Key Renaissance writers were John Milton, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, and Ben Jonson. The invention of the printing press enabled writers to publish their works. Because of the printing press, literacy also increased. With more readers, there was a greater demand for literature. English literature was positive and forward thinking. English writers were 'trendsetters.' There was a whole world to discover and conquer. Poetry and drama were the most popular types of writing in English Literature during the Renaissance. In fact, poetry was often set to music. One of the greatest poetic achievements was John Milton's Paradise Lost. Characteristics of Renaissance poetry were 'wit,' 'beauty,' and 'truth.' Poets used repetition to emphasize their themes.
Thomas More “Utopia”
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away was the commonwealth of Utopia. Well, almost. Arguably one of the first books to invent an imaginary world, Thomas More's Utopia describes the travels of one man, Raphael Hythloday, to an undiscovered island that he considers to be the best country on earth. Fed up with the greed and corruption he sees in European countries, he goes around explaining (to whomever will listen) how amazing these Utopians are. What makes them so super? Try zero-poverty, six-hour work days, and almost-no-wars-ever on for size. Utopia has been confusing its readers since it was written in 1516, and not only because it was written in Latin (which was actually not that unusual), but also because a lot of what it describes was—and still is—pretty controversial and can seem incredibly modern: more rights for women, no private property... you get the idea. It was also written kind of "backward:" More wrote the first part after he wrote the second part. While we'll never know exactly what its author, Thomas More, intended, we do know that he was a major figure in the English Renaissance who cared deeply about the moral and political responsibilities of individuals (kind of a radical, new Renaissance concept itself). Utopia is where we get the English words "utopia" and "utopian," both of which describe an imaginary or unreal place very different from reality and having all the best qualities we'd like the real world to have.
Thomas More practically invented this utopian genre by mixing together a whole bunch of other ones: philosophical dialogue , fantasy, travel stories, adventure. So why did he do this? Well, that's part of the mystery. In Greek, Utopia means either "no-place" or "good-place" so More might be claiming that good things are essentially impossible... not the world's biggest optimist. Or he might be suggesting that imagining a perfect place is a waste of time since perfect places don't actually exist. It's hard to say—but that's part of the fun. In fact, by being ambiguous, More is placing a lot of responsibility on his readers to think through these kinds of BIG QUESTIONS. After all, responsibility is what he's all about. Who is responsible for making the world better? How? Can just one person make a difference? More knew a lot about these BIG QUESTIONS because he was a very close advisor and friend to the King of England, Henry VIII. The one with six wives who killed and/or divorced four of them. So, as you can imagine, thinking about how one person can influence the moral and political well-being of a country would have been a part of More's day-to-day job. And considering that after More wrote Utopia, Henry VIII ended up breaking with the Pope, starting his own Christian church, and executing poor Thomas More for his lack of support, you can really get the idea that this book explores questions that would have been—and still are—a matter of life and death.
In Book 1, Thomas More (not only the author, but also a main character) arrives in Antwerp on a business trip where he runs into an old friend, Peter Giles and meets a new friend, Raphael Hythloday.
Hythloday is a great traveller and has all sorts of controversial opinions, so the three of them head over to Giles's garden to have an intense chat about whether or not it's possible for philosophy to influence politics. Giles and More say it totally is, whereas Hythloday insists that politics and philosophy are irreconcilable. He ends by just randomly mentioning this place called Utopia , and Giles and More beg him to say more. After taking a little lunch break, our eager trio returns in Book 2 to chat about Utopia. Hythloday essentially describes, topic-by-topic, various characteristics of this new island: geography, history, cities, houses, government, farming, other jobs, down time, lack of money, outfits, families and households, lack of private property, food, dining, conversation, travel, trade, wealth, education, religion, visitors, slavery, laws, war, holidays…. Once he finishes, Hythloday says that he thinks the island is the absolute best, but More and Giles seem less-than-convinced. More ends by saying that he has many remaining questions, but they can wait for Hythloday to chill out.
Hythloday can't get no satisfaction from the current state affairs in Europe.The more we get to know the protagonist of Utopia, the clearer it is that he just isn't happy with how things are going down in his home continent: corruption, poverty, inequality, and violence abound. And while he finds temporary relief in the radically different society of this unknown island called Utopia, it just doesn't last. In fact, when he returns to Europe and realizes how few people are open to the kinds of social systems Utopia uses, things only get worse for him.
Society and Class
Utopia is not your average island for many a reason, but its social organization and hierarchies are probably the most obvious difference between there and, well, anywhere else. Often considered to be proto-Communist, Utopia depicts a society that seems to have almost no class-system, no hierarchies (aristocracy, plebs, etc.), and very rigid family structures. By imagining such a radically different conception of how people live together, More is thinking hard about whether everyone should have equal social standing or whether having some degree of social hierarchy is actually helpful. But wait, what's the answer? Don't hold your breath—More definitely doesn't give us one.
Questions About Society and Class
Are there any kinds of hierarchies in Utopia or is everyone actually equal?
What holds the community together in Utopia?
Utopia is chock full of social commentary. And when Hythloday gets to Utopia, he's pretty taken with their unorthodox way of eliminating wealth: no private property. Without private ownership, there is no such thing as wealth—or poverty, for that matter—and people just don't care about being rich. This works out well, says Hythloday, because then there's no greed; and when there's no greed, everyone is happy. Everyone except him, of course, because it reminds him of how money-driven European society really is.