Traditional canon, with critical views

September 18, 2008

Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature

Author: Malcolm Hebron

Edition: First

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Pages: 304

Price: £13.99

ISBN 9780230507678

This is an immensely readable reference book. The text is split into sections on contexts, texts and criticism, and the categories within each part are well chosen and informative. Each entry is intelligently cross-referenced, and it is a testament to Malcolm Hebron's care in constructing his book that it seldom feels repetitive even when certain concepts necessarily overlap.

Although each topic is distinct, allowing for an encyclopaedic sampling, the contents of the book as a whole are well enough linked to allow for a productive cover-to-cover reading.

The section on contexts tackles the usual suspects from Catholicism through humoural theory to women. Alongside the expected entries on "the great chain of being", "humanism" and "the court" stands information about "the book trade", "travel and colonialism", "sex and sexuality" and "the self", meaning that students should get a good sense of the range of possible approaches to the literature of the period.

I had expected that part two, "Texts", would offer literary analyses and was a little disappointed to find that it could be better described as a glossary of literary terms. Nonetheless, Hebron shows a deft touch throughout the book in making relevant reference to a range of texts and authors.

He keeps his reader informed about current debates around the terms Renaissance and Early Modern and is careful to flag up his own exclusions and preferences, encouraging students to see this book as a springboard rather than a final account.

What remains, however, is a traditional Renaissance canon. It would have been good to see more on such denizens of the print world as Thomas Nashe and John Taylor, to have a stronger sense of the concerns of the city as well as of the court, and to have a clearer picture of the variety of Early Modern drama. In this context, although Hebron is careful to acknowledge and include the work of women writers, his repeated assertions of the poverty of women's lot occasionally feels a little too much like a self-fulfilling prophecy (and to include "women" as a context without a corresponding section on "man" calls the arguments of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own uncomfortably to mind).

Finally, Hebron offers the reader a brief account of key critical approaches, ranging from practical criticism to ecocriticism. His commentaries on critical trends are well directed: students will learn the motivations behind analytical strategies and are given a clear view of their benefits and drawbacks in a way that nonetheless makes clear their continuing relevance.

The book closes with a helpful chronology, glossary and bibliography, and provides pertinent suggestions for reading at the end of each section.

Who is it for? It will be a particularly useful reference tool for undergraduate students studying for period papers, but it deserves a wider audience.

Presentation: The text is well structured, with clear divisions and helpful cross-referencing. Some illustrations would have helped to bring this period more richly to life for the student reader.

Would you recommend it? Without hesitation.

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