Renaissance Beauty

Poetic beauty in the renaissance was a young, nervous concept, first exploring its place in literature and other art forms. During the reign of Elizabeth I we see the first fledgling example of a solid, canonical conception of the word ‘beauty’ as it applies to literature today, as writers and their audiences were first waking up to the ideas and concepts now associated with the word. However, their awakening was perhaps poorly timed. Multiple invasion attempts by Spain, compounded by religious unrest owing to the several regime changes over the previous century, had brewed an uneasy sense of threatened peace while simultaneously established ideas of science and culture were being overthrown by the imported values of the European Renaissance. This volatile environment, however, proved a ‘virgin soil’[1] upon which young upstart writers of the age could till their ideas, and eventually would oversee the ‘cultivation of highly artificial forms of poetry’,[2] forms that remain profoundly influential and vitally important to our understanding of the aesthetic.

Renaissance beauty first seeks to describe the effect of words on human emotion at a deep level. However, within works that today are considered masterpieces of verse and linguistic craftsmanship, we find immediate and, at times, confusing conflicts of tone. During the 1580s and 1590s, drama and the popularity of the theatre explode across Britain, thrust into the public consciousness in a way never seen before. Playwrights and their companies, no longer exclusively reserved in their art for Royalty and the very wealthy, who hitherto had been the sole patrons of these people by way of requesting court masques and other private performances, were of a sudden in immense demand by the wider populace.[3] This extreme cultural shift was accompanied by shifts in the form of the theatre and its poetics, as the recently imported sonnet form began to pervade English poetry, and latterly, writers such as Marlowe began to adopt the blank verse established by the Earl of Surrey in the 1530s.

As a bi-product of his translation of the Aeneid, Surrey had invented and started to explore the beauties of the unrhymed iambic pentameter (i.e. blank verse) which would become an engine for unprecedented revolution in poetry and theatre thereafter. The precocious band of young poets and playwrights were intellectually excited by the classics, making their ideas of beauty comparably vivid and groundbreaking. Donne’s ideas of love find their roots in the philosophy of Petrarch, while yet older influences like Ovid – particularly in Golding’s great translation –  became critical influences on Shakespeare. [4] In Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, for example, based on Musaeus’s epic,[5] references to the Odyssey, as well as host of Greek gods and goddesses, make the entire work a declaration of knowledge by its author, as well as an impassioned rendering of a Classical tale, in the contemporary style. The characters, forms and ideas of the ancient world still held a mystery that these writers sought to capture and emulate in their work.

In Doctor Faustus, we see a young writer of the deepest sophistication, the writer credited with making the ‘dramatic blank verse line a vehicle for serious poetic expression’,[6] writing exquisite verse that inspired Shakespeare and Milton. Marlowe’s language, often characterised as ‘hyperbolic’,[7] displays and flaunts his education at Cambridge and his love of the classics. The speeches of Faustus to Helena, and Mephistopheles to Faustus, constitute some of the finest examples of beautiful theatrical verse. And yet surrounding these, there are numerous scenes of a slapstick, often puerile nature, comic relief and vulgarity that off-sets and contrasts with the refinement of these speeches. Does the placing of such finely crafted islands of verse within a sea vulgarity and baseness heighten the appeal of such passages? Their rarity and resultant sense of privileged, glimpsing exclusivity, may in fact be all that is required for them to be held in a higher regard than stand-alone poems. Intriguingly, we see a very similar framing in The Tempest, where for the majority of the play Caliban appears barbarous and uncivilised, the spawn of a witch that inhabited the island before Prospero. However, in certain passages, Caliban suddenly produces sonorous, delicately crafted, highly civilized verse that seems all the more so because of its origin on stage. In this, one could argue that the use of impropriety of most kinds is a useful frame for beautiful verse, as it sets it against a backdrop of moral inadequacy, heightening its own effect on the reader or audience.

Much of the most beautiful verse in the Renaissance was written in this blank verse. The ethos of this pre-eminent Elizabethan stage verse as a style is summarised with exquisite and humorous efficiency by Coburn Freer, who states that the attitude towards the verse was that ‘as long as the ten-syllable, five-stress line keeps coming, the groundlings will be in ecstasy’.[8] While it is unlikely that there is a governing trend of phonaesthetic styling that runs through the plays of this era, there are some practices that seem to appear throughout notable works. In Faustus, for example, the soft vowel sounds of ‘O, thou art fairer than the evening’s air’ shift into the sharper sibilance of the next line, ‘Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars’,[9] which, as a linguistic construct, flows off the tongue and becomes immediately memorable in a fashion that typifies verse that enters the canon as ‘beautiful’. In The Tempest we see again this crescendo of sibilance being used in Caliban’s verse: ‘Be not afear’d, the isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’.[10]

Some aspect of beauty, as regarded by Renaissance society however, transcended religion. Contemporary Puritans avoided the theatre, and encouraged others to do the same, owing to their perception of the stage as a house of sin, a morally destitute cavern populated by doomed souls awaiting their judgement while indulging in the seven deadly sins. Milton’s works, notably Paradise Lost, possess clear compositional hallmarks derived from the Elizabethan stage, from Marlowe in particular. In Book IX of Paradise Lost, Satan’s remarkable soliloquy in lines 99-178 is almost an echo of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles. Faustus’s seemingly servile demon speaks of the true beauty of man and earth: ‘But think’st thou that heaven is such a glorious thing? I tell thee, Faustus, it is not half so fair as thou or any man that breathes on earth’[11] in a strikingly similar fashion to Milton’s Satan:

‘O Earth, how like to Heaven, if not preferred more justly, seat worthier of gods, as built with second thoughts, reforming what was old!’.[12]

The juvenile state of beauty in the Renaissance meant that unlike its later incarnations, with few exceptions, [13] it rarely became utilised for political ends. Poetry, or beautiful verse, was seen as an escape – it was otherworldly, overseen by Milton’s ‘celestial patroness’ and Donne’s Petrarchan philosophies.

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.




[1] J. W. Lever, The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London: Methuen, 1966), p. 13.

[2] Madeleine Doran, Endeavours of Art: A Study of Form in Elizabethan Drama (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1954), p. 64.

[3] The notable exception to this are the mystery and morality plays, which continue to linger in the early days of Elizabethan theatre.

[4] See ‘The Art of Precedent’ in Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 83-117.

[5] Many writers of the age were influenced by the Latin translation of the tale.

[6] Michael Payne and John Hunter ed., Renaissance Literature: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. 685.

[7] A. C. Partridge, The Language of Renaissance Poetry (London: Andre Deutsch, 1971), p. 103.

[8] Coburn Freer, The Poetics of Jacobean Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 28.

[9] Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus ed. by John Butcher (London: Longman, 1995), p.129.

[10] William Shakespeare, The Tempest ed. by Rex Gibson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 93.

[11] Marlowe, p.43.

[12] John Milton, Paradise Lost: Book IX ed. by Anna Baldwin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.20-21.

[13] For an excellent analysis of Spenser’s political motivations, see David Norbrook’s ‘The Fairie Queene and Elizabethan Politics’ in Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 97-139.


Copyright (C) The Composite Review 2016.

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