about the Church and its injustices instead of just relying on the Church's comforting assurances, people would not be so willing to give their faith to the Church. By referring to the process of duping the people into faith as milking a cow, Erasmus sets up a negative image in the readers' minds and causes them to think about his argument.


More's Utopia inspired many imaginary societies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and is so famous that the word "utopia" came to signify both any idealized place and the literary form that depicts such a place. Renaissance utopian works sought to inspire social change by creating a new, imaginary, society that addressed problems in a different way. Two related examples from Utopia illustrate how More did this. In the first part of the book, More has his fictional character Raphael Hythloday talk to Cardinal Morton (chancellor to Henry VII) about some reforms he proposes. Hythloday brings up a current problem, the wool trade. Says Hythloday, "Your sheep . . . that commonly are so meek and eat so little; now, as I hear, they have become so greedy and fierce that they devour men themselves." This is not a literal eating of men, but a symbolic one. It points to the fact that landlords who wished to get rich from the wool trade were creating widespread poverty by stealing all of the common land people formerly used for agriculture, so that the landlords' sheep could graze on it. As a result, many of the new rural poor crowded into the cities, which led to other social ills such as disease and crime. In the second part of the book, about utopia itself, Hythloday demonstrates how the utopians do not have this problem because they conserve their resources when making and using clothes: "They use linen cloth most because it requires the least labour . . . . a Utopian is content with a single cloak, and generally wears it for two years."


The Protorenaissance

Many historians and critics acknowledge a "protorenaissance" that preceded and laid the groundwork for the actual Renaissance. While critics are in disagreement as to when this proto-renaissance began, the period lasted approximately from the twelfth century (when many universities were built) to the first half of the fifteenth century (up until the advent of the printing press). During this period, many influential writers began to create the Renaissance spirit that would influence later Renaissance writers. The most notable of these are three Italian writers—Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio—and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. When Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in Italian in the early fourteenth century, he literally created and defined the written version of Italian, paving the way for later Renaissance writers to develop their own vernaculars. At around the same time, Petrarch not only helped to track down and reproduce many of the great classical works later writers would study, he also helped popularize the use of the sonnet, a type of lyrical poem that many European Renaissance writers used for centuries.

Giovanni Boccaccio also helped to recover and translate ancient texts and, as historian Paul Johnson notes in his book The Renaissance: A Short History, "he produced a number of reference works, including two massive classical encyclopedias," one on the topography of the ancient world and one categorizing all of the ancient deities. Boccaccio also wrote The Decameron,a collection of one hundred tales some critics think influenced Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer's work, most notably The Canterbury Tales, published in 1400 after his death, helped to develop the English vernacular, inspiring later English writers as Dante's work had done in Italy. The Canterbury Tales, which tell the stories of several pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, are also noted for their humanistic depiction of late medieval society. Johnson says of the pilgrims: "These men and women jump out from the pages, and live on in the memory, in ways that not even Dante could contrive."

The American Renaissance

Ralph Waldo Emerson issued a ringing challenge to the literary community of the young American nation in his 1837 Harvard address, "The American Scholar": if American writers were "free and brave," with words "loaded with life," they would usher in a "new age." Emerson looms over that age, whether as an inspiration to reformers and artists of his generation and the next or as a bugbear to those distrustful of social and institutional change or literary innovation. Never wishing to lead a party or to be imitated himself, he thought it his role (and that of the scholar) to provoke others to discover their own resources of genius and power. The rich literary production in New England during the next quarter century—in many senses a response to Emerson's provocation—constituted what came to be known as the American Renaissance.

The Renaissance Man

The ideal human in physical, mental, and moral condition came to be known as the Renaissance man. A Renaissance man is a person who pursues and excels at many vocations and diverse interests, following the humanist notion that man's capacity to learn and improve is endless. This ideal was emphasized in the Renaissance education, which included study in several different areas. A famous example from the time is the Italian Leonardo da Vinci, who was accomplished as a painter, sculptor, and scientist, who designed inventions such as a helicopter, specialized in human anatomy, and painted masterpieces, such as the fresco The Last Supper and the oil portrait titled Mona Lisa. Davies says, Leonardo "possessed seemingly limitless talents to pursue his equally limitless curiosity." In the twenty-first century, the term Renaissance man or woman applies to someone who is a genius in many, often highly dissimilar fields of study.

Commedia dell'arte

Commedia dell'arte is an Italian term meaning "the comedy of guilds" or "the comedy of professional actors." This form of dramatic comedy was popular in Italy during the sixteenth century. Actors were assigned stock roles (such as Pulcinella, the stupid servant, or Pantalone, the old merchant) and given a basic plot to follow, but all dialogue was improvised. The roles were rigidly typed and the plots were formulaic, usually revolving around young lovers who thwarted their elders and attained wealth and happiness. A rigid convention of the commedia dell'arte is the periodic intrusion of Harlequin, who interrupts the play with low buffoonery. Peppino de Filippo's Metamorphoses of a Wandering Minstrel gave modern audiences an idea of what commedia dell'arte may have been like. Various scenarios for commedia dell'arte were compiled in Petraccone's La commedia dell'arte, storia, technica, scenari, published in 1927.


