Free Essay on Renaissance Humanism in Shakespeare's Plays

Published: 2022-12-01
Free Essay on Renaissance Humanism in Shakespeare's Plays
Type of paper:  Term paper
Categories:  Shakespeare World literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1738 words
15 min read

Renaissance humanism was a significant period where a large amount of focus was put on human experiences as well as the optimistic attitude concerning what individuals understood and believed about themselves. The movement quickly spread across England mostly because there were many prominent works of artists and architects along with it. One of the most influential English writers whose works significantly characterize Renaissance humanism is William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare has composed a lot of compelling plays that have been performed in several of his theaters such as the Globe Theatre. One of his specific plays is "King Lear," which is largely considered as Shakespeare's most popular tragic play and is believed to have been compiled during the early 1600s at the end of Queen Elizabeth 1 reign and the rise of King James 1. However, the primary point of discussion of this essay is to reflect on how the "King Lear" play by Shakespeare represents Renaissance humanism and culture based mainly on the story's main characters and thematic motifs. The first section of the paper will primarily focus on the reflection of Renaissance Humanism in "King Lear" while the other section will offer a critical description of how western culture specifically Europe evolved from the middle age into the Renaissance. Ideally, the context of Shakespeare's works is central to comprehensively understanding the concept of humanism. Thus, Shakespeare's play "King Lear" influences people to explore humanity for life because he efficiently discusses the theme motifs such as family relationships, vision, love, and aging in the play.

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Part One

The tragic play "King Lear" was created during the Renaissance movement, which was a period of transition from the power of God to focusing on a more individual approach to life or power. The play begins with the elderly king of Britain namely King Lear who decides to retire and share his kingdom with his three daughters Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. However, before dividing his Kingdom King Lear requests his daughters to demonstrate the depth of their love for him. Two of his oldest daughters Goneril and Regan both genuinely express their love for him, but the youngest daughter Cordelia takes a different turn and claims that words would not be adequate to convey the real depth of her love to the father. In essence, the Renaissance was a rebirth movement that provided many scholars with an opportunity to study civilization and humanity, which in turn resulted in change and development in their society. Shakespeare's key ideas in all his plays especially the tragic play "King Lear" reflects on the Renaissance humanism and culture through its plot, themes, and characters who exhibit both the ideas and the values of Renaissance.

The Renaissance brought about individualism and gave people power of determining their future instead of having it being decided by individuals on a higher level. A significant example of this in the play is portrayed through the character of Edmund, who is not the real son of Gloucester whose birth implies that his brother, Edgar will be the heir of their father's territory. In the beginning, Edmund discards the idea concerning his birth that would be used to determine his position, and this prompts him to apply his intelligences to acquire the land. Through prayer, Edmund isn't requesting for understanding or guidance, but rather he is declaring his beliefs and asking the gods to concur with him. Edmund ends his prayer by stating that "Now, gods stand up for bastards" typically emphasizing on his faith. Just like the Renaissance characters, Edmund doesn't ask for help from the gods mainly because they possess the power to transform their fate. In an attempt to evict his brother Edgar, Edmund manages to convince Gloucester through a letter that Edgar plots to kill him and at the same time he informs Edgar that Regan, her husband Cornwall, and Gloucester are after him. Edmund says to Edgar that "Fly brother, farewell," demonstrating not only his intellect and his capability to confuse those who hamper with his destined vision to be the heir of their father's land, but also depicts his heartlessness. Therefore, when the Renaissance characters portray selfishness as a result of their individualism, they also have the power to control the lives of the good characters since they can decide on their fates and use their wits to accomplish their goals.

From the beginning of the story, Cordelia is distinguished from others due to her excellent characters. Although she loved her father, she refuses to speak out and tell a lie unlike her two sisters Regan and Goneril who praises their father with the primary intent of acquiring his kingdom and the land. These two openly desires to enhance their power and wealth, and thus they reflect on the Renaissance humanism because they act for their self-interested wishes. Later on in the play, the daughters are privileged to inherit their father's territory and kingdom, giving them the chance to have power and exhibiting their Renaissance characters by focusing both on individualism and gaining power through their actions. By maintaining her integrity towards her father, Cordelia also reveals her individualism. Although they all depict individualism in this particular scene, she is somehow separated from the rest through her reaction when asked to explain her love for King Lear. She confidently responds that "Why do my sisters have husbands if at all they declare to love you?" This is, however, a way of trying to convince his father not to fall into the tricks of both Regan and Goneril since they are lying when by claiming they could not commit their love to him fully and yet they have husbands.

