While people in the English Renaissance wore different clothes and had no access to digital technology, their artistic expressions and the experiences these embody still have an impact on human beings living in the 21st Century.
The clothes they wore in the Renaissance were certainly different to today. We would chortle about men in tights. Perhaps those ruffs were just as uncomfortable as they look. One of the portraits of Shakespeare shows him in a more comfortable shirt collar, as does the portrait of a young John Donne.
For the women, it was worse, with their corseted wasp waists. The fashion in skirts was farthingales, a wide hoop which was wheel-shaped. This may have made it hard to pass through some doors, but lifted their skirts off the ground, which must have made walking much easier. Before that skirts often had trains, like a bridal gown, which must have been delightful in unpaved streets.
Today we would slip into something more comfortable, and perhaps log onto our computers or smartphones. That some of these writers were able to write what they did, without access to the reams of knowledge we have access to today in the Information Age, makes their work all the more remarkable.
We should start with William Shakespeare; whose artistic expressions have spoken to generations. Whatever the person’s background, or their experiences, there is something in his writings that has an impact on every human being, something for everyone. My favourite quote will always be Rosalind saying: ‘Because that I am more than common tall’ (Shakespeare 283). A diminutive person will find something different, just as a black man I know prefers Othello.
Shakespeare’s aphorisms are as many as grains of sand at the beach, and there is always something for everyone. This is still true in the 21st Century, and is unlikely to ever change, his fame is eternal.
For these reasons, my blogs this semester have been dominated with Shakespeare and his works. He dominates the Renaissance writers, and will dominate and overwrite any modern 21st Century writer who quotes him excessively. As Ben Jonson wrote of his friend: ‘He was not of an age, but for all time’ (Jonson).
One of the writers I warmed to was Sir Thomas More, later canonised. While my blogs may be full of places where I have rebutted his History of Richard III, I did this in the interests of accuracy, as I see it. Like Polydere Vergil, and later Shakespeare, his writing here could be called Tudor propaganda, alternative facts, and even the big lie. I understand that More wrote this way to keep his head on his shoulders…at least for as long as he did.
All the same, I always had respect for More because he educated his daughters, equally with his son, a radical idea at the time. This increased exponentially when I read Utopia. He really did understand how social conditions were in the England of his day, and seems to have a real concern for experiences of the poor, including being hanged for stealing.
Not everybody will agree with the way his ideal society is organised, cynics could call parts of it dystopian; such as the authoritarian rule necessary to implement such a system, forced labour and slavery. However, he did have a vision for a better world, like other thinkers such as Plato and even Karl Marx.
‘Now I have described to you as accurately as I could the structure of that commonwealth which I consider not only the best but indeed the only one that can rightfully claim that name’ (More 642). His society is not always Paradise on Earth, but it is a world where the citizens are not treated like the underclass of his day; not overworked and nobody goes hungry.
More’s Utopian ideas still do have an impact in the 21st Century. Plenty would see some of his ideas to make up a good society as worthwhile, even visionary, such as universal education and healthcare. However, human nature still craves after money, then gold and jewelry. We cannot seem to stop believing that greed is good.
Christopher Marlowe was a very different man, the Renaissance version of a rock star: he lived fast, died young and left behind some pretty good literature. His Dr Faustus is a classic morality play, popular in medieval times, a story of God and the Devil, although Mephastophilis is much more visible than the good angel. You can wonder if he used the line ‘Despair and die’ (Marlowe 1158), before Shakespeare did in Richard III?
After all this, it is believed that Marlowe was an atheist. That would mean that he didn’t believe in the Devil either. So perhaps he wrote the whole thing as a metaphor, the Renaissance version of Highway to Hell.
Whatever the case, the age-old question of good v evil continues into the 21st Century. So the artistic expressions of this are still relevant today, and tomorrow.
John Donne was different again, as he was a very religious man, as was St Thomas. However, most unlike More, he was born a Catholic, but he would later convert to the Church of England, and become ordained, then Royal Chaplain in the time of James I, then later dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. Like his sermons, Donne’s holy sonnets have been recited in quite a few churches, over the centuries.
For all this, some of his other poems have decidedly adult themes. There is On His Mistress, To His Mistress Going to Bed and the comic The Flea. Here, he laments that the insect may touch his lady love, without all the obstacles there are to him doing so.
‘Me it sucked first, and now sucks thee
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, or shame, or loss of maidenhead’ (Donne 1373)
This poem may make modern readers shudder, in the 21st Century such pests are systematically eliminated. It may even be considered animal abuse today, if even your pets are not given the latest flea treatment, worse if the fleas prefer to drink human blood. Today, his lady love might slather herself in insect repellent, but his desires would remain the same. This means the artistic expression here is still has an impact.
We shall finish up with Sir Walter Ralegh [usually spelled Raleigh] was a soldier, explorer, privateer, courtier, historian, and also writer. He was Queen Elizabeth’s right-hand man, whom he reportedly threw his cloak over a puddle for, and she forgave him for marrying someone else, another Elizabeth who was her own lady-in-waiting…eventually. Raleigh fell into disfavour when James took over as king, leading to a long stay in the Tower, and eventually execution.
For someone who has been the subject of many books, and now movies, his own writing seems rather cynical. For example, his The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd, where he brings a little realism to Marlowe’s beautiful romantic poem. Perhaps he was embittered by his time in the Tower, although it gave him more opportunities to write, including his long Historie of the World.
Raleigh ventured into Shakespeare’s territory of the stage, with What Is Our Life?
‘What is our life? A play of passion;
Our mirth the music of division
Our mothers’ wombs the tiring-houses be
Where we are dressed for this short comedy’ (Ralegh 1025)
This will remind us of many of the speeches in Shakespeare, comparing life and the world to a stage. It is an artistic expression still valid today, as the new plasma screens have not completely replaced the good old experience of going to, or even taking part in, a live performance on stage. We can compare this to:
‘Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded by a sleep’ (Shakespeare 23).
When it comes to death, Raleigh did not use some of the amazing metaphors of Shakespeare’s. He simply tells it like it is: we are all mortal, food for the worms.
‘Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest – that’s no jest’ (Ralegh 1025).
This is still relevant in the 21st Century because, while our advances in modern medicine have meant that most people live longer, we will still die in the end. We can run from this, but we cannot hide, eventually. As he said: ‘Death alone can suddenly make man to know himself’ (Ralegh 1033).
In conclusion, the experiences of Renaissance people, and their artistic expressions are indeed relevant to people of the 21st Century. It is worth struggling through ye olde English; sometimes requiring a definition of a long-defunct word, or the old definition of one we use daily. Perhaps this is because their words embody experiences that we still have daily.
Greenblatt, Stephen Ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume B, Ninth Edition. W.W. Norton & Company, 2012.
Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.