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Neo-Historicism: Studies in Renaissance Literature, History and Politics

Robin Headlam Wells
Glenn Burgess
Rowland Wymer
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 282
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    For nearly two decades, Renaissance literary scholarship has been dominated by various forms of postmodern criticism which claim to expose the simplistic methodology of `traditional' criticism and to offer a more sophisticated view of the relation between literature and history; however, this new approach, although making scholars more alert to the political significance of literary texts, has been widely criticised on both methodological and theoretical grounds. The revisionist essays collected in this volume make a major contribution to the modern debate on historical method, approaching Renaissance culture from different gender perspectives and a variety of political standpoints, but all sharing an interest in the interdisciplinary study of the past.ROBIN HEADLAM WELLS is Professor of English, University of Surrey Roehampton; GLENN BURGESS is Professor of History, University of Hull; ROWLAND WYMER is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Hull. Contributors: GLENN BURGESS, STANLEY STEWART, BLAIR WORDEN, ANDREW GURR, KATHARINE EISAMAN MAUS, ROWLAND WYMER, GRAHAM PARRY, MALCOLM SMUTS, STEVEN ZWICKER, HEATHER DUBROW, ROBIN HEADLAM WELLS.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-331-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Notes on contributors
    (pp. viii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    In the final two decades of the twentieth century the study of early modern English culture was revitalised in two ways: by new methodologies; and by the revision, employing a largely traditional methodology, of conventional thinking about Elizabethan and Stuart England. Broadly speaking — we will consider some exceptions later — it was literary critics who could claim credit for new theoretical approaches, while historians worked within a more conventional methodological framework to challenge a Whig view of the early modern period. There has been surprisingly little contact between the two disciplines.¹

    The beginning of a new century is an appropriate time...


    • 1 The ‘Historical Turn’ and the Political Culture of Early Modern England: Towards a Postmodern History?
      (pp. 31-47)

      In one influential formulation, postmodernism has been defined ‘as incredulity toward meta-narratives’. These words of Jean-François Lyotard have had considerable impact on those historians seeking to construct a postmodern history.¹ The word ‘incredulity’ may be wisely chosen in preference to ‘abandonment’, but the words remain the expression of a forlorn hope. ‘Postmodernism’ itself is a word embodying a meta-narrative; and it can be argued that all history is reliant, if not exactly on meta-narratives, then on a ‘great story’, or on ‘meta-historical frameworks’.² This is so because of the problematic nature of historical evidence. No historical account can validate itself...

    • 2 ‘New’ Guidest to the Historically Perplexed
      (pp. 48-68)

      In remarks trumpeted as ‘Last Words on George Herbert’, William Empson declares, ‘I hope it is now clear that I claim to have a great deal of knowledge about Herbert.’¹ Perhaps these apocalyptic ‘last words’ are not so remarkable, coming from a critic whom the New Historicist hails as ‘Modernism’s Einstein among literary critics’.² But as they ring with the clarion tones of logical empiricism, they do not sort well with New Historicist antagonism to traditional norms of ‘objectivity’ and ‘reason’. If ‘seventh-type Empsonian ambiguity is the literary-critical equivalent of quantum mechanics’ (Bate,Genius, p. 315), why shouldn’t Empson have...


    • 3 Ben Jonson and the Monarchy
      (pp. 71-90)

      Ben Jonson lived under three monarchs, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I, and sought the patronage of each of them. With Charles, who came to the throne in the autumn of Jonson's life, too late to be a formative influence on his writing, we are here only peripherally concerned. Jonson’s relations with Elizabeth and James were formative. Elizabeth spurned him. James, save at the beginning and perhaps at the end of his reign, gave him almost uninterrupted favour. The queen’s death in 1603 lifted a burden of bitterness and despair from Jonson. It gave him new hope, both for...

    • 4 Metatheatre and the Fear of Playing
      (pp. 91-110)

      Acting at the new Globe in broad daylight shows what an anachronism the modern tradition of stage realism is on such a stage. The inherent and manifest artifice of playing in such a venue makes attempts at realistic and psychologically plausible acting ineffective, and certainly misconceived. The original staging at the Globe was more openly unrealistic than modern conditioning can admit. Shakespearean expectations in staging and viewing plays differed from ours more widely and deeply than we now recognise. One of the fitter words for the early concept of acting might be anti-realism. It is evidenced in all the Shakespearean...

    • 5 Inwardness and Spectatorship in Early Modern England
      (pp. 111-137)

      In his reply to his mother, his first extended utterance in the play, Hamlet distinguishes between the elaborate external rituals of mourning and an inner, invisible anguish. His black attire, his sigh, his tear fail to denote him truly not because they are false — Hamlet’s sorrow for his father is sincere — but because theymightbe false, because some other person might conceivably employ them deceitfully. Even reliable indicators or symptoms of his distress become suspect, simply because they are defined as indicators and symptoms. It is hard to imagine what could possibly count as ‘true denotation’ for Hamlet. The...

    • 6 Jacobean Pageant or Elizabethan Fin-de-siècle? The Political Context of Early Seventeenth-Century Tragedy
      (pp. 138-152)

      For a long time it has been something of a routine gesture to demand that English Renaissance tragedy be approached as a ‘historically specific’ phenomenon rather than in relation to any more universal interest it might have for us. Jonathan Dollimore speaks for many critics of the last twenty years when he writes that, ‘the corrupt court is, of course, a recurrent setting for the drama; far from being (as is sometimes suggested) a transhistorical symbol of human depravity, this setting is an historically specific focus for a contemporary critique of power relations’.¹ Leaving aside any consideration of how such...


    • 7 Ancient Britons and Early Stuarts
      (pp. 155-178)

      Among the figures that populated the historical consciousness of educated people in Stuart England, the Ancient Britons were a familiar presence. As stalwart primitives, they had an honoured role in the history of the nation for they were the first recognisable ancestors who could be credibly imagined and represented in literature and art. Since they were the first inhabitants of Britain — and it was always assumed that they were a single homogeneous people who had been long established in the island — they could be invoked to lend their authority to many modern causes, and this chapter attempts to review the...

    • 8 Occasional Events, Literary Texts and Historical Interpretations
      (pp. 179-198)

      Like most historians, those who specialise in past cultures must normally rely primarily on written and printed sources. Although works of art and music, archaeological remains and other forms of material evidence can be pressed into service, most of our documents normally consist of texts and often especially of poems, plays and other works of ‘literature’. Through this material we try to reconstruct beliefs and practices that, in most cases, depended far less on writing and print than performances, rituals, oral discussions and other transient events that we can no longer directly witness. Faced with this predicament it is natural...

    • 9 The Politics of Affectivity in Early Modern England
      (pp. 199-216)

      ‘If the Body Politique have any Analogy to the Natural, in my weak judgment, an Act of Oblivion were as necessary in a Hot, Distemper’d State, as anOpiatewoud be in a Raging Fever.’ So Dryden wrote in the preface to that masterpiece of bodily politics,Absalom and Achitophel.¹ I would postpone, for a moment, an inquiry into the strategies of this analogy, or of the whole of that superb essay on body politics that constitutes the poem itself; but I want to register here both the analogy and the hypothetical mood into which Dryden has cast that most...


    • 10 ‘In thievish ways’: Tropes and Robbers in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Early Modern England
      (pp. 219-239)

      Proclaiming her resolve to remain faithful to Romeo, Juliet catalogues the dreadful fates she would accept in lieu of wedding his rival:

      O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

      From off the battlements of any tower,

      Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk

      Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears,

      Or hide me nightly in a charnel-house. (IV.i.77–81)¹*

      Few members of Shakespeare’s original or twentieth-century audience would be likely to list a promenade ‘in thievish ways’ (79) as their favourite leisure activity, but Juliet’s reaction to that prospect is surprisingly vehement: she implicitly likens such...

    • 11 An Orpheus for a Hercules: Virtue Redefined in ‘The Tempest’
      (pp. 240-262)

      In the brief interval of calm following Martius’ exile in the fourth act ofCoriolanus,Brutus and Sicinius congratulate themselves on their astute handling of a dificult situation. Martius is safely out of the way and the world goes well’ (¹ Then comes news that Martius has joined forces with Aufidius and is about to attack Rome. At first the tribunes cannot believe their ears. ‘This is most likely!’ says Sicinius, ‘The very trick on’t’ (70; 73). But Cominius berates them for their stupidity, assuring them that Martius will be merciless in his vengeance. ‘He’ll shake your Rome about your...

  11. INDEX
    (pp. 263-270)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)