Renewing the Renaissance and Its Literature

By Rhu, Lawrence F. | The World and I, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Renewing the Renaissance and Its Literature

Rhu, Lawrence F., The World and I

The Renaissance began as a cultural movement in fifteenth-century Italy. It was instigated by educational reformers called humanists, whose influence spread northward during the next two centuries. Their new curriculum stressed rhetoric and the study of Greek and Roman writers for models of both literary style and personal conduct. Its impact pervaded the period of history and civilization immediately following the Middle Ages. This was the time of Shakespeare, of the breakdown of the Church of Rome's spiritual authority and the coming of the Protestant Reformation. Renaissance literature, as we might expect, reflects the central interests of the age.

Sometimes it seems we can see Hamlet everywhere--not only in the theater but on the screen, and not just in productions explicitly dedicated to Shakespeare's play. Of course, Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branaugh have portrayed the notoriously melancholy Dane in recent film versions of Hamlet. But movies like Steve Martin's L.A. Story and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero are imbued with allusions to this most famous of Elizabethan tragedies.

Even a "classic" like Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest declares in its very title this director's desire to link his work with Shakespeare's play. That title echoes a remark of Hamlet's to his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of this drama: "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw" (2.2.361-2).(1) Moreover, like Hamlet, North by Northwest's Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) strategically assumes "an antic disposition" to outsmart his foes at an art auction in Chicago; and Thornhill suffers, again like Hamlet, the ordeal of a mother's incomprehension at his dangerous dilemma.


Centuries ago the scholars who created the Renaissance culture, of which Shakespeare's writings are perhaps the supreme expression, proclaimed a rebirth of the culture of classical antiquity. First Roman and then Greek culture were rediscovered and invoked as apposite guides to both contemporary life and art by ambitious scholars in early modern Europe from roughly 1350 to 1700.

Because they borrowed from Cicero the Latin phrase studia humanitatis to describe the curriculum they promoted, those who initially fostered this movement were known in student slang as "humanists." Their course of study contrasted sharply with the studia divinitatis expounded by theologians in medieval universities. Hamlet epitomizes a characteristic theme of early Renaissance humanism, the dignity of man, when he celebrates the excellence of our nature in these terms: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, 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" (2.2.293-8). He could virtually be quoting from the paean to human potential in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man. Composed in 1486, it expresses the optimism that typified the early stages of Renaissance culture in fifteenth-century Italy.

Ironically, what we have come to call the humanities emerged in the Renaissance as a flesh program of study by attending to old texts. Neglect, misunderstanding, or simple abandonment to oblivion made their recovery exciting news. Moreover, this rediscovery supplied humanists with an alternative curriculum to challenge their rivals, whom they contentiously dubbed "scholastics" or "schoolmen." This label aimed to subvert their established authority by suggesting that their instruction was merely academic and thus irrelevant to everyday life.

As often occurs, such controversy gave rise to polemics aimed chiefly at making the opposition look stupid. Take the example of Duns Scotus, a prominent theologian at the University of Paris. Despite his estimable intellectual accomplishments, his very name gives us the word dunce; and he and his colleagues have become known for posing trivial questions, such as "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? …

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