English Renaissance Period Literature: Characteristics & Themes


The term Renaissance means “Rebirth”.  The movement had its origin in Italy and it gradually spread throughout Europe. The movement had significant influence over the English Literature.

After the end of the War of the Roses (1453-87), Tudor Dynasty came to power in England. Henry VIII was the ruler of English from 1509-1547. He desired to annul his first marriage as he had no heir from his wife.

However, polygamy was prohibited under the rule of the Catholic Church. Thus he fell into conflict with the Church.

He was even excommunicated by Church but he did not pay heed to it. To fulfil his desire he, for the first time in the History of England, ended the rule of the Catholic Church and established himself as both the head of the state as well as of the Church.

This step of his influenced every aspect of English including life, culture, literature, thoughts etc from that time onward.


  1. MARTIN LUTHER: Protestantism originated with Luther’s 95 Theses in Wittenberg in 1517. Later it became the official national religion of England.
  2. CHARLES DARWIN: His work On the Origin of Species (1859) undermined the religious and biblical beliefs and led to the emergence of new ideas that challenged the old beliefs.
  3. ERASMUS: He challenged the narrowness of the Catholic Church. He criticised the unnecessary rituals, the sale of pardon paper etc. He wished to return to the values of the early Church. In order to do so, he produced a Greek edition of Scriptures in place of existing Latin one.
  4. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: He travelled in search of the Indies in 1492 and landed first in the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola and was credited with having discovered the Americas. This discovery also opened the eyes of the world.
  5. COPERNICUS AND GALILEO: They established and postulated scientifically that Earth is not the centre of the universe as believed by the people.


Reforms in the Institutions

In earlier times, literature was dominated by the spirit of religion and blind faith. However, in the Renaissance Age, institutions were questioned and re-evaluated. Renaissance broadened and took the cognitive level of the human mind to new heights.

Dominance of Reason

In the Renaissance age, it was the reason instead of the religion that governed human behaviour. The man was free to make the use of his power.

Now reason dominated all the spheres of life that decreased the influence of religion on the people. Most of the blind faiths and practices were given up.

Man-Centred Society

Earlier religion was the centre of interest. Hence the main concern of literature was to deal with the religion directly or indirectly. In the Renaissance age, the focus shifted from religion to man and man became the centre of interest.

Development of Science

The age was accompanied by the birth of modern science, mathematics, astronomy etc. In the 4th decade of the 16th century, Copernicus replaced Aristotle’s system with the sun, instead of the earth at the centre of the universe.

In astronomy, Harvey discovered circulation of blood in 1628. In addition to this, there was the use of clocks, telescopes, thermometers, compasses, microscopes etc. Hence there was considerable development in the scientific field.

Era of Renowned Names

The literature of the English Renaissance contains some of the greatest names in all world literature:

  • Dramatists: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, and Jonson.
  • Poets: Sidney, Spenser, Donne, and Milton.
  • Prose Writers: Bacon, Nashe, Raleigh, Browne, and Hooker.
  • Authorised Version of the Bible was published in 1611.


The Counter-reformation also took birth in response to reformation soon after the fame of the later touched skies. It began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563).

The primary objective of this movement was to reform the Christian Catholic Church and counter the influence of Protestantism.