Elizabethan Theatre Essays and Research Papers

Instructions for Elizabethan Theatre College Essay Examples

Title: Southern and Northern Renaissance

  • Total Pages: 2
  • Words: 645
  • References:3
  • Citation Style: MLA
  • Document Type: Essay
Essay Instructions: Please see instruction for my essay assignment.(see below)
Please also include in the introduction the women of the Renaissance.


ESSAY PROMPT INSTRUCTION:
Substantive and critical differences exist between Early Southern and High/Northern Renaissance views on the condition of man. Using Hamlet’s soliloquy, What a piece of work is man, as a starting point, compare and contrast the two views. In your answer make sure to include references to Pico, Michelangelo, Durer, and, of course, Shakespeare himself.
Your essay should be at least 300 words and include illustrative quotes and clear references to the above artists. Be specific in your responses and support your ideas with reasons, examples, and specifics including quotations from both play and essay. When you reference works or supply quotations, explain the connection between them and your reasoning. Cite and document your sources using MLA guidelines.
Read this selection from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies :
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither… (II ii 298-305)

The High Renaissance

Social Backgrounds
The High Italian Renaissance (pp 323-350)

In our study of the Florentine Renaissance, we learned that contrary to the land-based, Feudal system of most of Europe, the Italian peninsula in the 1300's was divided into capitalist independent city-states. Power aligned with money, and a great deal of money came from business and Italy's privileged situation in the middle of the Mediterranean trade routes.

During the 15th Century the population of Europe, devastated by plague and famine in the previous century, nearly doubled and many of these people shifted their lifestyle from rural agrarian to urban commercial. An economic boom gave life to an urban merchant (middle) class who invested in the New World resources (gold and silver, cotton and sugarcane). These investments had high returns due mostly to a growing slave trade in western Africa. However, the poor peasantry and the rural aristocracy lost economic ground during this same period.

We also came to know the wealthy banking family, the Medici, who ruled Florence throughout the 15th century and made it the most powerful and prosperous Italian city-state. The most celebrated member of this family was Lorenzo Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent, who became the political and cultural leader of Florence. The epitome of what we now call a Renaissance man, Lorenzo embraced humanism and excelled in many artistic, social and political areas. He used his immense wealth to subsidize artists, filling Florence with masterpieces, which still exist today.

The death of Lorenzo Medici in 1492 (yes, same year Columbus sailed) came at a time when the city of Florence—along with the much of Italy—was besieged by foreign invasions. Two powerful monarchies, France and Spain used the Italian peninsula as their battleground, placing Italian soil under their flags. By 1495 powerful French armies had swept through Italy, placing many city-states, including Florence under a fairly brief, but culture-shaking French rule under which a monk named Savonarola came into power.

Savonarola, serving as the Abbot of San Marco in Florence, came to have great power after Lorenzo Medici’s death. Friendly with the French King Charles IX and known for criticizing the Medici specifically, for his ‘immoral and pagan’ lifestyle, Savonarola shifted the Renaissance culture in Florence with passionate preaching denigrating the effects of humanism on society and decrying the new interests in ancient literature and art, stating that the incorporation of these things into Christian culture caused widespread depravity and contributed to the decline of the church. He was also known for criticizing the Pope, Alexander VI, citing papal corruption. Many Florentine citizens agreed with Savonarola, and when the monk called for the citizens of Florence to build huge bonfires that would later be called the bonfires of the vanities, and burn all books, paintings, carvings and any other luxury that drew their hearts away from God, many Florentine citizens complied. The bonfires destroyed valuable art and intellectual property, things Savanrola referred to as ‘dirty pictures.’ Paintings of the Madonna characterized as making her ‘look like a whore’ were destroyed along with humanist books, and gambling tables. Eventually, Savanarola’s religious rigor and his later claims of prophesy earned him a charge of heresy from Rome. Ignoring the charge, he was excommunicated in 1497, and a final bonfire of the vanities in 1498 led to riots followed by the arrest of Savonarola on sedition and other charges. He was executed in May or 1498. Meanwhile France’s influence in Florence waned and in 1512 the Medici returned to power.

