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The Elizabethan Renaissance and Shakespeare. The Renaissance.

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The renaissance
The Renaissance

  • During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and her successor James 1 (1603-1625), England saw a flowering of its culture with the development of the printing press and the rise of the middle class. The Renaissance also witnessed a revival of scholarship and science and an amalgamation of foreign words and phrases into English, resulting in a net gain of nearly 12,000 new words. Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare and others pushed the language to its limits, and ultimately what we now call modern English.

Elements of the elizabethan renaissance
Elements of the Elizabethan Renaissance

  • Geographical Expansion/Travel

  • Interest in Scholarship

  • Classical Interest in Greek and Roman Culture

  • Interest in Human Behavior

  • Interest in Science/Magic

  • Interest in Technology

  • Concept of Honor

  • Human Frailties Revealed in Nobility

  • Superiority of Intellect

  • Military Technology

The universe an elizabethan view
The Universe – An Elizabethan View

  • Elizabethans believed in an absolutely ordered universe in which all things could be clearly ranked in order of superiority. This “common sense” view corresponded with their religious beliefs, political system, and limited scientific understanding. General Being could be divided and ranked as shown:

  • GOD


  • MAN





The universe an elizabethan view1
The Universe – An Elizabethan View

  • Within these individual categories, further subdivisions could also be made. For example, the sun was the superior planet, the lion the highest animal, gold the chief metal, and men were superior to women. “Man” could be subdivided and ranked as shown, and each subdivision could be further subdivided.







Shakespeare and his times
Shakespeare and his Times

  • William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, England during the English Renaissance of 1500-1650, a period of vast and rapid change throughout Europe. The average person’s view of the universe, of God and the relationship of God and humanity, of the Church and the role of religion in everyday life, of the government and the rights and obligations of the monarchy were all ideas that were evolving. Much of the philosophical, political, and economic transformation in England was due to the growing number of large cities , particularly in the port areas; a shift from feudalism to nationalism that allowed Elizabethan men to develop their own heroic qualities and gentlemanly characteristics; and a break with the power of the Roman Catholic Church that, in turn, allowed for the secularization of education and the arts.

Shakespeare and his times1
Shakespeare and his Times

However, in spite of the changes in England, many social conventions persisted.

  • Marriages were arranged, usually for wealth;

  • Women had a lower social status than men;

  • Social position was a natural consequence of birth;

  • There were a proper order within all things. People were concerned with the order of things and believed that in life there was a “great chain of being.” When everything was in its proper position, there was harmony. When the order was broken, everything was upset and everyone suffered;

  • The Crusades and explorations of Columbus, etc., exposed the relative isolated English to races they did not know exactly how to interact with.

    While a large part of William Shakespeare’s life would mirror many middle-class Englishmen in the late 1500s, Shakespeare’s life as an actor, director, and writer in the theater districts of London makes him one of literary history’s most famous men. Shakespeare is responsible for 37 plays and hundreds of poems in his short 20-year writing career.

The elizabethan stage and the globe theatre
The Elizabethan stage and the Globe Theatre

When Shakespeare wrote his more than thirty plays in London during the second half of the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I was the ruling monarch, and England experienced a time of great prosperity and wealth. Theater was an integral part of life at Court. Shakespeare’s theater company frequently performed at court, and it is very likely that many of Shakespeare’s plays were attended by the monarch and other members of the royal family.

In 1599, Shakespeare designed and became the co-founder of the Globe Theatre, an impressive and innovative amphitheater located on the South Bank of the Thames River. The Globe Theatre was an octagonal structure, allowing for superior acoustic quality during stage performances. It seated up to 3,000 spectators. The Globe Theatre was a unique space, as it allowed people from different social classes to attend plays and socialize. Ticket prices ranged from very cheap to expensive, allowing the poor and rich people alike to enjoy the play. In the 1990s, a faithful reconstruction, of the Globe Theatre, which had burned down in 1613, was completed close to the site of Shakespeare’s original. The reconstructed Globe serves as a place of entertainment, art, and education.

Shakespeare s plays
Shakespeare’s Plays

Shakespeare’s plays are generally categorized in one of the three areas: tragedies, comedies, and histories. While his plays follow a five-act format, the dramatic structure of each type of play differs slightly. Because Othello is a tragedy, we will focus on the dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

If a person were to read Shakespeare’s works in their entirety, he or she would notice that they all revolve around one common theme: disorder. In each of Shakespeare’s plays, one must consider how disorder is represented in that play, how order is restored over the course of the events, and what the effect of this new order is. As is typical in a five-act play, the action moves from the exposition (usually used to establish that at one point in the play’s events there was a social order), through rising action, conflict, and the climax of the play, through the falling action and resolution. However, the resolution of Shakespeare’s tragedies is different from the celebratory atmosphere that signals the end of his comedies. In a tragedy, the play ends with the death of the main character, who has spent the entire play trying to gain control of the conflict that he himself has created. The character who delivers the last line in a Shakespearean tragedy is the person who will restore the shattered order.

Features of shakespeare s use of language
Features of Shakespeare’s Use of Language

  • blank verse

    Shakespeare’s essential pattern in his plays is BLANK VERSE (unrhymed iambic pentameter).

    Therefore, whenever a reader notices a change in this pattern (a change in rhythm from iambic to trochaic, a shift in meter from pentameter to tetrameter, or a shift from poetry to prose) there is a reason for the change.

    With the change, Shakespeare is creating a mood, establishing character…something.

    Be aware of shifts in language like this. For example:

    1. Othello’s terse lines as jealousy consumes him (specifically in Act Three)

    2. Iago’s use of varied rhyme and rhythm in his soliloquies (Act II, scene I, 295-321);

    3. Desdemona’s song as she realizes she is going to die (Act IV, scene iii).

The tragic hero
The Tragic Hero

  • The tragic hero, according to Aristotle, was a man (god, demi-god, hero, high-ranking official) who rose to a high position and then fell from that high position – usually to utter death and desolation. Two forces seem equally powerful in classical tragedy, the tragic hero’s tragic flaw (or hamartia), and fate.

  • Some tragic heroes clearly bring about their own downfall, as in the case of Creon in Antigone whose downfall is due to his hubris (excessive pride) – he believes his Law holds precedence over the gods’ sense of Right.

  • Other tragic heroes seem more to be pawns of Fate, like Oedipus, who has done everything in his power (as had his parents before him) to prevent the fatal prophesy from coming to pass that he would murder his father and marry his mother. It is in the very act of trying to avoid destiny that the prophesy is fulfilled.

  • By the Renaissance, however, people generally felt themselves to be less pawns of fate and more in control of their own destinies. The Elizabethan tragic hero, therefore, is much more often responsible for his own downfall. This “waste of human potential,” as it were, seems to be much more tragic to the Elizabethans than the vagaries of fate.

Common traits of the elizabethan tragic hero
Common Traits of the Elizabethan Tragic Hero

  • A member of the power class by birth, conquest or usurpation.

  • A more fully realized human being than others; heightened powers and destiny.

  • A character whose fate is a combination of what others do and what he or she chooses to do.

  • Strong individualist, sometimes to the point of extremism.

  • Representative of universal humankind.

  • Intelligent and sensitive.

  • Learns through suffering.

  • Isolated

    • The Protagonist’s life changes from happiness to misery because of a mistaken act brought about by a Tragic Flaw, most commonly hubris or pride (a self-confidence and absorption which leads the character to disregard a divine warning or violate a moral law).