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Literatures on the British Isles: Renaissance to Restoration

Class at Faculty of Arts |



Please see the syllabi of the individual parallel classes for the details of organization in the winter term 2021.



The series of lectures focuses on the origins and development of English early modern literature (poetry, prose, drama) from approximately the late fifteenth to the end of the seventeenth century. It includes an explanation of the growth of humanism, print and theatre culture, and the religious controversies of the time. Shakespeare’s plays and those of his predecessors and successors are analysed in some detail. The latter part of the series includes the main writers of the mid- to late-seventeenth century, such as Milton and the Restoration satirists. The principal objective is not only to survey the main trends but to explain them in their historical, literary and cultural contexts.

Attendance at the lecture is not required but highly recommended, as it enables students to acquire a comprehensive perspective on the texts studied in detail in the seminars. As part of the three semester cycle of lectures Literatures on the British Isles I – III, it also contributes to an overall picture of British literature.


WEEK 1. (Helena Znojemská)

Manuscript to bookprint

Literature in medieval manuscript culture: recap. Late manuscript culture, text as commodity: scribal workshops, new manuscript formats (booklet). Late medieval literature: towards synthesis – collections, compilations, compendia. Brut; Malory's Morte d’Arthur; Lydgate; Gower; Chaucer. Caxton's early prints – thematic and generic range. Caxton as translator and editor: Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, Eneydos, Malory's Morte d’Arthur. Caxton and the idea of English literary canon.

WEEK 2. (Martin Procházka)

Humanism and Renaissance Prose

Introduction to European Humanism (Italy and Transalpine Movements). Erasmus of Rotterdam and Sir Thomas More. Utopia. The importance of translation: religious and secular. Rhetoric (George Puttenham), Euphuism (John Lyly, George Petty, William Painter) and defence of poetry against Puritan critics (Sir Philip Sydney). Beginnings of novel, pastoral novel (Sidney’s Arcadia). Book marketing. Pamphlets and pamphlet wars.

WEEK 3. (Helena Znojemská)


“Private” and “public” genres; manuscript circulation and print; literary “circles” and patronage. Hierarchy of genres. The sonnet and the epic. The sonnet: early translations, formal experiments, transformations of the Petrarchan model - Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, Spenser. The epic: classical and continental models. Translations: Surrey, Chapman. Spenser's “programmatic” works: The Shepheardes Calender, The Faerie Queene.

WEEK 4. (Soňa Nováková)

Development of English Drama and Tudor Experimentation

Origins in Christian religion (tropes, miracle, mystery plays). Allegory and the roots of comedy in morality plays (e.g. Everyman) and interludes. The heritage of Ancient Greek and Roman drama (Terence, Plautus, Seneca). Drama as part of the humanist education practice. Bridge between medieval religio-allegorical drama and the secular and realistic themes of the Elizabethan era (Henry Medwall, John Heywood, John Bale, Thomas Sackville). The first tragedy (Gorboduc). The first chronicle play (King John). The first comedy (Ralph Roister Doister). Shakespeare’s predecessors: Thomas Kyd (developing the revenge tragedy) and the University Wits (John Lyly’s court drama; Christopher Marlowe’s titanic heroes; Robert Greene and George Peele). The Elizabethan theatre: public and private theatres, acting companies, staging.

WEEK 5. (Martin Procházka)

Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Transformations of the sources: Senecan Tragedy, Tragedy of Revenge, Moralities (Titus Andronicus, Richard III). Problems of Tragedy under Christianity. New Concepts of Tragedy: love tragedy (Romeo and Juliet, Othello), tragedy of Renaissance intellect (Hamlet), tragedy of monarchy/state (Macbeth, King Lear). Tragedies in a historical setting: love tragedy (Antony and Cleopatra), tragedy of state (Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens – also tragedy of intellect).

WEEK 6. (Soňa Nováková)

Shakespearean comedy and romance

Conventions of Elizabethan comedy. Literary sources and Roman influence. Elementary typology (e.g. city comedy, romantic comedy). Shakespeare’s transformations from the Plautus inspired Comedy of Errors and the complexities of Love’s Labour’s Lost to the typical romantic comedies of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and later to the dark comedies (problem plays) as Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. Origins of comedy in fertility rituals, carnivals and crossdressing. Relating concepts of romantic and festive comedies. Romance as a dramatic genre: tragicomedy, ideas of space and time (the late plays, e.g. The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest).

WEEK 7. (Helena Znojemská)

History plays.

Holinshed's Chronicles and the genre of chronicle play in context. Fashioning history. Henry VI to Henry V: from an account of the past to an analysis of the technology of power. Richard II, Henry V and rhetoric of kingship. “I am Richard II; know ye not that?”: the history plays and English politics.

WEEK 8. (Martin Procházka)

Drama of Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors

Ben Jonson and his project of Theatre: royal authority and popular education. Court masque. Bartholomew Fair, Volpone. Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton – other versions of city comedy (The Shoemaker’s Holiday, A Chaste Maid of Cheapside), Jacobean tragedy, tragicomedy and comedy (John Webster, Philip Massinger, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher), Caroline drama (John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck).

WEEK 9. (Martin Procházka)

The House Divided: Versions of Religious Poetry and Puritan Prose

Downfall of the Traditional Cosmic Order and Metaphysical Poetry (John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw). Figurative Language and Religious Doctrine. Predestination and Other Doctrinary Roots of Puritanism. Puritan Introspection: Autobiography and Allegory (John Bunyan).

WEEK 10. (Helena Znojemská)


Classical studies and the Italian experience. Milton's Protestant theology, Civil War engagement and political writings. Areopagitica. Transformation of the epic - from Arthuriad and Adam Unparadised to Paradise Lost: epic conventions; rhetoric; politics and theology; the issue of the hero and elements of drama. Paradise Regained. Milton's dramatic pieces: Comus and Samson Agonistes.

WEEK 11. (Soňa Nováková)

Restoration Drama

Re-opening the theatres. The stage, acting, audience. Main new dramatic forms: heroic drama (couplet, blankverse, exotic, yet related to contemporary politics; John Dryden, Thomas Otway) and comedy (Restoration comedy and comedy of manners). Two generations of writers (Etherege, Wycherley; Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Congreve). Objects of satire, characterisation (types, e.g. gallant, beau, fop; strong female heroine), language, difference between the comedy of humours and the comedy of manners. The first professional woman playwright: Aphra Behn (complicating the heroic Cavalier myth; early novel).

WEEK 12. (Soňa Nováková)

Restoration Poetry

Pre-Restoration Cavalier Poetry (limitation of the emotional lyric; seduction poems, carpe diem, song in Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace). Restoration satire: anti-Puritan burlesque in Samuel Butler’s Hudibras; movement away from heroics and idealism to a more cynical attitude and mockery in the libertine poetry of Sir John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; the significance of John Dryden (dramatic/literary theory, literary satire, political allegory).


This course should introduce students to the development of early modern English poetry (especially the sonnet form) and drama (focusing in detail on the transformations of the genre of comedy: Shakespeare’s comedies, satire in Ben Jonson’s comedy of humours and the comedy of manners). Focus is on close reading of poems and plays. For a more detailed description, see the syllabi of individual parallel classes.


Basic Texts for Seminar Course

- a reader of early modern English poetry (available online on moodle, see under Course materials for the individual seminar courses)

- William Shakespeare, The Sonnets (recommended edition: Torst, Praha, 1997, or Brno: Atlantis, 2nd ed. 2005, with translation by M.Hilský); if unavailable, any scholarly edition with commentary (e.g. Penguin)

- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (recommended edition: Torst, Praha, 1999, or 2nd edition from Brno: Atlantis, with translation by M.Hilský); if unavailable, a good edition with introduction and critical commentary is e.g. Arden, New Penguin, etc.

- Ben Jonson, Volpone (e.g. in Ben Jonson’s Three Comedies, available in dept. library, or reprint in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol.1)

- William Wycherley, The Country Wife (recommended edition Penguin Classics)

Selected Secondary Literature for Seminar Course

- a selection of literary criticism - hand-outs for presentations (available from the instructor)

- Bejblík, J. Hornát, M. Lukeš, Alžbětinské divadlo: Shakespearovi současníci (Praha: Odeon, 1980)

- Herbert Weil, Jr., Discussions of Shakespeare’s Comedy (Boston: Heath, 1966)

- Jean E. Howard, “Crossdressing, the Theatre and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England“, Shakespeare Quarterly 39, Winter 1988, pp.419-440.

- Jessica Munns, “Theatrical Culture I: Politics and Theatre“, in Stephen N. Zwicker, ed., The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1650-1740 (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), pp. 82-103

Recommended Reading for the Whole Course

- J. Bate, The Genius