Renaissance British Literature

Our period (1500-1660) really begins with the coronation in 1485 of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch. Its historical midpoint is the death in 1603 of Queen Elizabeth I, who was the last of the Tudors and who had ruled England for nearly five decades; and the ascension to the throne of James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. Our period ends with the restoration of Charles II (James’s grandson) to the throne after an eleven-year period (1649-1660) of republican rule. And during all of this, five generations of English writers, male and female, were very busy indeed. In this survey course, we are faced with a real embarrassment of riches such that the problem is not which writers to include but which writers to leave out. To partially redress this problem, pairs of students will be reporting on a writer not on the syllabus. In addition, individual students will be investigating and reporting on (at midterm time) a non-literary aspect of our period: clothing, money, medicine . . .

We will start with Sir Saint Thomas More’s Utopia, a wonderful introduction to some of the concerns of our period. We will probably end with John Milton’s Paradise Lost, although, if enough students in the class have already read that magnificent poem, we may forego it and add in other authors from that embarrassment of riches mentioned above. Between the beginning and ending of the semester, then, we will read a still-relevant piece of early literary criticism (Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defense of Poesy), several wonderful lyric poets (e.g., sonnets by Sidney, Edmund Spenser, and Shakespeare; secular and religious poetry by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, and George Herbert), parts of one of the greatest long poems in English (Spenser’s The Faerie Queene), and some fascinating prose (e.g., selections from John Lyly’s Euphues, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and Thomas Brown’s oxymoronically titled Religio Medici [“The Religion of a Doctor”]).

Course requirements: My usual mix of letters to the class (and a portfolio at the end of the semester), three essays (one on sixteenth-century poetry, one on seventeenth-century poetry, and a synoptic essay (or an essay on Paradise Lost if we wind up reading that poem), a midterm report on an aspect of early modern culture, a collaborative presentation (in pairs) on an author not on the syllabus, and a final examination.

Truth in advertising: we will not be reading any early modern plays, as drama is not included in the catalog description for this course.

ADDENDUM: The catalog description has changed between the last time that I taught this course and this time. The course now includes drama. So, instead of Paradise Lost, we will be reading Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, a play by Shakespeare (either Twelfth Night or Othello), Jonson’s Volpone, and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.