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Topics in Renaissance Literature I

Polarization in 16th Century Literature

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At every turn the media tells us we are living in a time of unprecedented polarization: people on opposite sides of the political spectrum are increasingly hostile to one another, and the middle ground is almost completely evacuated. However, at least we are mostly not killing each other over our political disputes, but that is precisely what people in early modern England were doing.

This course will examine two moments of extreme polarization in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England through the literature that emerged from the conflict. First, we will examine the Protestant Reformation that split sixteenth-century English society into three mutually hostile groups and led to decades of persecution. We will read some of the religious and ideological writing that emerged from the Reformation, culminating in the first book of one of the greatest monuments of English literature, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Then we will move forward in time by a century to the British Civil Wars, which led to unprecedented bloodshed and the short-lived Republic, the only time in England’s history when it was not a monarchy. We will examine this conflict through a second great monument of English literature, John Milton’s Paradise Lost: focusing on Milton’s portrayal of Satan, we will focus on the parts of this work that offer a sustained investigation of heroism and tyranny.

Throughout the course we will investigate what literature can tell us about the beliefs and princples for which English people were willing to fight with and kill one another, and to see what these moments of polarization have to tell us about our own conflicted times.


Assessment consists of: 

  • A research essay
  • An oral presentation (in small groups)
  • A short written assignment on historical context
  • Regular attendance and active participation
  • Final exam


  • ENGL 200
  • ENGL 290

Department of English, Queen's University

Watson Hall
49 Bader Lane
Kingston ON K7L 3N6

Telephone (613) 533-2153



Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.