Harry Fisher

Primary Source Assignment

The Italian Renaissance has two primary mediums through which its culture was expressed- art and theatre. Works of art from the Renaissance have had a lasting effect on the world of art. The Renaissance was the first point in the world’s history where art was truly becoming known as a creative medium, and works such as Michelangelo’s statue of David and Raphael’s painting The School of Athens have been inspiring artists for generations. The Renaissance also laid the foundation for modern literature and theatre, with the works of William Shakespeare becoming widely recognized and inspiring many future generations of writers. The Renaissance truly is the starting point for both modern art and modern literature, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting and William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Hamlet, as both of these sources reveal a lot about the culture of the time period to which they belong.

The Mona Lisa painting is considered to be the most recognized painting in history. On the surface, it appears to be a simple painting of a woman, but it represents a shift in how artists perceived their work and crafted it accordingly. The painting is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gheradini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It is believed that da Vinci began work on the painting in 1503 and may have worked on it as late as 1517. The painting gives the impression that the woman in it is alive, as da Vinci expertly used textures to give more light to the woman’s eyes and lips, while concealing the rest of her face in shadow. It gives off the impression of a friendly and inviting gaze from the woman. By not having outlines in the painting, on top of the fact that the textures give off a “realistic” impression, da Vinci made it seem like the painting is real, as if the viewer is actually looking at a real woman. There is an imaginary landscape behind her, and the painting creates the illusion of distance between the woman and the landscape behind her, as well as the woman and the viewer. Da Vinci’s unique style is reflected in the painting, and it is an art style that inspired many future works of art, such as Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. The painting is now kept in a bullet-proof glass case, with climate control to keep the frame from warping. It is on display in the Louvre art museum in Paris, France.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is believed to have been written sometime between 1599 and 1602. It is derived from the legend of Amleth from the 12th and 13th centuries. It is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most well-known and viewed plays, and widely known as one of the greatest plays ever written. The Renaissance is mostly recognized for its famous works of art and the impact that they had on human culture. However, Hamlet is one such example of a work of Renaissance literature that shows us just how the Renaissance shaped modern literature and how the literature of the time period is just as central to its identity as art.

The play is the story of the prince of Denmark, Hamlet, whose uncle, Claudius, is married to his widowed mother. Upon meeting with the ghost of his father, Hamlet learns that Claudius murdered his father and married his mother to become king, and from there the plot revolves around Hamlet trying to enact his revenge on Claudius. The play deals heavily with uncertainty, as it is impossible to discern whether the ghost of Hamlet’s father is real or if Hamlet is simply going insane. Also, the act of Hamlet murdering Claudius to get his revenge is constantly postponed, as Hamlet tries to observe Claudius’s behavior to try and determine whether Claudius is truly guilty of murdering his father. This makes Hamlet unlike many plays that came before it, as it keeps the audience engaged as they wait to see if Hamlet will ever commit the deed of murdering Claudius. This reflects Shakespeare’s masterful writing, and how he redefined storytelling by implementing new forms of it in his works.

One of the things the play is most famous for, and one of the things that defines Shakespeare as a Renaissance writer, is how the play deals with death. Throughout the play, Hamlet is constantly pondering death and what comes after it. His famous “to be or not to be speech” is, in essence, Hamlet reflecting upon whether or not he should commit suicide. He wishes to end his life so he no longer has to endure the pain that comes with it, but is afraid of what may or may not happen to him in the afterlife. At the time the play was written, suicide was something that was regarded as blasphemous to the Christian religion, and whoever committed the act would certainly be condemned to hell for all eternity. The fact that the play has its main character talk so freely and openly about his desire to commit suicide must have surely raised some eyebrows at the time, especially when Hamlet states that anyone would commit suicide if they were not afraid of what comes after death. Another theme present in the play is national corruption, as Claudius becoming ruler is seen as a symbol of Denmark being corrupted politically.

The play also deals heavily with smaller motifs. One is incest, as not only is Hamlet’s uncle now married to his mother, but Hamlet himself seems obsessed with is mother’s sex life with Claudius, as if he were jealous. Another motif is hatred of women. After Hamlet’s mother so readily marries his uncle after his father’s death, Hamlet seems to believe that women in general are corruptive. All of the themes and motifs used in the play were implemented by Shakespeare, and it goes to show how ahead of his time he was. He was ready and willing to tackle issues in this play and many others that most people at the time didn’t like to bring up, and he inadvertently defined modern storytelling. This reflects on his career as a Renaissance writer and how the Renaissance as a whole was a generation that redefined popular culture and the way it helps us perceive the world. Hamlet has been reprinted and translated many times. It has many film adaptations, re-tellings and parodies, and so it has been preserved in text and film format and we still study it and interpret it today.

Both the Mona Lisa and Hamlet serve as excellent examples of what exactly defined the Renaissance. It was a period of growth for popular culture, and in many ways it influenced and inspired modern art and literature. The Mona Lisa will always be remembered as a painting that started new art techniques that helped artist give their paintings more life. Hamlet will always be remembered as one of many works of literature that redefined storytelling forever.

Primary Sources:

  • Jenkins, Harold. The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare- Hamlet. New York: Methuen and Co. Ltd. 1982. Print. (Found in Library)
  • Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci, found online



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