THE RENESSANCE AND WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
The Renaissance or the Revival of Learning was the period when European culture reached a high level. The term Renaissance is French, which denotes re-birth. This term depicts the intellectual and economic changes that happened in Europe. It is called like that, because at that time individuals began being interested in the learning of ancient times, and took the art and science of ancient Greece and Rome for its basis. This great period started in Italy, particularly in art and architecture, which lasted from 14th century till the 17th. 8, p.9
1.1 THE HISTORY OF THE RENESSANCE
In the Middle Ages people were religious. Slowly, people started to alter during the Renaissance. Religion was extremely important to existence and everyday life, but gradually people started to doubt their religion. Some believe that this happened because catastrophic things occurred during the Middle Ages, for instance the Black Death. People started to think that God abandoned them and they began to doubt religion. They started to consider that they can make their own decisions and that God did not controlled them. Contrary to medieval concepts, the new ideology proclaimed the value of human individuality, the value of man as such, whatever his origin and social standing were. Instead of the blind faith ordered by the Catholic religion, great importance was assigned to intellect, to scientific experiment, to experience. This new outlook was called Humanism. It is considered to be the foremost remarkable intellectual movement of the Renaissance. Humanism understated religion and secular dogma and instead people gave a big importance to the worth of the life of the individual and the dignity. The results of these enormous changes in society were that the peasants became more enlightened and educated, and started to break out of poverty and gradually became wealthy, financially independent. Also the feudal system gradually broke down. This glorious epoch motivated youthful people to make a change in the world, such as in geographical discoveries by Vasco da Gama, in astronomy by Copernicus and in art by Leonardo da Vinci. 8, p.12
It was the greatest progressive and rising revolution that mankind had so far experienced. The Renaissance was a social development that significantly influenced European intellectual life. It had an influence on literature, philosophy, art, science, religion. Within the 15th century the Renaissance spread immediately from Italy to the rest of Europe. German printer Johannes Gutenberg invented printing press, which allowed the fast transmission of these ideas. In the 20th century, researchers started to break the Renaissance into regional and national movements as its ideas and thoughts were changed and diversified and adapted to local culture. The works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Sir Thomas More, Christopher Marlowe as well as other artists and writers, marked the beginning of the English Renaissance. King Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England, and brought church and state together. He was the first patron of the humanists in England and he began an era of important and purposeful changes. The end of the feudalism in England was marked when King Richard III, was killed during the battle of Bosworth in 1485, the battle which ended the Wars of the Roses. 3
We can distinguish three periods of the literature of English Renaissance.
• The first period, that started at the end of the 15th and finished at the first half of the 16th centuries.
• The second period, which is also called Elizabethan age, covers the second half of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th.
• The third period; which is the time after Shakespeare’s death and up to 1640. 1, p.6
The second half of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century was the most significant period English literature ever knew. William Shakespeare was one of the authors of that time who must be remembered for the brilliant works he wrote. However, for the life of the greatest writer in the English language, there are still some significant gaps, which are due to the fact that few records of Shakespeare’s private life have survived, so much supposition surrounds the facts we have. This has stimulated considerable speculation about such matters as his religious beliefs, his sexuality, his physical appearance, as well as whether his works were written by others. The English Renaissance gave birth to an amazing galaxy of great writers, but William Shakespeare outshines them all, as he had a greater influence on the development of the whole of world literature than any other author. It is difficult to introduce William Shakespeare in a short time, so I will have to represent only the major events in his life that shaped his literary career as a playwright and poet. 4
1.2 THE LIFE OF SHAKESPEARE
At that time the work of public theatre playwright was considered the least respectable of all literary arts, so no one paid much attention to dramatist’s lives and this is the reason why many periods in Shakespeare’s life remain incomprehensible to us.
William Shakespeare was born in 1564, however, the exact day of his birth is not known, but we know that he was christened on April 26, 1564, which was recorded in the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. It is believed that he was born on or near April 23, 1564 as in Shakespeare’s time children were usually baptized two or three days after birth, so this is the date of birth that scholars acknowledge as Shakespeare’s birthday. His father was a man who was respected of high status and highly successful. Before William’s birth, his father turned into a successful and victorious merchant and held many public official positions as alderman and bailiff. Mary Arden was his mother, who came from a wealthy family in the nearby village of Wilmcote. The youthful Shakespeare as it is assumed attended the Stratford Grammar School, where he studied to write in Greek and Latin. He had an unusual, strange keen observation of both nature and mankind, and scholars were said that his education has ended here. 5
Another record we have of his life is his marriage, on November 27, 1582, at the age of 18, to Anne Hathaway, aged 26, the daughter of a Warwickshire farmer. Anne was already pregnant at the time of the ceremony, so it was a rushed marriage. A daughter was born to them, six months after the wedding on May 26, 1583 and then twins, a boy and a girl; Hamnet and Judith, in 1585. After a long, Hamnet died of unknown causes at age 11.There is not much information about Anne and her children. After the birth of the twins we do not know anything about Shakespeare’s life for the next seven years. 11 This is the reason why scholars sometimes refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as ‘the lost years’. Scholars have put different theories and unsubstantiated reports, concerning that period, but none of them can be either proved or disproved. So around 1590, it is reported that he left his family and arrived in London, where he became an actor and the most popular playwright in England. He also became a leading shareholder and the principal playwright to the Globe theatre. At that time he wrote two long poems, which one of them is his narrative poem ‘Venus and Adonis’, written in 1593 and the other one the ‘Rape of Lucrece’ in 1593. At that time theatres were closed due to the plague, but after these fashionably narrative poems, the theatre’s doors opened again. Shakespeare’s reputation was established as a gifted and popular poet with these two poems along with the Sonnets. The two poems were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, who sponsored him. However, scholars don’t agree on whether the dedications are evidence of a close relationship between Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley. Many actors, among them Shakespeare, who had previously belonged to various companies combined to form the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Later this company became ‘The King’s Men’ in 1603, after King James I took over. Due to the facts that we have today, it seems that Shakespeare had numerous sources of income. He was one of the wealthiest men in that time so in 1597 he bought a new huge house for his family.