From the mid-fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced many vital changes, many of which were interconnected, and most of which were built upon technical, social, and political developments from the late Middle Ages. The most notable of these was the development of printing, which in turn influenced a number of other events. In Germany, Johann Gutenberg's invention of the moveable-type printing press in 1450, which combined a number of existing technologies, quickly caught on in other European countries. With the renewed interest in classical literature and the increasing contributions to Renaissance literature, book production rose steadily. Johnson notes, "By 1500, after forty-five years of the printed book, the total has been calculated at nine million." As vernacular languages gained in popularity, the number of printed books increased even more.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people were flocking to universities, which had been created in the late Middle Ages to educate members of the clergy. However, as literacy increased


  • 1450s: German businessman Johann Gutenberg prints the first Bible (in Latin) from a printing press.

    1510s: Martin Luther's theses and other literature promoting reformation of the Catholic Church are quickly disseminated through printing presses.

    Today: There continues to be a market for printed books, though literature is also being published and distributed by electronic media.

  • 1450s: After decades of bitter rivalry, the Italian city-states form the "Italian League" and agree to protect each other from outside attacks.

    1510s: Machiavelli writes The Prince, an instruction manual on how monarchs gain and wield power. He addresses it to the Medici family, the unofficial rulers of the Florentine republic.

    Today: After many transformations in Italian government, city-states have been abandoned in favor of a democratic republic.

  • 1450s: After fifty years, Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti completes his famous bronze doors for the northern and eastern portals of the baptistery of the cathedral of Florence, which depict scenes from the Bible in astonishing realism.

    1510s: Erasmus publishes The Praise of Folly, a seminal humanist work that advocates interpreting the Bible with realistic, scholarly methods to determine God's true intent instead of relying solely on church tradition.

    Today: Some people believe that if the original text of the Bible were fed into a computer and analyzed for certain patterns, hidden messages would be revealed.

and people renewed their interest in classical education, universities began to offer more secular curricula like law. Many Renaissance writers were trained at these universities.

The Renaissance was also a time of mobility, both within Europe and abroad. As the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church waned in power, Italy's city-states and Europe's monarchies increased in importance. With this development, Rome was no longer the intellectual or cultural center of Europe, and Renaissance scholars began to travel elsewhere, spreading their ideals in the process. The most notable of these traveling scholars was Erasmus, whose visits to England in the late fifteenth century introduced him to several other influential humanists and helped him to develop the ideas that would make him famous. As Johnson notes, Erasmus came in 1498 to study at Oxford University in England because "it was no longer necessary to go as far as Italy."

Meanwhile, explorations outside Europe were on the rise, and a whole new world was being discovered. The successful navigation around Africa's Cape of Good Hope in the 1450s was one such voyage, while Christopher Columbus's discovery of America in 1492 was another. The resulting expansion of the world in the eyes of Europeans influenced Renaissance writers like Rabelais, whose Gargantua and Pantagruel incorporates fantastical islands that can be reached by ocean travel, and features very odd beings: "We got sight of a triangular island. . . . The people there . . . all of them,men,women,and children,have their noses shaped like an ace of clubs."

In England, the Renaissance spirit of criticism increasingly focused on the Catholic Church. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his famous ninety-five theses to the door of his church; these, with the aid of the printing press, were also widely distributed. One of the theses demonstrates the main point of his argument: "Thus those preachers of indulgences are in error who say that by the indulgences of the pope a man is freed and saved from all punishment." Although Luther, like the humanists who inspired him, had hoped his theses would inspire a reformation of the Church while keeping it whole, most historians agree that his symbolic act launched the Protestant Reformation. From this point on, parishioners gathered in two factions, Catholics and Protestants. In 1529, the Catholic Church refused to acknowledge King Henry VIII's divorce from his second wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to bear the king a male heir. Two years later, Henry retaliated by declaring himself the supreme head of the Church of England.

The Protestant Reformation inspired the Catholic Church's response, the Counter-Reformation, in which the Church changed its tactics and started to embrace some of the humanist aspects it had originally fought so hard against. During these two major movements, both Catholic and Protestant printers used their trade as a weapon, creating propaganda literature they distributed to people in hopes of keeping or gaining their faith.


The confusion over what constitutes the official period of the Renaissance and its role in history dates back to 1858. Samuel Johnson says, "The term 'Renaissance' was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet." Two years later, Jacob Burckhardt immortalized the term in the publication of his The Civilization of the Renaissance, in which the period was viewed as the beginning of the modern age.

From that time until late in the twentieth century, historians and critics alike envisioned the Renaissance as a transition period between the Dark Ages—in which there was little or no technical innovation or cultivation of the arts— and the modern age. In fact, Renaissance critics themselves were under a similar impression about the importance of the time period. Critic Vernon Hall sums it up in his book A Short History of Literary Criticism, when speaking about the literary critics of the time: "Looking upon the Middle Ages as a semibarbaric period, they were out to bestow form, classical form, on the literature and life of their age."

During the Renaissance, the new humanistic literature inspired both positive and negative responses from readers and critics. Because many Renaissance works criticized the Catholic Church, they were not received well by either the Church or the Church's supporters, who would often ban or burn these works. On the other hand, for those who were open to the new ideas Renaissance literature proposed, the works were received very well. So to a large extent, the reception of a work depended on the predisposition of the critic examining it. In addition, in many cases the writer and critic were the same, as in the aforementioned examples of works promoting the use of vernacular language. Hall says about the Renaissance critics, "regardless of whether their influence was good or bad they succeeded admirably in doing one thing. They established literary criticism as an independent form of literature."

As scholars in later years have looked back on the Renaissance, critics have tended to focus on one country. Says Jonathan Hart in his introduction to Reading the Renaissance, a collection of essays examining the Renaissance as a whole, "Most often, scholars examine the national literatures of the Renaissance in isolation."

