Literary critics agree that the Renaissance constitutes one of the most important periods in literary history. While no exact consensus exists as to when the Renaissance began or when it ended, most scholars accept the notion that the period began sometime during the 15th century. Two useful dates, a rough beginning and end, are 1492, when Columbus landed in Guanahani, and 1660, when Charles II ascended to the throne of England, restoring the English monarchy.
The Renaissance proved a period of great cultural and artistic achievement for Europe; it was also a time of political and religious strife. The Age of Exploration brought wealth and possibility to those brave enough, and the Protestant Reformation gave voice to those dissatisfied with the established Church. Both brought forth other consequences, however: The genocide of native populations by rapacious European conquerors and the open religious warfare, which resulted in the wholesale slaughter of both Catholics and Protestants, that plagued the Low Countries, France and England throughout the period were results of these ostensible developments.
The Renaissance saw English poetry reach its zenith. Many scholars of English literature concede that English poetry had not seen and has yet to see another period like that which lasted roughly from the mid 16th to the late 17th century. The history of Renaissance English poetry begins with Richard Tottel's 1557 publication of "Songes and Sonettes," which contained work by the early English sonneteers Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey; it more or less ends in 1667, when John Milton published the first edition of his epic poem "Paradise Lost." In the 110 years between these two dates, many great English poets, including Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell, wrote their major works.
Drama proved the major innovation of English writers in the Renaissance. During the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker and William Rowley wrote and saw their major plays produced. One monumental figure towers above all these writers, as strong as their work proved, however: William Shakespeare, whose name is virtually synonymous with English literature and, indeed, whose 38 plays and 154 sonnets have earned him the reputation of the greatest writer in the history of the English language.
Many testaments to the greatness of English prose date from the English Renaissance, not the least of which is the Authorized Edition, or King James Version, of the Holy Bible, the product of seven years of labor by a team of scholars and translators, which was first published in 1611. Sir Francis Bacon wrote his many famous essays during this period, many of which helped to pioneer the scientific method. Sir Thomas Browne published his spiritual autobiography, "Religio Medici," or "The Religion of a Doctor" in addition to works on topics as disparate as the methods of human burial and the presence of geometric patterns in nature. John Milton's famous free speech tract "Areopagitica" has enjoyed a lasting reputation, inspiring, among others, the American Founding Fathers.