Medieval Renaissance Middle Ages
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Published: Thu, 18 Jun 2015
There are many differences in the beliefs and values between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages was a time of great suffering, including famine and widespread disease. The Renaissance, however, was a revival of art, learning, and literature. Their views of the purpose of life in the present world and man’s place in the world were, perhaps, the greatest contrast. However, their views on politics, religion, and education were very different as well.
The purpose of life and man’s place in the world was viewed differently during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, also known as “The Age of Faith,” man’s purpose was to serve God. Looking upon life as a journey is prevalent during this era. The focus of life was on the afterlife, primarily because there were no guarantees in the present life. The life of highest value was the contemplative life, one devoted to God. The passive virtues such as compassion, suffering, and humility were highly regarded. God was the center of man’s world during the Middle Ages. On the Great Chain of Being, man was below God and the angels and above the animals, plants, and inanimate objects.
It is amazing how aspects of society can and will change so significantly over the course of a few hundred years. Between the times of the Medieval era and the Renaissance, one can note numerous significant changes, mainly those pertaining to religion and art, and specifically, drama. In Medieval times, people seemed to rely mainly on the church and God for their entertainment purposes; whereas during the Renaissance, the focus was more secular: humans and life on earth. In general, ideals and subjects evolved from unquestionable Church dogma (and therefore very safe subject matter) to ideas that focused on the questions of humanity (and therefore creating an unstable and unsettling universe.) The evolution from the Medieval dogma to the humanistic focus of the Renaissance is apparent through the dramatic texts of the time. Although these two eras differ in many other ways, the most illustrated differences deal with the realm of drama, starting with the Medieval Cycle dramas and culminating in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Drama noticeably shifted from religious awe to classical reason between the Medieval era and the Renaissance. During the Middle Ages, drama aimed mainly at making advancements in the church. Thus, the Cycle Dramas or English Passion Plays performed with the permission and help of the church. The belief is that the church clergy probably wrote the short stories or playlets and then gave them to the Guilds for their performance in theaters. Although the appearance of the Cycle Dramas seems unimaginative and commonplace at a first glance, there are some striking innovations in terms of furthering a dramatic structure. This is the first time we see the use of a double plot in which the honored and revered story is compared to a similar situation but of a base (and most times, immoral) story. A perfect example of this is in The Second Shepard’s Play where Mak and Mak’s wife, Gill, imitate the glorious scene of Christ’s birth in the manger by putting the stolen lamb in a basket and pretending it is a baby. Almost every Cycle Drama has a similar structure, and the dramas that came after the Cycle Dramas continue to use this structure. We can see the double plot/sub plot structure becoming more and more significant and taking on more importance in plays such as Gorboduc, The Spanish Tragedy, most of Shakespeare’s works, and ultimately in King Lear.
As the Medieval era ends and the Renaissance emerges we also see a shift in the attitude towards “evil.” Through the texts of the English Passion Plays we can see that the attitude is playful and comic when the subject matter is the Devil or something equally as wicked. The possibility of questioning religion, faith, and humanity has not yet entered the picture. As soon as the possibility emerges, the safe and secure world of absolutes is violently thrashed. We see the possibilities emerge in Everyman when Death comes before Everyman has a chance to redeem himself. We see it again with more force in Gorboduc when the King cannot restore his kingdom from his sons. Another great example is in Marlowe’s The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus where Faustus has the opportunity to redeem himself, but does not, and “evil” conquers all. We see the culmination of the destroyed safety of the Medieval world in Shakespeare’s plays including Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. Shakespeare especially dominates this subject matter because of historic events in his lifetime. Because of political strife between the Catholics and Protestants, and to avoid conflict, Queen Elizabeth forbid the subject matter of religion to enter into any play, and thus Shakespeare very craftily described worlds in his plays that related to religion, but had none as specific as Christianity. With these circumstances he was able to open the door to a type of thought not used since the Greek age. In his play, King Lear, Shakespeare describes a world in which “the gods are just, and of our pleasant vice make instruments to plague us.” In other words, the gods are just but cruel. And thus, dramatic focus had changed from the security of religious dogma in the Medieval era to a more humanistic, questioning and circumstantial view of the world in the Renaissance.