Some of the most famous criticism has been for one particular author, as in the famous "Preface to Shakespeare" by eighteenth-century writer and critic Samuel Johnson, in which he notes, "Shakespeare is above all writers. ...the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirrour of manners and life." Shakespeare has been, without fail, the single most studied writer of the Renaissance, in part because his works synthesize many of the humanistic themes that Renaissance writers employed, which still ring true with many critics and audiences in the twenty-first century.


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Doctor Faustusas an example of two warring ideologies in Christopher Marlowe's play of the same name.

Christopher Marlowe's play, Doctor Faustus, written in 1604 at the height of the Renaissance in England, lends itself to countless interpretations. Critics have read it as an extreme humanist play, focusing on Faustus's decision to pursue knowledge at all costs, even damnation, a concept which he does not initially believe in. Others, however, have read it as a medieval Christian morality play, a type of cautionary tale that demonstrates the battle for a human soul between primal good and evil forces like "God" and "The Devil." Indeed, there is evidence in the text to support both of these assumptions. The truth is, the play is both. Faustus, a product of the transitional times in which he (and the playwright, Marlowe) lived, is a character so saturated in both medieval Christianity and Renaissance Humanism that he is incapable of committing to either. In the end, this spells his ruin.

As the play starts, Faustus has come to a decision. True to humanist fashion, he has set himself on a task of consuming all of the worldly


  • Allan Atlas's Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400–1600 (1998) is a comprehensive book about music during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe.
  • Craig Harbison's The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context (1995) examines the origins of Renaissance art in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Netherlands, France, and Germany.
  • Architecture of the Renaissance: From Brunelleschi to Palladio (1996), written by Bertrand Jestaz and translated by Caroline Beamish, provides a good overview of the architectural rebirth in fifteenth-century Italy, which was inspired by the columns, rounded arches, and classical architecture of Greece and Rome.
  • Florence was the key city for the arts during the Italian Renaissance. Florence and the Renaissance: The Quattrocentro (1997), by Alain J. Lemaitre and Erich Lessing, examines the course of creative development in architecture, sculpture, and paintings during the Renaissance in Italy.
  • Ingrid D. Rowland's The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome (1998) employs an interdisciplinary approach to explore the cultural conditions that produced the Renaissance.

knowledge he can, and in doing so "thou hast attained the end." Faustus here begins his practice of referring to himself as "thou" (the Renaissance version of "you") in addition to referring to himself as "I." He will continue to refer to himself as "thou" or "Doctor Faustus" off and on throughout the play. By having Faustus refer to himself as both an insider ("I") and outsider ("thou" and "Doctor. Faustus"), Marlowe underscores the division between fantasy and reality on which Faustus will tread on the road to his damnation.


This road is deliberately chosen by Faustus. Having reached the limits of human knowledge, he turns instead to the magic arts: "A sound magician is a mighty god. / Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity." With this decision to turn to magic to try to make himself a god, Faustus turns to the dark side, and the play takes a turn from skeptical Humanism to medieval mysticism. A true humanist, schooled in all of the natural sciences, would not believe in magic. This is one of the many paradoxes in the play.

After seeking out some magician friends, Faustus acquires the skill to conjure. His first major act is to call forth the devil, Mephistopheles, which he does with the aid of some Christian implements, such as holy water. When the devil appears for the first time, he is so hideous that he scares Faustus: "I charge thee to return and change thy shape. / Thou art too ugly to attend on me." Faustus forces Mephistopheles to come back in the shape of a "Franciscan friar," which is more pleasing to him. Faustus is willing to forsake himself and his religion, but only if the items he gets in return fit a certain mold. As Roland M. Frye notes in his article "Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: The Repudiation of Humanity," "From this point onward Faustus's hold upon reality steadily dissolves."

Faustus's delusions start with his failure to believe that Mephistopheles is actually in hell. Mephistopheles explains that any existence that does not include the grace of God is a hell, and so Mephistopheles suffers whether he is in the earthly realm or the underworld. Faustus refuses to believe the devil and forges ahead with his plan to surrender his soul to Lucifer in exchange for "four-and-twenty years" to have Mephistopheles as a servant to attend on Faustus and give him whatever power he needs.

Still, Faustus falters before he actually goes through with the process; pausing, he entertains the thought of God, although he quickly scolds himself for such thoughts: "What boots it then to think of God or heaven? / Away with such vain fancies and despair!" Faustus even goes to the other extreme, saying he will turn to Beelzebub and "offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes." Again, the forces of rational Humanism and medieval theology war with each other within Faustus, but this is the first time Faustus has offered to murder for his cause. It is at this point that other forces start fighting with each other, namely a good angel and bad angel, who come in to try to fight for Faustus's soul. This is much in the style of a medieval morality play. The evil angel wins the battle by tempting Faustus with the power he so desperately craves.

Faustus, enraptured with the idea of being able to have Mephistopheles for his pet and to be able to "raise up spirits" whenever he wishes, makes the pact with Mephistopheles and Lucifer. It is only at this point that Faustus, confident in his decision, decides to ask Mephistopheles again about the nature of hell. Once again the demon gives an answer similar to the first one, saying that "All places shall be hell that is not heaven." It is interesting that Faustus asks this question. He is confident he will not be damned in hell and that in his rational mind he has gotten the better end of the bargain. He thinks he will have twenty-four years of power and then get off easy, and yet the first question he asks Mephistopheles after officially pledging his soul to Lucifer is what hell is like. Yet once again, Faustus does not believe the devil's answer, saying, "Come, I think hell's a fable." If this is so, then why does Faustus ask about hell? Is he so sure in his mind that he is safe that he wishes to taunt the devil? Or is there a nagging doubt from his Christian side that has prompted him to ask the question? This is another instance where Faustus's contradictory beliefs introduce a paradox in the play.

