The Dark Renaissance
Stephen Greenblatt is the Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He earlier taught at the University of California, Berkeley. He received B. and PhD degrees from Yale, along with a second BA from the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively on Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature and culture; on Poggio Bracciolini and the recovery of Lucretius' De rerum natura; on the myth of Adam and Eve; on early modern voyages of exploration; and on literary theory. He was a founding editor of the journal Representations and serves as the general editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and the Norton Shakespeare.
To a visitor from Italy who traveled to England in 1580, the island might not have appeared, as it had to the ancient Roman poet Virgil, “wholly separated from all the world,” but it would have certainly seemed culturally strange and backward. Then, not instantly but with startling rapidity, it all changed. If four hundred years later we look back on this period as an astonishing time, it is because of what burst forth in the decades after 1580: a constellation of brilliant poets, the greatest dramatists in the English language, and, in intellectual life, the speculative and experimental daring that led to such epochal achievements as William Harvey on the circulation of the blood and Francis Bacon on scientific method. There is no single explanation for a cultural explosion of this magnitude, but, as I will argue, one remarkable figure embodies the energy that brought England, belatedly, into the creative turmoil that had been transforming the Italy for more than a century. Christopher Marlowe serves as the thread that leads us through a labyrinth of corridors, many of them dimly lit, dangerous, and shrouded with secrets, and finally into the light.