How Did William Shakespeare Affect the Renaissance?

By Bridgette Redman
An overhead view of a quill, scroll and eyeglasses on a table.

William Shakespeare was not the only figure of the English Renaissance, but he and his works are so important that no one talks about the period without mentioning him. The printing press's arrival in England in 1475 helped stabilize the language and gave Shakespeare access to books about Greeks and Romans as well as allowing him to print his plays, reports David Judkins, an English professor at the University of Houston, in the university's website, uh.edu. He had access to source material that would inform his plays and help change the world around him.

A Feast of Language: Words and Grammar

Shakespeare's greatest effect on the Renaissance was in expanding vocabulary and language. His written vocabulary was 17,000 words -- four times that of the average educated person of the English Renaissance -- and, according to educational resources provided by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-upon-Avon, he contributed more than 3,000 words to the English language, either by being the first to record them or by creating them. Words he coined include advertising, lonely, arouse, blushing, excitement, mimic, torture and zany. He also contributed many phrases that continue to be used, such as a sorry sight, all of a sudden, all one to me, dash to pieces, fair play, heart's content, in a pickle, love is blind, pound of flesh, the be all and end all, the game is afoot, there's method in my madness, up in arms and wild goose chase. Grammar and usage was in flux, and Shakespeare took much artistic freedom, a choice that would add style to the grammar of early modern English.

To Thine Own Self Be True: Characters With Humanistic Ideals

Shakespeare's treatment of characters marked a shift from medieval to Renaissance thinking. His plays contain complex characters of all social classes and he defied the conventions of the time. Monarchs were shown to make mistakes, common citizens were shown to have wisdom, and women were shown to be thoughtful. His characters show humanistic tendencies that were a hallmark of the Renaissance, Hamlet being the most notable of these. Shakespeare demonstrated a deep understanding of self-expression, humanity and intellectual freedom through the characters he created, characters who were intelligent and witty in their expression.

The Business That We Love, We Rise Betimes: Glimmerings of Capitalism

In addition to being a playwright, Shakespeare was a businessman. Shakespeare was one of eight shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain's Men -- later called The King's Men. Profit came from joint investment in a business enterprise, a typical Renaissance ideal and one that moved away from the medieval system of profit from land and serfdom. His theater was also able to thrive because of the financial prosperity of a new business class. His plays weren't put on solely for the royal or noble class but were available as entertainment to everyone.

It's Greek to Me: Roman and Greek Influence in His Works

Shakespeare was a frequent borrower of classical tales that he adapted and rewrote. Shakespeare reintroduced many stories and classical texts from Ovid, Plutarch, Livy, Plautus and Sappho, helping to keep these classics alive, a very prominent characteristic of the Renaissance. The most obvious evidence of his classical contributions comes in such plays as "Coriolanus," "Antony and Cleopatra," "Julius Caesar," "Pericles," "Timon of Athens" and "Titus Andronicus" but can also be seen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The Undiscovered Country: Move Toward the Secular

In medieval times, plays took on a staunchly religious cast and were Christian in their outlook. Shakespeare instead wrote plays that were secular in story and ideas. This is not to say he did not have Christian theology in his plays, but he showed a secularism that would affect Renaissance thought in England, says an article by the British Humanist Association and comments by Harold Bloom in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human." He mocked Puritans with his portrayal of Malvolio in "Twelfth Night," he showed Christians to be cruel in their dealings with a Jew in "The Merchant of Venice," and Angelo in "Measure for Measure" is cast as a villain for sentencing a character to death for fornication.

About the Author

As a professional writer since 1985, Bridgette Redman's career has included journalism, educational writing, book authoring and training. She's worked for daily newspapers, an educational publisher, websites, nonprofit associations and individuals. She is the author of two blogs, reviews live theater and has a weekly column in the "Lansing State Journal." She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University.