The steadfast, secure world of the Medieval age was at an end.
“Then it all crashes down and you break your crown..”
In King Lear, we see the evolution of thought from the Medieval to the Renaissance played out for us onstage. The safe, secure world of Britain we glimpse at the beginning (not unlike the Medieval world) is a hoax and King Lear is the largest proponent of it. Lear must go through the process of learning to “see” the truth of the world around him, a world that is full of questions and not so many answers-in other words, a Renaissance world.
When King Lear gives up his kingdom to his daughters, he is quick to dismiss any truth not to his liking. He is convinced that the world is an absolute, that he has absolute power and that he will never lose it. He has no need to listen to anything but flattery. And it all goes downhill for King Lear because he gives his kingdom to his dishonest daughters Regan and Goneril who are willing to flatter through forked tongues. Lear, in a fit of rage, disowns his honest daughter Cordelia for telling him a plain truth. He loses everything, including his power, money, family, and life.
King Lear’s reign ends because of his foolishness and his corrupt daughters deceit. His once mighty grip upon his kingdom is now nullified and he’s just left with just a memory of his rule. People still regarded him the king, however he has no money and no power. In Act IV, Scene 6, we see Lear dressed in wild berries and donning a crown made from weeds — Lear has begun to see clearly and still believes himself to be a King, but, more realistically, a King of nothing.
Lear’s life ends tragically without any kind of redemption of the Medieval sense. We can see that Shakespeare has completely opened up the curtain to reveal a shaky and unstable world where there is no God and possibly no gods either to remedy the situation. A Medieval audience would not have been able to handle this collapse of religious structure, but the Renaissance was ready for it.
Perhaps the greatest and most evident way in which the Medieval and Renaissance time periods differ is found in the opposing premises of philosophy, which we see through, it’s dramas. Again, the theme of progression from religious-oriented thoughts in the Middle Ages to the secular ideals of the Renaissance is evident in texts from Everyman’s spiritual journey to Christian redemption, through Lear’s possibly godless universe. The general view of people in the Middle Ages was that of putting faith in the church, with beliefs that there would be a reward in heaven for them at the end of their tired lives (Everyman). During the latter Renaissance, however, thoughts were more associated with living life on earth rather than the afterlife in heaven. The consequences of King Lear’s actions appear before death and there is no resolution to say whether or not Lear is relieved of his burden through death. New confidence in human abilities and thought was developed in drama, and there were many more inquiries pertaining to science and reason (Faustus), rather than religion as it was in the Middle Ages. Faustus is an interesting mix of a Renaissance man in a Medieval world and the collision that these two subjects make is astronomical. Also, philosophic developments during the Renaissance were made to be more practical and had more realistic applications to everyday life. The philosopher, Machiavelli, is an example of this, as he made attempts to find a balance between freedom and authority, something that was very useful in life and put no confidence in the church or God. He developed the idea that a corrupt society needs to find a strong leader(who is not necessarily moral) to govern so that the people can learn to be capable of self-government. This was a practical idea and applicable to everyday life although not necessarily a popular idea. He also developed the classic archetype of the Machiavel, which we see in almost every dramatic text from The Spanish Tragedy on.
The ultimate changing theme as is evident in the dramatic literature during the progression from the Medieval to Renaissance eras was that of religious-based ideals to ideals that were humanistic and questioning in nature. People turned from putting all their faith in religion and the afterlife, and began focusing more specifically on problems concerning everyday life. As seen in the English Passion Plays and Everyman the focus of Medieval drama is specifically on biblical topics, especially redemption and the journey of a religious nature, whereas the texts of the Renaissance describe situations of governmental disputes, issues of pride, truthfulness, and many other humanistic attributes of life. The focus has clearly shifted from the religious to the secular.
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