Principal Writers: Their Lives and Works

Writers: Their Lives and Works

From Shakespeare and Jane Austen to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, this DK book features more than 100 biographies of the world's greatest writers.

Introduced with a stunning portrait of each featured novelist, playwright, or poet, biographical entries trace the friendships, loves, and rivalries that inspired each individual and influenced their work, revealing insights into the larger-than-life characters, plots, and evocative settings that they created. Each entry explains how the person's writing developed during their lifetime, and sets it in context, conveying a powerful sense of the place and the period of history in which they lived. 

Lavishly illustrated with photographs and paintings of writers' homes, studies, and personal artifacts--along with pages from original manuscripts, first editions, and their correspondence--this book introduces the key ideas, themes, and literary techniques of each writer, revealing the imaginations and personalities behind some of the world's greatest novels, short stories, poems, and plays. Covering an eclectic range of authors from the Middle Ages to the present day, Writers provides a compelling glimpse of the lives and loves of each great writer.

DK Publishing
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Senior Editor  Angela Wilkes

Senior Art Editor  Helen Spencer

Managing Editor  Gareth Jones

Senior Managing Art Editor  Lee Griffiths

US Editors  Megan Douglass, Jane Perlmutter

Jacket Designers  Surabhi Wadhwa-Gandhi,  
Juhi Sheth

Design Development Manager  Sophie MTT

Jacket Editor  Claire Gell

Pre-production Producer  
Dave Almond

Senior Producer  Mandy Inness

Associate Publishing Director  Liz Wheeler
Publishing Director  Jonathan Metcalf

Art Director  Karen Self

Produced for DK by

Art Editors  
Paul Reid, Darren Bland, Rebecca Johns

Marek Walisiewicz, Diana Loxley,  

Johnny Murray, Kirsty Seymour-Ure

Kay Celtel 
has a PhD in history and, after a career 
spanning publishing, training, and the auction 
business, now works as a writer, researcher, 
and editor.

Helen Cleary 
works from her home in rural South Wales, 
writing, editing, and making fine-art prints. She 
graduated in English literature from Cambridge 
University and has an MA in creative writing.

R. G. Grant
has written extensively in the fields of history, 
biography, and culture. He contributed to 1001 
Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006) and 
501 Great Writers (2008).

Ann Kramer 
is a writer and historian and has written 
numerous books for the general reader on 
subjects ranging from women’s history to  
art and literature.

Diana Loxley
is a freelance editor and writer, and a former 
managing editor of a publishing company in 
London. She has a doctorate in literature.

Esther Ripley
is a writer and editor who began her career in 
journalism and was a managing editor at DK. 
She studied literature with psychology and 
writes on a range of cultural subjects. 

Kirsty Seymour-Ure
has a degree in English literature and Italian 
from ; Durham University. Now living in Italy, she 
is an experienced freelance writer and editor.

Bruno Vincent
is an editor and author who lives in London.  
In total he has written or contributed to nearly 
30 books, including the Enid Blyton for Grown 
Ups series.

Marcus Weeks
is a writer and musician. He has written and 
contributed to many books on philosophy, 
literature, and the arts, including several of 
DK’s "Big Ideas Simply Explained" series.  

Iain Zaczek
studied French and History at Wadham College, 
Oxford University. He has written more than 30 
books on various aspects of literature, history, 
and art.

Content Consultant:  Peter Hulme
is Emeritus Professor in Literature at the 
University of Essex, where he taught for 40 
years. His books include Colonial Encounters: 
Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 
(1986) and Cuba’s Wild East: A Literary  
Geography of Oriente (2011).

James Naughtie
An award-winning radio host and broadcaster, 
James Naughtie began his career as a 
journalist before moving to radio broadcasting 
in 1986. For over 20 years he cohosted on BBC 
Radio 4’s Today program, and he has chaired 
Radio 4’s monthly book club since it began in 
1998. James Naughtie has chaired both the 
Man Booker and Samuel Johnson judging 
panels and written a number of nonfiction 
books including The Rivals: The Intimate Story  
Of A Political Marriage, The Accidental American: 
Tony Blair And The Presidency, The Making Of 
Music, and The New Elizabethans and two novels,  
The Madness of July and Paris Spring. 




First American Edition, 2018
Published in the United States by DK Publishing
345 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2018 Dorling Kindersley Limited
DK, a Division of Penguin Random House LLC

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All rights reserved.
Without limiting the rights under the copyright 

reserved above, no part of this publication may be 
reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval 

system, or transmitted, in any form,or by any 
means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, 

recording, or otherwise), without the prior written 
permission of the copyright owner. Published in 

Great Britain by Dorling Kindersley Limited.

A catalog record for this book
is available from the Library of Congress.

ISBN: 978-1-4654-7477-3 

DK books are available at special discounts when 
purchased in bulk for sales promotions, premiums, 

fund-raising, or educational use.  
For details, contact: DK Publishing Special

Markets, 345 Hudson Street, New York, 
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012 Dante Alighieri 

016 Giovanni Boccaccio

018  Geoffrey Chaucer

022  François Rabelais

026  Michel de Montaigne

028  Miguel de Cervantes

032  William Shakespeare

038  John Donne

040  John Milton

042  Molière

044  Aphra Behn

046  Matsuo Bashō

048  Daniel Defoe

052  Jonathan Swift

054  Voltaire

056  Directory

Early 19th 
060 J. W. von Goethe

064  William Wordsworth

068  Jane Austen

072  Mary Shelley

074  Lord Byron

076  Honoré de Balzac

078  Victor Hugo

082  Hans Christian Andersen

084  Edgar Allan Poe

086  Charles Dickens

092    Charlotte and Emily 

098  Directory 

Late 19th 
104 George Eliot

106  Herman Melville

108  Walt Whitman

112  Charles Baudelaire

116  Gustave Flaubert

120  Fyodor Dostoyevsky

124  Henrik Ibsen

126  Leo Tolstoy

130  Machado de Assis

132  Emily Dickinson

134  Mark Twain

136  Thomas Hardy

140  Emile Zola

142  Henry James

144  August Strindberg

146  Guy de Maupassant

148  Oscar Wilde

150  Joseph Conrad

154  Rudyard Kipling

156  Anton Chekhov

160  Rabindranath Tagore

162  Directory

008 Foreword

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Early 20th 
168 W. B. Yeats

170  Luigi Pirandello

172 Natsume Sōseki

174  Marcel Proust

178  Willa Cather

180 Thomas Mann

182  Lu Xun

184  James Joyce

188  Virginia Woolf

192  Franz Kafka

196  Ezra Pound

200  D. H. Lawrence

202  Raymond Chandler

204  T. S. Eliot

206  Jean Rhys

208  Marina Tsvetaeva 

210  F. Scott Fitzgerald 

214  William Faulkner 

220  Bertolt Brecht 

222  Jorge Luis Borges 

226  Ernest Hemingway 

232  Yasunari Kawabata 

234  Directory 

240  Vladimir Nabokov

242  John Steinbeck

244  George Orwell

248  Pablo Neruda

252  Graham Greene

254  Jean-Paul Sartre

258  Samuel Beckett

262  Naguib Mahfouz

264  Albert Camus

266  Aimé Césaire

268  Dylan Thomas

270  Marguerite Duras

272  Saul Bellow

274  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

276  Primo Levi

280  Jack Kerouac

282  Italo Calvino

284  Günter Grass

286  Gabriel García Márquez

290  Maya Angelou

292  Milan Kundera

294  Chinua Achebe

298  Directory

304  José Saramago

306  Derek Walcott

308  Toni Morrison

310  Alice Munro

312  Nawal El Saadawi

314  John Updike

316  Cormac McCarthy

318 Seamus Heaney

322  J. M. Coetzee

326  Isabel Allende

328  Peter Carey

330  Hwang Sok-yong

332  W. G. Sebald

336  Lorna Goodison

338  Haruki Murakami

340  Orhan Pamuk

342  Mo Yan

344  Arundhati Roy

346  Directory

350  Index

359  Acknowledgments

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A celebrated author once apologized to me for having to disappear 

for a while from public view. “I’ve been arguing with a novel for six 

months,” he said. No further explanation was necessary. He had to 

return to the fray because the argument couldn’t be put aside and 

had to be settled one way or another. Pen in hand, he had to gaze 

once more at a blank page.

Imaginative writers—the novelists and poets in this volume  

and countless hordes of others—have all heard that insistent call 

pulling them away. They have also learned, with varying degrees of 

reluctance and joy, that the place to which they are taken is the one 

where they are meant to be. The first act of the writer is not so much 

to put the first word on the page, but to understand the obligation to 

listen when the call comes.

This is as true for writers driven by an urge to confront the world 

around them—a satirist like Jonathan Swift, a Dickens, or a Kafka—

as for those who want to build a new and distant place for their 

imaginations. They are all aware of what some poets and novelists 

have characterized as a near-priestly function, as if they are the 

interpreters of a higher truth for those who require their intervention 

and guidance to see it and understand it for themselves.

A convenient belief, you might say, because it swathes the whole 

business in mystery and suggests there are secrets that can never 

be unraveled by outsiders. Yet it’s true. Writers who don’t accept  

that they are on a journey into the unknown will never produce  

work that lasts, because it will lack the magic that can infect a 

reader’s mind. Even authors who are brutal about the day-to-day 

struggles of their trade come back, again and again, to the 

inexplicable character of the force that propels them. When George 

Orwell described writers as “vain, selfish, and lazy” he went on to say 

that it wasn’t moral weakness of that kind that kept them at it—the 

business of producing a book was for him like enduring a long, 

painful illness—but the presence of a demon that they could neither 

resist nor understand.

Poets have the luxury of being more open about this than 

novelists, of course, because in every culture they have always been 

expected to be in touch with some muse, in a way denied to everyone 

else. In their own world. Long before the Romantics in early-

nineteenth-century England put aside the mirror that poets before 

them had professed to hold up to nature, and replaced it with a lamp 

that would light up their own inner lives, the poem was the vehicle 

that could take you out of the world as surely as the tale-telling of  

an oral tradition that mingled history with mystery and fantasy  

when verses and stories were lovingly passed down the generations.

Seamus Heaney, a Nobel laureate in literature in the last decade 

of the twentieth century, returned to the Aeneid for his last published 

work, translating Book VI of Virgil’s epic, which describes how the 

Trojan hero Aeneas descends into the underworld, having cut  

the golden bough to protect him as he goes—the mythic story  

that inspired poets from Dante Alighieri in the Italian Middle  

Ages, to the Anglo-American T.S. Eliot writing just after World  

War I nearly six centuries later. Like Heaney, they were drawn to the  

oldest and most enduring stories, the ones that we want to interpret 

over and over again to explain to ourselves who we are and why we 

behave as we do.

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No writer of quality can escape that task. At the end of F. Scott 

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Carraway, says,  

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly 

into the past.” This is much more than a cry of regret at the glitzy 

insubstantial world of wealth that first attracted Carraway and then 

repelled him—it is Fitzgerald’s own profound feeling for a journey  

of his own that was destined never to end. It is as sharply relevant  

to the whole story of American life as the elemental struggle against 

the wild forces of nature in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Generations 

later, a novelist like John Updike was grappling with the same 

question in the same culture: what drives us on?

