Renaissance studies ripe for a course rebirth

A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. First Edition - The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson. First Edition - Nina Taunton The English Renaissance 1500-1620. First Edition

June 1, 2001

It is strange that the varied and illuminating voices of the Renaissance have not evoked a more sustained response from the youth culture of today, with its taste for the macabre, alien and remote. The period contains a rich seam of fictional and non-fictional literature, yet Renaissance studies has never recommended itself to the undergraduate populace in quite the way that anything to do with Shakespeare has. This has resulted in a striking imbalance between over-populated courses in Shakespeare ("Man of the Millennium") and courses on the Renaissance, which are very sparsely populated. It is this imbalance that the recent spate of "companion" literature seeks to redress with this unreclaimed student readership as its target.

Renaissance is a term that connotes both change from and continuity with the past, and is for this reason used in preference to the more voguish "early modern period" by Michael Hattaway and Andrew Hadfield. Both query the concept of an English rebirth of, or revolution in, culture; and both consider the term misleading. Hattaway points out its anachronistic tendency. As a term, "early modern" did not emerge until the 19th century, and in England did not involve a break with either the past or with its earlier manifestations on the Continent.

Hadfield opts for the less fashionable term to avoid any notion that the period was a precursor to modernity, wishing instead to foster a sense of difference from our own literature and lives. For this reason his "Writers" section includes along with the more familiar names (Sidney, Raleigh, Spenser) writers less likely to be met with in sixth form: John Florio, translator of Michel de Montaigne's essays; Joseph Hall, the satirist; George Gascoigne, poet and soldier; Barnaby Googe, sonneteer and a relative of William Cecil; and Lord Burghley. In addition, Hadfield includes a summary and critique of Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller and the anonymous A Mirror for Magistrates .

Hadfield's The English Renaissance 1500-1620 admirably achieves the author's intention, clearly set out in a preamble, to provide essential aids to readers new to the territory. It is divided into helpful sections, providing a succinct historical overview of the period and of major religious, political, exploratory and colonising movements. And it is written in lucid, jargon-free prose.

The main body of the book introduces a wide representative sample of writers and key texts, and concludes with some more broad brush strokes in the final "Topics" section. Here Hadfield looks at humanism, education, rhetoric, printing, manuscript circulation, censorship, gender, prevailing attitudes to national and cultural otherness, and the stage, and provides a summary of the critical debates informing Renaissance studies in the past few decades.

The book is blessed with a glossary of key terms and concepts initially bewildering to students, and a selection of further reading specially tailored for newcomers to the subject. Hadfield's book is a leader in its field. Indeed, it could well serve as a necessary introduction to A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture .

Hattaway's is a much lengthier affair with a wide variety of interesting and challenging material. The volume is organised into four substantive sections, whose comprehensive but at the same time demanding nature is signalled by a steadfast resolution not to identify any particular kind of readership. It is clearly not designed with the average and/or averagely resistant undergraduate in mind.

Yet the collection boasts a star turn in Germaine Greer stepping out of the recording studio to write a scholarly critique of sexy old Donne's sexy old Nineteenth Elegy . But the decision to include Greer, with her power to attract a wider readership, seems to be at odds with her own decision to steer clear of the poem's better known and far more seductive title "To His Mistress Going to Bed". This typifies the direction of the volume as a whole, gesturing as it does in opposite directions. On one hand, it seems to beckon the specialist, on the other, it appears to want to attract a more general, media-conscious readership.

The contributions themselves, uniformly marked by their clarity of expression and quality of scholarship, could easily have been marketed to attract the student body. While challenging and specialist, they would nevertheless furnish more capable students with exemplars of the range and interest inherent in Renaissance writings. The Companion 's representative range of female writers, for example, is to be recommended. The essays on Aemilia Lanyer, Mary Wroth and notable female dramatists of the period are outstanding, and will appeal to students on a range of English courses.

The volume's awesome range, like its forerunner in the Blackwell series, A Companion to Shakespeare , makes it a valuable preserve for scholars and an ambitious reference for students. Its comprehensive categories ("Contexts and perspectives 1500-1650", "Readings", "Genres and modes", "Issues and debates") provide ample coverage of the most important elements of thinking on Renaissance humanism, education, religion, politics, philosophy, history, literature, drama, language, print and manuscript circulation, and the court. It gives critical readings of translations of the Bible, sermons, canonical poets and playwrights; it examines Renaissance usages of rhetoric and the past and provides broad coverage of debates on witchcraft, race, nationhood, identity and sexuality.

Most important, in the largest section, "Genres and modes", in addition to scanning Renaissance theories of literature, allegory, pastoral, romance, epic, satire and complaint, love, religious and erotic verse, dramatic modes, scientific writing, prose fiction, religious polemic and the essay, diary and letter forms, the book brings to light hitherto neglected genres in Malcolm Jones's contributions on popular verse and woodcuts and engraved broadside prints.

Ben Jonson and his works form a central strand in Hattaway's Companion , linking this canonical writer with the crucial aspects of Renaissance life, culture and scholarship. Thus it underscores the assumption upon which the The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson is built; namely, that Jonson is "the figure of the greatest centrality" to literary study of the period in that he forges a link between the Elizabethan and the Jacobean eras.

As the preface tells us, Jonson "wrote in virtually every literary genre and became the most visible poet of his age". To give full weight to his importance, the editors of this Companion have secured contributions from top people in the field: Richard Dutton, Stephen Orgel, Leah Marcus, Russ McDonald, Robert Evans, John Mulryan and so on.

The editors themselves are notable Jonson scholars: Harp is editor of the forthcoming Norton critical edition of Jonson's plays and masques, and along with Stewart and Evans is the founder and editor of the Ben Jonson Journa l. The Companion benefits from their directional expertise and meticulous editorship, their clear idea of their readership and, above all, the essays' informed and limpid exposition of the major aspects of Jonson scholarship.

The contents provide coverage and elucidation of all the major fields that Jonson mastered in his writing life: his engagement with both the metropolis and the country; the kind of theatre for which he wrote; his ambivalent relation to the court and its acolytes; his espousal of and invective against systems of patronage; his self-taught erudition; his critical writings; his classicism and prosody - all receive measured attention.

The volume benefits also from attention to contextualising detail. It contains a review of Jonson's life and its topographies, is fronted by a chronology and ends with a carefully organised bibliography.

The standard of publication of both the Hadfield and the Harp and Stewart volumes is high - thanks to careful editing and proof-reading. Unfortunately the standard slips when it comes to the Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture . The research assessment exercise has a lot to answer for here. Academic staff throughout the land periodically find themselves entered for a race to get their books out by the specified date or live impoverished lives for the next four years. As a result, books that should otherwise have been subjected to more rigorous editing and proof-reading are rushed into print.

The largest of these three companions bears the imprint of this haste - and in any case seems to have missed the deadline. One sad instance occurs in the fascinating chapter on the "English print" by Malcolm Jones, who examines a hitherto obscure group of woodcuts, engravings and engraved broadside prints issued in England between the years 1550-1650. The prints themselves have been captioned informatively and in detail in a way that reinforces Jones's exposition. There are 19 plates, yet the text refers to 20; from figure 9 onwards, the plates and their corresponding reference in the text are out of sync: fig. 12 should refer to plate 11, and so on.

While this kind of error is no more than a glitch in the reader's understanding, and does not vitiate the strength of Jones's argument - that visual history makes just as valuable a contribution to our understanding of early modern culture as does the written word - it is nevertheless a blot upon the quality of the contributions.

Nina Taunton is senior lecturer in English, Brunel University.

A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture. First Edition

Editor - Michael Hattaway
ISBN - 0 631 21668 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £80.00
Pages - 747

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs