Renaissance and 17th Century essay questions

A.      Identify specific ways in which changes in composition of the audience, the economics of producing and making money from literature, and the technologies and means of dissemination for literature impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Focus on cause-effect and give some examples of the resulting impact.
With the Renaissance came not only a rebirth of the classics but also an emergence of new ideas, social, political, and economic, which impacted the literature being written in the Renaissance and 17th Century.  Accessibility to literature was limited, and “poetry in particular circulated in manuscript, copied by reader after reader into personal anthologies . . . or reproduced by professional scribes for a fee” (Greenblatt 547). Moreover, using writing as a career was impossible during the 16th century, as writers sold their works to publishing companies, often for a very low price.  Further complicating literary access, the state censored literary production, even giving a charter to the Stationers’ Company to license certain books. The crown’s hand in literary production shows the intertwined nature of literature and the court, and authors like Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, and the Earl of Surrey thought of themselves as “courtiers, statesmen, and landowners; poetry was for them an indispensable social grace and a deeply pleasurable, exalted form of play” (548).  Authors often got financial rewards from patrons, but, primarily, writing was not a career, just a privilege because of a higher social standing. Therefore, writing produced was typically the result of funding and patronage preference. This funding still resulted in a variety of forms and modes, presumably because of the Renaissance mixture of classical influences and new ideas.  The emerging nationalism and the humanist appreciation for classics led to the translations of international works into English.  Furthermore, two forms that gained popularity during the Renaissance and 17th Century were the pastoral and the heroic, both rooted in classical literary traditions but still subject to innovations by Renaissance writers.  Finally, the mix of literature and an improved economy came together to make drama and theater more public with the establishment of permanent, free-standing theaters for Elizabethan theater.

B. Discuss Sidney’s key poetic theories as laid out in APOLOGY FOR POETRY in relation to how major Renaissance authors deploy these theories in their own writings.  Suggested authors and work include More (UTOPIA), Spenser (FAERIE QUEENE, “Shepheardes Calendar,” “Epithalamion”), Marlowe (DR. FAUSTUS), Milton (PARADISE LOST, “Lycidas”)
In Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney presents key poetic theories that influenced major Renaissance authors. Sidney first postulates that poets have a certain freedom not found anywhere else because they are only limited by their wit. This freedom allows poetry to “actively intervene in the world and transform it for the better” (Greenblatt 1044). Poetry is further justified by its rich history and the special status given to poets by ancient Romans and Greeks. Finally, Sidney argues that poetry’s importance lies in its ability to affect readers and bring about true change.  Writing as a tool for societal change is exemplified in More’s Utopia, which presents an ideal society as one with free education for all, a universal understanding of agriculture, and no shortage of trades.  Sidney’s theories can also be found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which adopts many characteristics of classical epics, like invoking a muse or focusing on love, war, and heroism (and thus supporting itself with references to a rich classical past, like Sidney proposed), but which also critiques society, specifically the crown’s unchecked authority through the church.  Finally, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene presents a series of complex moral dilemmas, and “readers are constantly in danger of mistaking hypocritical evil for good, or cunningly disguised foulness for true beauty” (Greenblatt 776).  Spenser plays with the freedom Sidney speaks of, for his poem fulfills a variety of roles—a national celebration, a chivalric romance, a heroic full of adventures and battles, and a critique of heroism and human sin.

C. Discuss the ways in which rediscovery of the classics and a new focus on individual experience lead to greater variety in genres, writing styles, and formats for literature in the Renaissance and 17th century.  Include several examples of specific works in your discussion.
The Renaissance also brought about Humanism, an assertion of the human figure as the center and an emphasis on individual experience.  Humanists also revered ancient texts, often reading them in their original language and appraising them with logic and reason.  An example of the effects of humanism on literature can be found in the Sonneteers, who used Petrarch’s techniques and content as a basis for poetic form innovations.  Ultimately, the Renaissance writer’s job was to show an understanding of and appreciation for the classics while still creating distances.  In Tottel’s Miscellany, we can see the effects of an international influence, as well as poets experimenting with new forms, like Wyatt and Surrey’s introduction of blank verse into Petrarchan form. Richard Barnfield also creates space in Cynthia when “redirecting the Petrarchan conventions of praise . . . to a man” (Greenblatt 1002).  Barnfield uses the line, “A lovely creature, brighter than day” to refer to Ganymede. Another example is Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, a mythological poem about two-ill fated lovers but one that gains distance from the classics because of Marlowe’s original treatment of the classical tale.  Though based on a classic story previously told by Ovid, this Hero and Leander are unique and full of paradoxes. In Marlowe’s account, Hero is a chastity-bound nun despite her service to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and “Leander is both a sharp, sophisticated seducer and a sexual innocent” (Greenblatt 1107). John Donne provides another example of new literary forms and an emphasis on individual experience is the metaphysical poets, with works like “Song,” “The Sun Rising,” and “The Indifferent.” In “The Cannonization,” Donne shows mastery of the metaphysical conceit, with his equating lovers and saints, two contrasting things that eventually merge into a single idea through his extended metaphor. Contrasting with the petrarchist school of poets were the anti-petrarchists, influenced by Wyatt, Surrey, and Gascoigne or cavalier poets. Both schools, though, resulted in the rise of sonnets, songs, and popular music, like in madrigals, airs, or ballads.

D.  Discuss types of prose from the 17C and the purposes of 17C writing that they illustrate, noting how these purposes reflect the political, religious, and scientific cross-currents of the period.
In the wake of the 16th century English Renaissance, the 17th Century produced new types of prose fulfilling new purposes. New scientific discoveries prompted scientists to compose descriptions of their discoveries, which often challenged previous understanding. One example of this is Galileo, whose astronomical discoveries built on Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe and challenged classical Ptolemaic theories. Galileo also points to religious, not just scientific, cross-currents, as he wrote to explain problematic biblical passages through the lens of a helio-centric universe.  Galileo’s theories were based on personal discoveries, so he, and other 17th Century scientific writers, valued personal experience much more than secondhand reading or learning from another source. Another example of the types of prose produced in the 17th Century can be found in Francis Bacon, whose The New Atlantis “proposes collaborative research institutes . . . adopt[ing] the voice of accumulated public wisdom” (Greenblatt 1661). Bacon shows the culture’s interest in scientific discovery and research, as well as an economic base that allowed for increased access to education.  Bacon and other scientists also saw science and discovery as progressive, a way to better humanity.                  Journalism also flourished in the 17th Century, becoming hugely popular after censorship fell with the crown in the 1640s.  An explosion of printed news followed, giving “a broad spectrum of readers access to information about current events” (Greenblatt 1835). This type of “overtly political, often ambitiously literary writing” set the stage for Restoration Era authors like Dryden, Swift, and Pope (1834). The combination of new discoveries, both scientifically and in form, and the increased access to news reporting perfectly preceded the Early English Novel because of the increased audience and writers beginning to describe and analyze the workings of everyday life.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. 9th ed. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print. 6 vols. The Norton Anthology.


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