This piece is featured in Issue No. 11 Forbidden Fruit

Short Fiction

An Experience of Renaissance

She leaned against the desk in the lecture room, her backside just at the ledge.  She was teaching a second year course on Renaissance Writing, focusing on the representation of women and women’s love for one another.  It was very airy, a sort of test of Renaissance Writing in general. That the writing be revealing of the status of women, first, but secondly, that the writing is a testimony of humanity, especially in relation to lesbian relationships. She talked of how the texts were saved. How the texts were encouraged into existence. How they can be compared to modern day texts and writings on women and women’s love for one another. It was both History and English Literature. It was about existence and desire. Even denial. And the origins of the perspective on understanding lesbians and lesbian texts. Perhaps often not as homoerotic as Renaissance Art, poetry on love could often be from the view of any gender to any gender.

She suddenly turned her upper body and reached behind her for a well-leafed-through book and started to read Shakespeare’s Sonnet from Twelfth Night, “Oh Mistress Mine.”  It is a sonnet of woe, worry, and desperate desire.  As much of Twelfth Night is. She puts a marker into the pages and looks up at us.  We know that this is a classic love story, where love is found in the place where we least expect to find it.  And Shakespeare expertly seeds this story to become one of the most read and replayed plays.

She pauses, looking around the classroom. “If any of you have had the opportunity to enjoy this play, we know that this play is full of laughs, mistaken identity, disguise and joy.”

We are all hanging on her words now. Shakespeare—the most obvious man of literature from the Renaissance. And he is the foundation of much modern and current day writing. His ideas of plot, character, philosophy, and societal existence is still considered ground-breaking and foundational. We are thinking salacious thoughts… perhaps feelings of excitement.  Classical texts that were lost, get their return in Shakespeare and in other Renaissance writings, performances, and visual art. She reminds us that Twelfth Night is a play about gender where the mistaken identities of a set of twins of opposite sex shows us the reactions of society as part of what makes up the world. That society is definitely a part of the story. Individuals will always attempt to fit in, to find acceptance in some way—from dressing like their gender to revealing to their mistress their inclinations.

Near the end of the hour, she gives us a question to think about: “Why are the works of the Renaissance more important than the Classics of Antiquity? The Renaissance has ventured to break the rules. To make the normative more accepting of the prohibitive. Is this a very rude flouting of the World of Antiquity? And if so, why is the Renaissance more important than Antiquity?”

We get up with chatter. She collects her papers and book. I think about going up to her and asking her if she has an answer to the question she posed. I hesitate, worried that she could question me back and leave me high and dry about the issue. My only thought about the question is that it is about the lack that existed in the world then…. Our lives were in dire need. People needed to survive, to fight for survival, and that this need is what drove the engine of the Renaissance, not the texts of Antiquity.

I think and hesitate a second too long. The Professor is starting to walk out of the room, and I don’t have enough confidence to pursue her.


The next day at lecture, she walks into the room just at the start of the hour. She places an armful of papers and a couple of books on the desk. She turns to the class, smiling, and greets us, with a “hi.”

“Our class today, is a continuing look at the Renaissance texts as foundational. Specifically, in comparison with Sappho, of Lesbos, which is an island in the Greek Archipelago. Sappho is the only surviving female writer of Antiquity that the Renaissance has direct contact with, and could use in their own creative writing and performance.”

She begins her lecture with this very nice tease of an icon from the beginning of time. Where the morals were loose and not chaste and pure. She talks a little more, orienting us to the lure of Sappho, how she is the elder stateswoman of importance with the right to have her island home populated by young girls who were given to her for apprenticeship in Classics of Literature and Philosophy. However, she is in competition with the Women Renaissance Writers, who, admittedly, have also come from power and education. This, however does not cause them to give up their pursuit of equality with men. Most notably, Marguerite de Navarre, Princess of France, Duchess of Alencon and Berry, and eventually, Queen of Navarre with her second marriage to King Henry II. And, the second most talked about woman, Louise Labé, also known as La Belle Cordière. She was a feminist French poet born in Lyon, to a wealthy rope-maker. These two women, amongst a handful of other women of the Renaissance and Reformation, have enriched the literary canon by offering alternative perspectives on the social, political and religious regimes of their time.

My mind is afire. I want to speak. I want to raise my hand and suggest that I understand what it is she is speaking about. That her descriptions of these women and their achievements mean something to me too. I have just read something from one of my textbooks, an anthology of poetry. It is a poem by a man named Richard Wilbur. I was randomly flipping through the anthology and read “Playboy.” It is a short poem about a stockroom boy sitting on a ladder and eating a sandwich. Meanwhile, he is reading a pornographic magazine.

