What Is Renaissance Literature?

Marjorie McAtee

Renaissance literature is literature that was created in Europe, during the Renaissance. The Renaissance is commonly defined as a period of artistic, cultural, and philosophical rebirth of classical ideas and art forms, although the period also saw the development of new ideas, artistic conventions, and technologies. The period known as the Renaissance began in Italy in the 1300s, and its associated ideas and developments spread slowly throughout Europe over the next four centuries. Renaissance literature can be viewed as a return to the literary forms of antiquity, such as satire, epic poetry, and theatrical dramas or comedies. Many literary scholars, however, point out that Renaissance literature also reflected many of the new ideas spreading through European culture at that time.

William Shakespeare is an important Renaissance writer.
William Shakespeare is an important Renaissance writer.

Some of the ideas found in Renaissance literature include the doctrine of humanism, a philosophical school of thought that placed importance upon human potential and the ability to find meaning and value in earthly life, rather than merely in the afterlife. Many works of Renaissance literature also expounded upon the idea, taken from antiquity, of the "Great Chain of Being," a philosophical doctrine that stated that every object in the entire universe occupied a place on a pre-designed hierarchy, depending on the amount of life force it possessed. Authors during the Renaissance period often wrote in the same styles and genres as did classical authors, which served to revive the genres and literary styles of antiquity. As a result, poetry, theater, social critique, and political commentary re-appeared in European literature.

Francesco Petrarca was an important figure in Renaissance literature.
Francesco Petrarca was an important figure in Renaissance literature.

The centuries of the European Renaissance brought the philosophy and learning of antiquity to the forefront of European minds and culture, but it also saw the rise of many new technologies. In terms of the rise of Renaissance literature, the most important of these technologies was probably the movable-type printing press, invented by Johann Gutenberg, probably in 1439. Prior to the advent of Gutenberg's printing press, book manufacture was a laborious and expensive process. Books were copied out by hand, usually by monks, who had control of both the language used and the subject matter addressed.

The first true printing press was created by Johannes Gutenberg.
The first true printing press was created by Johannes Gutenberg.

The invention of the printing press allowed popular authors to cheaply produce multiple secular works, which could be written in the vernacular language, rather than in Latin. Most common people of the time couldn't read Latin, and so books in Latin were usually reserved for members of the Catholic clergy, and for the very wealthy, who could read them. The printing press allowed authors to produce books that common people could read and understand, making literature more accessible for the masses. The Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther in early 1500s, called the power and doctrines of the Catholic Church into question, and led to the production of vernacular-language religious texts as well as more secular publications. Important authors of Renaissance literature included William Shakespeare, Niccolo Machiavelli, Dante Alighieri, and Francesco Petrarch.

Dante and Shakespeare, both Renaissance-era writers, are typically taught in college English courses.
Dante and Shakespeare, both Renaissance-era writers, are typically taught in college English courses.

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Discussion Comments


I'm not an expert on Renaissance or Renaissance literature. But I think the European Renaissance was about a return to Greek ideas and ideals. Greek literature, to me, is a mix of philosophy and reality where people try to make sense of every day events. European Renaissance literature, like the article said, is like the combination of these Greek trends with the European cultural, political and social issues of the time.

It's too bad that Renaissance literature had little to no impact outside of Europe in those years.


@SteamLouis-- I agree with you. Shakespeare is most well known, followed by Machiavelli. Machiavelli is a Renaissance writer that all students of political science are familiar with. His best known book is The Prince. I read when I was in college. It's both very interesting and very controversial.


Shakespeare must be the most well know Renaissance writer today. His plays are taught in school and enacted in theaters. And some of them have also been made into film and have inspired many other works like music and novels.

I was introduced to Shakespeare in my middle school English course. I can't recollect which Shakespeare play we had read, I think it was King Lear. A few years later, I memorized and recited the famous "to be or not to be..." monologue from Hamlet. I had even put on a fake British accent when reciting it.

I think I was still too young to really understand the importance of Shakespeare's Renaissance literature at the time. I definitely appreciate his works more now that I'm older and understand them better.

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