Even when Florence returned to the rule of the Medici, the family name had endured much mockery and attacks under a cruel Giulianno Medici followed by an ineffectual grandson of the great Lorenzo. The city never again flowered as it had as the birthplace of humanist thought in the late 14th and 15th centuries. As the Renaissance progressed, the church’s power, while still culturally influential, steadily declined. Many powerful rulers insisted that the Pope and local clergy should limit their sphere of influence to spiritual matters, and not interfere with the decisions of political leaders. The anxiety caused by political wars and a church divided by the Reformation—spawning a whole century of religious war, is reflected in the Mannerist style that emerges in Italy as early as 1520. It is a style that deliberately obscures subject matter and distorts Classical form. As you think about how art reflects culture, consider how instability caused by war and doubt caused by ineffectual rulers could erode optimism and create doubt as to the potential of human beings to achieve the ideal or to inspire others to the good through eloquent expression.

One Italian city-state, Venice, escaped much of this turmoil. The poet Petrarch described the Italian city of Venice as “the only abode of liberty, peace, and justice, the one refuge of the good and haven for those who, battered on all sides by the storms of tyranny and war, seek to live in tranquility: city rich in gold but richer in fame, mighty in resources but mightier in virtue, build on solid marble but based on the more solid foundations of civic concord, surrounded by salty waters but more secure through her saltier councils.” Having avoided many of the wars that plagued Italy, Venice grew to be a powerful city-state that dominated the Adriatic Sea and parts of the Mediterranean upon which Venetian merchant ships, the source of the city’s wealth and cosmopolitan atmosphere, sailed. In Venice we see Renaissance style continue with more sophisticated themes for upscale patrons.

Art
Please complete the PowerPoint lessons The High Renaissance and Mannerism, and The Northern Renaissance for the art portion of this Unit’s lecture. Text Reference: Chapter 12 pp. 323-351 and Chapter 13 353-378.

Architecture (pp 346-348)
Just as art reached its pinnacle with Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian putting high polish on styles originated by Giotto, Masaccio, and Donatello, so too did Renaissance architecture expand on the genius of Brunelleschi and Alberti with the work of Donato Bramante and the new St. Peter’s Basilica.

When Pope Julius II decided to tear down the old Basilica in 1506, he brought in Bramante, an architect whose reputation stemmed from a building in Rome known as the Tempietto, or little temple. Constructed on the site where St. Peter was said to have been crucified, Bramante
designed the temple adhering to the rules of Classical order. The temple sits on a stepped base and is surrounded by a row of Doric columns. A railing tops the first story or balustrade inside of which is a circular wall called a drum upon which Bramante set a hemispheric dome. The plan for St. Peter’s is essentially this same plan but on a much larger scale, growing from Tempietto’s diameter of fifteen feet to St. Peter’s diameter of over 450 feet. When thinking about the architecture of the Renaissance, consider the humanist values it reflects such as the blending of the sacred and the secular, the pagan and the Christian, as well as reinforcing ideals of order, balance, and harmony. Read about the rebuilding of St. Peter’s on text pages 346-7.

Literature
In Venice, poet Gaspara Stampa grew up alongside a university educated brother who entertained literary and artistic groups in the family salon. Gaspara and her sister entertained these groups with music, and Gaspara eventually joined one of the poets groups where she met and began an unhappy affair with Count Collaltino de Collato, the subject of much of her poetry. While only three of her poems were published in her lifetime, Stampa’s very presence in the literary world marks Venice as a progressive city in which a woman could, occasionally, have her voice heard. Critics often discuss Stampa’s poetry in relation to an earlier Renaissance poet, Petrarch whose poems were about his unrequited love for the unattainable Laura. While Petrarch’s sonnets convey an idealized and highly spiritual love, Stampa’s poems offer readers a view of love from the woman’s point of view, elevating the woman’s vulnerability and eventual abandonment to a position of superiority in the love relationship.

