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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 40.1 (2000) 157-188
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Recent Studies in the English Renaissance
Richard C. McCoy
Renaissance vs. Early Modern
The "Renaissance" remains a viable title not only for this review but also for many of this year's books. Despite being "regarded with suspicion in many quarters," as Alvin Snider noted in last year's exemplary SEL review (p. 171), and despite New Historicism's preference for the less honorific "early modern," the older term persists. I must begin by admitting my own attachment to it. I recently taught a survey course called "Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution," a title reflecting not only a weakness for alliteration, but also the belief that, whatever we call it, our period of study was a very big deal, making a greater mark on English culture and society than any other era. Mark Kishlansky proudly declares in his recent Penguin history of Stuart Britain that "the seventeenth century was decisive for everything!" (p. xiii), and my only argument with that would be that the sixteenth century easily matches it. Urgent desires for renewal and reform inspired extraordinary accomplishments as well as revolutionary upheavals, including religious struggle, civil war, and regicide. These desires remain heroic even if their consequences were often tragic or simply muddled. Lofty aims and traumatic events are, in my view, best evoked by such traditional categories as "Renaissance" rather than a tepid teleology reducing them to a mere prelude to modernity. At the same time, I realize that postmodern suspicions about the mediation of agency and cause or action and accomplishment cannot be ignored, and this year's most interesting work generally grapples with these issues. [End Page 157]
New Historicism's twenty-year reign is examined and endorsed in two valuable anthologies, though both retain "Renaissance" in their titles. The editors of Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism, Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens, affirm New Historicism's vitality against those who detect "signs of weariness," maintaining that such "pessimism is . . . premature" (p. ix). All their contributors are said to agree on the importance of what Louis Montrose described in his "now famous chiasmus . . . the historicity of texts and the textuality of history" (p. xii), but some essays suggest that such a chiasmus can become a kind of rhetorical sign of the cross, providing ritual reassurance that all bases are covered by incantation. In an impressively trenchant essay, Sylvia Brown reaffirms a suppressed "desire for historical truth" (p. 9), and she rejects deconstruction because its oppressively patriarchal "cultural scripts" always "yield the expected results" (p. 13). In her new edition of a trial transcript from the sixteenth century, Annabel Patterson turns to "a 'found' courtroom drama" to pursue "that elusive entity: historical truth" (p. 25). The Trial of Nicholas Throckmorton also defies conventional expectations by ending with an acquittal from the ordinarily lethal charge of treason as well as by encouraging impartiality in its wealth of verbatim detail. In her essay, Brown seeks to reconnect "mothers' legacies," religious counsel directed by women to their offspring, to authors like "Elizabeth Jocelin, a real historical woman" (p. 22), but a lack of textual detail renders her account somewhat sketchy. In her essay on Anne Clifford, Katherine Osler Acheson intelligently opposes "glib conflations of then and now" (p. 31), but concedes that "statements calling for . . . attention to fundamental difference, although easy to utter, are fraught with difficulties in practice" (p. 30). Linda Woodbridge wants, in turn, to revive a conception of literature as a relatively separate domain following "its own rules" (p. 59), but her embrace of this "enabling fiction" (p. 68) seems more wistful than methodical. Determinism is challenged more vigorously in the section on "Rethinking Subjectivity," most notably in Tracy Sedinger's account of unconscious resistance to interpellation (p. 130), but each of these essays suggests uncertainties about problems of evidence and interpretation.
Renaissance Culture and the Everyday proposes to solve these problems by exploring fresh terrain. In her introduction, Patricia Fumerton (coeditor of the volume along with Simon Hunt) promotes a "New...