General Characteristics of the Renaissance

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      Another concept derived from the classical past (though it was present in the Middle Ages too), was the literary doctrine of "imitation." Of the two senses in which the term had traditionally been used, the theoretical emphasis of Renaissance literary critics was less on the "imitation" that meant "mirroring life" and more on the "imitation" that meant "following predecessors." In contrast to our own emphasis on "originality," the goal was not to create something entirely new. To a great extent, contemporary critics believed that the great literary works expressing definitive moral values had already been written in classical antiquity.

      Theoretically, then, it was the task of the writer to translate for present readers the moral vision of the past, and they were to do this by "imitating" great works, adapting them to a Christian perspective and milieu. (Writers of the Middle Ages also practiced "imitation" in this sense, but did not have as many classical models to work from.) Of course Renaissance literary critics made it clear that such "imitation" was to be neither mechanical nor complete: writers were to capture the spirit of the originals, mastering the best models, learning from them, then using them for their own purposes. Nevertheless, despite the fact that there were a great many comments by critics about "imitation" in this sense, it was not the predominant practice of many of the greatest writers. For them, the faithful depiction of human behavior--what Shakespeare called holding the mirror up to nature--was paramount, and therefore "imitation" in the mimetic sense was more often the common practice.

      The doctrine of "imitation" of ancient authors did have one very important effect: since it recommended not only the imitation of specific classical writers, but also the imitation of classical genres, there was a revival of significant literary forms. Among the most popular that were derived from antiquity were epic and satire. Even more important were the dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy. In fact, Europe at this time experienced a golden age of theater, led by great dramatists such as Shakespeare.

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