As the religious-based medieval culture gave way to humanist ideas related to individualism, eloquence, and balance etiquette books teaching citizens how to cultivate a fine soul emerged. One of the most popular Humanist writers, Baldassare Castiglione, wrote The Book of the Courtier detailing what it means to be a gentleman/woman. Excerpts from his book are included in your readings (pp 11-15) for this week and they reveal Castiglione as a man of optimism who focused on the human potential to achieve the Ideal.

However, the optimism of Castiglione was not to last. The ease with which their cities fell to the French (and Spanish) unsettled Italian intellectuals who began to seek explanations and to find ways to prevent future invasions. Interestingly, the greatest political thinker to come out of this period, Niccolò Machiavelli, rose to power during Savonarola’s rule. When the Medici returned to Florence, he fell into disfavor. His most famous work The Prince was written to offer helpful instruction to the Medici in hopes of regaining their good graces. Unlike Castiglione’s optimistic advice, The Prince is famous for its studied pragmatism. Machiavelli, familiar with the inner workings of politics and politicians, wrote a brutally honest book on what would make a successful ruler. In it he defined virtu as an essential quality for a leader. Machiavelli’s concept of virtu is defined as “the ability to measure oneself.” Throughout The Prince he addresses such issues as morality in politics, the balance between freedom and order in a given society, and suggested that for a ruler, the end justifies the means. You will see these ideas in the selections from the Prince on pages 17-20 of your reading text.

Music
Music is probably the most technical of the arts to describe. Music is a combination of tone, tempo, and texture and, as an art form, it has duration; that is, it has a definite length of performance - as opposed to painting which you could look at all year or for only a couple of seconds.

In order for us to have a common vocabulary to talk about music, it is important to know these terms: tone, tempo, texture, melody, and harmony. Finally, sacred music refers to church music, while secular music refers to all other kinds. Read the text, pages xxix –xxx and 319-320 to further your ability to talk about music.



Unit Two: Background on the Northern Renaissance

General background
Text pp 353 - 371.
The Renaissance was not strictly an Italian phenomenon, but it started there earlier and had spectacular success in the visual arts. Artistic styles of the Italian Renaissance were copied throughout Europe, and several Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, were lured to work in other European countries. By the 16th century the Renaissance movement had spread to the north, and many nations, most notably England and France, created a great artistic legacy of their own.
While the Renaissance manifested itself throughout Europe in several artistic ways, there was a great deal of turmoil precipitated by the breakdown of the Catholic Church and the emergence of Protestant religions, the movement we now know as the Protestant Reformation. Alarmed by these events, the Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation, an all-out effort to regain or attract the faithful. Intolerance was rampant among the different religious groups, and this intolerance often manifested itself violently. It is important to be familiar with these events, as they will affect the art which we will study in the next few weeks.
Background of the English Renaissance
In England, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was characterized by the following elements:
• The formation of a powerful monarchy. The kings of England had gradually gathered more power. Henry VII weakened the nobility by putting an end to their rebellions, and took power away from the Parliament by calling it only sporadically.
• Religious strife. Henry VIII, son of Henry VII, disagreeing with the Pope, separated himself from the Church of Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England, thus becoming both its secular and religious leader. Thus the situation in England was one of religious confusion, with Catholics, Church of England, and another group, the Puritans, in conflict with each other.
• Wealth, power, and art. After the voyages of Columbus, the major trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and England profited handsomely from trade with the Americas. As it had happened in Florence, wealth provided a climate favorable to the arts. The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) was long and prosperous, and the art form that flourished above all during those times was the theatre of Shakespeare. (1564-1616)
The French Renaissance and Montaigne
In France, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was characterized by the following elements:
• The formation of a powerful monarchy. By the end of the 15th century France was a unified land, a powerful national state, controlled by absolute monarchs who had seen the feudal system to the end and now ruled with efficiency and complete power.
• Religious strife. There was violence in France as well, caused by the intolerance between the catholic and the protestant groups, the most important of which was the Huguenots. In fact, it is said that Montaigne, whose essay “Of Cannibals” is one of the readings for this unit, saddened by so much violence, wrote his first essay on the day of the famous St. Bartholomew's day massacre, which saw the death of several hundred Protestants.
• Wealth, power, and art. At the start of the century (well before Charles IX and Savonarola) France was lucky to have a Humanist king. Francis I who reigned 1515-1547 and who was a brilliant Renaissance man deeply interested in the arts, and who wanted to make his court the artistic center of Europe. Powerful and wealthy, he convinced many Italian artists including Leonardo da Vinci, to work for him. It was also during his reign that the beautiful chateaux of France were built.
• Higher learning. In addition to great achievements in art and architecture, Francis I founded the first non-religious institution of higher learning in France, thus inaugurating a golden age in letters. During his reign and for many decades after, French men of letters made the French Renaissance one of outstanding literature. One of the most interesting of these writers was Montaigne.

Not so well-known French Literature—the woman’s voice
Francis I’s sister, Margaret, was a talented poet and playwright who wrote Heptameron a collection of short, stories of rape, adultery and murder, with lessons embedded. What follows is the second of these stories. Consider the themes in the works of Gaspara Stampa, Laura Cereta, and Sophonisba Anguissola (artist), do you see any comparisons with Margaret’s themes? What differences do you see between the themes in works of these women as opposed to the themes in the works of Renaissance men such as Castiglione, Machiavelli, Erasmus, Montaigne, da Vinci, Raphael, or Michelangelo?


NOVEL II. By Margaret, Queen of Navarre
Chaste and Lamentable Death of the Wife of One of the Queen of Navarre's Multeers.
THERE was at Amboise a muleteer who served the Queen of Navarre, sister of Francis I. This princess being at Blois, where she was delivered of a prince, the muleteer went thither to receive his quarterly payment, and left his wife at Amboise, in a house beyond the bridges. For a long time one of her husband's men had felt such a passion for her, that at last he could not help declaring it; but she being a virtuous woman, reproved him so sharply, threatening to have him beaten and dismissed by her husband, that he never afterwards durst address her with such language. Nevertheless, the fire of his love, though smothered, was not extinguished. His master then being at Blois, and his mistress at vespers at St. Florentin, which is the church of the castle, very remote from the muleteer's house, in which he was left alone, he resolved to have by force what he could not obtain either by prayers or services. To this end he broke an opening through the boarded partition between his mistress's chamber and that in which he himself slept; and this was not perceived, being covered by the curtains of the master's bed on one side, and by those of the men's bed on the other.
When the poor woman had gone to bed with a little girl of twelve years old, and was sleeping soundly, as one usually does in the first sleep, the man entered the room through the opening, in his shirt, with his sword in his hand, and got into the bed with her. The moment she felt him she sprang out of bed, and addressed such remonstrances to him as would occur to any woman of honor in the like case. He, whose love was but brutality, and who would better have understood the language of his mules than such virtuous pleadings, appeared more insensible to reason than the brutes with which he had long associated. Seeing that she ran so fast round a table that he could not catch her, and that although he had twice laid hands on her she had strength enough both times to break from his grasp, he despaired of ever taking her alive, and stabbed her in the loins, to see if pain would make her yield what fear and force had failed to extort from her. But it was quite the reverse; for as a brave soldier when he sees his own blood is the hotter to revenge himself on his enemies and acquire honor, so her chaste heart gathering new strength, she ran faster than ever to escape falling into the hands of that wretch, at the same time remonstrating with him in the best way she could, thinking by that means to make him conscious of his fault. But he was in such a frenzy that he was incapable of profiting by good advice. In spite of the speed with which she ran as long as her strength lasted, she received several more wounds, till at length, weakened by loss of blood and feeling the approach of death, she raised her eyes and her clasped hands to heaven, and gave thanks to God, whom she called her strength, her virtue, her patience, and her chastity, beseeching him to accept the blood which, according to his commandment, was shed through respect for that of his Son, wherein she was thoroughly assured that all sins are washed out, and effaced from the memory of his wrath. Then exclaiming, "Lord, receive my soul which thy goodness has redeemed," she fell on her face and received several more wounds from the villain, who, after she had lost the power of speech and motion, satisfied his lust, and fled with such speed that, in spite of all efforts to track him, he was never heard of afterwards.
The little girl who had been in bed with the poor woman had hid herself beneath it in her fright; but as soon as she saw that the man was gone, she went to her mistress, and finding her speechless and motionless, she called out through the window to the neighbors for help. Esteeming and liking the muleteer's wife as much as any woman in the town, they all hurried at once to her aid, and brought with them surgeons, who found that she had received twenty-five mortal wounds. They did all they could for her, but she was past saving. She lingered, however, for an hour, making signs with her eyes and hands, and showing thereby that she had not lost consciousness. A priest having asked her in what faith she died, she replied by signs as unequivocal as speech, that she put her trust in the death of Jesus Christ, whom she hoped to see in his heavenly glory. And so with a serene countenance and eyes uplifted to heaven, she surrendered her chaste body to the earth, and her soul to her Creator.
Her husband arrived just as they were about to carry her to the grave, and was shocked to see his wife dead before he had heard any news of her; but double cause he had to grieve when he was told how she had died; and so poignant was his sorrow, that it had like to cost him his life. The martyr of chastity was buried in the church of St. Florentin, being attended to the grave by all the virtuous women of the place, who did all possible honor to her memory, deeming it a happi ness to be the townswomen of one so virtuous. Those, too, who had led bad lives, seeing the honors paid to the deceased, amended their ways, and resolved to live better for the time to come. *