Although most of his career was spent in London, he never lost his touch with his native town. In 1611 he left London while in 1613, the Globe theatre was destroyed by fire during a performance of ‘Henry VIII’, and he retired to Stratford. In the last years of his life he started to write fewer plays. Shakespeare, for most of his working life, used to write at least two plays a year, however, by 1608 he had slowly begun to write one a year. He died on April 23, in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. He had made his will the forgoing month ‘in perfect health and memory’. 1, p.23 A lot of scholars think that this is a myth and that it doesn’t correspond to the reality as Shakespeare’s burial is recorded in Stratford’s parish register on 25 April, in 1616. However we do not know the cause of Shakespeare’s death. Also the scholars believe that Shakespeare knew he was dying. His gravestone reads;
‘Good Friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the bones enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.’ 12
The wife of William Shakespeare, Anne, died on August 6, 1623. She lived long enough to see the monument of her husband erected in Holy Trinity Church, though; she died just before the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, the more lasting monument to his memory. By 1670, Shakespeare’s descendants had reached its end. Shakespeare’s fame is based on the 37 plays and the 154 sonnets that he had written. Some of his plays have transcended even the category of brilliance. 2, p.228
1.3 FOUR STAGES OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S WORK
Shakespeare is one of those writers, who due to his plays, allow us to understand the life of people of that period, to recognize people in such situations that all of us have experienced for one time in our lives, such as love, death, guilt, marriage, mourning or the need to make difficult choices.
Shakespeare’s literary work may be divided into four significant stages. However, it is a little bit difficult to define the precise chronological of Shakespeare’s plays. The main themes of his plays include histories, tragedies, comedies and tragicomedies.
The first period, which is also called the period of his apprenticeship or early period, started from the beginning of this career, up to 1594. Most of his works of that time, with an exception of Romeo and Juliet, have a superficial or shallow characterization than his later plays. Shakespeare brought Renaissance into contact not only with the classical times but also with the modern world. Sometimes it seems hard to understand the language of his plays, though it is wonderfully expressive and powerful, but with the help of actors, who bring it to vivid life for us, we can understand everything. One of the most required and most frequently staged works of that period is ‘Richard III’. Many scholars and historians believe that it was Christopher Marlowe, whose writing gave an inspiration at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career. 10
The second period; balanced period lasted from 1594 to 1600. During this period he wrote plays, which belong mainly to two dramatic genres; histories and comedies. Two of his major tragedies; ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and’ Julius Caesar’ include his most significant plays that are concerned with English history. He portrayed the lives of kings and royalties. At that time his approach and style became extremely more creative and well-designed. His plays were reflecting deep insight into human nature with a result of an incredible balance between the comic and the serious. It is composed of historical drama and romantic comedies. However the comedies of Shakespeare did not last long in the theatre as did those written by Jonson or Moliere.
The third period, from 1600 to 1608, which is also called overflowing period, it is highly creative, and due to the great tragedies that Shakespeare wrote at that period, that was the peak of his fame, achievement, he became truly immortal. His tragedies constitute the pillars upon which his literary fame and reputation rest. The characters of his tragedies are shown in their development, evolution and they undergo massive changes. A hero at the end is not the same man as he was at the beginning of the tragedy. The main themes of tragedies are devoted to the state and society and the nature of power. One of the hardest works to be able to analyze, and to understand is ‘Hamlet’.
In William Shakespeare’s fourth and final period, after 1608, he used a new form of writing; he created some experimental plays which are known as tragicomedies or romances. It is more serious yet more lyrical. In tragicomedies usually virtue is tested, but at the end miraculously succeeds. At this period Shakespeare prefers time and places that are far removed from Elizabethan England. 6
William Shakespeare was a prominent literary genius, whose works are indeed immortal and eternal. He had a big contribution to the Renaissance, as he was the first person who created a new and stunning style of writing, as he mixed comedy and tragedy and created something new. 9 Renaissance was included in a lot of fields such as astronomy, geographical discoveries, art, philology and many others, so Shakespeare was one of the most important and impressive writers of that time in the field of literature. He managed to reach the human expression at its full potential and his works certainly elevated the importance of a humanistic approach to literature. Some scholars believe that this was not the period’s contribution to Shakespeare. On the contrary it was Shakespeare contribution to the period. He tried to create individualities with psychological complexity and he portrayed monarchs which had feelings, emotions and were able to make mistakes. All of the characters that he created were absolutely different from each other, though they were believable. People of that time called him common man’s composer as he had been writing for the common people. He also wanted to show to the audience that he was not afraid of showing people more about the play with words, emotions than with actions. By reading his works we can understand that the period he had been living in affected and influenced his literary work. 7