Previous generations of historians often treated the European Renaissance as a cultural utopia: a time of artistic flourishing, economic development, scientific and geographical discovery. In recent decades, historians have challenged parts of this view by attending to the experiences of people whose quality of life may not have improved at all during this period: women, non-Europeans, the uneducated, the impoverished. Keeping both of these perspectives in mind, this seminar will consider three utopian texts of and about the English Renaissance, in order to find a balance between idealizing and critical characterizations of this important period in history. Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” (translated into English in 1603), Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”(1611), and Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” (1932) all combine social critique of European Renaissance society with a tendency to idealize that society’s cultural achievements. Using these texts as our foundation, we will consider such questions as: what qualities do these literary utopias identify as the basis of an ideal society? Do these texts perpetuate or critique the political tendencies that we now find objectionable (e.g., racism, sexism, elitism)? What social problems did these writers perceive to be most urgent? How did they imagine that such problems might be addressed? What can utopian literature teach us about the historical reality and the imaginative ideals of the European Renaissance? What makes these texts relevant to readers and students in the twenty-first century?
Seminar led by Kasey Evans, Northwestern University