There, ladies, you have a true tale, and one which may well incite to chastity, which is so fine a virtue. Ought we not to die of shame, we who are of good birth, to feel our hearts full of the love of the world, since, to avoid it, a poor muleteer's wife did not fear so cruel a death? Therefore we must humble ourselves, for God does not bestow his graces on men because they are noble or rich; but, according as it pleases his goodness, which regards not the appearance of persons, he chooses whom he will. He honours with his virtues, and finally crowns with his glory, those whom he has elected; and often he chooses low and despised things to confound those which the world esteems high and honourable. Let us not rejoice in our virtues, as Jesus Christ says, but let us rejoice for that we are enrolled in the Book of Life.
The ladies were so touched by the sad and glorious death of the muleteer's wife, that there was not one of them but shed tears, and promised herself that she would strive to follow such an example should fortune expose her to a similar trial. At last, Madame Oisille, seeing they were losing time in praising the dead woman, said to Saffredent, "If you do not say something to make the company laugh, no one will forgive me for the fault I have committed in making them weep." Saffredent, who was really desirous to say something good and agreeable to the company, and especially to one of the ladies, replied that this honor was not due to him, and that there were others who were older and more capable than himself who ought to speak before him. "But since you will have it so," he said, "the best thing I can do is to despatch the matter at once, for the more good speakers precede me, the more difficult will my task be when my turn comes."
For more stories by the Queen of Navarre, go to external links/Renaissance Links. There you will find more information and works on Margaret, Cereta, and Anguissola.
Conclusion
The Italian Renaissance dazzled us with masterpieces of the visual arts. The English Renaissance gifted us with the immortal theatre of William Shakespeare. And in their Renaissance, France continued their long-treasured tradition of writing excellence and provoked us with the thoughtful essays of Michel de Montaigne.

Elizabethan Theatre
Reference: Blue text, pp. 356-358.
While the seat of modern visual arts is found in Italy, the performing arts (music, theatre, dance) came to life and flourished under Queen Elizabeth in England. This is not to say performance did not exist prior to Elizabeth, of course, plays had been acted in Europe for centuries. During the Middle Ages, the plays were mostly performed in cathedral towns and were limited in subject matter to vast cycles of morality plays with Biblical themes. As you may have inferred, this theatrical form of Medieval artistic expression, along with Medieval art and music, sought to reinforce the faith and bolster the pride of various craft guilds in the cathedral towns. While these morality plays continued in the years following the Middle Ages, criticisms of the church and the divisions created by the Reformation created a sometimes hostile environment for new sacred productions. On the other hand, secular plays began to flourish, especially in England where British writers, associated with universities such as Cambridge and Oxford, began to write plays that reintroduced classical elements. Inspired by the ancient Greco-Roman theatrical philosophy, playwrights resurrected ancient works that had been condemned by Medieval Christian dictates. They also created fresh comedies and new tragedies employing the purposes for these genres articulated by Aristotle in his Poetics. Comedies, then, were crafted of by exagerating a particular human fault and emphasizing the ridiculous. Tragedies, on the other hand, sought to create an imitation of an action that is serious, that has magnitude, that is complete within itself, and that offers incidents meant to arouse both pity and fear in the audience.
Gaining in sophistication, provincial strolling players similar to the players in Hamlet’s Elsinore, wandered into towns seeking performance opportunities. With troupe names like The Queen’s Men, Leicester’s Men, Warwicks, Strange’s, and Derby’s these companies acted in British guild halls, courts, and at in university towns such as Oxford, Cambridge, and St. Johns (the universities were popular with playwrights such as Marlow and Shakespeare who enjoyed intellectual approaches to their craft). Actors, previously considered no less than knaves, vagrants, and criminals, came under the patronage and protection of nobility. Queen Elizabeth, while never attending a public performance, supported the theaters and their troupes by summoning them to perform in her court. [1]
The popularity of these troupes created a new theater industry in England, and in 1576 the first theater—aptly named The Theater—was built solely for the purpose of mounting dramatic productions. Later other London playhouses such as the Swan and the Globe, with estimated capacities of 3,000 in each venue, were built just outside the city limits alongside brothels, taverns, and other places of entertainment. This locale allowed them to be enjoyed by all social classes, from the local poor to wealthy foreign visitors, who felt the plays were premier attractions. [2] You can see from the picture of the Globe Theatre in the text (pg 357) that the audiences were seated on three sides of the platform stage. The lower classes paid a penny to sit in the ‘pit,’ or the open area just in front of the stage while wealthier audience members purchased seats in the sheltered galleries.
As you study the stage area, keep in mind that the orchestra played on the stage. In fact, music was a central element to performances which relied on singing, playing, dancing, and the spectacle of costumes to help audiences suspend disbelief and allow their imaginations to transform sparse props into elaborate scenery (a chair to suggest a palace, a potted shrub to suggest a forest) and to see young boys whose voices had not changed as lovely women (it was considered immoral for women to perform so boys or small men were cast in women’s roles).
The language of the play worked to convey action and emotion, as well as letting audiences know who characters were, where they were, what was happening off stage, and what had happened previous to the beginning of the action. You will notice that at the beginning of Hamlet there are many lines that offer background information, such as Horatio’s answer to Marcelus’ questioning of the need to stand vigilant watch, “Our last king, whose image even but now appear’d to us, was as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway, thereto prick’s on by a most emulate pride, dar’d to the combat, in which our valiant Hamlet did slay this Fortinbras….” Here Shakespeare is using Horatio’s dialogue to give the audience background information—specifically to establish the reason why Francisco and Bernardo are on watch: Norway and Denmark are in conflict (the late King Hamlet of Denmark killed Fortinbras of Norway and took his lands; young Fortinbras (the son) has recruited ‘lawless resolutes’ to recover ‘by strong hand’ the lands taken.
Reading Shakespeare