Whether in the particular preoccupations with power and 

individual responsibility that motivated European writers over 

centuries—and produced the most dominating poetic voice in the 

English language, in Shakespeare—or in Eastern literature with its 

vast sweep of historical and mythic sensibility, a writer in poetry or 

prose who doesn’t confront that question is probably doomed to 

skate aimlessly across the surface and to vanish into the distance, 

there to be forgotten. None of the writers in this volume will 

disappear—be they treasured as gritty story-tellers, spinners of 

great fantasy, or angry young (and old) men and women—because 

somehow, with a flash of genius or a lifetime of careworn toil, they’ve 

left their readers with a character or a tragedy, a moment of 

exhilaration or an insistent question that will never pass away.

We all know we’ll return to them. How many of us long to pick up 

a favorite book and absorb a memorable opening line, or meet an old 

friend in the first chapter, not because we’re in search of a new 

experience, but because we want to relive something we can’t 

forget? Or start to read a poem we can also hear in our head? 

Writers know it, too, and perhaps the mysterious urge that drives 

them on has at least one obvious component that we can all 

recognize. An insistent desire to give. They enlighten and entertain; 

trouble and perplex. Lift up.

That much we know. And perhaps the mystery that remains—the 

tantalizing, insoluble question of how it is done—is one we cherish, 

too, because we know that writers of quality are people apart. They 

do what we can’t, which is why we need them, and most of the time 

we feel no envy.

How could we? They are bound on their own wheel of fire. Ernest 

Hemingway, in his curmudgeonly, macho way, once tried to make 

writing sound simple and succeeded in doing the opposite. He said, 

“All you have to do is to write one true sentence. Write the truest 

sentence that you know.”

But that’s when the difficulties begin.

James Naughtie

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Dante Alighieri 012

Giovanni Boccaccio  016

Geoffrey Chaucer 018

François Rabelais 022

Michel de Montaigne 026

Miguel de Cervantes 028

William Shakespeare 032

John Donne 038

John Milton 040

Molière 042

Aphra Behn 044

Matsuo Bashō 046

Daniel Defoe 048

Jonathan Swift 052

Voltaire 054

Directory 056

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Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, 
Italy, probably in May 1265. At that 
time, Florence was an independent 
city-state of unrivaled wealth;  
the output of its workshops and the 
astuteness of its bankers attracted 
admiration and envy. It was also a 
place of political instability, with rival 
families competing, often violently,  
for control of the city’s government. 

Dante’s father, a moneylender  
and lawyer, belonged to the political  
faction known as the Guelphs, and 
when Dante was 11 years old he  
was betrothed to Gemma Donati, a 
member of a powerful Guelph family. 
This arranged marriage was to last a 
lifetime and the couple would have at 
least three children. But Dante never 
wrote a word about his wife, Gemma. 
The woman who appeared as a love 
object in his writing was a Florentine 
neighbor, Beatrice Portinari.

Dante tells the strange story of his 
love for Beatrice in his early collection 
of poems and prose commentaries,  
La Vita Nuova (The New Life; 1294). By 
this account, he met Beatrice when he 
was just 9 years old (and she 10), and 
fell in love at first sight. He saw her 
just one more time, 9 years later, when 
they exchanged a brief greeting on  
the street. This contact was enough  
to make Beatrice the symbol of his 
highest spiritual aspirations. In 

Dante Alighieri
1265–1321, ITALIAN

Author of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante is a towering figure  
in the history of literature. His dramatic vision of Hell, purgatory, and 
Heaven has inspired writers and artists up to the present day.

addition to inspiring his early lyric 
verse, she recurs in his final writings, 
the “Purgatory” and “Heaven” sections 
of The Divine Comedy.

Early mentors
On the brink of the Renaissance, 
Florence was the center of innovation 
in the arts and philosophy, with the 
rediscovered writings of ancient  
Latin and Greek authors providing  
an alternative source of authority  
to the church. Dante’s intellectual 
development was influenced by  
two Florentine mentors: the scholar 
Brunetto Latini (c.1220–1294), who 
introduced him to the latest humanist 

thinking; and the love poet Guido 
Cavalcanti (c.1250–1300), who  
served as his model for writing  
verse. Cavalcanti wrote in the dolce  
stil novo (sweet new style)—the 
culmination of the medieval tradition 
of “courtly love,” in which the poet 
celebrated a pure love for an 
inaccessible woman seen from afar. 

This scene, imagined by the 19th-century 
English artist Henry Holiday, was inspired 
by Dante’s text La Vita Nuova (The New 
Life). It shows Dante and his love, Beatrice 
(in cream), with her companions near  
the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Beatrice 
deliberately avoids Dante’s gaze.  

“ There is no greater sorrow than to  
recall a time of happiness in misery. ”
DANTE, “HELL” (CANTO 5, LINES 121–123)

Giotto di Bondone
An almost exact contemporary of 
Dante, the artist Giotto di Bondone 
(c.1266–1337) was also born in 
Florence. Recognized as the greatest 
painter of his time, Giotto brought  
a fresh realism to the depiction of 
religious scenes. Dante was a friend 
and admirer of Giotto and may well 
have been influenced by his paintings, 
especially the depiction of Hell in the 
frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel in 
Padua. Dante and Giotto together 
stand as the twin precursors of  
the Italian Renaissance. 


Dante inspired much art in his native 
Florence. This 1475 portrait, showing  
him wearing a laurel wreath—a symbol of 
achievement—is by the renowned early 
Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. 


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and purgatory to Heaven and a vision 
of God. In the first section, “Hell,” Dante 
is led by the Latin poet Virgil; in the 
second and third sections, “Purgatory” 
and “Heaven,” he follows his beloved 
Beatrice as a spiritual guide. Along  
the way he meets characters from 
contemporary life, history, and myth, 
each with a story to tell. “Hell” has 
always been the most widely read part 
of the poem, its vivid fresco of crimes 

The story of Dante’s love for Beatrice 
so perfectly fits this template that 
many critics have suspected it  
of being a fiction invented by the poet  
to fulfill the stereotype—although 
Beatrice Portinari definitely did  
exist, and died at the age of 24.

Civic strife
In Florence, Dante became known for 
his lyric poetry but also for his civic 
activities. As a member of the Guelph 
faction, he played an increasingly 
active role in the city’s turbulent 
political life. He fought in a Guelph 
army that defeated their bitter rivals, 
the Ghibellines, at the battle of 
Campaldino in 1289, and starting  
in 1295 became an elected 
representative in Florence’s complex 
republican system of government. 

In the summer of 1300, Dante was 
elected to Florence’s six-man ruling 
Council of Priors. Personal disaster 
soon followed. The Guelphs had 
traditionally supported the popes 
against their secular rivals for 
supreme power in Christendom—the 
Holy Roman Emperors—but had now 
split into pro-papal Black Guelphs and 
anti-papal White Guelphs, the group 
that Dante supported. As a city prior, 
he was sent as part of a deputation  
to Pope Boniface VIII at his residence 

A marble statue on the facade of the 
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in 
Florence commemorates Dante’s  
enemy, Pope Boniface VIII. Dante took  
his revenge in the pages of The Divine 
Comedy by damning the pope—well 
before his death in 1303. 

Dante holds a copy of The Divine Comedy 
in this fresco painted by Domenico di 
Michelino in 1465. Behind the poet is  
a depiction of his Hell and the city of 
Florence, closed off to Dante.

just outside Rome. There, he was  
detained by the pope and treated like 
a prisoner. In Florence, Black Guelphs 
seized control of the city at the pope’s 
instigation and launched a wholesale 
persecution of White Guelphs. Dante 
was declared an exile and his property 
confiscated. He was later condemned 
to be burned alive should he ever set 
foot in Florence again.

Exile from Florence
Dante found refuge in various other 
Italian cities, notably Verona, where he 
was welcomed by the ruling Scaliger 
family. Not a gentle, forgiving man, 
Dante raged against his Florentine 
enemies and joined other exiles in 
vain plots to wrest Florence from the 
Black Guelphs by force. However, his 
expulsion from his home city seems  
to have propelled his writing to a new 
level. It was in his early years of exile 
that he produced his influential essay 
De Vulgari Eloquentia. Written in Latin, 
the universal literary language of 
educated Europeans at the time, the 
essay argued paradoxically for giving 
vernacular Italian equal status with 
Latin as a literary language a nd 
discussed which version of the 
popular spoken tongue should be 
adopted for the purpose. 

The Divine Comedy
Dante appears to have begun writing 
his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in 
around 1307. A poem containing more 
than 14,000 lines of verse, it describes 
the narrator’s journey through Hell 

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and punishments in the circles of Hell 
inspiring both horror and pity. Dante 
does not hesitate to avenge himself on 
his real-life enemies by condemning 
them to tortures, but he sympathizes 
with some of the damned—such as 
the lovers Paolo Malatesta and 
Francesca da Rimini, condemned for 
succumbing to lust; or his old mentor 
Brunetto Latini, who had been found 
guilty of sodomy. The mythological 
figure of Ulysses is in Hell (in part, for 
his ambush of the Trojan horse), but 
Dante’s description of his restless 
quest for knowledge seems heroic 
rather than damnable. 

Dante’s life was inextricably tied to  
the city of Florence, which is shown  
in this aerial view. The great poet’s 
image appears throughout the city in 
various frescoes, statues, and reliefs.

In addition to a vision of the afterlife,  
The Divine Comedy presents Dante’s 
interpretation of the failings of the 
contemporary political order. The ideal 
he embraced at the end of his life was 
one of a Christian world unified under 
the political leadership of the Holy 
Roman Emperor and the spiritual 
leadership of the pope, fulfilling God’s 
purpose on Earth. He developed this 
concept in the treatise De Monarchia 
and in letters expressing support for 
Emperor Henry VII, who led an army 
into Italy in 1310. The emperor’s death 
in 1313 ended Dante’s hopes of any 
practical progress toward his ideal.

Terza rima  
To write the The Divine Comedy,  
Dante developed a new verse form 
known as terza rima. The poem  
is composed of three-line stanzas  
in which the first line rhymes with  
the third line, while the middle line  
of each stanza rhymes with the  
first and third lines of the following  
stanza. This “chain rhyme,” linking 
one stanza to another, gives the  
poem a vigorous forward momentum. 
It has been used by many poets since, 
including Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy 
Bysshe Shelley, William Carlos 
Williams, and Sylvia Plath.


La Vita Nuova  
is published— 
lyric poetry and 
prose passages 
explore Dante’s 
idealized love  
for Beatrice. 

De Vulgari 
Eloquentia argues 
for the use of the 
Tuscan Italian 
vernacular as a 
literary language. 

The first section 
of The Divine 
Comedy describes 
Dante’s journey 
through Hell, led 
by the poet Virgil.


The second 
section of The 
Divine Comedy  
has Dante climb 
Mount Purgatory, 
where sinners 
purge their sins. 

In Monarchia, 
Dante argues  
for division of 
authority between 
the Holy Roman 
Emperor and  
the pope.  

The last section  
of The Divine 
Comedy, “Heaven,” 
charts Dante’s 
rise through the 
spheres of Heaven 
to a vision of God.

Dante never returned to Florence but 
spent his final years at the court of the 
Polenta family, the rulers of Ravenna. 
The Divine Comedy seems to have 
been completed there shortly before 
his death in 1321, at the age of 56.  
The final cantos of the poem were 
discovered concealed in his bedroom 
after he was buried.

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Giovanni Boccaccio was born in Italy in  
1313, the illegitimate son of a wealthy 
Florentine banker, Boccaccino di 
Chellino. The boy was raised by his 
father and Margherita de’ Mardoli, a 
woman of noble birth who became his 
stepmother. In 1327, the family moved 
from Florence to Naples, where it was 
hoped that Boccaccio would follow  
his father into business. But the young 
man had other ideas—he studied  
law for six years, then developed a  
love of literature, especially of Dante 
(whom Boccaccio described as “the 
first guide of my studies”). Turning 
away from commerce and the law,  
he devoted his energies to reading, 

Giovanni Boccaccio
1313–1375, ITALIAN

Boccaccio’s magnificent stories of the everyday lives of ordinary people 
laid the literary foundations for prose narrative, providing inspiration  
for both the Renaissance and later generations of writers.

accruing a vast knowledge of culture, 
science, and literature. His was a life 
of privilege that allowed him many 
insights into the courtly world of Robert 
the Wise, King of Naples, which he 
would draw upon in his later writing. 

The little flame 
It was in Naples that Boccaccio fell in  
love with a woman who some believe 
was a daughter of the king. Although 
her identity remains obscure, she 
appears as Fiammetta (“little flame”) in 
his early prose and in The Decameron.  
She also appears in The Elegy of Lady 
Fiammetta (1343–1344), thought to be 
Western literature’s first psychological 
novel, where she recounts the phases 
of an affair with a Panfilo—a loosely 
autobiographical character. 

In 1341, Boccaccio reluctantly 
rejoined his widowed father in 
Florence—a city recently ravaged  

by plague and beset by political turmoil. 
When his father died as a result of 
plague in 1348, Boccaccio inherited 
his estate and gained financial 
independence. His home became a 
meeting place for intellectuals, 
writers, and scholars. Over the next 
three years, he wrote his best known 
work, The Decameron (see box, right), 
in which he moved away from the 
medieval use of virtues and vices 
toward a more humanistic vision. His 
characters had real dimension, and 
through them he could reflect upon 
people’s power to shape their own 
destiny, while gracefully accepting 
their human limitations. 

Late years 
Boccaccio formed a close and  
lasting friendship with the poet 
Petrarch—the most famous writer  
of his generation. In the years after 
1350, Boccaccio devoted himself  
increasingly to scholarship, writing 
several works in Latin, and he also 
undertook civic and diplomatic 
assignments for the city of Florence. 
He became deeply disillusioned and 
depressed in old age; the death of his 
friend Petrarch in 1374 provided the 
inspiration for one of his last works,  
a lyric poem. Boccaccio died the 
following year and was buried in the 
village of Certaldo, near Florence.  

This anonymous portrait of Boccaccio 
presents him as a man of classical 
learning, wreathed in laurel. 

The Decameron 
In Boccaccio’s The Decameron, 10 
young Florentines escape the black 
death ravaging their city by traveling 
to a villa deep in the countryside. They 
agree that every day, each of them 
will tell a tale. So the book is divided 
into 10 days of 10 stories, connected 
by the author’s narrative. This device 
gave Boccaccio a framework within 
which he could explore a variety of 
themes (such as deception, unhappy 
love, and licentiousness) and could 
readily vary the tone of his work,  
from comic to bawdy to tragic. 


“ Nothing is so indecent that it cannot 
be said to another person if the proper  
words are used to convey it. ”

In 1363, Boccaccio retired in poverty to  
the Tuscan hilltop town of Certaldo. He 
returned only briefly to Florence, in 1373, 
to give readings of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

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Chaucer was born in London, the  
son of a wine merchant. Although  
little is known of his early years and 
education, his professional life is well 
documented because he was a civil 
servant, bureaucrat, and diplomat, 
moving in court circles under   
Edward III and then Richard II. He 
found patronage under John of Gaunt,  
who later became his brother-in-law. 

Chaucer’s eventful career may  
have informed his writing, although 
his poetry is scarcely mentioned in 
contemporary accounts. Edward III did 
award Chaucer “a gallon of wine daily 
for the rest of his life” on St. George’s 
Day 1374, a date when endeavors in 
the arts were celebrated. 

European influences
The life of a diplomat gave Chaucer 
experience abroad. He traveled on 
missions to France while employed  
by Lionel of Antwerp, the third son of 
Edward III. He was captured by the 
French in 1359, but freed on payment 
of a ransom by the king, who then sent 
him on further diplomatic missions to 
Flanders, Spain, and Italy. There, he 

Geoffrey Chaucer
c.1343–1400, ENGLISH

Chaucer was an early champion of the English vernacular in literature. 
His vivid characterizations of pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales have 
remained popular since the Middle Ages.  

was exposed to the radical new  
ideas of the Italian Renaissance, 
probably including the writings of 
Dante and Boccaccio. 

While the courtly stories of the 
medieval period had been populated 
by idealized figures and steeped in 
Christian dogma, the writers of the 
Italian Renaissance were influenced 
instead by classical civilization. From 
their humanist perspective, they  
wrote about ordinary characters  
and everyday concerns; moreover, 
they wrote in the vernacular to widen 
their readership. Following their 
example, Chaucer elected to write  

in Middle English at a time when  
most writing in England was in  
Latin or French. After the Norman 
Conquest of Britain in 1066, the 
English language had no official 
status; French was the language  
of the nobility and of power. Middle 
English—the language of ordinary 
people—developed in response.

Early poems 
Chaucer published his first major 
poems around the age of 30. The Book 
of the Duchess is an elegy to Blanche, 
Duchess of Lancaster, that uses a 
game of chess as its central motif. 

In 1896, the English writer and designer 
William Morris produced this highly 
ornate collection of Chaucer’s works  
at his Kelmscott Press. 

This portrait in the Bodleian Library, 
Oxford, is thought to have been painted 
after Chaucer died—the figure “1400” 
refers to the supposed year of his death.

“  This world nys but a thurghfare 
ful of wo, And we been pilgrymes, 
passynge to and fro ”

The idea of a sacred journey, taken 
to enrich the soul, is a feature of 
many religions. In the Christian world, 
the first pilgrims were those who 
followed in the footsteps of Jesus  
in the Holy Land, and of his apostles 
and early martyrs in Rome and 
elsewhere. Later pilgrims were  
often motivated by indulgences— 
the church’s promise of forgiveness  
of sin in return for a pious journey— 
and by their desire to escape the 
confines of home and see the outside 
world. Some pilgrims made long, 
dangerous journeys to places  
such as Jerusalem, or Santiago  
de Compostela in Spain; others  
simply visited nearby shrines 
containing the relics of saints. 



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denounced and forced to flee to the 
relative safety of Kent. In 1386, he 
became a member of parliament for 
Kent, and also served as a justice of 
the peace. Later, he held other royal 
posts, for Edward III and Richard II, 
including clerk of the king’s works, 
with responsibility for the construction 
and repair of royal residences and 
parks as well as for walls, bridges, 
and sewers along the Thames river. 

The Canterbury Tales
During his 12 years of service as 
customs comptroller, Chaucer wrote 
prolifically, producing poems such  
as “The Legend of Good Women” and  
his much admired epic Troilus and 
Cressida, which tells in Middle English 
the story of the two lovers against the 
backdrop of the Siege of Troy. But his 
most celebrated work, The Canterbury 
Tales, was begun in the early 1380s.

The book is a collection of 24 vivid, 
naturalistic tales told in a storytelling 
contest by a group of “sondry folk”—
pilgrims of diverse standing and 
occupations—during their journey  
to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket  
in Canterbury. Chaucer may have 
taken inspiration for his great  
work from Boccaccio’s Decameron 
(1353), a series of 100 prose stories 
narrated by 10 ordinary people who 
gathered in a rural villa near Florence, 
in flight from the black death. 

Chaucer almost certainly drew on 
real-life people for the cast of The 
Canterbury Tales: the innkeeper shares 
the name of a known contemporary 
from London, and scholars have also 

Blanche was the first wife  
of Chaucer’s patron, John  

of Gaunt, who probably 
commissioned the piece when 
she died. Other early writings 
include the shorter poems 
“Anelida and Arcite” and “The 
House of Fame,” which openly 
references the Roman or Italian 
authors Ovid, Virgil, Boccaccio, 
and Dante. Chaucer’s affinity  
with the Italians and the swift 

development of his literary skills 
places him ahead of the canon of 
Renaissance literature in England, 
most of which dates from the late 
15th century.

Official appointments
Around 1366, Chaucer married 
Philippa Roet, a lady-in-waiting in the 
queen’s household, and the couple 
had at least three children. Philippa’s 
sister later married John of Gaunt. 

In 1374, Chaucer was appointed 
customs comptroller for London, a 
highly prestigious position because 
customs duties were a major source 
of the city’s wealth. The post earned 
him enemies in influential positions, 
and when he lost the protection of  
his patron, London’s mayor, he was 

Chaucer uses the pilgrimage to  
Canterbury as a framework to organize 
stories from a diverse cast of characters 
from different levels of society, who would 
have met only on such a journey. 

△  BECKET CASKET, c.1180
On December 29, 1170, Archbishop 
Thomas Becket was killed in Canterbury 
Cathedral by four knights in the service of 
Henry II. The murder stunned Christians 
and led to Becket’s canonization in 1173, 
making Canterbury the most important 
destination in England for pilgrims. This 
elaborate casket, which is decorated with 
scenes of his martyrdom, was made to 
house Becket’s relics.  

“ The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne. ” 

suggested identities for the Wife of 
Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law, 
and the Student. Chaucer ensured that 
the speech and mannerisms of each 
of his characters reflected their status 
and occupation, and their tales are 
further brought to life with witty 
references and colorful themes. He 
also proved his strength as a satirist, 
introducing a regional accent for  
the Reeve and exposing religious 
hypocrisy in the Pardoner’s Tale. 

The tales are loved for their earthy 
humor and bawdiness. In the Miller’s 
Tale, the unlucky admirer of the 
Miller’s wife is tricked into kissing  
her bottom. The Wife of Bath recounts 
with glee how she has manipulated 

An 1843 print from Edward Henry 
Corbould’s painting depicts Chaucer’s 
pilgrims at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, 
south London, where they began their 
journey to Canterbury.  

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five husbands and remained happily 
childless. Modern readers gain insight 
into the everyday lives and opinions  
of late 14th-century folk, who show 
little concern for their spiritual purity 
and far more interest in their social 
standing and physical satisfactions. 

An important aspect of the tales is 
Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” in which 
the narrator introduces the pilgrims 
and explains how they met in the 
Tabard Inn, Southwark. The omniscient 
narrator becomes an “I” in line 20 and 
begs intimacy: he undermines the 
authority of his own story by stating 

that he intends to describe each 
pilgrim as he perceives them, hinting 
that the tales may be unreliable and 
influenced by personal opinion. Each 
of the characters is defined by his or 
her social standing, which seems to  
be the main focus of the poem.

