Sex and the Renaissance

A Comparative Analysis of Love, Sex, and Emotion Upon Renaissance Literature It would be hard to find a period in human history where sex, women, and beauty were not a highly influential topic. Over countless centuries, women have influenced religious movements, wars, famine and poverty, the arts, and a plethora of other subjects; indeed, the appeal of sex seems to have had a hand in all things we know of today. This is certainly true of the Renaissance era, as well, where sexual relations was a strong enough bond to dictate marriage, and people often married out of political strife, and mated simply to continue their heritage.

This attitude was captivated in the literature and art world, as well, with the modern man able to cite countless exemplifications of the imperativeness of the human body and sexual connotation to authors and artists’ works during the entirety of the Renaissance. Whether the topic was addressed with a serious tone, often accompanied by idolism and hyperbolized beauty, or written about with a humorous slant designed to entertain and enthrall the literate of the time, one cannot possibly respect the work of these great writers and scholars without also acknowledging the depth of effect womankind and sex had on their work.

It would not be exaggeration to state that sex was an infatuation with the minds of the Renaissance thinkers, not unlike any other period of time. Authors often wrote poems and stories that would entice young women into attraction, the fact that these men were able to write and read apparently not attractive in itself. Of particular note was poet John Donne, an Englishman from the end of the Renaissance period. In the midst of Donne’s life, he became a priest and was appointed to be a Dean of St.

Paul’s cathedral; however, upon analysis of some of his poems, one could question the purity of his heart and mind, although revering his wit in the process. A perfect exemplification of this characteristic is his work, “The Flea”. This piece of work utilizes the church and its holy sacraments as well as the female body and virginity as target practice for wry humor and subliminal courtship, with literary devices flowering to help prove his ill-gotten point.

If a representative for the horny, witty teenage boy were needed from the Renaissance, Donne hits a home run with his use of the flea as a metaphor for sexual relations, among other things. For instance, Donne claims that a flea biting his girlfriend, and himself, was a signal of their unity in the creature: “This flea is you and I, and this/Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;” demonstrating that the flea was both the reason for their unity and a symbolic representation for marriage.

Also, if the woman attempted killing the animal, she would be killing all three of them, and the holy sanctimony of marriage. Unfazed, she crushes the bug under her fingernail and remarks that she felt no pain in doing so; Donne quickly retorts that if she were able to smash the insect so easily, then surely sex wouldn’t be much more of a step to take. As all the boys who read this smirk and all the girls roll their eyes, it is important to note the importance of this poem: it proves that people always think alike, no matter what time period they are from.

Donne was cleverly seducing his girlfriend, although to what success no one knows; likewise, men of all ages and time periods attempt such behavior. There is no justification of this behavior, nor is there any principle behind it; it is simply inherent in mankind’s behavior, and a versatile subject to utilize. John Skelton, similarly, treated the subject of sex, and particularly the treatment of women, in a fairly light-hearted way. Presenting the topic of sleeping around rather fluidly and without any sense of passion or emotion, Skelton wrote “Mannerly Margery Milk and Ale”.

This poem reads in a very lyrical sense, with repeated lines, easy to follow rhyme scheme, and other such figures of a melodic writing. It also shares something in common with the stereotypical portrayal of males: that they care only for the woman’s body, and not for their feelings at all. A man may be a charmer, but he certainly is only after what he truly wants, it seems: “Walk forth your way, ye cost me naught; Now I have found that I have sought: The best cheap flesh that I ever bought. With a simple analysis, one can take this poem as a step farther from Donne’s, as the male has charmed the female into getting sexual pleasure and then, rather maliciously, told her off afterwards. A similar theme also persists here, where the woman is tricked into seduction; in this case, our gentleman was able to successfully manipulate his interest. This may be a common idea, in that women were easily tricked into relationship, or perhaps it was only utilized in writing from the time, due to what it entailed in real life.

Essentially, a woman was worthless after she had lost her virginity, and that makes the male’s actions all the more unbecoming. However, this made it all the more enticing to write about, regardless of what the purpose was to the reader. Either way, both poets seemed to construe one basic idea: that the males of the time period were conniving and manipulative, much as they are perceived in many regards today; likewise, they seem to target the male readership, with an all but serious tone, in which they belittle the issue at hand and celebrate what ability they have to have power over women.

On the other end of the spectrum, writers often put females on a pedestal, treating them like they are almost other-worldly. This was clearly a different ideological stance than the previous writers, in which the female body and the concept of beauty were the focus of their work. It isn’t hard to find this kind of thought: Shakespeare wrote sonnets that epitomized the beauty of woman, and Sir Thomas Wyatt especially condoned this type of thinking in a myriad of short poems.

A perfect exemplification of his ethereal portrayal of woman is found in his piece “Whoso List to Hunt”. In it, Wyatt compares a female to a goddess-like doe, one who is described with perverted glory if one were not to know It was of humankind, and not beastiality. The beauty of this doe was overwhelming; and, along its neck, bore the phrase “Let no one touch me…” Clearly, Wyatt had some extremely high personification here, and whoever was the subject of his writing, be it an individual or all of womankind, would be flattered.

It echoes sentiment, and empathy for womankind, speaking directly of the beauty that is of their existence, let alone any other fact that would make a person beautiful. In fact, this is vague in most of his work: womankind is beautiful, according to him, for what lies superficially on the outside. Also, an important idea to note is Wyatt’s emphasis on love, and its power over humanity. While the earlier writers mentioned simply ignored the concept of love in a relationship altogether, specifically Donne, Wyatt embraces it and even fears what it can do to the mentality and his well-being.

This is evident in “The Long Love that in My Thought Doth Harbor”, where love prevails as the foremost emotion in his mind, above reason, shame, reverence, and the like. It “Camps in his forehead”, and later on, when it is subjected, runs hiding away inside him. He emphasizes the power that women can have, too, all due to love: “Love does not kill and does not unchain me, he neither wishes me alive nor frees me from the tangle. I see without eyes, and I have no tongue and yet cry out; I wish to perish and I ask for help… equally displeasing to me are death and life.

In this state am I, lady, on account of you. ” (Wyatt, pg. 597{I used the modern translation due to the emphasis on love and more concise or obvious structure. }) While the text from this writing, “I Find no Peace”, may indicate that Wyatt had wandering eyes or love for another, it still depicts the magnificence of love upon the human mind and heart. One would imagine that, if they are not under the impression that Wyatt is perhaps a bit incessant and stalking, that his depiction of womanhood is quite admirable to females reading his works. On the topic of beauty and love, one specific piece is called to mind.

In Castiglione’s The Courtier, the ideal courting method is detailed; however, in the final few sections, it complements the idea of the perfect lady, and tries to explain what beauty is. Written from the perspective of a court of individuals, all chiming in with their own opinion, things get a bit hectic; drastically different takes on beauty are found in the text, for example. In book four, we find a conversation developing about the “goodness” of beauty; some individuals believe that beauty can cause horrible things, such as “hatred, war, mortality, and destruction…”(Castiglione, pg. 49), defining the fact that beauty invokes far more than admiration and attraction in humanity. A perfect example, which is also listed in the text, is the story of Helen of Troy. On the contrary, the concept of beauty is emphasized to be that of a circle: a circle, where goodness is the center. And, obviously, if a circle cannot exist without a center, than beauty cannot exist without goodness. Of course, this leads to some blatantly ignorant lines, such as “Whereupon doth very seldom an ill soul dwell in a beautiful body”(Castiglione, pg. 650).

Apparently, an individual cannot be evil if they are beautiful on the outside. In a modest opinion, one would probably conclude that the thoughts expressed in this work were the result of the rich not having to subject themselves to ugly people, simply put. They had their choice, and therefore theories followed on why their logic was logical. Similarly, and while it may seem odd to say so, the same sort of hollow comparative logic is applicable to human beings today. The phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover”, however cliche, is quite accurate yet ignored in society today.

Apparently, they hadn’t the conception of this sort of judgment in the Renaissance; this is echoed by both Wyatt’s emphasis on external beauty and the crude explanation presented in The Courtier. It would be a paltry task to find other sexual and emotional themes present in Renaissance literature. From Queen Elizabeth’s love of her country to Sir Phillip Sidney’s work of literal idolization, “Astrophil and Stella”, to John Webster’s effeminately empowering “The Duchess of Malfi”, countless examples prevailed through time, studied still as representations of the past ways of life.

Perhaps it is most important to realize that, when analyzing the desires and emotions of the people centuries before us, they held the same exact ideals that we cherish today. Beauty was a crucial piece of life and love, just as love was an important emotion driven through the hearts of men and women alike. Sex, too, was a thought alluring to males and females, and will continue to be a draw until mankind ceases to exist. Much like the works of literature created today, mankind always finds itself enraptured by the thought of the opposite sex, of beauty and profound emotion; so too, will it always be a focal point of the literary world.

These few short words, ones representative of so much more than can be adequately said, truly are the focal point of literature; a true parallel to the persistent emotion held inside the writer, the reader, and the world.

Works Cited 1. Various Authors. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Steven Greenblatt. 8th Edition. N. p. : Norton, 2006. 2. John Donne. “The Flea. ” Poems of John Donne Vol. 1. 2002 Jan. 1. 10/25/10. http://www. luminarium. org/sevenlit/donne/flea. php>.

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