From this point on in the play, the nagging doubts in Faustus's mind increase in frequency. He asks for a wife from Mephistopheles, and the devil brings him another devil in the guise of a woman. This is not what Faustus requested, and so he is offended. But Mephistopheles cannot give him a human wife. The devil can give him power, but it has its limits. Instead, if Faustus asks for human women, he will bring more devils. Mephistopheles hints at this when he says he will bring women "as beautiful" as Lucifer was, before his expulsion from heaven. Faustus glosses over this and the other spells the devil demonstrates. Faustus is intent on his real wish, which is to "raise up spirits when I please." His wish to be able to raise the dead is reminiscent of Jesus' raising of Lazarus, of which Faustus is aware. Faustus is at this point a humanist to the extreme, for if one carries along to a superlative degree the idea of believing in human power to better oneself, it turns into the belief that humanity can supersede God.

However, Faustus soon takes a turn back to his theological side. After reviewing Mephistopheles' spell book, he sees the error of his ways. He asks the devil to show him the heavens: "Now would I have a book where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions." The devil shows Faustus, who in the next scene realizes that he is damned and curses Mephistopheles, "Because thou hast deprived me of those joys."

Faustus now fights with himself more openly, first praying to God to save him, then begging Lucifer to forgive him for praying to God. He is a man unhinged, and he alternately clings to one ideology and then the other. In his more Christian moments, he believes in God and hell but thinks he is past the point of saving. In his more humanistic moments, he asks incessant questions of Mephistopheles, trying to disprove the existence of God and hell so that he will not be damned. "Tell me who made the world," Faustus asks the devil, who cannot say God's name, and so refuses. Instead Mephistopheles says: "Think thou on hell, Faustus, for thou art damned." In other words, not only should Faustus forget his salvation, he should concentrate on the fact that when his contract with Lucifer comes due, his life could be made very bad in hell.

Faustus decides to stick to his damnation and starts to enjoy his power. Or at least he tries. Most of his attempts to use magic backfire, as in his attempt to play a trick on the pope, which ends with he and Mephistopheles fleeing before they are cursed: "Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell." This is a hard lesson for Faustus. It is no accident that Marlowe chose to have his character try to provoke the pope, who in the medieval Catholic religion is the direct servant of God. Here, Faustus has aligned himself with evil and tries to win over good but cannot.

The rest of his attempts at magic are even worse, as they are squandered doing deeds for others, most of which do not fall in line with his original plan of playing a commanding role over all of creation. "I am content to do whatsoever your majesty shall command me," says Faustus to the emperor, who has Faustus bring forth the spirit of Alexander the Great and his paramour.

At the end of his twenty-four years, Faustus has wasted all of his time and reflects on his plight, being once again of the medieval mind: "What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?" In one last attempt to please some scholars, Faustus has Mephistopheles bring forth the spirit of Helen of Troy. "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Of course, it is not. None of the spirits that the devil has conjured have been human, but rather demons, just like the first demon Mephistopheles brought forth to Faustus for a "wife." However, at this point, Faustus is lost, and in his delusion, he sees Helen, not the demon, whose "lips suck forth my soul."

The play, which has taken a roller-coaster ride through competing ideologies, ends on the medieval note, as Faustus awaits his damnation, trying one last time to repent by throwing away the quest for knowledge that has damned him: "I'll burn my books. Ah Mephistopheles!" Faustus is carried off to hell, which is unfortunately more real than his humanist side would have wished.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Renaissance Literature, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Millicent Bell

In the following essay, Bell discusses the racial prejudices Othello tries to rise above—and is ultimately overwhelmed by—in Shakespeare's play.

Othello's whole life seems to be shaped by a society—like Shakespeare's England—in which self-transformation as well as the transformations effected by the forces of social change, or even by mere accident, operate to alter what one is, shift one's very selfhood from one template to another. Before he became the hero who won the regard of the Venetian state and the love of Desdemona, he had been someone we can only dimly imagine. Somehow, his career had begun by exile from an origin we never see directly. We can merely suspect its vast difference from his present condition. What he might have been as a person of station in his native place we will never know.

We do not even know without doubt that he is a "blackamoor," a Negro from sub-Saharan Africa, like "raven-coloured" Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus who is described as having a "fleece of wooly hair" and whose child is called a "thicklipped slave." Roderigo slurringly refers to Othello as "the thick lips," and he is called "black" throughout the play and says, himself, "Haply for I am black." But, perhaps, he is a "tawny Moor" from the Mediterranean rim, like the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice,ora Berber or "erring Barbarian," as Iago puns, or the "Barbary horse" who has "covered" Desdemona, as the same racist provocateur vulgarly tells Brabantio. Shakespeare does not remove all doubt, but he seems willing to let us visualize "a veritable negro," to use Coleridge's phrase for the Othello


whose love for a white woman he found "something monstrous to conceive." Elizabethans might not have reacted as Coleridge would come to do. Othello was played as a black man on the stage in Shakespeare's own day and for over a century and a half after. And so again we feel that the part must be played today, though the nineteenth and a good portion of the twentieth century were able only to tolerate a sort of light-skinned Arab sheik to represent him.

