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English Renaissance Literature Essay Questions

Writing a compare and contrast essay can be a challenge, especially if you decided to delay working on it until the very end. Further complicating things is having to write on a vast subject such as Medieval Literature vs Renaissance Literature as both have a rich history. Luckily for you, you do not have to worry about selecting a topic to tackle for your compare and contrast essay.

In addition to our list of 13 facts on medieval English literature vs. Renaissance for a compare and contrast essay, here are 20 topics on medieval English literature vs Renaissance for a compare and contrast essay.

  1. Depictions of Romance and Chivalry in Major Literary Works Produced During the English Renaissance and the Medieval Period
  2. The Anonymous Author of the Medieval Era — Accuracy and Impersonality in Medieval Writing and Renaissance Works
  3. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Contrasting Concepts of Idea Ownership in Medieval Period and Post-Restoration Era Literary Works
  4. The Influence of Religion on Medieval Literature and Renaissance Literature
  5. Differences and Similarities in Transmission Mediums
  6. The Evolution of the Concept of Courtly Love and its Depictions in Medieval Literature and in Works Produced During the Renaissance
  7. Looking at Macrocosm through the Microcosm Lens: Contrasting Depictions of Nature in Medieval Literature and Renaissance Literature
  8. Secular Literature in the Medieval Period and Renaissance
  9. A Comparative Analysis of Major Literary Devices Used by Medieval Authors and Renaissance Authors
  10. The Political Views of Medieval and Renaissance Authors as Reflected in Their Works
  11. Female Authors and the Major Themes of Their Works
  12. Dissemination of Written Works during the Medieval Era and the Renaissance
  13. Chaucer’s Monk and Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Comparative Analysis of Tragedy
  14. End of an Eternal Night: Literature as an Agent of Social Change
  15. Representations of Justice in Medieval and Renaissance Literature
  16. The Evolution of English and English Literature
  17. The Printing Press and English Literature
  18. Secular Poetry of the Medieval Period vs Renaissance Humanism
  19. The Power of Symbolism in Medieval Literature vs Renaissance Literature
  20. Major Literary Genres of the Medieval Period and the Renaissance

You can use any of these topics as they are or can be inspired by them to come up with your own.

If you need a little more guidance, here is a sample essay comparing Medieval heroes with Renaissance heroes to further clarify the topic.

Sample Compare and Contrast Essay on Medieval Heroes vs Renaissance Heroes

The people and society of Europe during the Medieval Ages and Renaissance held vastly differing culture and worldviews. This was starkly reflected in the literary works produced during those times. Fictional works often revolved around an individual who takes on the central role of the hero. The attitudes of the society are often depicted in the personality and actions of the hero. Moreover, these depictions offer a unique glimpse into the thinking of Medieval and Renaissance authors.

Renaissance heroes are notably different from classical tragic heroes. Their most important distinguishing quality is the context of the story.  Classical tragic heroes seem to operate in a different religious context as compared to Renaissance heroes. This results in significant differences in both the characteristics and the actions of the heroes. The readers or the viewers of the plays during the Medieval period held Christian beliefs and their expectations were different as compared to the Renaissance audience.

Another difference is that the heroes of Medieval tales belonged to noble families or were descendants of a higher power. This is not the case with the Renaissance hero. Usually, the Renaissance hero was morally superior to the Medieval hero, but socially inferior. The characters and moral standing of the Renaissance hero were more complex as compared to Medieval era heroes. They had shades of gray to their personalities and their demise followed a complicated path. On the other hand, the classical hero had a significant fatal flaw which caused a linear fall from grace. Shakespeare’s Mark Antony and Hamlet stand in sharp contrast to Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The literature of the Renaissance sheds a lot of the religious overtones seen in Medieval works. The heroes of the Renaissance no longer had to be socially important or supernatural. This shows that the thinking of the society in the Renaissance period had become more liberal.

The classical hero possessed a noble stature and high status. He must embody nobility, but has one major flaw. This flaw, coupled with external forces of fate, brings about a tragedy. However, the Renaissance hero is morally complex and has many flaws. He overcomes some of them and often undergoes a metamorphosis during the unfolding of the tale. This hero is more realistic, more human, and more tragic than the Medieval era hero. The authors of such characters understand that people do not have one major flaw. Human beings do not exist in black and white; human tragedy plays out on a gray spectrum. The players take on varying degrees of flaws and qualities.

Doctor Faustus, the main character of Christopher Marlowe’s famous play, is not of noble birth. His character shows a touch of the humanist tendencies of the Renaissance period as he is depicted as arrogant, foolish and selfish. On the other hand, he tries to ‘make men to live eternally’. The Medieval heroes were somewhat one-dimensional at least in aspects of morality. The Renaissance hero is seen as a more human depiction.