This is the first literary work we are reading that is not in modern translation, so I need to say a word about Shakespeare’s words. The language can be confusing because it comes to us from 500 years ago; while the language is English, we no longer use many of the words. In addition, many of the references are not common in our culture anymore. You do not want to let this stop you from enjoying the play!
So here is some advice: even though there are explanatory footnotes, I recommend that you mostly ignore them. Instead, try to capture the gist of what is being said in a scene—try to create meaning from context. You do not have to understand everything. It is difficult to read plays and imagine who's on stage and where they are in relation to each other, especially when some characters are not talking, so give yourself permission to experience some confusion, then review those confusing spots and try to gain some clarity. If you remain confused, go to the HELP! discussion and ask for insights.
I also recommend that you rent the one of two video versions of Hamlet. One stars Kenneth Brannagh, and the other Mel Gibson. The Brannagh version allows you to literally read along with the play, however, the Gibson version has moved some scenes and omitted lines. Both versions will allow you to visualize and understand the characters, and it will make the action clear. Please read the play too! The full text of it is posted in external links in the Renaissance file.
Hamlet
With eight violent deaths, adultery, betrayal, a ghost, a woman gone made in grief, a suicide, a fight in a grave, and a duel to the death between friends, this play not only offers audiences suspense, violence, star-crossed love, and horror, it delivers a tragic hero of charm and virtue who is placed in a situation in which he must, but cannot, act. Hamlet’s intellectual, moral, and social virtues—virtues that would serve him well under most circumstances—cause him to question and to doubt. They aggravate his distress and ultimately cause his undoing. Hamlet is one sensational story; in fact, I think we have a box office smash on our hands.
Known to even those who have never encountered it through its famous lines “To be or not to be, that is the question,” the play attracts us to its protagonist, the conflicted Hamlet. Yet, even though we are attracted to him, how many of us understand the basis of his identity question? How many of us understand his inability to take action? Shakespeare offers us many ways to think about Hamlet’s stasis. Most directly we have Laertes, acting on his father’s advice “To thine own self be true.” Indeed when Plotinus is unjustly killed, Laertes takes immediate action to avenge his father’s death. Thus we have the Humanist advice and clarity of action juxtaposed with Hamlet’s question, “to be or not to be” leaving us to question whether it be better to suffer outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles.
So what cultural conditions permitted such a doubt-filled tragedy to revive in the High Renaissance? Considering the Christian culture in which Shakespeare wrote, we may at first be tempted (no pun intended) to consider the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Isaac, and the passion of the Christ as tragic—but only if we forget the lessons of God’s design and the promise of redemption. [3] Do we see in Hamlet the possibility of redemption?
In considering the cultural conditions that allow tragedy to revive, we may also want to consider that the plays occurred in Christian Northern Europe; we may, therefore, want to invoke the northern, less optimistic, view of man born into a world of temptation and sin (or a Boschian view of man). In which case, the tragedy may be that the concept of Human Perfectibility is tragically flawed by human weakness, and that the few who choose to adhere to the Ideal are ultimately martyred. As a martyr, Hamlet can only hope that those who live and ever held them in their hearts to report his cause and tell his story so others may learn.
In addition, we may want to take another look at the evolution of the revival of Greco-Roman ideas as the Renaissance spreads through Christian Europe. In doing so, we may come to see, as many Renaissance scholars did, that the golden apple of the Renaissance had a worm in, and that worm was doubt. A doubt born of the splitting of one church into many, a doubt caused by the tension between two sets of values: Christian and Greco-Roman. We see this tension in Hamlet in those scenes where Shakespeare refers to Christian symbols and doctrines yet offers us a hero who seems to believe in something more akin to classical Fate. [4]
Hamlet, is Shakespeare’s longest play (I make no apologies for asking you to engage it for it, along with Othello is best at depicting a culture in doubt, a culture divided, and a culture once again redefining itself). Interestingly, the play is derived from Danish history where it is known as Amleth. This history was transformed into a 16th C French novel and was then translated into English under the title The Hystorie of Hamblet. Literary historians have reasonably assumed that Shakespeare derived his plot outline from the hystorie, and used literary license to turn it into a tragic human drama that continues to transcend time.

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