What is noticeable obviously, is that the poem loses its perspective. From a boy killing some time in the backroom of a store, by looking at a pornographic magazine, we notice his mind looking at the women. That the way he looks at their bodies and their poses, suggests he is enamoured beyond the usual interest. I here want to say that Wilbur mentions Archimedes. An antiquity mathematician and philosopher. I want to say that Wilbur is playing with the expectation of a “girlie magazine” by stating the obvious: men love the visual, thinking and feeling that it is powerful. It is desired. It is how we think and judge. That this alone, is an inheritance from the Renaissance, which has a rich history of acknowledging that existence is rich, multi-layered, and full of our human foibles. That this existence is forever. It is foundational. Wilbur’s “Playboy” is dated 1969.

She is continuing her lecture. I still feel like raising my hand and suggesting a comment. She is detailing the climate of life in Renaissance Europe. The politics and the art. The sudden life that the people suddenly live. Including the Religious Reformation led by Luther and others. Often people in general would be privy to gossip and not participating in what is a game played by the educated elite. However, the Renaissance is extremely interesting and it feels like a place and time of heightened life and awareness. That our self-knowledge and understanding is born from it.

The professor is addressing the difference that the Renaissance has made, as it took the world in, making all the comparisons of its own self-awareness with the texts that were still extant from all of time. This difference leads to identity being the centre in poetry, especially love poetry, creating the genderless, or the pan-gender, poem. This “lack of labelling” was practiced as a non-stated identity of both the poet and the subject. A creation of the Renaissance poem, most often associated with the Sonnet. This is a change from the tradition of poetry that was practiced. This perspective allowed for multiplicity: the inclusion of many types of people and of many things in the content of the poem. This was considered well-mannered and well-educated. And allowed for the development of something strictly of the Renaissance—wit. People often wanted to create a trope or device for creating a witty play on words or a witty statement. The writers of the Renaissance knew that intelligence is a human trait that is admired. Thus, the development of “the humanistic,” and humanity.

I feel impatient. I want to get the burning feeling of hearing the lecture into the discussion that could happen with the class and the professor. I want to ask questions. Questions like: “Why did the Renaissance happen? The sudden development of literature that never before existed is very strange and interesting…. How did a lot of people suddenly start writing about humanism? All within a very direct and short period of time? What was the inspiration?”

But, she is rolling along in the lecture. Now, something about beauty and the consideration given to what beauty is. She has stood up and is walking to the blackboard at the front of classroom. She picks up a chalk and writes, “Poets Are Born.” She turns around to face the classroom again, casually looking down at her hands as she brushes the chalk off, and asks, “What do you think that this statement means, in terms of the Renaissance writers? Do you think it was written anonymously, or that it was a generally held belief?”

It sounds very limiting to me. That poets are born. Perhaps a little romantic, actually, that the Renaissance could centre its belief of Art, Literature, Philosophy and Politics around the idea that one was called to the profession, and not someone who could become through education and skill, and a little artiness. I think about it and I want to say that poets can be poor poets as well as very talented poets. And that it is a critical statement to say, “Poets are born.” I think of my foray into poetry when I wrote of my experience of a kiss. That it was about how mediocre the kiss was, indicating to me that the love was very mediocre. Also, that the subject does not determine whether a poet or non-poet wrote it.

I am getting lost in the argument in my head. And the lecture has continued on. From memory I write in my notebook a Margaret Atwood poem, “You Fit Into Me.” “you fit into me/like a hook into an eye. a fish hook/an open eye.”

I draw vine leaves and curlicues around it. Roughly hatching in the spaces. I think of Art. I think of the language of Art and Performance and Religion and Philosophy. There is so much that is being said and yet not being said at all. We hear the things we hear, and we come to things from our own perspective, sometimes living it and at others, not. There is a Renaissance thing… A legend that the Renaissance was created, that the entire world still uses to find its way around. It is often referenced even when we do it ourselves without knowledge we are doing so. Perhaps we are making progress, with each Revolution, and each Reformation. Perhaps we are a “thing.” Human lives that contribute and really exist. Affecting each other, affecting ourselves, and affecting our future. 

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Sylvia Frey

Sylvia is a writer and visual artist living and working in Toronto. She also flirts, makes love, and falls in love in Toronto too. These things keep her here, and for some reason, won’t let her go.