But one way or another, his exact beginnings remain obscure to us. Though he has told Desde-mona as well as her father "the story of [his] life/ From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes/ That [he] passed . . . even from [his] boyish days"—his summary to the signory of Venice is vague, and the "travailous history" he offers of wars and wanderings, of captures and escapes, and of encounters with monsters and cannibals is mythically Odyssean. One thing we know is that he had once experienced the ultimate degradation that had come when, "taken by the insolent foe," he had been "sold to slavery." Somehow, he found his freedom, and we can presume that he was converted from his original Mohammedanism, but we are ignorant of when or how. Already, when we first meet him, he is a Christian and a "self-made man" who has made the most of opportunity and his own genius and has overcome the handicaps of being foreign and black in the white Venetian world in which he has found a place. This stranger with an exotic, almost mythical otherness has acquired a place within the order of Venice by his own efforts on behalf of a colonial empire. And yet, in the end, he cannot sustain this new personhood, this transformed social being donated by altered occasion, forged by his own will.

The curtain rises for good reason on a discussion about jobs and how one is qualified for them. Iago's declared envy of Cassio's promotion is plausible, even though he expresses this resentment only in a single remark to Roderigo. It serves to relate the play to a new seventeenth-century social climate that gave rise to uncertainty about personal identity—and gives a historical meaning to the way Iago comes before us as the man who believes that one is only what one appears to be, what role one is able to personate successfully. Iago's most significant statement of this view is the skeptical declaration he makes to Roderigo—"'tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to which our wills are gardeners"—which is almost sincerely his own philosophy, though it hardly serves the feckless Roderigo to whom it is addressed. Iago calls Cassio, just appointed lieutenant, a mere classroom soldier, "a great arithmetician . . . /That never set a squadron in the field/Nor the division of a battle knows/More than a spinster." Practical field experience is a legitimate requirement for the promotion Cassio has gained—and something different from the mere entitlement of class and even the textbook theory he has acquired. In contrast, Iago has served in battle, as he reminds Othello: "in the trade of war I have slain men." Iago professes to believe in promotion for merit and resents the arbitrary advancement of the candidate, like Cassio, who is part of an old boys' network. He also claims the earned rights of seniority rather than preferment gained by letters of recommendation from influential somebodies.

Preferment goes by letter and affection And not by old gradation, where each second Stood heir to th' first.

But though he makes his claim by referring to a system of respect for service he calls "old gradation," he himself has tried to go up the ladder by the aid of "letter and affection" and secured the support of "[t]hree great ones of the city." He is one of the new breed of men who not only claim advancement by merit but will manipulate and scheme for advancement—and by either means expect to escape assignment to a fixed definition. That he has not received his deserved promotion and must prosper just the same is something he is prepared for as a master of Machiavellian elasticity. He deprecates title and position and even the old division into masters and followers that organizes society:

    We cannot be all masters, nor all masters
    Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
    Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
    That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
    Wears out his time much like his master's ass
    For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashiered.
    Whip me such honest knaves!

Others, adapting to a new social climate, know the meaninglessness of the identities society assigns. Taking instruction from Machiavelli, they make the most of opportunity, and, though observing the old boundaries of outer behavior,

    trimmed in forms, and visages of duty,
    Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
    And, throwing but shows of service on theirlords,
    Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats,
    Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul
    And such a one do I profess myself.

But not all have Iago's confidence. In a mobile society, one is always likely to lose one's footing and become a nobody—that is, to cease to exist in a social sense. The play is full of implicit references to a milieu in which, as in today's corporate world, there is no longer a guarantee of tenure. Demotion breaks Cassio's heart. Othello remembers with grief how he had "done the state some service" before his replacement as general and administrator of Cyprus.

Unlike the aristocratic Cassio, Othello, who may once have been a prince, has been a mercenary soldier and before that even a slave in another world. But, as the play begins, he is in command of the Venetian forces in defense of Cyprus against the Turks. A Renaissance idea of fame, or of "making a name" for oneself, is invoked in the play, as is Iago's Machiavellian idea of "thriving." It is the heroic character Othello has made for himself that achieves his success in his wooing. He makes Desdemona put aside the prerequisites of class and race assumed for her appropriate suitor. She says she "loved [him] for the dangers [he] had passed," though her father, who looks for inherited credentials he understands better in the sons of Venetian aristocracy, calls Othello's recounting of his history "witchcraft." And perhaps such self-fabrication, such transformation by which one of the colonized joins the military elite of a colonial power, is a kind of magic. For Brabantio, miscegenation is, classically, a threat of redefinition not to be made less threatening by proof of Othello's worthiness. "For if such actions may have passage free/Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be," he shouts in an outburst of class panic. Iago will remark a bit later to Cassio, "he to-night hath boarded a land carrack," implicitly comparing Othello's sexual conquest to the seizure of a Spanish or Portuguese treasure ship (a "car-rack") by an English privateer—in other words, an act of social piracy.

Yet nothing can be more fragile than Othello's self-making, which has none of Iago's confidence in being whatever, for the occasion, he wills himself to be. His attempt to give rebirth to an ancient ideal of epic heroism is vulnerable to the spirit of the later time represented by Iago. As his nobility is erased by rage and despair in the middle of the third act, he mourns,

    O now for ever
    Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!
    Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
    That make ambition virtue! O farewell,
    Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
    The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
    The royal banner, and all quality,
    Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
    And, O ye mortal engines, whose wide throats
    Th' immoral Jove's great clamours counterfeit,
    Farewell: Othello's occupation's gone.

The strangeness of this wonderful speech is seldom commented on. There is no real reason why Othello should say goodbye at this point to his soldier's profession, which has given him an epic selfhood. His terrible crime, for which he only escapes punishment by performing his own execution, is still ahead of him. But the collapse of personal being he is already experiencing is inseparable from the loss of occupation. Before he embraces his literal self-destruction at the last, he refers to himself in the third person, saying "Where should Othello go?" as though the man he was is no longer speaking. Afterwards, when Lodovico comes looking for him with "Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?" he replies, "That's he that was Othello? here I am." Then, he remembers his former self—the self created by his public career—as having once defended the Venetian State even as, at this ultimate moment of further transformation, he identifies himself with the "circumcised dog" he once killed. Critics are mistaken who have spoken of Othello's "recovery" in the final scene when he seems to become, again, a fearless soldier and romantic lover who dies by his own hand. It is hard to admire Othello uncritically once having read T. S. Eliot on this hero's famous final speech ("What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavoring to escape reality"). But Eliot did not observe that what happens at this last moment is tragic acceptance rather than escape, an acceptance of his original status as a racial outsider, which neither his military achievements nor his marriage have succeeded in permanently altering.

His marriage has proved to be the theater in which the issues of self-realization, the issues that beset men in society at large, are acted out for Othello on the scale of intimate relations. Marriage to a woman of a rank above one's own has been a universally practiced means of male self-advancement throughout human history, of course, but the marriage of Othello to Desde-mona has provided a precarious bridge over the gaps between them. Shakespeare hints that Othello's jealous anguish and distrust of his own perceptions may be caused by the interracial character of his union with a daughter of his Venetian masters. All those reminders by Iago of the impossibility of establishing Desdemona's adultery—a privacy invisible directly—refer one back to a miscegenation over whose consummation a cloud of unknowableness also hangs. The real but equally transgressive relation of Othello and Desdemona is even less easily viewable than the adultery of Desdemona with Cassio that did not take place but was so vividly supposed. This marriage becomes, by implication, something not to be made "ocular," as though it is obscene, as though it can be fairly represented only by animalistic metaphor in Iago's description to the shuddering Brabantio at the beginning of the play: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe!" Just as he will cause Othello to hallucinate the false image of Desdemona and Cassio locked in naked embrace, Iago rouses her father with his wizard evocation, setting into the mind of the old man the animal coupling that represents their racial transgression as "making the beast with two backs," and figuring Othello as a black ram as well as a Barbary horse.

It seems probable that, at this early point, Othello and Desdemona have not yet had the opportunity of establishing the union they have secretly contracted. The newly married pair could not have enjoyed their nuptial rapture for long during their first night in Venice when a midnight summons from the Duke posts the bridegroom to the defense of Cyprus. But not only circumstances or conditions keep this marriage from being consummated. The play suggests that Othello himself is engaged in a deferral of this forbidden act. Othello portrays himself convincingly at his trial before the Venetian Duke and Senators as one more used to the "flinty and steel couch of war" than to the "downy" bed of love. This war-hardened soldier hasn't had much experience of love's soft delights. He confesses: "since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,/Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used/Their dearest action in the tented field." He is no Marc Antony. Though Desdemona will accompany him to Cyprus, he is at pains to remind the Duke how largely his military preoccupation will absorb him:

    And heaven defend your good souls that you think
    I will your serious and great business scant
    When she is with me. No, when light-winged toys
    Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
    My speculative and officed instrument
    That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
    Let housewives make a skillet of my helm.

He tells Desdemona, as he assumes his new assignment, "I have but an hour/Of love, of worldly matter and direction/To spend with thee. We must obey the time."

Desdemona may still be a virgin when they are reunited after separate crossings to Cyprus, and Othello says, "The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue./The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you." He gives orders for a wedding party while he leads his wife to bed, but the party grows wild and brings Cassio into disgrace, and Othello and Desdemona are interrupted once more—after which Othello lingers on with the wounded Montano, saying to his wife, with some equanimity, "Come Desdemona: 'tis the soldiers' life/To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife." Shakespeare may have wanted us to wonder how well their lovemaking had gone or if it had even got under way, and to sustain the doubt in Iago's earlier question, "Are you well married?"

We may connect the jealousy aroused so readily in Othello with one of those postnuptial awakenings that come to men unprepared for the active sexuality of the women they marry. Was Desdemona too quick or he too slow? It has been evident from the start of the play that she can take the initiative. We recall that when she first heard Othello's narrative of his past exploits she told him that "she wished/That heaven had made her such a man"—a remark that either expresses her longing for masculine roles or her bold invitation to him to make himself hers. She prompted Othello by telling him that if he had a friend who loved her, he "should but teach him how to tell" such a story as his own, "and that would woo her." She herself admits to the Duke of Venice, "That I did love the Moor to live with him/My downright violence and scorn of fortunes/May trumpet to the world," and so she pleads to be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus rather than to be left behind, "a moth of peace." When Othello lands in Cyprus to find her already there waiting for him he greets her, "O my fair warrior!" Perhaps she already is what Cassio calls her, his "captain's captain." Her father may not have known the daughter he describes as "[a] maiden never bold,/Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion/Blushed at herself."

