Top 16 Literary Works of the Renaissance

Simon Doyle

The Renaissance literary works they are framed in a very fruitful period for the West. The main and most important are Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Divine Comedy, The Prince, Utopia Y Don Quijote of La Mancha. 

By Renaissance we mean the learning stage that began in Italy and spread northward, including England, around the 16th century, and ended in the middle of the 17th century..

During this period, there was an enormous and renewed interest and study in classical antiquity. However, this era was more than a "rebirth." It was also an era of new discoveries, both geographical (exploration of the New World, that is, America) and intellectual.

Both types of discoveries led to changes of enormous importance for Western civilization. In science, for example, Copernicus (1473-1543) tried to prove that the Sun and not the Earth was at the center of the planetary system, thus radically altering the view of the cosmos that had dominated Antiquity and the Middle Ages..

In religion, Martin Luther (1483-1546) challenged and ultimately caused the division of one of the major institutions that had united Europe throughout the Middle Ages: the Catholic Church. In fact, Renaissance thinkers often thought of themselves as architects of the Modern Era..

Furthermore, certain important political changes took place during this period. Some of the noblest ideals of the time were expressed by the movement known as Humanism, which provided great ideas on how literary works should be created..

Renaissance thinkers tended to disassociate themselves from works written in the Middle Ages, a historical period that they considered very negative. According to them, the Middle Ages was established in the "middle" of two much more valuable historical processes: Antiquity and the Renaissance..

Main literary works of the Renaissance and their authors

1- Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare)

This tragedy about two young lovers is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, and together with Hamlet one of the most frequently staged. Today, the characters Romeo and Juliet are considered archetypes of young lovers.

The history of the work is part of the tradition of tragic romances from Antiquity, and was written between 1591 and 1595 and published in 1597.

Shakespeare uses a poetic dramatic structure in the play and oscillates between comedy and tragedy to increase tension.

two- Prince (Nicholas Machiavelli)

It is a book published posthumously in 1532, five years after Machiavelli's death. It is considered a fundamental work in political science, as well as an especially innovative political treatise.

It was written in Italian instead of Latin, something popular at the time since the publication of the Divine Comedy Dante and other works of Renaissance literature. And it was, and still is, conflicting with respect to mainstream Catholic doctrines.

3- Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

Written between 1599 and 1602, this Shakespearean tragedy is about Prince Hamlet and his revenge against his uncle Claudius, accused of murdering Hamlet's father.

Hamlet is the most extensive work of the English author and one of the most influential. It was also popular during Shakespeare's life and is one of the most widely performed in the history of the theater. In addition, it is one of the most cited works and critics often include it among the greatest literary works in history..

4- Utopia (Thomas More)

Island of Utopia from the work of Thomas More.

Both fiction and political work, this book was published in Latin in 1516 and tells a story centered on a fictional society living on an island. The word "utopia" comes from the Greek and means "no-place" or "nowhere".

The play was popular in its day, though it was also misunderstood. Today, the title of the book overshadowed the central story created by Moro and is used when speaking of "utopian society." In that sense, Utopia is truly important in literary history for creating the notion of parallel realities and closed societies in themselves.

5- Doctor Faustus (Christopher Marlowe)

This important Renaissance work is based on stories about Faust, a popular character in German culture. The first edition of the book is believed to be from around 1593.

The popularity of Marlowe's play is based on a myth that in one of the first performances of the play real devils appeared on stage. It is also said that some actors and viewers were upset after the appearance.

Doctor Faustus is believed to be the first dramatization of the popular legend about Faust. In addition, some fortune-tellers at the end of the century took the name Faust, which in Latin means "the favored one".

6- Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)

It tells the adventures of Don Quitoe and Sancho Panza. The first, of considerable age, has delusions, considers himself a gentleman and begins an adventure that leads him to face imaginary rivals, such as windmills..

7- essays (Michel de Montaigne)

Fragment of the book Los Ensayos. Source:: L'Exemplaire de Bordeaux Bibliothèque municipale de Bordeaux

The content of the work is based on expressing the intimate and essential nature of man, taking as an example Michel de Montaigne himself.

8- Good love book (Juan Ruiz, Archpriest of Hita)

Original fragment of the Book of Good Love. Source: Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita [Public domain]
Also known as the Archpriest's Book or Book of songs. It is considered one of the most important works of Spanish origin.

