The Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton

Willy Maley is tickled by an unexpected, less puritanical reading of post-Reformation culture

April 26, 2012

Monty Python's "Summarise Proust" contest, where entrants offer a 20-second precis of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu in bathing costume and then in evening dress, is apposite for this review, although Richard Strier's Pythonesque passage on "premarital nude inspection" - more of which anon - may suggest more enterprise in going naked. In one of the earliest uses of "unrepentant", John Grime railed against those of "unrepentaunt herte". Grime's Here begynnethe the lanterne of light (1535) fits a certain strait-laced view of post-Reformation culture, but Strier finds in it more grime than grace. According to The Unrepentant Renaissance, this period is penitent only in so far as critics think it so.

Strier's opening cry of "Back to Burckhardt" is intended to restore the unrepentant aspects of the Renaissance first mapped out by Jacob Burckhardt 150 years ago. Going back to Burckhardt means also going beyond Burckhardt, whose study ends at the beginning of the 16th century, whereas Strier's stretches to the end of the 17th. Strier's aim is to offer "a sense of the period as more bumptious, full-throated, and perhaps perverse than that which has prevailed in a good deal of recent literary scholarship". Unexpectedly, Strier does this by mobilising both Reformation and Counter-Reformation discourses against "the Christian- Stoic-Platonic synthesis that produced the 'official' and, one might wrongly think, unquestioned values of the period".

Strier takes issue with the New Historicism and "the new humoralism", the former exemplified by the work of Stephen Greenblatt, the latter by that of Michael C. Schoenfeldt. Greenblatt began with Burckhardt but ended with Michel Foucault and Clifford Geertz - that is, with a pessimistic view of human subjectivity. The new humoralists, for whom Renaissance selves are "physiocultural rather than sociocultural formations", likewise take their cue from Foucault. Contrary to both views, Strier insists that "expressions of self-assertion, perversity, and worldly contentment can be truly 'unrepentant' in the period, and... the texts expressing such attitudes need not be fissured, anxious, or self-contradictory".

The Unrepentant Renaissance is divided into three defences, "of Passion and the Body", "of Worldliness" and "of Pride", each conducted through strenuous readings of a line-up of usual and unusual suspects: Descartes, Donne, Herbert, Loyola, Luther, Montaigne and Petrarch. It is book-ended by two brilliant demolition jobs, one on Green-blatt's reading of More's Utopia, guilty of "darkening the text", the other on Stanley Fish's interpretation of Milton's The Reason of Church-Government, in which Fish finds a fissure between the antiprelatical and divorce tracts.

In both cases Strier proves himself the closer reader, so that "Greenblatt is constantly in the position of arguing against the text", while "much of Fish's case rests on the title of Milton's pamphlet, but... he never cites the pamphlet's full title", which urges rather than agonises. Strier is above all very funny, and for a book so rich and learned there is plenty of room for wit - witness the allusion to More's utopian "premarital nude inspections", overlooked by Greenblatt. In terms of skin-tight scrutiny, Strier's close readings exemplify the "naked majesty" of Milton's Adam.

A particular strength of Strier's study is his ability to pick apart established critical positions while offering intricate rereadings of major canonical texts, including five Shakespeare plays. His granular reading of religion and sexuality in Othello - including Catholic and Protestant takes on Desdemona's "moist hand" - ends in a characteristically freighted aside: "I am not definitively taking a stand on the highly contentious and uncertain matter of Shakespeare's own religious commitment (if any), but I do think that the plays quite consistently present asceticism and sexual disgust as pathological".

In this busy, bright book, Strier is bringing sexy back, by showing that from More to Milton Renaissance writers were less concerned with control mechanisms than with passionate engagement. Their "opposition to the most commonly voiced values and virtues of the period" reveals their unrepentant hearts. Refuting Greenblatt's grim portrait of Utopia, Strier sees More's imagined community as "a long way from the Inquisition". Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! To invoke another Python sketch, in Strier's gleeful account of the Renaissance, the Inquisition's instruments of torture turn out to comprise Cardinal Fang's comfy chair and tickly cushion.

The Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton

By Richard Strier

University of Chicago Press 328pp, £29.00

ISBN 9780226777511

Published 6 January 2012

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