Declining fortunes 
Chaucer’s masterpiece was incomplete 
when he died in 1400, and not all of the 
pilgrims introduced in the Prologue 
tell their tales. It seems that Chaucer 
suffered financial hardship later in  
his life, for although he received a 

pension from Richard II, the new king,  
Henry IV (1367–1413), neglected to 
fulfill his predecessor’s promise.  
One of Chaucer’s last works, “The 
Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,”  
is a love poem to his purse and a  
plea to the king to renew his annuity. 

Chaucer was the first poet to  
be interred in Poet’s Corner at 
Westminster Abbey. The memorial 
erected there more than a century 
after his death suggests that he died 
on October 25, 1400, but—as with 
much of Chaucer’s life—we cannot  
be entirely sure that this is true. 

The House of Fame, a  
2,000-line poem, is 
published. It recounts 
a dream vision in 
which the narrator is 
guided by an eagle. 

In The Parliament of 
Fowls, Chaucer makes 
the first reference in 
English to a special 
day commemorating 
love—Valentine’s Day.

Chaucer writes  
Troilus and Cressida, 
taking his inspiration 
from Boccaccio’s  

“The Legend of Good 
Women” is published.  
It tells the stories of 10 
virtuous women from 
the classical world. 


The Canterbury Tales  
is published and 
becomes Chaucer’s 
most popular work. 

Rhyme royal 
Chaucer is acknowledged for his 
metrical innovation and poetic 
invention. He created rhyme royal, a 
form in which each stanza has seven 
lines, usually in iambic pentameter, 
and was among the first poets to  
use the five-stress line in rhyming 
couplets. Rhyme royal is a feature  
of Chaucer’s long poems Troilus and 
Cressida and The Parliament of Fowls 
and appears in four of the Canterbury 
Tales: the Man of Law’s Tale, the 
Prioress’s Tale, the Clerk’s Tale, and 
the Second Nun’s Tale. It later became 
a standard poetic form in English. 


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The son of a wealthy lawyer and 
landowner, François Rabelais was 
born late in the 15th century in Chinon 
in the wine region of Touraine. This 
landscape is described in full in the 
adventures of his giant, Gargantua, 
whose battle with his angry neighbor 
Picrochole is played out across the 
fields, streams, and great castles that 
surrounded Rabelais’ childhood home. 

Rabelais studied law in the early 
1500s, but after joining a Franciscan 
convent at La Baumette and taking 
holy orders in Poitou, he ran afoul of  
the Franciscans’ narrow-minded 
scholastic tradition. Drawn instead  

François Rabelais
1493/4–1553, FRENCH

Writer, physician, scholar, and priest, Rabelais was an intellectual giant of 
16th-century France. His name has become a byword for earthy, bawdy 
humor as a result of his masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

to Renaissance humanism (an 
intellectual approach founded on  
a resurgence of interest in classical 
ideas), Rabelais aligned himself  
with scholars who were using new 
translations of Latin and Greek 
manuscripts to underpin a broader, 
more enlightened philosophical 
education. Their analysis of text  
in ancient scrolls was also laying  
the foundation for the first modern 
translations of the Bible. However,  
in his French convent, Rabelais’ 
passion for the Greek language  
was deemed heretical and likely  
to foster dangerous thoughts.

Rabelais was granted a dispensation 
from the pope to continue his studies 
as a Benedictine monk, but by 1530  
he had broken his vows and moved  
to the University of Montpellier to 
study medicine. His two children by  
an unnamed widow were probably 
born during this period. Employed as  
a doctor at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in 
Lyon, he based his treatments on his 
own translations of the works of Galen 
and Hippocrates and was noted for his 
care of victims of the black death.

Renaissance agenda
Rabelais lived in turbulent times. 
France’s lengthy war with the Holy 
Roman Emperor Charles V over 
French territories in Italy led to a 
humiliating defeat in 1525, when 
Francis I was captured and held  
for ransom. The rise of humanism  
also coincided with the spread of the 
Reformation from Germany. Posters  
in French streets that railed against 
church corruption and Catholic 
practices had violent repercussions  
as Lutherans were accused of  
heresy and burned at the stake.    

Rabelais was born and raised in this 
cottage near the village of Seuilly. The 
early battles in Gargantua are acted  
out in the surrounding countryside.

“ My pen’s to laughs not tears assigned.  
Laughter’s the property of Man.  
Live joyfully. ”

Comic invention
As a linguist, Rabelais delighted in  
the power of language and its comic 
effect, often packing his chapters with 
word games and lists. For example, 
the lengthy catalog of books in his 
library at the Abbey St. Victor includes 
such gems as Fields of Enemas, 
Ape-chattering with a Rosary, and 
Scrubbing Dons Clean. Rabelais  
had a great influence on written 
French, fabricating new words and 
popularizing expressions such as  
"not worth a button” and “nature 
abhors a vacuum." “Rabelaisian” is 
used today to describe bawdy humor; 
“Pantagruelism” describes gaiety  
of mind but with a satirical purpose; 
and “gargantuan” applies to all  
things huge, such as Rabelais’ 
intellect and curiosity.


Rabelais is memorialized in this  
17th-century portrait, which hangs in  
the Château de Versailles near Paris.  
His legacy was liberating prose writing  
from its medieval constraints. 

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companions reveal an aptitude for  
law, science, philosophy, poetry, 
medicine, nature, and pacifism. 

Rabelais borrowed from the  
poetry and prose of previous eras  
but laced them with modern wisdom, 
new words coined from Greek and 
Latin roots, and aphorisms such as 
“Ignorance is the mother of all evils” 
and “Nature abhors a vacuum," many 
of which are still in use today. 

Patronage and censorship 
Pantagruel and Gargantua were hailed 
by the public but were condemned as 
obscene by the censors at the Collège  
de Sorbonne in Paris, who repeatedly 
petitioned the Supreme Court to have 

Standing on the threshold of  
this rapidly changing world, 
Rabelais began to write tales 
that had no precedent in 
medieval literature. His stories 
relate the adventures of two 
giants, Gargantua and his son 
Pantagruel. Pantagruel (fully titled 
The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds 
and Words of the Renowned 
Pantagruel, King of the 
Dipsodes) was published in 
1532 under the pseudonym 

Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of 
Rabelais’ name) and was followed in 
1535 by Gargantua (The Inestimable 
Life of the Great Gargantua). 

The tales are packed with bawdy 
and often scatological humor: some 
chapters are filled with lists of vulgar 
insults; characters are given gross 
names (Captain Squit, Sieur de 
Slurp-ffart); and the chapter titles 
themselves signal Rabelais’ comic 
taste (“How Grandgousier recognized 
the miraculous intelligence of 
Gargantua from his invention of a 
bum-wiper”). However, beneath their 
surface, the tales bubble with satire 
and philosophical insight. 

Giant steps
Rabelais was well versed in the 
traditions of medieval chivalric 
romance and filled his mock-heroic 
stories with wine-drinking, gluttony, 
debauchery, bodily functions, and 
bizarre reversals of expectation: for 
example, Gargantua awards his monk 
the sumptuous Abbey of Thélème, 
where nuns and monks live in luxury 
and marry well. Laughter is central to 
the book, but Rabelais invites readers 
to seek out the intellectual marrow in  
his tales as he ridicules futile warfare, 
religious dogma, and narrow-minded 
education. In their search for life’s 
meaning, his giants and their 

“ … a good deed freely done to a man  
of reason grows from noble thoughts  
and memories. ”

Rabelais benefited from the patronage  
of Marguerite of Navarre (the older  
sister of Francis I). She is pictured here  
in a portrait by Jean Clouet, court  
painter to Francis. 

In his time, Rabelais was a highly 
regarded physician. He presided over  
a lecture on anatomy that included the 
public dissection of a hanged man. 

them banned for their political and 
heretical content. Rabelais, however, 
had influential friends. He enjoyed  
the protection of senior statesman 
Guillaume du Bellay and high-ranking 
liberal ecclesiastics Cardinal Jean du 
Bellay, Bishop Geoffroy d'Estissac, and 
Cardinal Odet de Châtillon. He was 
also part of a favored circle of poets 
and writers protected by Marguerite  
of Navarre, the sister of Francis I.  


Rabelais counted the preeminent 
French humanists Pierre Amy, 
Guillaume Budé, and André Tiraqueau 
as allies, and the Dutch Renaissance 
humanist Erasmus as his guiding 
light. Rabelais was a dedicated 
follower of this man of learning, 
humanity, and wit, subscribing to  
his view that core human principles 
and a wealth of knowledge could be 
sourced from ancient Greek and Latin 
manuscripts. He corresponded with 
Erasmus, and modeled his life  
of intellectual pursuits, medicine,  
and humorous writing on that of  
his “spiritual father."


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The French printmaker Gustave Doré 
brought Gargantua to grotesque life  
in his 19th-century wood-engraved 
illustrations. Here, men shovel  
mustard into the giant’s mouth. 

The king and his successor, Henri II, 
granted Rabelais a royal privilege to 
publish his works, which lasted 
throughout his lifetime. In 1535, the 
author traveled to Rome as companion 
and physician to Cardinal Jean du 
Bellay, and was granted absolution by 
the pope for giving up his holy orders. 
He then returned to France, becoming 
a secular priest and practicing 
medicine, and in 1537 became a 
Doctor of Medicine in Montpellier. 

New volumes
More than 10 years passed before 
Rabelais picked up the story of 
Pantagruel and his down-and-out 
trickster companion Panurge in his 
Third Book. In the meantime, two of his 
most important patrons had died and, 
in France’s increasingly dangerous 
climate of religious intolerance, 
Rabelais was forced to flee to the free 
German city of Metz. There, he worked 
as a physician, read the work of Martin 
Luther, and remained unrepentant 
about his writing. 

The theologians who had savagely 
attacked his earlier writing found 
themselves mocked in the comedic 
Fourth Book, which Rabelais prepared 
during another stay in Italy with 
Cardinal Jean du Bellay. Thanks to  
his powerful patrons, these chapters 
of Pantagruel’s deeds were published 
in spite of repeated condemnation  
and censorship by the Sorbonne and 
the Supreme Court. 

After Rabelais returned to France he 
was given two benefices, the parishes 
of Medon and Saint-Christophe-de-
Jambet, to support him in his old  
age but he never officiated in them.  
He died on the rue des Jardins, Paris  
in 1553. His last reported words reveal 
an open-minded readiness for the 
next big adventure: “I am going to  
seek a great perhaps ....”

Rabelais begins 
Pantagruel with gross 
details of the giant’s 
birth and goes on to 
describe how he 
creates a race of tiny 
people by farting. 

Gargantua features the 
giant’s inventive use of 
a well-downed goose 
as proto–toilet paper. 
Gargantua’s father is 
drawn into a childish 
war over stolen cakes.

The Third Book 
introduces Panurge,  
a trickster who seeks 
advice on whether  
to marry after it is 
prophesied that he 
will be cuckolded.  

The Fourth Book  
takes Pantagruel and 
Panurge on a sea 
voyage, and into battle 
with the chitterlings, 
who are half people 
and half sausage.


The Fifth Book, 
features journeys to  
a collection of fantasy 
islands. It may not be 
the work of Rabelais.

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Michel de Montaigne
1533–1592, FRENCH

Born into an aristocratic family, Montaigne enjoyed a successful career  
as a statesman before turning to writing. His magnum opus, the Essays, 
established the essay as a literary genre.

“ It is myself that I portray … I am myself 
the matter of my book. ”

This portrait of Michel de Montaigne, 
painted by an unknown French artist  
in the first quarter of the 17th century, 
hangs in the magnificent Château de 
Versailles just outside Paris. 

The essay
Montaigne is regarded as the 
originator of what is today known as 
the essay—a short piece of prose 
expressing a personal point of view. 
He chose the word essais (attempts) 
to describe his experiments with the 
form; the term was later adopted for 
the genre of short pieces of writing 
presenting an argument or opinion 
(including the “formal” academic 
essay). It was his subjective approach 
that inspired the development of the 
essay as a genre, especially among 
English writers. 


Michel de Montaigne was born in  
1533 in Guienne, southwest France.  
A scion of minor nobility, he was first 
educated at home, in Latin. He was 
later sent to the Collège de Guienne  
in Bordeaux, which had gained a 
reputation for its teaching of the 
liberal arts. From there, he progressed 
to the University of Toulouse to  
study law and, after taking a seat in 
the Bordeaux parliament, the young 
man looked set to pursue a successful 
career in government. However, in 
1568 Montaigne’s father 
commissioned Michel to produce a 
translation of Raymond Sebond’s 
15th-century theological treatise 
Theologia Naturali—a task that fueled 
Montaigne’s passion for literature and 
philosophy. That same year, his father 

died, and Michel inherited the title of 
Seigneur de Montaigne and the estate 
that went with it. He began to extricate 
himself from his responsibilities in 
Bordeaux, and in 1571 finally made 
the break, retiring from the parliament 
and moving permanently to Guienne. 

A place for thought
Montaigne devoted himself to writing, 
and chose the southern tower of the 
chateau as his workplace, redesigning 
it to house his study and library. Here, 
he embarked on the series of short, 
idiosyncratic pieces of prose that he 
called essais (see box, right), which 
covered a vast range of topics from 
politics and philosophy to love, sex, 
anger, cannibalism, and the art of 
conversation. His writings gave little 

respect to traditional theories; indeed 
he embraced uncertainty and often 
contradicted himself. The way in which 
he blended personal experience with 
philosophical inquiry made him one of 
the most original thinkers of his time. 
By 1580, he had written enough of 
these short pieces of prose to publish 
them as the two-volume first edition 
of the Essays.

Final years
Soon after, Montaigne was troubled by 
kidney stones and traveled to Italy in 
search of a cure. While there, he 
discovered he had been elected  
Mayor of Bordeaux in his absence,  
and returned to France to take up his 
duties. Although this must have been  
a distraction from his writing—the job 
included the handling of the conflict 
between Catholics and Protestants in 
the area—he found time to continue 
revising and adding to his essays, 
publishing several more editions, 
culminating in the three-volume fifth 
edition featuring all his essays, three 
years before his death in 1592.

Built in the 14th century, this castle in 
Guienne, Périgord, was home to Michel  
de Montaigne. Most of the structure was 
rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1885.

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Miguel de Cervantes was 50 years old 
and in prison for the third time in his 
life when a story began to take shape 
in his imagination. In the years after 
his release, he set its hero loose on 
the page: Don Quixote, a would-be 
knight driven insane by reading 
chivalric romances, pursued his 
quests across La Mancha, Spain, 
mounted on his skeletal horse, 
Rocinante, and accompanied by his 
loyal squire, Sancho Panza. Published 
five years after Cervantes’ release in 
1605, Don Quixote was unlike anything 
that had come before in literary 
history, and it became the springboard 
for centuries of experimentation with 
the novel form. The book spawned its 
own adjective, “quixotic,” to describe a 
certain hopeless idealism. Aptly,  
the word is a fitting description of 
Cervantes’ own life, with its peaks  
and valleys of military heroics and 
capture, and storytelling that floats 
over a period of Spanish history that 
was fraught with conflict.

Early life and learning
Born on St. Michael’s Day (September 
29) 1547 in Alcalá de Henares near 
Madrid, Miguel was the fourth of seven 
children born to Leonor de Cortinas, 
the daughter of a nobleman, and 
Rodrigo de Cervantes, an itinerant 
surgeon-cum-barber. Little is known 

Miguel de Cervantes
1547–1616, SPANISH 

Spain’s most celebrated writer, Cervantes, was a 16th-century soldier, 
poet, playwright, and novelist. His landmark work, Don Quixote, is 
regarded as the first great novel of modern literature.

of Cervantes’ early life, but at the  
age of 21 he was studying in Madrid 
under the tutorship of a humanist 
professor, Juan López de Hoyos, who 
described him as his “beloved pupil.” 
By 1569, Cervantes had moved to 
Rome (possibly because he was 
wanted in Spain for wounding a rival 
in a duel) and was working as a 
manservant for a cardinal. 

Conflict and capture
In a struggle to wrest control of the 
Mediterranean from the Ottoman 
forces under Selim II, Spain had 

Cervantes was badly injured in 1571  
at the Battle of Lepanto, shown in this 
16th-century painting, in which Christian 
naval forces defeated the Turks.  

“ For me alone was Don Quixote born,  
and I for him. His was the power of  
action, mine of writing. ”

Fact and fantasy
Cervantes experimented with many 
literary forms over his lifetime, but  
in Don Quixote he created a hall of 
mirrors. The reader is drawn into  
the fantasies of its insane hero, who 
nonetheless travels in the real world 
with a sensible companion. Comedy, 
tragedy, and the social tensions of  
the time surface in this interplay 
between reality and illusion. The 
novel is episodic, with stories from 
multiple characters broadening the 
view, and playfully self-referential: 
characters are aware of their role  
in the book and the narrator makes 
regular appearances to discuss  
the subterfuge in his work and the 
beguiling effects of literature. 


formed an alliance of Catholic forces 
with Venice and the papacy. In 1570, 
Cervantes and his brother Rodrigo 
embraced the cause, and joined the 
army in Spanish-controlled Naples. 
The two brothers sailed with the fleet 
on board the Marquesa and joined in 
the bloody battle of Lepanto near 
Corinth, which ended in a crushing 

No certain likenesses of Cervantes exist:  
this painting, probably by Juan de Jáuregui, 
is the basis of many images of the writer, 
including those on Spanish euro coins. 

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defeat for the Turks. Cervantes was 
shot twice in the chest, and his left 
hand was all but destroyed by a third 
gunshot, yet he recovered to fight in 
other battles. His experiences fueled 
his later stories, but his time on Italian 
soil was invaluable, too: as an avid  
reader, Cervantes was exposed to  
the Renaissance’s philosophical and 
literary revolution in its birthplace.

The brothers were sailing back to 
Spain in 1575 when Barbary pirates 
attacked their ship, captured the  
crew, and sold them into slavery in 
Algiers, a Muslim center for Christian 
slave traffic. Cervantes was carrying  
letters of commendation from high 
command, in the hope of later 
securing a captaincy in Spain; these 
letters made him a prize captive, with 

a large ransom on his head. Records 
from other slaves at the time describe 
Cervantes as a courageous leader 
who made four attempts to escape, 
but was protected from punishment 
and even death by the high regard of 
his captors. His status prolonged his 
imprisonment; he was incarcerated 
for five years and was on the point of 
being shipped to Constantinople and 
sold when his family, helped by an 
order of Trinitarian friars, raised 500 
gold escudos to free him and bring 
him back to Madrid.

A return to Spain
The one-armed man from Lepanto,  
as Cervantes came to be known, 
struggled to make a living in Spain; 
and so he turned to writing. Enriched 
by its American colonies, Spain was  
in the midst of its Golden Age—a 
period of intense artistic and literary 
creativity—and Cervantes made an 
impact with two of his early plays.  
The Dungeons of Algiers drew on his 
time as a Christian slave in Algiers, 
and Numantia told the story of a cruel 
siege of Numantia by the Romans.

Spain in retreat
At the time of Cervantes’ birth, 
Habsburg Spain was a superpower 
with territories in the East Indies,  
the Low Countries, and Italy. Huge 
quantities of gold from the Americas 
were enriching the country, and  
Spain was a European center of art, 
literature, and philosophy. However, 
Cervantes’ major works were all 
produced in a country that was in 
retreat. The reigns of both Philip II 
(1527–1598) and Philip III (1598–
1621) were dogged by repression,  
the Inquisition’s notorious religious 
fanaticism, the Catholic Counter-
Reformation to stem the spread of 
Protestantism, and rapidly dwindling 
fortunes from Spain’s colonies and 

Cervantes was captured and sold as  
a slave. He drew on his experiences in  
the Captive's Tale in Don Quixote and  
in two plays that he set in Algiers.

Cervantes and his creation Don Quixote 
have become symbolic of Spain itself. 
This statue of the writer stands in 
Cervantes Square in the author’s  
hometown of Alcalá de Henares.


Cervantes also wrote fiction. His 
pastoral romance, La Galatea (1585), 
was centered on the story of two 
shepherds who fall in love with the  
sea nymph Galatea. 

Although he was paid for his  
writing, Cervantes did not earn enough 
to support himself and his complex 
family. At the age of 37, he had met  
the love of his life, a married woman 

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The everyday is transformed into the 
extraordinary in Cervantes’ world; his 
eccentric hero, Don Quixote, famously  
tilts at windmills, which he believes to be 
giants crossing the plains of La Mancha. 

named Ana Franca de Rojas, and 
fathered his only child, Isabel de 
Saavedra. He then married Catalina  
de Palacios Salazar from Esquivias 
but lived apart from her, traveling 
across Andalusia as a commissary  
for provisions for the Armada, the 
Spanish naval fleet.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada 
by the English in 1588 accelerated 
Spain’s decline after its golden age  
of superpower status (see box, 
opposite). The monarchy tried to 
remedy the faltering economy by 
imposing punitive taxes on people  
who worked the land. In spite of many 
discrepancies in the ledgers from his 
earlier grain collecting, Cervantes was 
appointed a tax collector, but jailed in 
Seville for embezzlement for a brief 
period, and then again for a year. On 
his release, he continued to write 
sonnets and plays, and also the great 
story that he mapped out in prison. 

Don Quixote
In 1605, at the age of 57, Cervantes 
saw his masterpiece, Don Quixote, 
published and began his most 
productive period as a writer. The 
novel was both a parody of the 
medieval world of chivalric knights 
and their ladies and a satirical 
commentary on contemporary 
Spanish society. It was an instant 
success. The name of Cervantes 
became known in Spain as well as in 
England, France, and Italy, since his  
book was translated and published  
internationally. However, he enjoyed 
only temporary prosperity because he 

had sold the rights. He moved to 
Madrid where he lived among writers 
and poets, and went on to write 
Exemplary Novels (1613) and Journey  
to Parnassus (1614). Incensed by the 
appearance of a counterfeit Part II  
of Don Quixote’s adventures written  
by an anonymous author, he published 
his own sequel in 1615.

Cervantes died “old, a soldier, a 
gentleman and poor” on April 22,  
1616, and was buried at the Convent 
of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. 
In 2015, fragments of his bones  
were recovered. Spain’s greatest  
writer was then given a formal burial, 
and a monument was erected to him 
almost 400 years after his death.


La Galatea, Cervantes’ 
first major work, is a 
pastoral romance, 
popular around this 
time. It ends abruptly, 
mid story, in Part II.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo 
Don Quijote de la 
Mancha, the first 
volume of Don Quixote, 
is published and 
becomes an 
immediate success.

Exemplary Novels, 
Cervantes’ collection 
of 12 short stories 
typifying the problems 
of 17th-century Spain, 
is published.  

Don Quixote  
Part II is published 
after an unknown 
writer produces an 
unauthorized sequel.


Persiles (Los  
Trabajos de Persiles  
y Sigismunda) is 
published. Cervantes 
finished the work  
just three days  
before his death.

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William Shakespeare was born in the 
market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, 
Warwickshire, in April 1564. The exact 
date of his birth is not known, but is 
usually given as April 23, St. George’s 
Day. His father was a man of ambition, 
who had been born into a family of 
tenant farmers but left the land to 
become a glover in Stratford; he 
prospered in his business, and 
married a daughter of the landowning  
Arden family to whom the farming 
Shakespeares paid their rent. He 
played a prominent part in Stratford 
life and owned two houses. 

William Shakespeare
1564–1616, ENGLISH 

The outstanding poet and dramatist of the English Renaissance, Shakespeare 
wrote more than 30 plays, as well as narrative poems and sonnets. As  
a master of tragedy and comedy, he has no equal in English literature.

The oldest of five children who 
survived infancy, William was sent  
to the local secondary school. He was 
later described by his fellow English 
dramatist Ben Jonson as having 
“small Latin and less Greek,” but his 
schooling undoubtedly introduced  
him to the works of classical Latin 
authors, the essential grounding for 
any educated person at that time.
Little is known of Shakespeare’s 
progress from his provincial roots  
to success as an actor and dramatist 
in London—only the bare bones of  
this story have any certainty. 

Early life in Stratford
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, 
a Stratford woman eight years his 
senior. She was pregnant by the time 
they reached the altar and twins soon 
followed the first child—the boy twin 
was christened Hamnet. At the  
age of 23, Shakespeare was living  
in his father’s house with a wife and 
three children. He then moved to 
London, leaving his family behind. 
According to some accounts, he 
was obliged to leave Stratford 
after being accused of poaching a 
deer; other sources suggest that 
he was fleeing the constraints  
of a loveless marriage. But it  
is possible that, being aware of 
possessing an exceptional talent 
for verse, he simply left to pursue 
a life of fame and fortune.

A London debut
In 1587, when Shakespeare 
arrived in London, the city’s 
theatrical scene was in its infancy. 
The few permanent theaters,  
built just outside the city, were  

“ We are such stuff / As dreams  
are made on, and our little life /  
Is rounded with a sleep. ”


Thought to be the only portrait of William 
Shakespeare painted during his lifetime, 
this work was commissioned from an 
unknown artist by the writer’s patron,  
the Earl of Southampton. Its name comes 
from the Cobbe family, who owned it. 

Quartos and folios
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be 
performed on stage, not to be read  
in print, and his manuscripts were  
the property of the acting company.  
In his lifetime a few of the plays were 
published in “quarto” editions, some 
authorized by the company and  
others pirated by a member of the 
audience surreptitiously scribbling 
down the lines as they were spoken 
by the actors. Inevitably such “bad  
quartos” were error strewn. After 
Shakespeare’s death a number  
of more carefully prepared “folio” 
editions of his collected plays were 
published. The First Folio of 1623  
is considered the most reliable  
source for most of the plays. 


Shakespeare was born and grew up in 
this timber-framed house in Stratford-
upon-Avon. The house was divided into  
two: one part served as a living space, the 
other as his father’s business premises. 

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first poetry appeared in print. Venus 
and Adonis, a narrative love poem, was 
issued in 1593 and dedicated to the 
20-year-old Henry Wriothesley, Earl of 
Southampton. Shakespeare’s second 
narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, 
published the following year, was also 
dedicated to the earl. 

By this time, Shakespeare had 
begun writing a sonnet sequence—a 
poetic genre recently popularized by 
Edmund Spenser. Probably written 
between 1591 and 1603, and first 
published together in 1609, the 154 
sonnets loosely narrate the poet’s love 
for a “Fair Youth” and a “Dark Lady.” 
Many scholars have attempted to 
identify these characters as real 
people in Shakespeare’s life, as well 
as the mysterious “Mr. W. H.” to whom 
the sonnets are dedicated. The poems 
suggest that Shakespeare may have 
been gay or bisexual, and some 
scholars argue that the “Fair Youth” 
can be identified as the Earl of 
Southampton or Shakespeare’s later 
patron, the Earl of Pembroke. It is also 
possible that the poems are purely 
imaginative and bear little relationship 
to Shakespeare’s private life. Either 
way, they are certainly among the 
finest poems in the English language.   

Stage successes
When the plague abated and the 
playhouses reopened in 1594, 
Shakespeare joined a company known 

Marlowe or Nashe. A tremendous 
popular success, these works made 
Shakespeare prominent enough  
to receive a bitter verbal broadside 
from rival playwright Robert Greene, 
who abused him as “an upstart Crow 
… in his own conceit the only Shake-
scene in the country.”

Plague and poetry
From 1592 to 1594, Shakespeare’s 
career as a dramatist was interrupted 
by a major outbreak of the plague that 
decimated London’s population. All  
the playhouses were closed for the 
duration, and it was during this fallow 
period for drama that Shakespeare’s 

hardly a decade old, and a handful of 
university-educated poets, including 
Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, and 
Christopher Marlowe, were beginning 
to write original works for companies 
of actors to perform. Exactly how 
Shakespeare insinuated himself into 
this budding theatrical world is a 
matter for speculation. Legend has  
it that he started by taking care of the 
horses outside one of the playhouses,  
but it is known that by 1592 he had 
established himself as both an actor 
and a playwright. 

Elizabethan theatrical productions 
were collaborative activities, and the 
earliest plays in the Shakespeare 
canon—including the three parts  
of Henry VI and Richard III—may  
have been written with contributions 
from other dramatists such as 

The English actor and popular clown Will 
Kemp (died 1603) is shown dancing a jig 
in this woodcut, c.1600. Kemp was one  
of Shakespeare’s original players, and his 
name is mentioned in the stage directions 
of some of the early quarto editions of the 
author’s plays (“Enter Will Kemp“).

This 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s 
Sonnets was probably compiled and 
ordered by Shakespeare himself. It 
contains some of the most famous  
verses in English literature.

The Globe Theatre
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the  
acting company to which Shakespeare 
belonged, built a new playhouse on  
the south bank of the Thames in 1599. 
With room for up to 3,000 spectators, 
the Globe accommodated three tiers  
of seating and a pit with standing room 
for “groundlings.” Part of the stage 
protruded into the audience under  
the open sky. The original Globe 
building burned down in 1613; it was 
rebuilt and remained open until 1642.  
A modern replica of the theater, built 
near the original site, has staged plays 
since 1997.



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as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (so 
called because its patron was Lord 
Hunsdon, the Queen’s Lord High 
Chamberlain). The company included 
two of the finest actors of the time—
comedian Will Kemp and tragedian 
Richard Burbage. Shakespeare also 
performed on stage, but his chief role 
was to create new material. Over  
the following 5 years he wrote 10 
plays, including Romeo and Juliet,  

“ All the world’s a stage, / And all the  
men and women merely players. ”


In Ophelia (1851–1852), English  
artist Sir John Everett Millais depicts  
a scene from Shakespeare’s tragedy 
Hamlet, c.1601 (Act IV, Scene VII).   
Ophelia—shown here floating in a  
brook—drowns herself over her  
deep distress upon hearing that Hamlet,  
her lover, has murdered her father. 

the comedies A Midsummer Night’s 
Dream and As You Like It, and the 
history plays Richard II, Henry IV  
(Parts One and Two) and Henry V. 
These works were an immediate 
success, both with popular London 
audiences and when they were 
performed for the queen at court. 

Shakespeare did not invent his own 
stories—his plots were borrowed  
from a variety of sources—but  

he breathed life into a vast range  
of characters with an unmatched  
vigor of language. His mixing of high 
tragedy and low comedy, romance and 
bawdiness, troubled some educated 
Elizabethans concerned with the 
classical rules of drama, but even  
they eventually succumbed to the 
power of his inventiveness and 
imagery. While other playwrights  
led checkered lives—Marlowe was 


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killed in a pub brawl and Jonson  
was imprisoned twice for offending 
the authorities—Shakespeare kept  
out of trouble and accumulated 
modest wealth. He bought New Place, 
a substantial house in Stratford, and 
later acquired land outside the town. 
When the Chamberlain’s company 
built the Globe Theatre in London in 
1599, he was one of the co-owners 
who invested in the property. But 
public success was overshadowed  
by great private misfortune when  
Shakespeare’s 12-year-old son, 
Hamnet, died in 1596. 

Darkening drama
Many critics have noted a darkening  
of Shakespeare’s mood in the early 
years of the 17th century, which  
is reflected in the succession of 
tragedies that he wrote, from Julius 
Caesar (1599) and Hamlet (c.1601)  
to Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth 
(c.1604–1606), and Antony and 
Cleopatra and Coriolanus (1606–1607). 
There is also speculation that he may 
have contracted a venereal disease, 
which provoked violent expressions of 
revulsion at the sexual act in some  
of these plays. On the other hand, this 
is also the period when he wrote the 
mellifluous comedy Twelfth Night.  
Also, since tragedy was considered  
the highest form of drama, it is not 
surprising that a playwright at the 
peak of his powers should have  
turned to weighty tragic themes.

After the death of Elizabeth I in  
1603, the Chamberlain’s Men were 
accorded the patronage of the new 
Scottish occupant of the throne, 
James I. They became the King’s Men 
and flourished on frequent, well-paid 

Henry VI, Parts 1 
to 3, is a trilogy  
of history plays 
that focuses 
on the Wars  
of the Roses. 

A Midsummer 
Night’s Dream, a 
romantic comedy, 
includes country 
lore of the fairy 

Julius Caesar, a 
Roman tragedy,  
is one of the first 
plays performed 
at the Globe 

complex story of 
murder, madness, 
and revenge set  
in Denmark—is 
the longest of 


Othello is a 
tragedy in  
which the insane 
jealousy of the 
Moorish soldier 
Othello drives 
him to murder 
his innocent wife.

Macbeth is one  
of Shakespeare’s 
bleakest tragedies, 
and depicts the 
corrosive effects of 
guilt on the minds 
of a regicidal 

Sonnets (the 
sequence) is 
published. It was 
probably written 
in the 1590s and 
early 1600s.

The Tempest tells 
the story of the 
magician Prospero 
and his daughter; 
it is the last 
complete play 
written by 

This painting, Macbeth (c.1820), by English 
artist John Martin, depicts a scene from 
Shakespeare’s play in which Macbeth and 
Banquo meet the three witches (shown on 
the left in the painting) on the heath. 

performances for the court. In writing 
his Scottish play, Macbeth, Shakespeare 
was probably catering to James’s 
interest in his home country, although 
the tragedy hardly presents a flattering 
view of political life north of the border. 

Changes in style
Shakespeare continued to write  
plays for performance at the Globe, 
with its healthily mixed audience of 
sophisticates and boisterous common 
people. However, the influence of the 
court gradually pushed him toward a 
more refined style of drama, in line 
with educated taste. This tendency 
was further encouraged when, 
starting in 1608, the company began 
also to perform at the smaller, covered 
Blackfriars Theatre, a venue that 
attracted a more exclusive audience. 

Plays such as Pericles and The Winter’s 
Tale exhibit a more ornate and less 
vigorous late Shakespearean style.

The Tempest, written around 1611,  
is probably the last play Shakespeare 
wrote on his own. Its final speech, in 
which the magician Prospero calls  
on the audience to “set me free,” is 
often interpreted as Shakespeare’s 
farewell to the theater. He continued  
to write for the King’s Men’s company, 
especially in partnership with  
John Fletcher. However, the first 
performance of Shakespeare and 

Queen Elizabeth I
Reigning from 1558 to 1603, Tudor 
monarch Elizabeth I presided over  
an English Renaissance, patronizing 
artists, poets, and playwrights. 
Shakespeare’s history plays reflect 
the national pride she inspired. But 
her reign was plagued by religious 
divides. She executed her Catholic 
cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, and 
resisted the Armada sent against 
England by Catholic Spanish ruler 
Philip II. (Although Shakespeare’s 
family may have been closet 
Catholics, he avoided trouble even 
when his former patron, the Earl  
of Southampton, was implicated in  
the failed Essex rebellion in 1601.) 
Unmarried, Elizabeth was succeeded 
by her cousin, James VI of Scotland.   


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Fletcher’s play King Henry VIII in  
1613 led to disaster, when a cannon 
shot used as a special effect set fire  
to the Globe’s roof and burned down  
the building. Yet it was rebuilt and 
Shakespeare was still involved in  
the affairs of the acting company.

According to a well-established 
rumor, it was while traveling back  
to Stratford from London in rough 
weather after a hearty session with 
fellow poets in the Mermaid Tavern 
that Shakespeare contracted the fever 

that killed him. He died in April 1616, 
possibly on his 52nd birthday. He left  
a will that reflected a normal concern 
for the future of his family members; 
the only, much-noted, oddity being the 
bequest to his wife of his “second-best 
bed.” It has been persuasively argued 
that the second-best bed would have 
been the marital bed, whereas the  
best bed was reserved for guests. 
Shakespeare’s family erected a 
monument to him in Stratford’s Holy 
Trinity Church, where he was buried. 

“ Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor  
  player / That struts and frets his hour  
  upon the stage … ”

Shakespeare was buried (April 25, 1616) 
in the same church in which he was 
baptized (April 26, 1564). His wife and 
eldest daughter are buried with him.  

This portrait of Jonson, Shakespeare’s 
friend and rival, is by Abraham van 
Blyenberch, c.1617. Jonson described 
Shakespeare’s writings in a poem as  
such that “neither man nor muse can 
praise too much.” 

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John Donne was born in 
London. His father was 
an iron merchant, and 
mother the daughter  
of the playwright John 
Heywood. He studied at 
Oxford University but 
left without earning a 
degree and, in 1592, 
entered Lincoln’s Inn 
(one of London’s Inns 
of Court). He never 
practiced law, but his 
legal training had a 
significant impact on his writing.

Donne became a soldier in 1596, 
joining the Earl of Essex’s expedition 
against Spain. The action that he  
saw there inspired two poems (“The 
Calme” and “The Storme”), and helped 
him to land his first important post,  
as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, 
the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.  
In 1601, he became a member of 
parliament for Brackley, a seat that 
was in Egerton’s gift.

Love’s troubles
Donne wrote much of his finest  
love poetry around this time but, 
ironically, love led to his professional 
undoing. In 1601, he secretly married 
Anne More, the 17-year-old niece of 
Lady Egerton. A storm of protest 
ensued. Anne’s horrified father tried  

John Donne
1572–1631, ENGLISH

Donne had a rich and varied career—soldier, politician, courtier, diplomat, 
and clergyman—but he is remembered for his startlingly original verse 
and is recognized as one of the finest poets of the Renaissance.

to have the marriage 
annulled, and Donne 
was fired from his post 
and briefly imprisoned. 
Jobless and homeless, 
the couple had to rely for 

a time on the generosity of friends. 
Donne used the opportunity to study 
and develop his writing, but his efforts 
to find another public post failed. 

Church career
Donne realized that his only hope of 
advancement lay with the church. But 
he had been raised a Catholic and 
these were difficult times for the faith, 
particularly after the Gunpowder Plot 
of 1605, when Catholic rebels tried  
to blow up the Houses of Parliament. 
Over time, Donne shifted allegiance  
to the Church of England, and even 
wrote a tract, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), 
urging others to follow his lead. He 
was ordained in 1615 and gained a 
series of promotions. He became  
a royal chaplain, a divinity reader at 
Lincoln’s Inn, and, ultimately, dean of 

St. Paul’s. He preached before both 
James I and Charles I, and was chosen 
for a prestigious peacemaking mission 
to Germany (1619–1620).

Donne produced prose and verse, 
tackling both secular and religious 
themes, and also wrote verses to  
win favor with potential patrons. His 
love poetry is urgent, witty, and often 
racy. Much of it is conversational, as  
if addressed to an imagined mistress: 
“For Godsake hold your tongue, and let 
me love …” (“The Canonization”). It often 
revolves around ingenious puns or 
conceits, but it can also be disarmingly 
tender: “I wonder by my troth, what 
thou and I / Did, till we lov’d?…” (“The 
Good Morrow”). In later life, Donne 
concentrated on religious verse. The 
finest examples are his Holy Sonnets.

Donne was revered as a master 
when his poems were published, but 
fell out of favor in the 18th century.  
His star rose again in the 20th century, 
when T. S. Eliot hailed him as a major 
precursor of Modernist poetry.

The Metaphysical Poets
Donne is traditionally described as the 
most prominent of the Metaphysical 
poets. This group was never a formal 
school, although its members did 
share certain stylistic features. It 
included figures such as George 
Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Andrew 
Marvell, and Thomas Traherne. 
Originally, the term was pejorative, 
used by Dryden and Dr. Johnson to 
criticize the poets’ far-fetched 
conceits and elaborate wordplay. 
Johnson disliked, in particular, their 
“discovery of occult resemblances in 
things apparently unlike.”  

UNKNOWN, c.1655

As a soldier, Donne was involved in the 
Anglo-Spanish War, when English and 
Dutch forces attacked the city of Cádiz. 
This engraving from 1596 depicts the 
troops landing and the Spanish ships 
being attacked in the harbor. 

The title page of the 
1610 edition of John 
Donne’s Pseudo-Martyr  
is shown here, with  
the poet‘s handwriting 
visible at the top and 
bottom of the page.

◁  JOHN DONNE, c.1695
This portrait, by an unknown English 
artist, shows Donne as a brooding lover. 
The inscription reads “O Lady, lighten our 
darkness,” suggesting that the cause of 
the writer’s misery is a woman.

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John Milton
1608–1674, ENGLISH

Author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, John Milton was a politically 
engaged writer who advocated the execution of Charles I. The last  
20 years of his life were affected by total blindness.

▷  MILTON, c.1629
This portrait (artist unknown) depicts 
Milton in his early 30s, possibly while  
studying at Cambridge University. The 
poet began writing when he was young 
and produced a number of major poems 
while he was still a student. 

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Paradise Lost had a limited readership 
when first published, in part because of 
Milton’s political and religious views. It 
dealt with weighty themes—the fall of 
man, good and evil, and the relationship 
between free will and authority. 

John Milton was born in London  
in 1608, the son of a prosperous 
scrivener (lawyer). A studious child, he 
became fluent in Latin, Hebrew, and 
Italian. He was sent to complete his 
education at Cambridge University, but 
found the teaching and company dull. 
At Christmas 1629, he wrote his first 
major poem, “On the Morning of 
Christ’s Nativity.” This was followed  
by L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, brilliant 
exercises in the pastoral style. He  
left Cambridge in 1632, convinced  
that his destiny lay in poetry. 

Milton’s early writings show a 
creative tension between his serious 
Protestant faith and the world of 
mythology, opened up to him by  

his reading of Latin classics. In 1634, 
he wrote Comus, a masque (a form of 
staged aristocratic entertainment) in 
which Christian virtue triumphs over 
debauched revelry. Lycidas, written in 
1637 to mourn the death of a friend, 
combines an exuberant display of 
classical learning with an attack on 
the failings of the Anglican clergy.

Republican pamphleteer
In the 1640s, still little known as a 
poet, Milton emerged as a prominent 
figure in the debate over England’s 
form of government and religion.  
He supported the Parliamentary  
side in the civil war and served as  
a civil servant under the Republican 
government of Oliver Cromwell (see 
box, left). His famous prose polemic, 
the Areopagitica of 1644, was an 
impassioned argument for freedom  
of speech. Milton never renounced  
his republicanism and was fortunate 
to escape punishment when the 
monarchy was restored in 1660.

He experienced trouble  
and loss in his personal life. 
In 1642, he married Mary 
Powell, the 16-year-old 
daughter of a Royalist 

family. Although Milton 
regretted the marriage 

and became an advocate 
of divorce, the couple 

eventually lived 
together and had 
three surviving 
children. After Mary 

died in 1652, Milton 
remarried, but he was 

“ The mind is its own place, and in itself 
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. ”

Civil war and regicide 
In 1642, a long-running dispute 
between the English parliament  
and the king, Charles I, turned into 
open warfare. Parliament fought to 
defend traditional rights against the 
monarch and to reject the authority  
of bishops over religious life. In 1649, 
the royal forces were defeated and 
Charles was beheaded. Parliament’s 
leader, Oliver Cromwell, effectively 
became a military dictator until his 
death in 1658, after which the 
monarchy was restored. Milton 
believed that the building  
of a virtuous republic  
was God’s work and 
wrote in defense  
of Cromwell. 

widowed again in 1658. By that time 
he had totally lost his sight and had  
to dictate his works to an assistant. 
Milton wrote two deeply felt sonnets  
in reaction to his misfortunes, “On His 
Blindness,” and “Methought I saw my 
late espoused saint,” citing a dream in 
which both his dead second wife and 
his sight returned temporarily. Milton 
married for a third time, in 1662—to 
Elizabeth Minshull, a woman 30 years 
his junior—by all accounts, happily. 

Starting in the late 1650s, Milton 
devoted himself to writing his blank 
verse epic Paradise Lost, a vast 
cosmological vision spanning from 
Satan’s revolt against God to the fall of 
Adam and Eve. Published in 1667, it 
consisted of more than 10,000 lines of 
verse in an elaborate, Latin-influenced 
style, and later established Milton as 
one of the greatest English poets. In 
his final years, Milton wrote Paradise 
Regained, a riposte to his earlier epic, 
and a tragic drama, Samson Agonistes 
(both 1671), a powerful evocation of 
both blindness and enslavement. 

Milton’s study in his cottage 
in the village of Chalfont  
St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, 
is where he completed his 
masterpiece Paradise Lost.


