Essay, Research Paper: English Literature In 16th

Literature: Beowulf

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Although the literature of England during the Middle Ages may hardly seem
comparable to the more elegant literature present during the Renaissance,
England=s early literature actually paved the way for the poems and plays of the
16th century. In this respect, English literature of the Renaissance may be seen
as a refinement of its earlier works, helped in part by the collapse of the
universal church and the rebirth of Greek and Roman ideas. Many of the things
written about during this period-- the issues addressed in The Canterbury Tales
for example-- were not entirely new subjects, but instead ones that been
suppressed by the church or upper-class in previous works of literature.
Finally, with the growing education of the middle and lower classes, greater
diversity of style became apparent. In order to understand the differences and
similarities of these two literary time periods, one must first understand the
influences upon the Middel Ages from its predecessor. During the Middle Ages,
some of the traditional Old English beliefs were kept, but with a few changes.
The patriarchal system remained, although unlike the literature of the 8th and
9th century, women were now finding their place in many written works. For
example, when Chaucer writes of The Wife of Bathe, he depicts a colorful
character who would never have surfaced in Beowulf. Another change is found in
the idea of the Ahero.@ During the Middle Ages, the hero has become less
hardened; he has acquired values and morals. The idea of a chivalrous knight has
taken the place of a unidimensional warrior who grunts and boasts and drags his
knuckles as he walks. The Knight 2 most prolific change, however, was in the new
presence of the Christian Church, which took the place of the Anglo-Saxon=s
fatalistic culture and influenced almost all of the aspects of the society of
the Middle Ages. The Renaissance, with its rebirth of art and science, brought
about further change to the literature of England. Where the stories of knights
and warriors fighting Grendels and dragons once dominated the literature,
beautifully scripted sonnets and tales of romance now took the literary
forefront. Take, for example, women=s roles in written works. Women carried very
little importance in the literature of Beowulf=s time, but by the time Chaucer
wrote The Canterbury Tales, female characters were more prevalent. Although the
Wife of Bathe was a comical character, it is noteworthy that she is also a
strong character-- stronger, even than some of Chaucer=s male characters: She
was a worthy womman al hir live; Housbondes at chirch dore she had five,
Withouten other compaignye in youthe-- But thereof needeth nought to speke as
nouthe. (Chaucer 90) The Wife of Bathe is a Aremarkable culmination of many
centuries of an antifeminism that was particularly nurtured by the medieval
church (Abrams 117). Chaucer shows her as large, ugly, and strong-willed; this
last notion was taken by critics of the day as a satirical idea in a satirical
work, but now is seen more as an accurate assessment than an ironic one. With
the removal of the medieval church, as one of the influences upon literature,
women were given more substantial roles, and the suppressed idea of romantic
love was allowed to come forward in the works of such Renaissance writers as
Spenser and Shakespeare. Where Chaucer wrote of women such as Alisoun, the
unfaithful miller=s wife, Spenser wrote Knight 3 of his woman: Her lips did
smeel like gillyflowers, Her ruddy cheeks like unto roses red; Her snowy browes
lyke budded bellamoures, Her lovely eyes like pinks but newly spred, Her goodly
bosom lyke a strawberry bed, Her neck lyke to a bounch of cullambynes (417).
Likewise, Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 18, AShall I compare thee to a summer=s
day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate@ (491). The fall of the Catholic
church from dominance enabled sonnets and plays such as these to surface, and
with the education of the middle class, the popularity of these kinds of
writings was only increasing, while the popularity of morality plays and poems
of the Middle Ages was rapidly decreasing. Poems of the 16th century were not
epic verses filled with violence, such as Beuwulf, but instead, relatively
brief, usually with the purpose of praising some aspect of love or nature.
Another difference can be found in the idea of the literary Ahero.@ The change
from Beowulf to the knight in Chaucer=s Tales is equalled only by the change
from Chuacer=s knight to the tragic heroes of Shakespeare or Spenser=s Red
Crosse Knight. Starting with Beowulf: A. . .bloody from my foes, I came from a
fight where I had bound five, destroyed a family of giants, and at night in the
waves slain water monsters. . .@ (31). Next, of Chaucer=s knight, ATo riden out
he loved chivalrye. Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye@ (80). Finally,
Spenser writes of his Red Crosse Knight, Athe eye of reason was with rage
[blinded]@ (289). These three quotes show a gradual change from a brutish
warrior to a chivalrous fighter, dedicated to his church, his king, and his
lady, and from this fighter to a tragic hero with all too human qualities and
flaws. The fall of the Roman Catholic Church, the movement toward literacy of
the lower classes, Knight 4 and the appreciation of love and nature all helped
to bring about the changes in English literature present during the Renaissance.
These changes are most recognizable in the gradual change of the literary hero,
the lessened influence of the church in literature, and the abrupt
acknowledgement and praise of women in literary works. It is this rise in the
traditional, more artistic ideas of life shared by the Greeks and Romans that
made the Renaissance what it was-- a rebirth in science, art and romance.
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