Sixteenth Century England was a land of change; the landscape of religion, monarchy and society were all in dispute yet art and literature were flourishing catering to the English civilization. Roman Catholicism no longer had the same kind of strong hold over the people of England. Due to complication throughout his married life the King of England Henry VIII also had problems establishing a strong hold of his patriarchal system. The people of those times were meddling in a world of servitude, class struggle, sexism and death; treason lurked around every corner. Life looked bleak until the reign of Elisabeth.
With the death of her childless sister, came the rule of Elisabeth I. A female ruler that changed the face of English culture as we now it. English was growing in popularity by the sixteenth century. Individuals like Thomas More (an Englishman) had gained reverence throughout Europe for their uniqueness, yet Utopia was written and published in Latin. The texts that proceeded those earlier works of English literates have come to be some of the most profound artistic articles of our time.
The most prolific and the most widely accepted artist of the English renaissance is William Shakespeare. There were several factors that lead to the creation of an artist pertaining such potential. The broadening of religious scope allowed authors to introduce old (classic) forms into their works.
Though originating in pagan times, those truths could, in the opinion of many humanists, be reconciled to the moral vision of Christianity. The result… is that pagan gods and goddesses flourish on pages of even such a devoutly Christian poem as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.(489Greenblatt)
The climate inside of Europe was harnessing itself to produce a storm of prolific literary marvels that were geared to sculpt modern society. Along with the likes of Christopher Marlow, and Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Shakespeare laid the groundwork and developed a literary Canon, which modern day society has yet not seen the likes of.
Through complications with religious doctrine, the daily rituals of the common people of the English renaissance began to come into question. New outlooks on society began to pop up; new forms of rhetoric were introduced to communicate with the heads of state. Because of the zeitgeist of the times people were on their toes when reflecting their opinions to the court
Culture and power were not, in any case, easily separable in Tudor England. In a society with no freedom of speech as we understand it and with relatively limited means of mass communication, important public issues while lyrics that to seem slight and nonchalant could serve as carefully crafted manifestations of rhetorical agility by aspiring courtiers (486Greenblatt).
This newfound flexibility with language gave The Tudor dynasty many new and distinct agilities when creating their public image, it also introduced new ways for their opposition to attack
One way that courtiers and writers challenged the Queen’s representational strategies was by playing a variation on her theme: they complicated Elizabeth’s familial analogies through reference to reconstituted families(Vanhoutte 317).
Through this type of discourse over the years we begin to see the bringing up of talent like Shakespeare.
The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant reformation were both powerful forces that impacted on the production of literature during the sixteenth century. Times were changing, and along side the printing press came the Bible. It was being translated and pumped out to supply a whole new audience of just recently literate people. Old ideas were being put into play on a whole new level. Faith was beginning to be reinterpreted and instructions on how to believe were forced to change. Luther informed the people
that the pope and his hierarch were the servants of Satan and that the church had degenerated into a corrupt, worldly conspiracy designed to bilk the credulous and subvert secular authority(491Greenblatt).
Things were going to change for sure; every religious fanatic was trying to break down the old barriers and set up their own new ones, including Henry VIII. Killing people like Thomas More definitely impacted the way art exposed its true self to the sixteenth century English monarchy. Individuals like Wyatt the Elder were introducing the hungry English culture to Petrarchan sonnets; Wyatt was also using the medium to reflect his distinct opinions. Wyatt “represents himself as a plain-speaking and stead fast man, betrayed by the “doubleness” of fickle mistress of the instability of fortune,”(593.Greenblatt), we know now “of course the eloquent celebration of simplicity and truthfulness can itself be a cunning strategy” (593.Greenbalt) Hayes tells us
Indeed, ordinary people openly read books and disputed Scripture so ear- nestly among themselves in churches, alehouses, and taverns that on 6 March 1529 Henry VIII had issued a proclamation against reading unlicensed books or preaching from Tyndale's biblical translations;(132 Hayes)
All this just religious turmoil only sharpened the wit of the sixteenth century artist, writer and revolutionary.
The theater stage then became the scene of a new age and entertainment became a way to expose English society to the world. Literature and art were began being used to distribute knowledge in a whole new way. The common people of Shakespeare’s time were exposed to inappropriate behaviors “through literary texts, many of which were saturated with the discourse of fraudulent conveyance law” (469Aspinall) In the latter part of the sixteenth century there were moments where individual freedoms became dangerous, reading material that was outlawed caused “books…to be searched for, seized, and burned; readers were to be imprisoned until they recanted, and printers and/or transporters were to be torture” (Hayes 136). Certain types of literature were being spread, many that did not adhere to what the authorities of the day strove for. Shakespeare took many risks, but he stretched the limits in ways leaders like Elizabeth could get behind and even endorse. Clerics and puritans surely objected to the rapid redevelopment of their classic structures, and forms. English was taking over as a dominant source of information. The embracing of the humanities
doctrine (especially with regards to education), with the impact of the emphasis on the individual as expressed in the Reformation, and with the image and example of Elizabeth on the throne, by the late-sixteenth century in England these accepted ideas on the sexes and their relationships were beginning to be questioned—and nowhere more astutely than in the works of Sidney, Spenser and, Donne, and Shakespeare(20Kimbrough)
The unique factor that brings the works of Shakespeare into such an incredible spot light was the fact that the characters in the play were all male. Hence the works were crafted to be presented in a very different way then we know things to be portrayed today. The stage of the sixteenth century, set under the rigid corruptible rules of a very volatile society did another incredible thing to literature; it forced the audience to become more innovative. Kimbrough says “In fact, one of the healthiest facts of drama is that the experience of theatre permits us in the audience a freer (licensed) play of our own androgynous potential than do the “rules” of everyday life.” (Kimbrough33) The sixteenth century English renaissance changed the course of history, by introducing us to a set of unique and very definitive set of circumstances our society has never seen since.
What sets us apart from the people of the sixteenth century is our social landscape. Since the world of Elizabeth is no longer available to use, we are finding it difficult to expose the follies of out culture. Four hundred years ago, religion, language and lineage meant everything. The degradations and rearranging of some of those old ideals acted as catalyst to one of the most progressive cultural movements the English language as a whole has ever had. In part, language made its way back to its origins, finding its place amongst the classics. The revolutionary steps taken forward in the sixteenth century act as an inspiration to modern readers, to not only reach out and just make art, but to reach out and find the new language to tell the same old story again.
Aspinall, Dana E. Elizabethan Literature and the Law of Fraudulent Conveyance, Sixteenth Cent J 36 no2 Summ 2005, web.
Hayes, T. Wilson, The Peaceful Apocalypse: Familism and Literacy in Sixteenth-Century England, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 131-143, web
Kimbrough, Robert Androgyny Seen Through Shakespeare's Disguise Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 17-33.Web
Greenblatt, Stephen.The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The sixteenth Century The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. NewYork: Norton 2006. 484-511. Print