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Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature

Studies in Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne

By Murray Roston

Publication Year: 2007

Deconstructionist critics have argued that literary works contain conflicting or contradictory meanings, thus creating an aporia, or impasse, that prevents readers from interpreting the work. Here, however, Murray Roston offers detailed and essentially new analyses of works by Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne, arguing that the seemingly contradictory presence of traditional and subversive elements in their major works actually creates the source of much of their literary achievement. Chapters explore The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Faerie Queene, Volpone, and the Meditations of John Donne, highlighting the creative tension between centripetal and centrifugal factors (borrowing Bakhtin’s terms). As Roston demonstrates, this tension exists in a variety of genres, including poetry, epic and drama, and even in religious prose-which, he acknowledges, might be thought to be exempt from such inner conflict because of its doctrinal and theological focus. The tension between tradition and subversion, both linguistic and cultural, then, can be seen to produce not aporia in any negative sense, but a positive complexity of response from the audience, animating and profoundly enriching each work. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Shakespeare merges the previously despised figure of the merchant with a Christ-like figure, brilliantly reasserting the Christian condemnation of profiteering while simultaneously advocating its seeming opposite, a validation of the burgeoning mercantile activity of the Renaissance. Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature is a thoughtful study, rich in both historical scholarship and in its survey of modern criticism. Even those who are quite familiar with the texts discussed here will find Roston’s focus on the tension between maintaining the expectations of the culture and pulling toward new ideas an illuminating way to freshly consider these literary works.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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TItle Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. v


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

Postmodernist criticism, by acknowledging the arbitrary quality of language and the diacritical nature of sign or word, has led to the view that all literary works contain insoluble disparities entailing ultimately irreconcilable readings.The existence of such aporia compels us, we are told, to discard the concept of a work’s autonomy. ...

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ONE Sacred and Secular in The Merchant of Venice

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pp. 1-37

The Merchant of Venice contains an extraordinary number of biblical allusions. It repeatedly echoes or cites passages from the Gospels, from Ecclesiasticus, from Corinthians, and from the Old Testament at large. To an Elizabethan audience, familiar with the Bible from regular readings both in church and in the family setting...

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TWO Hamlet and the Stoic

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pp. 39-85

T. S. Eliot disliked Hamlet, describing it disparagingly as “the Mona Lisa of literature.” He claimed that it was an inscrutable work, disquieting because of the impossibility of ever identifying with precision the source of Hamlet’s emotional disturbance. ...

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THREE Spenser and the Pagan Gods

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pp. 87-133

It has become a commonplace of criticism to speak of Edmund Spenser’s syncretism, his skillful merger of classical and scriptural elements in The Faerie Queene, where he is seen as drawing “with equal freedom” on the Bible and the classical poets.1 But that view needs to be considerably modified. ...

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FOUR Volpone, Comedy or Mordant Satire?

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pp. 135-170

The laughter and applause greeting Jonson’s play in its stage performances contrast markedly with its somber evaluations by literary critics. In Jonson’s day, the play was received with delight and was acted frequently through the seventeenth century. ...

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FIVE Donne and the Meditative Tradition

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pp. 171-211

The heady excitement engendered by the Grierson-Eliot revival of interest in metaphysical poetry during the twenties had begun to wane midcentury, when Louis Martz’s The Poetry of Meditation restimulated interest, offering an essentially new tool for evaluating and analyzing the verse. ...

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pp. 213-217

If the main focus in this study has been upon aporia, the doctrine concerning the final insolubility of the text, that theory was symptomatic of a broader devaluation of interpretive processes. I should like, in conclusion, to examine briefly one further aspect, the model that has been cited repeatedly by the exponents of deconstruction as a means of authorizing their approach. ...


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pp. 219-239

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 241-248


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pp. 249-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705224
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820703909

Page Count: 271
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 608055722
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature

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Subject Headings

  • Renaissance -- England.
  • Ambiguity in literature.
  • Intertextuality.
  • English literature -- Early modern, 1500-1700 -- History and criticism.
  • Shakespeare, William, -- 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Jonson, Ben, -- 1573?-1637 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Donne, John, 1572-1631 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Spenser, Edmund, -- 1552?-1599 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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