Renaissance, Reformation and Shakespeare’s Realism
“Shakespeare and Dante divide the modern world between them”, wrote T. S. Eliot in 1929; “there is no third”.1 The “modern world” of European poetry is now about a thousand years old, and we have seen that its first four hundred years were dominated by a conception of the self deriving ultimately from Plato, Virgil, Paul and Augustine, but culminating in Dante. The philosophical system of Aquinas, it is true, offered a resistance and an alternative to this conception strong enough to appeal even to Dante. In the two hundred and fifty years between the death of Ockham and the heyday of Bacon, however, scholasticism was increasingly eroded from without, especially by the Neoplatonist humanists from Pico and Ficino to Erasmus and More, while calcifying from within into the rigid and brittle structure pulverised in the seventeenth century by the new science and philosophy.2 In the same way the structures and practices of the Church, having long ago assimilated and discounted the realist revival of St Francis and the mildly Augustinian and Pauline reforms of St Dominic, were now threatened by the more radical Augustinianism of Luther.3 As for the poets, the instinctive, reactive and somewhat tentative realism of Petrarch, Boccaccio and Chaucer evolved during the same period into the romantic picaresque of Ariosto, Tasso, Lope de Vega and Spenser, while the contrasting, increasingly realist humanisms of Rabelais, Montaigne and Cervantes were still palpably struggling with the romantic legacy in its various aspects: philosophical utopia and the monster story, the “inner” world of autobiography, the chanson de geste.
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