9- Summer night Dream (William Shakespeare)

Cover of one of the publications of A Midsummer Night's Dream, year 1600. Source: Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

Another iconic work by William Shakespeare, which narrates the events that occur around the relationship of Theseus and Hippolyta. A comedy where particular characters participate, such as mystical beings and Athenian nobles.

10- The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)

Cover of The Divine Comedy. Source: Fivedit [CC BY-SA (]
One of the most important writings in world literature. It is an epic that is divided into three songs, HellPurgatory Y Paradise. It touches on religious, philosophical, ethical and moral themes through a story full of mythological and historical characters.

eleven- Arthur's death (Thomas Malory)

"How Arthur, through Merlin, drew Excalibur his sword from the Lady of the Lake", illustration for The Death of Arthur (Le Morte Darthur). Source: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898)

It is an author's version of the events related to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The work describes both Thomas Malory's own events and events based on the legends.

12- Tragicomedy of Calisto and Melibea (Fernando de Rojas)

Popularly known as The matchmaker, It is a work by acts in which Calisto falls in love with Melibea, but is rejected. Because of this, Callisto resorts to an old pimp who will act as a matchmaker.. 

13- Paradise lost (John Milton)

Masterpiece of English literature. It is a biblical epic in which Satan's fall into the abyss is discussed, as well as the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the earthly paradise..

14- The guide of Tormes (Anonymous)

Possibly the work that best represents the Spanish picaresque genre. In it, a young man from very humble conditions finds himself in need of serving squires, clergymen and even the blind. His skills to kill hunger and survive mark the journey of the novel.

fifteen- The Praise of Insanity (Erasmus of Rotterdam)

Satyr essay in which a perspective of a world melted by the bleakest Middle Ages and the arrival of humanism is captured. The Church, traditions, superstitions, philosophy or corruption are some of the themes developed by the Dutch author.

16- Macbeth (William Shakespeare)

Theatrical work by the English playwright inspired by the reign of James I. Macbeth it is a tragedy where ambition for power and the shadows that exist in the court are reflected. 

Other important works of the time

  • Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel (François Rabelais)
  • Orlando furioso (Ludovico Ariosto)
  • The Fairy Queen (Edmund Spenser)
  • Richard III (William Shakespeare)

The importance of the chain of beings

Among the most important of the continuities of the Renaissance with the classical period was the concept of the chain of beings. Its main premise was that every thing in the universe had its "place" in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was represented as a vertically extended chain..

The "place" of an object depended on the relative ratio between "spirit" and "matter". The more "matter", the lower the object was. At the bottom, for example, there were various types of inanimate objects, such as metals, stones, and the four elements (earth, water, air, fire).

Higher up were various members of the vegetative class, such as trees and flowers. Then came the animals, the human beings, and lastly the angels. At the top was God.

It was believed that, in addition to the universal order, there was a universal interdependence. This was implicit in the doctrine of "correspondences", which held that different segments of the chain reflected other segments..

For example, Renaissance thinkers saw the human being as a microcosm that reflected the structure of the world as a whole: the macrocosm.

Just as the world was composed of four "elements" (earth, water, air, fire), the human body was also composed of four substances called "humors", with characteristics corresponding to the four elements. The disease, for example, occurred when there was an imbalance or "disorder" between the humors.

Thus it was also thought that the hierarchical organization of the mental faculties reflected the hierarchical order within the family, the State and the forces of nature..

When things were properly ordered, reason ruled the emotions, just as a king ruled his subjects, the father ruled the child, and the Sun ruled the planets. But when disorder was present in one kingdom, it was reflected in other kingdoms as well..

For example in King Lear Shakespeare's simultaneous disorder in family relationships and in the state is reflected in Lear's disorder of the mind (the loss of reason), as well as in the disorder of nature..

Human beings were depicted as placed between beasts and angels. Acting against human nature by not allowing reason to rule the emotions was equal to descending to the level of the beasts..

Trying to go above one's own place, as Eve did when she was tempted by Satan, leads directly to disaster. However, Renaissance writers sometimes displayed ambivalence towards such a rigidly organized universe.

However, some Renaissance writers were fascinated by going beyond the limits set by the chain of beings. An important example is the main character in the work of Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus.

Displaying the great spirit of human aspiration and the most questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faust appears to be both exalted and punished at the same time. Marlowe's drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity..


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