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From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 9-17 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0015

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Although I am happy to participate in this issue of Renaissance Drama, celebrating its forty or forty- nine years and contemplating the field and its future, I have to say that nothing in my training qualifies me to do so. At Columbia, where I was a graduate student from 1964 to 1968, one had to choose between studying the literature of the early modern period or studying its drama. I don’t recall whether this was a formal requirement. You entered the program assigned to a field—in my case, seventeenth- century English literature (exclusive of drama); then, for the oral exam, in addition to the major field, you were examined in a minor field in comparative literature, an author (the choices were, so far as I can recall, Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton), and one field of literature earlier than the seventeenth century (I chose the sixteenth century, again, exclusive of drama). Elizabethan and Jacobean drama was its own field, and, at least as I am remembering it, given the exam structure, doing it in tandem with a major in the seventeenth century was virtually impossible.

Staffing also made it impossible practically. Seventeenth- century literature was taught by Edward Tayler and Joseph Anthony Mazzeo, sixteenth by William Nelson; the only courses in the drama that I recall were given by S. F. Johnson.1 I remember attending a class or two of his and being utterly mystified. The session was on a scene of a Shakespeare play, and the class was working through it—or better, Johnson was working through it, word by word. To my bafflement, the play was being treated as if it had been written in some foreign language difficult to decipher. The means to decipher it was equally foreign—Johnson’s terminology was, to me, utterly opaque. (I imagine I had not yet read R. B. McKerrow’s 1928 Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students and knew nothing about the mysteries contained therein.) Close perusal of a text was not to me unfamiliar—my proseminar in seventeenth- century literature with Tayler had been a mind- blowing working through of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici over the course of an entire semester. But there, the density of language and thought constantly opened vistas. In Johnson’s class that day, doors seemed to be shutting in the hope of capturing some kind of truth that I had trouble recognizing. I don’t tell this story to disparage Johnson, just to suggest that the divide between his classes in Elizabethan and Jacobean and drama and those in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century English literature seemed like one between two entirely different subject matters, two entirely different approaches.

I would not suppose that graduate study in English at Columbia now is much like it was then. For one thing, currently the best- known members of the Renaissance faculty are associated with the drama: Jean Howard, James Shapiro, and, until 2008, David Scott Kastan, whereas in the 1960s certainly the “stars” of the department included Mazzeo and Nelson, while Marjorie Hope Nicolson had just recently retired. (Not so many years earlier, however, Oscar James Campbell and Alfred Harbage had been Shakespeareans in the department, so the four years I spent there may not be very representative of how things had “always been,” a chimera that graduate students inevitably construct on the basis of their institutional histories.)2 Hence, imagine my surprise when checking the website recently, I found that the possible major fields a student might present for his or her orals include the options of “sixteenth- century British,” “seventeenth- century British,” and “Renaissance drama.”3 Although an older formula for the chronological fields has expanded from “English” to “British,” and “Elizabethan and Jacobean” has mutated into “Renaissance,” the division between literature and drama and the possibility of their mutual exclusion still obtain: presumably only one of these can be a major field.

The self- evidence of the field, under whatever name, seems to go without saying. So, in the “Introduction: Demanding History” that Kastan and John Cox provided for their highly praised A New History of Early English Drama, they congratulate themselves on the challenge they make to “largely...

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