The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol. I B. 7th
The English Renaissance was a time when political power was still largely concentrated in the court, the main source of patronage and various avenues of career advancement. Literature was mostly written for a court audience by courtiers, people who served the queen or king—Elizabeth, James I, or Charles I for the period covered in our course. But as the period progressed, literacy became more widespread, ordinary people began to achieve greater economic prosperity, and through the efforts of sometimes unscrupulous printers and booksellers, non-aristocratic folks gradually began to have access to literary texts which had previously only been available through manuscript circulation in court coteries. So in our readings, we will see a shift in terms of ideas explored in the texts—moving from intense preoccupation with the vagaries of court life and its attendant anxieties to more general and wider literary concerns.
The Renaissance was also a time of great change in terms of how people viewed the world and their place in it. During this time of transition from the middle ages to the modern age, people began to travel to new lands as well as develop new scientific knowledge. They found that they could renegotiate their relationships to God, to their rulers, and to each other—and along the way, they also discovered fresh possibilities for social mobility and "self-fashioning." As the poet John Donne put it, for many people it was a time when "new philosophy calls all in doubt"-- new "philosophy," or new ways of thinking, opened up questions that had never been asked before. So in various Renaissance texts, we will hear writers challenging old world views by asking questions about romantic love, religious faith, and the political legitimacy of out-of-touch kings who ruled by royal prerogative. In our own world today, as the advent of the internet introduces new ways of circulating texts and new paradigms for constructing knowledge, we should be able to relate to many of the feelings of excitement and adventure that so stimulated the imaginations of the folks who lived during the early modern period.
Apart from short lectures, there will be plenty of opportunities for class discussion, and I expect you to come to class prepared to contribute your personal interpretations of our assigned readings in large and small group discussions.
By the end of the semester, you should be able to: