Religious Themes of the Sixteenth Century: The Seven Deadly Sins, Death, and Damnation

Religious Themes of the Sixteenth Century: The Seven Deadly Sins, Death, and Damnation

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Religious Themes of the Sixteenth Century: The Seven Deadly Sins, Death, and Damnation


Religion in the Sixteenth Century was a major point of contention, especially for Elizabethans. In the midst of the Reformation, England was home to supporters of two major religious doctrines, including the Catholics and the Puritans. Three dominant themes that came out of this debate were sin, death and damnation. Important elements of Christian religions, these themes were often explored in the form of the seven deadly sins and the consequential damnation. The elements of sin pervasive in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, William Shakespeare’s Othello, and Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen allow for an investigation into the relationship of death and damnation in the sixteenth century.

To begin our investigation, we must consider the definition of ‘sin’ in a sixteenth century context, which would be in the form of the seven deadly sins. These seven sins were called the ‘deadly’ or ‘capital’ sins because they ‘merited damnation and had a fatal effect on an individual’s spiritual health.’[1] Listed, the seven deadly sins are pride, covetousness, wrath, envy, gluttony, sloth (idleness), and lechery (lust), and they were described and personified in masque scenes in both The Faerie Queene and Doctor Faustus, as well as being embraced by various characters in The Unfortunate Traveller, Othello, and Doctor Faustus.

Following the order described in The Faerie Queene, the first sin is idleness, or sloth. Idleness is described as ‘the nourse of sin,’ the founder and beginning of all sin.[2] Personified as individuals in a procession, Spenser also says ‘May seeme the wayne was very evill l...


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Jones, Ann Rosalind. ‘Inside the Outsider: Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller and Bakhtin’s Polyphonic Novel’, English Literary History (ELH), 50.1 (1983), 61-68. Web. 1 June 2015.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/2872768?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Marlowe, Christopher. The Complete Plays. Romany, Frank and Lindsey, Robert. London. 2003. Penguin Books.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. Web. 8 June 2015.
http://oed.com/

Relihan, Constance C., ‘Rhetoric, Gender and Audience Construction in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller,’ in Relihan (ed.), Framing Elizabethan Fictions (1996).

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd Edition. Boston. 1997. Houghton Mifflin Company.

University of Wisconsin-Madison: The Writing Center-Chicago Turbian Documentation. Web. 8 June 2015.
https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/DocChicago.html

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