This sample essay is meant to provide you an example of how you can present your argument and essay. Feel free to use it as a template for your own work, but we know you can come up with an even better essay. So, get ready to write your own. If you need help with the technicalities of this academic assignment, check out our guide on how to write a compare and contrast essay on medieval English literature vs. Renaissance.

References:
Aughterson, K. (1998). The English Renaissance. London: Routledge.
Braunmuller, A., & Hattaway, M. (1990). The Cambridge companion to English Renaissance drama. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
Fried, J., & Lewis, P. The Middle Ages.
Jansson, M., & Smith, N. (1996). Literature & Revolution in England, 1640-1660.Renaissance Quarterly, 49(4), 886. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/2862991
Krstovic, J. (2005). Classical and medieval literature criticism. Detroit, Mich.: Gale.
Lambdin, R., & Lambdin, L. (2000). Encyclopedia of medieval literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
Lewis, C., & Hooper, W. (1966). Studies in medieval and Renaissance literature. Cambridge [England]: University Press.
Maddern, C. (2010). Medieval literature. Harlow, England: Longman/Pearson.
McAlindon, T. (1986). English renaissance tragedy. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Muscatine, C. (1999). Medieval literature, style, and culture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

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Tags: compare and contrast essay ideas, compare and contrast essay topics, literature essay topics

Literature and the age

In a tradition of literature remarkable for its exacting and brilliant achievements, the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods have been said to represent the most brilliant century of all. (The reign of Elizabeth I began in 1558 and ended with her death in 1603; she was succeeded by the Stuart king James VI of Scotland, who took the title James I of England as well. English literature of his reign as James I, from 1603 to 1625, is properly called Jacobean.) These years produced a gallery of authors of genius, some of whom have never been surpassed, and conferred on scores of lesser talents the enviable ability to write with fluency, imagination, and verve. From one point of view, this sudden renaissance looks radiant, confident, heroic—and belated, but all the more dazzling for its belatedness. Yet, from another point of view, this was a time of unusually traumatic strain, in which English society underwent massive disruptions that transformed it on every front and decisively affected the life of every individual. In the brief, intense moment in which England assimilated the European Renaissance, the circumstances that made the assimilation possible were already disintegrating and calling into question the newly won certainties, as well as the older truths that they were dislodging. This doubleness, of new possibilities and new doubts simultaneously apprehended, gives the literature its unrivaled intensity.

Social conditions

In this period England’s population doubled; prices rocketed, rents followed, old social loyalties dissolved, and new industrial, agricultural, and commercial veins were first tapped. Real wages hit an all-time low in the 1620s, and social relations were plunged into a state of fluidity from which the merchant and the ambitious lesser gentleman profited at the expense of the aristocrat and the labourer, as satires and comedies current from the 1590s complain. Behind the Elizabethan vogue for pastoral poetry lies the fact of the prosperity of the enclosing sheep farmer, who sought to increase pasture at the expense of the peasantry. Tudor platitudes about order and degree could neither combat nor survive the challenge posed to rank by these arrivistes. The position of the crown, politically dominant yet financially insecure, had always been potentially unstable, and, when Charles I lost the confidence of his greater subjects in the 1640s, his authority crumbled. Meanwhile, the huge body of poor fell ever further behind the rich; the pamphlets of Thomas Harman (1566) and Robert Greene (1591–92), as well as Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605–06), provide glimpses of a horrific world of vagabondage and crime, the Elizabethans’ biggest, unsolvable social problem.

Intellectual and religious revolution

The barely disguised social ferment was accompanied by an intellectual revolution, as the medieval synthesis collapsed before the new science, new religion, and new humanism. While modern mechanical technologies were pressed into service by the Stuarts to create the scenic wonders of the court masque, the discoveries of astronomers and explorers were redrawing the cosmos in a way that was profoundly disturbing:

And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new….
(John Donne, The First Anniversary, 1611)

The majority of people were more immediately affected by the religious revolutions of the 16th century. A person in early adulthood at the accession of Elizabeth in 1558 would, by her death in 1603, have been vouchsafed an unusually disillusioning insight into the duty owed by private conscience to the needs of the state. The Tudor churchhierarchy was an instrument of social and political control, yet the mid-century controversies over the faith had already wrecked any easy confidence in the authority of doctrines and forms and had taught people to inquire carefully into the rationale of their own beliefs (as John Donne does in his third satire [c. 1596]). The Elizabethan ecclesiastical compromise was the object of continual criticism, from radicals both within (who desired progressive reforms, such as the abolition of bishops) and without (who desired the return of England to the Roman Catholic fold), but the incipient liberalism of individuals such as John Milton and the scholar and churchman William Chillingworth was held in check by the majority’s unwillingness to tolerate a plurality of religions in a supposedly unitary state. Nor was the Calvinist orthodoxy that cradled most English writers comforting, for it told them that they were corrupt, unfree, unable to earn their own salvations, and subject to heavenly judgments that were arbitrary and absolute. Calvinism deeply affects the world of the Jacobean tragedies, whose heroes are not masters of their fates but victims of divine purposes that are terrifying yet inscrutable.

The race for cultural development

The third complicating factor was the race to catch up with Continental developments in arts and philosophy. The Tudors needed to create a class of educated diplomats, statesmen, and officials and to dignify their court by making it a fount of cultural as well as political patronage. The new learning, widely disseminated through the Erasmian (after the humanist Desiderius Erasmus) educational programs of such men as John Colet and Sir Thomas Elyot, proposed to use a systematic schooling in Latin authors and some Greek to encourage in the social elites a flexibility of mind and civilized serviceableness that would allow enlightened princely government to walk hand in hand with responsible scholarship. Humanism fostered an intimate familiarity with the classics that was a powerful incentive for the creation of an English literature of answerable dignity. It fostered as well a practical, secular piety that left its impress everywhere on Elizabethan writing. Humanism’s effect, however, was modified by the simultaneous impact of the flourishing Continental cultures, particularly the Italian. Repeatedly, crucial innovations in English letters developed resources originating from Italy—such as the sonnet of Petrarch, the epic of Ludovico Ariosto, the pastoral of Jacopo Sannazzaro, the canzone, and blank verse—and values imported with these forms were in competition with the humanists’ ethical preoccupations. Social ideals of wit, many-sidedness, and sprezzatura (accomplishment mixed with unaffectedness) were imbibed from Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano, translated as The Courtyer by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561, and Elizabethan court poetry is steeped in Castiglione’s aristocratic Neoplatonism, his notions of universal proportion, and the love of beauty as the path to virtue. Equally significant was the welcome afforded to Niccolò Machiavelli, whose lessons were vilified publicly and absorbed in private. The Prince, written in 1513, was unavailable in English until 1640, but as early as the 1580s Gabriel Harvey, a friend of the poet Edmund Spenser, can be found enthusiastically hailing its author as the apostle of modern pragmatism. “We are much beholden to Machiavel and others,” said Francis Bacon, “that write what men do, and not what they ought to do.”

So the literary revival occurred in a society rife with tensions, uncertainties, and competing versions of order and authority, religion and status, sex and the self. The Elizabethan settlement was a compromise; the Tudor pretense that the people of England were unified in belief disguised the actual fragmentation of the old consensus under the strain of change. The new scientific knowledge proved both man’s littleness and his power to command nature; against the Calvinist idea of man’s helplessness pulled the humanist faith in his dignity, especially that conviction, derived from the reading of Seneca and so characteristic of the period, of man’s constancy and fortitude, his heroic capacity for self-determination. It was still possible for Elizabeth to hold these divergent tendencies together in a single, heterogeneousculture, but under her successors they would eventually fly apart. The philosophers speaking for the new century would be Francis Bacon, who argued for the gradual advancement of science through patient accumulation of experiments, and the skeptic Michel de Montaigne (his Essays translated from the French by John Florio [1603]), who denied that it was possible to formulate any general principles of knowledge.

Cutting across all of these was the persistence of popular habits of thought and expression. Both humanism and Puritanism set themselves against vulgar ignorance and folk tradition, but, fortunately, neither could remain aloof for long from the robustness of popular taste. Sir Philip Sidney, in England’s first Neoclassical literary treatise, The Defence of Poesie (written c. 1578–83, published 1595), candidly admitted that “the old song [i.e., ballad] of Percy and Douglas” would move his heart “more than with a trumpet,” and his Arcadia (final version published in 1593) is a representative instance of the fruitful cross-fertilization of genres in this period—the contamination of aristocratic pastoral with popular tale, the lyric with the ballad, comedy with romance, tragedy with satire, and poetry with prose. The language, too, was undergoing a rapid expansion that all classes contributed to and benefited from, sophisticated literature borrowing without shame the idioms of colloquial speech. An allusion in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606–07) to heaven peeping “through the blanket of the dark” would become a “problem” only later, when, for instance, Samuel Johnson complained in 1751 that such words provoked laughter rather than awe. Johnson’s was an age when tragic dignity implied politeness, when it was below the dignity of tragedy to mention so lowly an object as a blanket. But the Elizabethans’ ability to address themselves to several audiences simultaneously and to bring into relation opposed experiences, emphases, and worldviews invested their writing with complexity and power.

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