by Tamara Tubb, Research Curator, and Andrea Varney, Researcher and Writer.
Our website, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance Writers brings together a selection of British Library treasures and newly commissioned articles that shed light on the social, spiritual and supernatural settings of some the Renaissance periodâs most engaging works. The site, which initially focussed on Shakespeareâs plays, first launched in 2016 and has now been expanded with a wealth of new content on a wider range of writers and works, including Christopher Marloweâs Doctor Faustus and Edward II, Shakespeareâs sonnets, the poetry of John Donne, and Ben Jonsonâs Volpone and The Alchemist.
On the site, key literary works of the English Renaissance are explored through their cultural contexts: you can read about the real women who inspired John Websterâs The Duchess of Malfi (1623) and learn more about ground-breaking texts such as Emilia Lanierâs Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), the first feminist publication in English.
One of the central figures of the English Renaissance, Christopher Marlowe is often seen as the wild-boy of Elizabethan literature. His turbulent life and violent death have prompted many comparisons with the radical hero-villains of his plays, from the blasphemous Doctor Faustus who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for magical powers, to the love-struck King Edward II, undone by passion for his male favourites. For the first time, weâve put online an infamous note from the spy Richard Baines, making damning accusations that Marlowe was an âAtheistâ with too much love âfor Tobacco & Boiesâ. Weâll probably never know if these claims are true, but weâve digitised many other items to capture the spiritual, sexual and political worlds that shaped Marloweâs drama.
Richard Baines seems to take pleasure in characterising Marlowe as the most outrageous of atheists, Harley MS 6848, f. 85v.
Our section on Doctor Faustus shows the tension, in Marloweâs day, between thrilling belief in magic and faith that God would punish anyone who claimed supernatural powers. An article by Eric Rasmussen and Ian DeJong asks whether the play condemns Faustusâs sin or relishes his superhuman ambition. Thereâs also a treasure trove of items relating to John Dee, the real Elizabethan magician who insisted that he had holy aims but was accused of sorcery. Deeâs handwritten guide to magic, De Heptarchia Mystica (1582) records his attempts to summon angels through his medium Edward Kelley. But thereâs also a petition to James I (1604), in which Dee is forced to deny that heâs an âInvocator of Divelsâ.
John Dee claims that Prince Hagonel appeared to him with 42 ministers, represented in the manuscript by seven rows of six dots, Sloane MS 3191, f. 40v.
The section on Edward II reveals the king as a focus for centuries of heated debate about same-sex love, homophobia, duty and self-fulfilment. An illuminated manuscript, Jean de Wavrinâs Recueil des Croniques dâEngleterre (1471â1483), has a beautiful miniature painting of Edwardâs marriage to Isabella of France in 1308, but the French text beneath it betrays the kingâs love of his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Over five centuries later, Derek Jarman made his wonderfully eclectic sketchbooks for a 1991 film inspired by Marloweâs Edward II. They show Jarman making connections between the tragic medieval king and his own experiences as a gay man in Margaret Thatcherâs Britain.
The marriage of Edward II and Isabella of France, Royal MS 15 E IV, f. 295v.
Derek Jarmanâs âQueerâ Sketchbook for his film of Edward II (1991), f. 2a.
Like Marlowe, Ben Jonson didnât play by the rules. Known to his contemporaries as a braggart, a drunk and a hothead, he had multiple run-ins with the law and served several stints in prison â once even escaping execution for murder because of a legal loophole. Jonsonâs lived experiences, and his interest in the criminal underworld, are apparent in the shady characters that populate his city comedies Volpone and The Alchemist. The seamy underbelly of Jonsonâs London is explored on the website through rogue pamphlets (the Renaissance equivalent to modern tabloid newspapers and gossip columns), which expose the various scams and deceptions of contemporary criminals and confidence tricksters. A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567) is especially interesting because it includes a dictionary of criminal cant, or slang.
Dictionary of âpelting specheâ, A Caveat for Common Cursetors (1567), Sig. G3v
The confidence tricksters in The Alchemist dupe their (comically irksome and chronically unlikable) victims into âinvestingâ their money in an alchemy scam. In order to dig deeper into the scam, and understand alchemy as a serious scientific subject, weâve published online for the first time images from a beautifully illustrated medieval manuscript, The Ordinal of Alchemy (1477).
Alchemists at work in a laboratory, The Ordinall of Alchymy (1477), f. 37v
Also explored on the site are the ways in which Jonson, and other Renaissance poets such as Donne and Shakespeare, adapted literary conventions in order to create their own distinct styles. Volpone is a fusion of classical mythology, medieval morality and original Jonsonian comedic flair, which, when combined, created an innovative new theatrical form. Volpone borrows from works such as Aesopâs Fables, of which Caxtonâs first English edition (1484) is digitised on site, as well as medieval plays rooted in religious beliefs, such as Everyman, in which vice and virtue go head to head for the audienceâs moral benefit.
The fable of âthe raven and the foxâ, in Aesopâs Fables printed by William Caxton (1484), f. xxxviii
The rich collection of sources relating to John Donne reveals how his poems were changed by the different forms in which they were first read. His racy âElegy: To his Mistress Going to Bedâ becomes all the more enticing when we know that it was banned from the first print edition of 1633, but included in private anthologies like the Newcastle Manuscript. At the same time, print seems to open up new playful possibilities for one of Donneâs most famous poems. In her analysis of âThe Fleaâ, Aviva Dautch suggests how the third line, âMe it suck'd firstâ, is altered when the printed long âsâ looks exactly like an âfâ.
âThe Fleaâ as it was first printed in 1633, with the long âsâ looking like an âfâ, G.11415, p. 230.
The section surrounding John Websterâs blood-soaked tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, invites you to examine the role of women in Renaissance culture. Dympna Callaghanâs article âThe Duchess of Malfi and Renaissance womenâ places Webster's character in the context of contemporary drama, politics, and discourses about widows and female sexuality. Items connected to Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I and their close relation Lady Arbella Stuart present context, and contemporaneous inspiration, for the character of the Duchess - a powerful woman in her own right who nevertheless struggled to have it all: love, family and a career.
The Duchess of Malfi section also includes original early modern texts on werewolves, shape shifting and the supernatural.
Werewolf pamphlet: The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, (1590).
The Renaissance Writers phase is the latest to be added to the broader Discovering Literature website, which will continue to expand in the near future to include literature from Beowulf to the present day.