Overall, the play through its central theme motifs like family relations, aging, order, and vision mainly emphasized by the main characters significantly reflects on the Renaissance humanism and culture. The tragedy of King Lear takes place when Lear banishes and renounces the only truthful and loving daughter, Cordelia and is left at the mercy of the other two ruthless daughters and he ultimately dies of sorrow after learning the death of Cordelia.

Part Two

Western civilization essentially began in Europe during the Roman Empire and the Medieval Western Christendom that evolved from the Middle Ages and led to transformative episodes like the Renaissance movement. The Middle Ages was time between the 5th and 16th centuries, which was broadly characterized by the nobility and peasants or in other words, life was dictated by the amount of money you owned. The Renaissance, on the other hand, was a European social-cultural movement from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries that started with the fall of the middle ages in Europe and was characterized by a gradual reform in education, art, religion, economy and social hierarchy. The primary focus of the Renaissance was on humanism and humanistic, defined as the belief that humanity or human requirements and value are more essential as compared to religious beliefs. The Renaissance is a renowned period for its magnificent art because this was the age of geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

One prominent transformation in Western culture from the middle age into the Renaissance is the work of art. While the middle age mainly practiced the Gothic form of architecture that incorporated beautiful stonework, woodwork, and ornamental gables, the Renaissance artistic work was characterized by a more classical sort of art. The Renaissance artists had a well-developed sense of perspective and the two-dimensional effects and predominantly depicted human beauty and religion in their work. Regarding literature, the evolvement of the printing press was a significant cultural accomplishment of the Renaissance, which substantially motivated the writers to compose their work in the local language that they wrote earlier on during the middle age era in Latin and Greek languages. Besides, the work of the Renaissance authors enormously portrayed human specifically humanism. Due to the ideal of humanism that came about during the age of the Renaissance, the issue of religion was hugely impacted as many vices were introduced to the system resulting in its downfall. In the middle ages, the church was powerful and strongly influenced the lives of individuals. The presence of social hierarchy was also a noticeable transformation during the Renaissance movement where many people were identified through their social status. At the top of hierarchy were the nobles who had inherited their title and wealth from their monarchs throughout the middle ages. Trade during the Renaissance also intensified as a result of the increase in disposable incomes and the high demand for services in Italy.


It is apparent that the tragic play "King Lear" by Shakespeare was composed during the period of transformation and most of the characters exhibit the idea of Renaissance humanism. Throughout the history of Europe, the Renaissance humanism was a defining moment characterized by the cultural re-birth that took place between the fourteenth and seventeenth century. Typically, this movement primarily involved the transformation from the medieval or the middle age movement, which mainly concentrated on god and faith, to a more personalized approach to life. Thus, the context of the play is very important in understanding humanism, which effectively explored themes such as family relations, love, aging, and vision that enormously influenced the main characters to explore human for their lives.

Overall, the Middle Ages is largely perceived by most historians as a period of ignorance, where no form of any progressions took place. However, the Renaissance resulted in the rebirth of education, religion and other advancements. It was also a great moment of creativity in literature, architecture, and art and as a result the movement is also considered as a critical bridge between the middle age and the modern age in Europe. Typically, humanism was a crucial aspect during the Renaissance that led to church, which was the center of life for many individuals to lose its power and wealth and most people could now think and follow ideals independently.


Artz, Frederick Binkerd. Renaissance Humanism, 1300-1550. Kent State University Press, 1966.Biscoglio, Frances. "Invocations to the Gods in King Lear." Shakespeare Newsletter 51 (2015): 13-18.

Frye, Northrop. "King Lear. The Tragedy of Isolation." Shakespeare: King Lear. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Macmillan (1969): 265-69.

Malanima, Paolo. "Italy in the Renaissance: a leading economy in the European context, 1350-1550." The Economic History Review 71, no. 1 (2018): 3-30.

Nimavat, Sunita. "Renaissance Humanism in Shakespeare's plays."Ijrar Print (2016): 47-49

Sinfield, Alan. "Grudin, Robert. Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety (Book Review)." Comparative Literature 33 (1981): 384.

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