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Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born  
in Paris, the son of a court official.  
He was educated at the Collège de 
Clermont, a famous Jesuit school,  
and then began to study law. His 
father obtained a post for him as a 
royal upholsterer at court, but his 
plans came to nothing: in 1643, the 
young man announced that he was 
giving up both his job and his legal 
studies in order to become an actor.

It is not clear what fueled his   
desire for the stage. Poquelin may 
have been inspired by the Latin 
comedies and tragedies that were 
performed at his school, or he may 
have been tempted into the theater  
by his love for Madeleine Béjart,  
an actress four years his senior  
who became his mistress. The pair  
worked for the same company, Illustre  
Théâtre, which began performing in a 
converted tennis court in Paris. Within  
a year, Poquelin had established 
himself as the leader of the group and 
adopted the stage name of Molière. 

The troupe’s early efforts were not  
a success: within months, they were  
in financial difficulties, and Molière 
was almost imprisoned for debt. 
Cutting their losses, they left Paris 
and spent the next 13 years touring 
the provinces. This may have been  
a blessing in disguise since it enabled 
the budding playwright, Molière, to 

1622–1673, FRENCH

Molière was France’s greatest comic playwright. More than this, he 
excelled in every aspect of stagecraft. He managed his own company;  
he wrote, produced, and directed his own plays; and he acted in them.  

learn his craft away from the scrutiny 
of critics. The company performed a 
mixed repertoire of popular comedies 
and tragedies, as well as Molière’s 
own plays. Some of these were 
elaborations of the comic scenarios 
devised by the commedia dell’arte 
(see box, below) while others focused 
specifically on the social satire that 
was to become his trademark. 

Court success
Molière’s breakthrough came with a 
performance of one of his comedies 
(now lost) at the Louvre in October 
1658, in front of the court. This won 
the favor of the king’s brother, who 
secured him a base in the capital, 
which he shared with Tiberio Fiorillo’s 
Italian players. Molière produced his 
greatest plays during the following 
decade. These included farcical, Italian 
elements, but also new developments. 
He perfected a comedy of manners, 

satirizing groups such as affected 
society women (The Affected Young 
Ladies) and would-be gentlemen  
(The Bourgeois Gentleman), and 
created complex character studies 
that blended boisterous comedy  
with penetrating insights. Some of  
his most popular comic creations  
are eccentric obsessives, such as  
a miser (The Miser) and a hopeless 
hypochondriac (The Imaginary Invalid).

Scandalous liaisons
Molière’s plays were immensely 
popular, but his career was not 
without controversy. His marriage to 
Armande Béjart caused a scandal 
(she was rumored to be the daughter 
of his former mistress) and his study 
of religious hypocrisy (Tartuffe) was 
banned for several years. Nevertheless, 
he continued acting until the very end. 
Ironically, he died after appearing in a 
performance of The Imaginary Invalid.

Molière usually took the leading role in 
his company’s stage productions. This 
portrait by Nicolas Mignard shows him  
as Julius Caesar in the play The Death  
of Pompey by Pierre Corneille.

The commedia dell’arte
Molière always acknowledged the huge 
debt he owed to the commedia dell’arte. 
This form of theater originated in Italy 
in the 16th century, but became popular 
in France and other parts of Europe. 
The masked and costumed players  
did not work from a set script, but 
improvised their performances  
from loosely constructed scenarios, 
interspersing these with a variety of 
lazzi (comedy routines). Molière was 
able to observe the Italians at close 
quarters when they shared a theater  
in Paris. He drew inspiration from  
their stock characters—the greedy  
old man, the jealous husband, the wily 
servant, for example—and borrowed 

Molière’s Tartuffe was first performed in 
1664 and the manuscript was published 
five years later. The whole play is written 
in rhyming couplets in which each line 
has 12 syllables. 

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As empire and exploration expanded 
rapidly in the 17th century, so too did 
the British appetite for reading about 
distant lands—narratives that formed 
part of “the energizing myth of empire." 
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that 
the novel Oroonoko—a transatlantic 
slave story set in Suriname, and with  
a vision of the “noble savage” at its 
core—should have been a resounding 
success on publication in 1688. What 
is more remarkable is that it was 
written by Aphra Behn at a time when 
women’s voices were largely absent 
from the public sphere. Despite her 
feigned protestation early in Oroonoko 
that hers is “only a female pen," at the 
end of the text she makes a more 
strident appeal about her authorial 
status: “I hope the reputation of my 
pen is considerable enough to make 
his glorious name to survive all ages.”

Uncertain beginnings
The details of Behn’s life are sketchy 
and disputed. It likely that she was 
born Aphra Johnson, into a humble 
background in Canterbury. In 1663, 
she spent some time in Suriname  
(then an English colony), which later 
formed the setting of Oroonoko,  
her most famous work. Soon after 
returning to England in 1664, she 
married Johan Behn, a merchant of 
German or Dutch extraction, but the 

Aphra Behn
1640–1689, ENGLISH

Behn is hailed as one of the first women in Britain to earn her living by 
the pen. She produced fiction, plays, and poems, and had a huge influence 
on the development of the novel. She was also a government spy.

marriage was short-lived. Two  
years later, she was recruited as  
a government spy and sent to the 
Netherlands (see box, below). 

Versatile output
Behn wrote in all genres on a wide 
range of themes, from love, marriage, 
prostitution, and sexuality, to class, 
politics, and the brutal world of 
slavery and colonialism. Particularly 
striking for the age is her discussion 
of female desire in a song from her 
third play, The Dutch Lover (1673), and 
the examination of gender roles in her 
famous poem “The Disappointment” 
(1680). Between 1670 and 1688,  
19 of her plays (both comedies and 
tragicomedies) were performed.   

Although acknowledged as a  
major writer in her lifetime, Behn’s 
popularity waned for two centuries 
after her death because her work was 
considered too bawdy. For many 

years, the fact that she was a female 
writer hindered serious discussion of 
her texts. But aside from the wit and 
brilliance of many of her plays, poems, 
and short stories, Oroonoko can 
undoubtedly be considered one  
of the earliest novels and one that 
greatly influenced the development  
of the genre. It also preceded Defoe’s 
Robinson Crusoe (1719), which is  
often credited as the first English 
novel. In recent years, Behn’s work 
has attracted renewed interest and 
acclaim, particularly from feminists  
and literary and cultural theorists. 

Behn died in 1689 and was buried  
in Westminster Abbey. Two and a half 
centuries later, leading feminist writer 
Virginia Woolf famously paid tribute to 
her in A Room of One’s Own (1929): “All 
women together ought to let flowers 
fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn … for 
it was she who earned them the right 
to speak their minds.”

Many of Behn’s plays premiered at East 
London’s Dorset Garden Theatre (also 
called the Duke’s Theatre), which was 
built in 1671. Behn lived nearby, close  
to her friend and fellow playwright  
and poet John Dryden. 

The secret agent
From 1665 to 1667, the English were 
at war with the Dutch over trade 
routes. Behn, a Tory and resolute 
monarchist, was recruited as a spy  
for the government of Charles II and 
was sent to Antwerp with a brief to 
unearth any plots to attack England or 
destabilize the government. Using the  
code names “160” and “Astrea," she 
sent back reports to the Home Office, 
including one alerting them to a Dutch 
plan to send a fleet up the Thames. 
Returning to London in 1667, Behn 
was unable to pay expenses she had 
incurred in the service of the Crown, 
and was sent to debtors’ prison. After 
her release, penniless, she turned to 
writing plays to earn money.

◁  APHRA BEHN, c.1670
Behn became well known in her life, 
principally for her "scandalous" plays  
and her homoerotic verse. Her portrait 
here was painted by Sir Peter Lely, a 
Dutch-born artist who became painter  
to the English court. 



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Bashō was born Matsuo Munefusa in 
Ueno, near Kyoto, the second son of a 
minor samurai. His father died when 
he was 12, and 6 years later Bashō 
entered the service of a local samurai 
general as a page to his son, Tōdō 
Yoshitada. The two young men were 
united by a love of verse, and Bashō 
published his first known poem in 
1662, under the pen name Sōbō. After 
the early death of Yoshitada in 1666, 
Bashō left the service of his noble 
master, and lived for a while in Kyoto. 

By the 1670s, he was building his 
reputation as a writer, compiling 
anthologies of poetry such as The 
Seashell Game (1671). At the age of  
28, he moved to Edo (now Tokyo), 
where he took a job in the department  
of waterworks while continuing to 

Matsuo Bashō
1644–1694, JAPANESE  

Japan’s most famous poet, Bashō elevated the haiku to a sublime art  
form. He moved from urban literary circles to rural wandering in search 
of spiritual experience in which to root his transcendent poetry.

write under the pen name Tōsei. The 
predominant poetic style of the time 
was the playfully satirical haikai no 
renga (see box, right), which was 
produced collaboratively—poets 
gathered together to write short 
verses that would form part of a  
much longer poem, with a traditional 
structure. In Edo, Bashō joined the 
Danrin school of poetry under the 
renowned poet Nishiyama Sōin. 

Spiritual journeys 
By 1680, Bashō had become a 
respected teacher of writing, but  
he was restless and had started  
to study Zen Buddhism. In 1680, he 
moved out of bustling Edo into a small 
hut on the edge of the city. It was at 
this time that he began to write under 
the name Bashō (meaning “banana 
tree”) and his poetry became more 
innovative and darker in tone. In late 
1682, Bashō’s life was turned upside 
down. His hut was destroyed by fire, 
and he learned that his mother had 
died. He stayed with friends in Kai 

This 19th-century woodcut by Tsukioka 
Yoshitoshi shows Bashō on one of his 
many journeys, speaking with two men  
at the side of the road. 

province, intensified his Zen studies, 
and by 1684 began to wander through 
the country in search of inspiration. 
The result of the first of his walking 
trips was the travel journal Records of 
a Weather-Beaten Skeleton, written in 
the form of haibun—a combination of 
prose and poetry.

In 1689, Bashō set off on a 1,200 
mile (2,000 km) trek that would 
become the subject of his 
masterpiece, Narrow Road to the Deep 
North. With a companion, Sora, he 
explored the remote, rugged northern 
interior of the country in a journey that 
was as much spiritual as physical. 
Beside an ancient battlefield, he wrote: 
“Summer grasses / all that remains / 
of warriors’ dreams.” During a stormy 
interlude, he showed his wry, earthy 
sense of humor with: “Fleas, lice / now 
a horse pisses / by my pillow.”

On his return to Edo in 1691, Bashō 
was thrown once more into the busy 
life of a famous poet, which conflicted 
with his desire for solitude. It was  
at this time that he formulated the 
concept of “lightness” that would 
inform the remainder of his poetry. 

In 1694 he set out on what would be 
his final journey. He died of a stomach 
ailment in Osaka at 50, surrounded by 
his disciples. His last poem was: “On a 
journey, ailing—/ my dreams roam 
about / over a withered moor.”

At the beginning of the long, linked-
verse haikai at which Bashō so 
excelled was a three-line stanza of  
17 syllables (5–7–5) called the hokku. 
Under Bashō’s influence, the hokku 
took on an importance in its own right, 
later becoming known as a haiku. 
Haiku attempts to convey the essence  
of n