Within the scope of modern civilization, there are periods of time which stand out for the wide reaching and impressive advances made in one area or another. An excellent example of this is the renaissance, a period of time which set the pace for many of the things that even today are recognized as outstanding. There are those who claim that the renaissance was more of a social phenomenon than a chronological time period, especially in terms of the theater, which truly saw its most formative period during the renaissance. This research will discuss not only the historical significance of the renaissance, but also other facets of the era and the role of theater as well.
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Historical Overview of the Renaissance
To begin, it is vitally important to understand what exactly is meant by the renaissance, as well as the key events that took place during that time. Most sources generally place the renaissance between the 14th and 17th centuries, with its epicenter as Italy, but also encompassing most of Europe as well (Sellery). Overall, the renaissance is typified by a rebirth of the arts, literature, philosophy, and of course, drama, as well as a new viewpoint regarding the role of religion in everyday life (Falco).
The arts thrived during the renaissance, as painters like Michelangelo and sculptors like Rafael brought their medium to new heights, figuratively and literally. At the risk of seeming humorous, Michelangelo did both when his murals, painted on the ceilings of the chapels and meeting halls of the Vatican in Rome brought him worldwide fame.
Both literature and philosophy advanced through the rediscovery of the writings of many of the greatest philosophers of the glory days of the Greek and Roman empires, such as Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, and others (Sellery). As the writings of these philosophers were reevaluated by people many generations removed from the original authors, the truths to be found in the writings were still deemed to be relevant and influenced the entire renaissance world as it was known to exist.
The new interest in philosophy and ideas that came from Greece and Rome transformed the spirituality of the renaissance. The secular, humanist idea held that the church should not rule civic matters, but should guide only spiritual matters. The church disdained the accumulation of wealth and worldly goods, supported a strong but limited education, and believed that moral and ethical behavior was dictated by scripture. Humanists, however, believed that wealth enabled them to do fine, noble deeds, that good citizens needed a good, well-rounded education (such as that advocated by the Greeks and Romans), and that moral and ethical issues were related more to secular society than to spiritual concerns. Also noteworthy during the renaissance in regard to religion was the establishment of Protestant religions, spearheaded by the church leader Martin Luther, who spoke out against the excesses and domineering nature of the Catholic church at that time, including the selling of indulgences, or blessings of the church and forgiveness of sins in exchange for hefty monetary offerings given to the church. Luther also advocated the recitation of masses in the native languages of the church congregations, taking away the mysterious nature that the previous masses, all said in Latin, possessed because very few people could understand the language (Falco).The renaissance, therefore is best viewed as a pivotal time in history when the thoughts, ideas, and lives of people were quite literally transformed from many different points of view. One of these, the theater, is worthy of further discussion because of the evolution that the theater underwent at this time.
Theater in the Renaissance
The renaissance had less influence on theatre in England than in Italy, where classic Roman plays were revived for performance. The rediscovery of classic works of literature during the renaissance influenced the development of modern theater -- first in Italy, then in France and England and the rest of Europe (Smith). Indicative of the religious changes that swept the world during the renaissance, the themes of religion that were such a part of theater before this time now were replaced by those of loyalty to government or to a stable society, showing a shift from the sacred to the secular as a focus of society, on stage and off. The plays that were performed were based on simple plots or previous works. The impression should not be given, however, that the theater, or the members of the theater community themselves, enjoyed universal adoration by everyone during this time. Fear of contagious diseases, very common during this time that might be carried by the traveling companies made authorities sometimes ban the performance of plays and even refuse entry into a city or town by the company (Smith). Theatres were also associated, in the minds of merchants, with temptation for apprentices to waste time watching entertainment instead of working. In the view of the wives of play-goers, theatres were associated with the women of ill-repute who frequented the areas surrounding the play-houses and public inns where performances took place. Ultimately, these concerns led to the domination of theatre by the state.
No discussion of the renaissance would be accurate or complete without a discussion of the works and achievements of William Shakespeare, the famed playwright who wrote and acted in his plays in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. Shakespeare had the good fortune to be a share-holder in the companies he was associated with, earning him income as a maker of plays, an actor and an investor. At this time, the plays written and performed in England were still presented in open-air theatres, but Shakespeare also made a meaningful change to this by developing some of the earliest theaters which featured enclosed buildings with roofs and the like (Crockett). Overall, there is really no way to even begin to appreciate the total contribution that Shakespeare made to renaissance theater, but few would argue that his achievements are in some ways beyond comprehension, even today.
The renaissance also saw theatrical contributions from nations other than Italy and England. It is important to realize that theatre during the renaissance was also influenced by French playwrights such as Racine and Molière. Molière was the author of some of the best comedies in European history, and Racine was as great a tragedian as Molière was a playwright of comedies. Both playwrights had an influence in turning theatre away from classical style into more contemporary subject matter (Platt).
It was also during the renaissance that women first began to appear on stage, instead of female roles being played by boys and young men as they were in the past. In this sense, it can be said that the theater of the renaissance played a pivotal role in the first steps of women toward the more mainstream activities of society, which would admittedly face many challenges and setbacks in future generations and historic eras, but ultimately, the progress of women, which began during the renaissance, led to the advantages that women enjoy today.
As we have seen in this research, the renaissance had a huge impact on modern history; likewise, it had a major impact on theater. Likewise, the social changes that were brought about by the renaissance and more specifically the theater of the renaissance are recognized and felt by people even today. For as far as civilization has advanced, in a world when any form of entertainment can quite literally be accessed with the push of a button, the classic appeal of the live theater is undeniable. This magical thrill was started during the renaissance, taken to new heights during that time, and continues to evolve today. In closing, perhaps the best assertion that can be taken away from this research is the fact that the renaissance was, and still is, one of the most pivotal periods in the modern history of the human race.
- Crockett, Bryan. The Play of Paradox: Stage and Sermon in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
- Falco, Raphael. "Is the Renaissance an Aesthetic Category?." Shakespeare Studies (2003): 45+.
- Platt, Peter G. Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Sellery, George Clarke. The Renaissance, Its Nature and Origins. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1950.
- Smith, Winifred. Italian Actors of the Renaissance. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1930.