The Renaissance 1485-1649

Key concepts

Key events and people

Key authors

In Wider Contexts

The Great Chain of Being


The development of drama

The Reformation 1520s and 30s

Copernicus’ heliocentric world picture 1543

The exploration of a new world

Queen Elizabeth I, ruled 1558-1603

The defeat of the Spanish Armada 1588

James I, ruled 1603-25

Gallileo’s astronomical telescope 1610

King James’ Bible 1611

Thomas More (1478-1535) Utopia


Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Christopher Marlowe (1554-93)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86)

Edmund Spenser (1552-99)

John Donne (1572-1631)

Christopher Marlowe, “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”, 1599

Sir Walter Raleigh, “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”, 1600

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1597; Macbeth, 1604; Sonnets, 1609; The Tempest, 1611

Sonnet 73

John Donne, “The Bait” 1633


Historical and social context

Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, a term chosen to characterize a development in Europe in which great changes were taking place. During this period science made it possible to navigate, and explorers set out to find a new world. America was ‘discovered' at the end of the 15th century, and in 1584 the first British colony in America –Virginia – was established. The ideas of the Renaissance are strongly influenced by the concept of humanism. The idea was to restore universally human values from classical antiquity by reintroducing the philosophies,

languages and literature of ancient Greece and Rome.


The Elizabethan World Picture   

The Elizabethan world picture was theocentric meaning that God was in the centre, and the Great Chain of Being was the central structure. This concept was one which the Elizabethans inherited from the Middle Ages. The world is seen as a hierarchy, or chain, with God at the top, angels below, man in the middle, and animals, plants and stones at the bottom. This hierarchy is reflected in society with the sovereign at the top, with various levels of gentry and clergy below him/her, and peasants at the bottom. It was considered a duty to accept one’s place in the hierarchy, which was seen as one way of retaining order in the world. In spite of the belief in God, superstition and the belief in spirits and witches existed in this period which is reflected in many of Shakespeare’s plays.

The physical world was believed to be geocentric which means that the stationary earth is the centre and is surrounded by spheres. The music of the spheres indicated the order and harmony considered ideal in the Elizabethan Age. These ideas shape the macrocosm of the Elizabethan world. The microcosm of the world is man, whose thoughts, feelings and health is influenced by four humours, liquids in the blood which determine whether a person is phlegmatic (indifferent, relaxed), melancholic (depressive), choleric (angry) or sanguine (sociable).


The Reformation

During the Renaissance significant changes in religious thinking took place as opposition to the Roman Catholic Church started in Central Europe and spread throughout Northern and Western Europe. This development is known as the Reformation. A number of thinkers in Europe, e.g. Luther and Calvin, could not accept some of the thinking in the Roman Catholic Church, for example indulgences and the role of the Pope and priests. New – Protestant – churches came to be established in much of Europe. An important aspect of the Reformation is the introduction of the Bible and church services in the vernacular rather than in Latin. In England the publication in 1611 of the King James’ Bible contributed significantly to the development of the English language. The power of the Roman Catholic Church in England was greatly diminished in that the Church had to give up most of the land it owned, and as education in state schools became widespread, the ability of the church to influence people was strongly reduced. The Anglican Church is a Protestant church even if its thinking and liturgy in some cases are inspired by Catholic tradition.


The ideas of Copernicus and later Galileo were developed during this period and gradually came to redefine the world picture of the time. Copernicus suggested that the sun rather than the earth is the centre of the universe, and Galileo supported this idea of a heliocentric world picture.


Literary context


Drama and poetry

One of the major developments in English literature at this time is in drama. The first stage was established in 1576. Previously drama had been performed by travelling companies of actors, who performed religious and later secular plays at inns around the country. Having a fixed stage made it possible to perform more plays with equipment and props for big audiences in London. This increased the popularity of the art. Plays were performed during the day and attracted enormous audiences.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays reflect historical and political tensions, others deal with common life experiences which are described in comedy as well as tragedy. Even if Shakespeare was extremely productive, the plays by Sir Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson were also very popular. In Shakespeare’s time all parts were played by men, including the female parts which were played by young boys whose voices had not broken. The Globe theatre opened in 1599.


During this period poetry was another important literary genre. Edmund Spenser wrote his poetical work The Faerie Queene, and poems were also published by Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh. Apart from his 37 plays Shakespeare wrote more than a hundred sonnets.



Indulgencies                       afladshandel

the vernacular                   modersmål

liturgy                                gudstjenesteordning

secular plays                      verdslig, ikke-religiøs