Her activeness may be sexual. She had insisted to the Duke that if she were left behind, "the rites for which I love [Othello] are bereft me." Later, convinced that she has made love to Cassio, Othello will come to say, under Iago's influence, "O curse of marriage/That we can think these delicate creatures ours/And not their appetites!" Iago will have laid the ground for such a disillusion by his suggestion that Desdemona had already been an awakened woman before her marriage, a "super-subtle Venetian": "In Venice they do let God see the pranks/They dare not show their husbands." Brabantio charged Othello before the Venetian signory with having bound Desdemona in "chains of magic"—for how, otherwise, could she, "so opposite to marriage that she shunned/The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation" and incurred "the general mock," have "run from her guardage to the sooty bosom/Of such a thing"? But Othello knows he has used no witchcraft, and to him Iago suggests "a will most rank,/Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural" in Desdemona. And with this disbelief in her genuine love for him, along with a suspicion of her too-ready sexual forwardness, he is lost. Perhaps he suspects a racial will to dominance in her sexual "appetite," which declares that she is not his but that he is hers as a slave belongs to his owner.

This, of course, is a counterpart to the white master's fear of the slave's rebellion, which expresses itself in the racist presumption of the dangerous lustfulness of the oppressed and repressed—the cliché of a primitive savagery more powerful than the white man's, a lust threatening white womanhood. Someone like the stupid Roderigo, who has failed to get Desdemona even to glance at him, will refer to the "gross clasps of a lascivious Moor" when he attempts to arouse Brabantio against Othello. Iago works this vein when he portrays Othello as someone of mere impulse. "These Moors," he says, "are changeable in their wills." He even claims to believe that "it is thought abroad" that his General's unbridled lust has extended to Emilia, and cuckolded him."Ido suspect the lusty Moor/Hath leaped into my seat," he says, and though he may not really think this possible, he repeats his half-belief in this suggestion that Othello had "done [his] office 'twixt [his] sheets," while confessing that he is only looking for specious causes for his animosity: "I know not if't be true,/But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,/Will do as if for surety." Perhaps the same promptness to such presumption has infected the minds of some of the play's readers ever since, despite Shakespeare's exposure of the motives of both Iago and Roderigo in seizing so readily upon the ancient stereotype of the "lusty Moor." A refined version of it has even been discovered in Othello by so distinguished a modern Shakespeare scholar as E.A.J. Honigmann, the editor of the latest Arden Edition of the play, who speaks of Othello's "exceptional sensuoúsness, though not necessarily 'racial"' to be found in some of Othello's tributes to Desdemona's effect upon him. Honigmann cites, particularly, Othello's swooning recall of her appeal to his sense of smell—as when he exclaims, in his culminating anguish, "O thou weed/Who art so lovely fair and smellst so sweet/That the senses ache at thee."

But, in fact, Othello himself, as Shakespeare shows, is quite the reverse of the stereotypical "lusty Moor." To respond to the call of arms, Othello delays his wedding-night happiness without hesitation, almost welcoming, in a curious way, as I have noted, the deferral of his bliss. Moreover, he himself goes so far as to deny the sensuality of his feelings for his beautiful bride. He supports her plea to accompany him to Cyprus with the odd observation to the Duke: "I . . . beg it not/To please the palate of my appetite/Nor to comply with heat, the young affects/ In me defunct, and proper satisfaction,/But to be free and bounteous to her mind." This renunciation of sexual urgency almost removes his color for his grateful employers as though to refute the convention that attributes "savage" sexuality to the black man. "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black," the Duke tells Brabantio as Othello accepts his mission. It is Desdemona rather than himself who is to be suspected of illicit lust, as Iago will soon persuade him when he stresses the positive unnaturalness of her love for her husband instead of for a social and racial equal— knowing, rightly, how such a thought will promote that jealous insecurity he wishes to arouse. He responds to Othello's protest that Desdemona's betrayal would be an incredible case of "nature erring from itself" by suggesting that it is her marriage itself, her inclination for Othello, that is a perversity.

    Not to affect many proposed matches
    Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
    Whereto we see, in all things, nature tends
    Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
    Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural.

We can imagine how these suggestions affect Othello, most especially the reference to "complexion." Paradoxically, Iago actually increases Othello's self-doubt when he suggests that Desdemona has not freed herself from her father's racism. Is not this borne out by a love that began with her vision of her lover's "visage in his mind"—rather than in the black face gazing at her? To match this, Othello's disclaimer to the Duke and Senators of Venice of his physical desire for his wife may be connected to his fear of their physical union stated in almost the same terms when he declares that all he looks forward to is "but to be free and bounteous to her mind."

So, Othello seems to suffer the insecurity of someone who has crossed the racial line yet feels reproved for it when his white wife is reclaimed by her social and racial world in her supposed affair with Cassio. Iago can count on the self-hating that afflicts the victim of prejudice who cannot, himself, believe that he is loveable to someone of the other race. He has been compelled to hallucinate her intimacy with a white man, but can hardly imagine his own union with her. She may be expected to retain an inclination for such a familiar species as Cassio. Only moments before she is murdered she will remark upon the Venetian nobleman to whom she is related by blood as well as class, "This Lodovico is a proper man." To which Emilia replies, woman-to-woman, "I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip." For this is how, according to the code of Venice, a Venetian woman should feel; it is perfectly "natural." When Desdemona is called a "whore" by an Othello reduced to the racial enemy's language by his jealousy, Emilia exclaims, "Hath she forsook so many noble matches,/Her father, and her country, and her friends,/To be called whore?" But this is exactly what her social desertion must seem to white society, something more adulterous, indeed, than the affair with Cassio of which she is falsely accused.

