Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The 1500s: Highlights



William Shakespeare: ahead of his time

The 1500s section of the Chronology starts here. The links there will lead you to the Listings.

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As we begin to move just a century at a time, it's good to remember that the people listed here were born in the 16th century; some of the acts ascribed to them here were not committed until the next one.

Let's start in the West again, where in England the theater scene booms in the age of Shakespeare and other playwrights--Thomas Kyd, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, and a half-dozen others. (The play was the thing with which to catch the patronage of the king.) Other Englishmen (Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Philip Sydney, and more) were writing poems, and still others were caught up in religious controversy--it was, after all, the English Reformation, which saw Bloody Mary's Catholic fervor lead her to chop off Protestant heads, before her little half-sister Mary set things right again. Cranmer's (see 1000-1499) Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549, and Robert Southwell--a Jesuit and a poet--was tortured and hanged for being a Catholic (not for his poetry). Take that, Mr. Pope! No wonder Thomas Hobbes, born late in the century, declared in the next that "the life of man [was] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Meanwhile, John Foxe made a good living selling a book about the lives of religious martyrs, the Scottish John Knox laid the groundwork for the evangelical denigration of women (and oh yeah sort of founded a national church), and George Herbert (a Welsh Anglican priest) was advising country parsons while making "private ejaculations" (albeit poetic ones). On the more reasonable side, Walter Raleigh was exploring the New World, Francis Bacon was exploring a new scientific method, and William Harvey was (soon to be) exploring a new understanding of the heart--a scientific one. And Izaak Walton was getting ready to go fishing.

On the Continent, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (not Peewee!) was painting fat chicks--er, "Rubenesque women"--and the German astronomer Kepler was setting the solar system straight. Montaigne invented the essay, Calvin was inventing Calvinism, and Descartes was doubting everything. Dipping down to Iberia, we find Cervantes rivaling Shakespeare in Spanish, and Luis de Camo√ęs doing the same in Portuguese. Both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross explored uncharted spiritual territory, while El Greco painted masterpieces. In Italy, Caravaggio did art, while Cellini and Vasari did it and wrote about it; three heretics tweaked the cosmos, Bruno speculatively, Galileo structurally, and Campanella literarily in his utopian City of the Sun. All three were jailed for their troubles, and Bruno was executed.

In happier climes, China's great Ming is in full swing, a period of cultural output second only to the Glorious Tang. Too many poets, playwrights, and essays to list here (see below), but of special note are Liao-Fan's Four Lessons (defying Fate in a very un-Chinese-y way); Tang Xianzu's drama The Peony Pavilion, supposedly romantic but turning on a grisly corpse-bride motif (and with a running time of up to 22 hours, grisly on yet another level); Xu Zhonglin's entertaining mythological novel The Investiture of the Gods; the outright fun of the Cases of Judge Bao by various authors; and perhaps the most famous Chinese story in the West, Wu Cheng'en's Journey to the West with its comical Monkey King.

Japan is pretty much sitting this century out, though The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi gives an interesting look into the mind of the samurai. And as the "Old World" invades the New, we begin to get tales of the pre-Columbian cultures, including the Mayan Popol Vuh.

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