Othello's collapse into murderous violence would seem to be an illustration of the way, according to the racist view, the coating of civilization must slide readily off the "savage" personality. But Shakespeare's readiness to admit the instability of personality—as though he is ready to entertain Iago's denial of intrinsic and permanent character—is apparent in all his tragedies. The Macbeth who is held by his wife to be too full of the milk of human kindness before his murder of Duncan is not the same as that "dead butcher" whose head is triumphantly carried onto the stage on the uplifted lance of Macduff at the end. Certainly, in Othello, the serene and just commander of himself and others we first meet is not the madman who shrieks, "I will chop her into messes," as he accepts the view that his wife has betrayed him. The play exhibits that mutability in the alteration of his very language from a majestic poetry that has been called the "Othello music" to a debased tone from which all music has gone. But this alteration is only temporary. The play does not justify the racist theory of the uneducable savage. Othello is always too noble even in his preposterous delusion and degradation, too superior to everyone else on the scene, for such a view. And yet, again, though many have seen in Othello's final end a full recovery of tragic greatness, Shakespeare's vision may be too pessimistic to allow that either.

There are no more romantic lovers in all of Shakespeare than the almost virginal warrior and the high-minded virgin Lady whose love he wins by recital of his heroic past. But they also recall the May-December prototypes of farce; Othello feels his head for horns like the deluded old husband of a thousand comic tales. Despite the grimness of this tragic history, the comic foregrounding of sex, as in farce, is both invoked and obscured in a play in which so much of the time the marriage bed is at least present to mind even if offstage, just guessed at, though unseen, like the sexual union enacted there. Othello's sexual secret discloses itself, however—rather than being merely suspected or hinted—on the deathbed that has been laid with his and Desdemona's wedding sheets—"sheets" being an evasive metonymy for the bed and for the lovemaking that takes place upon it. When Iago claims to hate Othello because "twixt my sheets/He's done my office," or when he remarks to Cassio on Cyprus, "Well, happiness to their sheets!" the same figure of speech, along with the sniggering euphemism of "office," has been employed. Like Desdemona's honor, which Iago thinks of as "an essence that's not seen," her sexual union with Othello, though sanctified by marriage, has not been directly imaginable till now when it is revealed to the prurient gaze as the curtains of the marriage bed are drawn apart. "My mistress here lies murdered in her bed," Emilia announces, as though the bed of marriage, with its "tragic lodging" of dead bodies—one black, the other white, lying side by side—is what horrified vision must take in at last. "Lodging" even implies the living together, the cohabitation of the lovers. The change of the word to "loading" in the Folio version of the text recalls Iago's plundered "land carrack." When Lodovico says, "the object poisons sight,/Let it be hid," the horror he feels is for a forbidden union as much as for the deaths this union has caused. To intensify that horror and to further emphasize the perversity of their sexual relation, there is a hint of necrophilia in the implication that now, at last, their love is consummated. Othello tells his victim, "Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee/And love thee after," and then, having done so, "I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this:/ Killing myself to die upon a kiss," giving "die" its usual Elizabethan double sense as orgasm.

The play makes it seem, even if we are sure of the contrary, that only their deathbed unites their bodies in ultimate union. " Star-crossed" by racial difference, they resemble Romeo and Juliet, their prototypes in the enactment of a Liebestod climaxing a forbidden love, forbidden for both pairs of lovers even in marriages that constitute social adultery. We must recall that Othello's anticipations of bliss had prompted thoughts of death:

    If it were now to die,
    'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
    My soul hath her content so absolute
    That not another comfort like to this
    Succeeds in unknown fate.

It is one of those flights of Othello's hyper-bole that suggests too much before the fact, and Desdemona herself reins him in with, "The heavens forbid/But that our loves and comforts should increase/Even as our days do grow." To think that one will reach the peak of happiness— and so be ready to die—is a traditional poetic extravagance, but here more sinister, forecasting as it does the death which will actually be the consequence of their love—and Desdemona's literalism seems to express an appropriate caution. And well it might, for in the calculus of their unanticipated difficulties Shakespeare has added something besides the uncertainty of the bridegroom, the too-readiness of the bride. In this play about love and jealousy, which shows how love is a moment's hazardous leap over vast distance, he has included the crippling prohibition of racial difference.

At the last, Othello surrenders himself to the prison of race he thought he had escaped. He is not able, in the end, to cast away the role and character which societal convention prescribed to him at the beginning of his career in the white colonial world. He recalls an exploit of his adopted Venetian identity when he remembers how, "in Aleppo once," he had taken by the throat a "turbanned," that is, unconverted, Turk (wearer of what Shakespeare calls in Cymbeline an "impious turband") who "[b]eat a Venetian and traduced the state." He remembers how he "smote him—thus," as he turns his dagger toward himself. This has generally been taken as splendid coup de theatre—but it is more. Reenacting that killing of an infidel by his transformed Christian self, Othello becomes again what he was before his conversion and enlistment in the service of Venice. His magnificent self-making has been undone and he now kills, again, the irreversibly circumcised, unassimilable racial other that he is.

Source: Millicent Bell, "Shakespeare's Moor," in Raritan, Vol. 21, No. 4, Spring 2002, pp. 1–14.


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