- The Unrepentant Renaissance: From Petrarch to Shakespeare to Milton by Richard Strier
This is a challenging and rewarding book that should be read by all who are interested in early modern studies. Since the birth pangs of new historicism, Richard Strier has reminded us that whatever excitement a theory or approach of the moment generates, it ignores at least as much as it includes. In The Unrepentant Renaissance, Strier admonishes those critics who articulate a dour, anxious Renaissance that the period was, in fact, filled with expressions of exuberant pleasure and unrestrained emotion. It is perhaps appropriate that the title of this new book repudiates repentance, because Strier has been, and remains, our gloriously unrepentant revisionist, swimming deliberately against the tide of current trends.
In this book, Strier argues that “Renaissance” is a better term for this lively period than the cool, imprecise, relational “early modern” installed by historians and literary scholars. Moreover, he maintains that this period was in fact “more bumptious, full-throated, and perhaps perverse” than standard accounts would allow (2). He challenges the “dark and dour terms” in which Stephen Greenblatt, Gail Kern Paster, and I have characterized the period (17). Strier wants to reclaim the high-spirited, sensual Renaissance originally portrayed by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1870). One of the many pleasures of this book is seeing Burckhardt actually engaged with, rather than simply treated as a straw scholar. One of the signal heroes of Burckhardt’s history is the Venetian Alvise Cornaro, whom Strier describes as a “model of happy and flourishing worldliness” (21). But Cornaro proves an awkward poster child for a book dedicated to unrestrained energy; Strier devotes only one sentence to the fact that Cornaro’s reputation throughout Europe was largely a product of his Treatise of Temperance and Sobrietie, a work which is dedicated to the virtue of moderation, and which was translated into English by George Herbert. In this work (recently released in a new translation under the title Writings on the Sober Life),1 Cornaro relates that until he learned to regulate his appetite, he was sick and miserable but through a careful dietary regimen, he lived happily into his eighties. As this example demonstrates, ideas of regulation continually frame the expressions of pleasure Strier highlights. In the Renaissance, moderation is not the conceptual opposite of pleasure, but its necessary precondition. [End Page 227]
Curiously, the book contains an uncharacteristically injudicious use of the charged term “conservative.” For example, Strier contends that I produce “readings that are extraordinarily and consistently conservative,” “that support the rule of order, reason, and restraint” (18). This is a naïve and unhistorical version of conservatism, one that ignores the way that genuinely radical writers such as Milton view rational self-control as the necessary foundation of a truly radical politics and, at least after the Fall, as the requisite parameter for the experience of genuine pleasure.
Strier’s unqualified praise of unfettered emotion could perhaps benefit from using Aristotle’s influential assertions in the Ethics that virtues are rarely absolute; rather, they are situational and relational, and are matters of degree. Patience and anger, for example, are both profoundly circumstantial virtues and can easily become vices in the wrong situation. Strier offers a fascinating observation that Shakespeare’s villains tend to speak on behalf of calm self-control and cool reason, but as Shakespeare remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Devil can cite scripture for his [own] purpose[s].
As always, Strier is an excellent reader of Shakespeare, of both the sonnets and the plays. He is particularly illuminating on the critique of patience in The Comedy of Errors, showing that the patience that lords and husbands demand of servants and wives is merely another tool of coercion and oppression. I would love to have seen Strier discuss this critique of patience against Milton’s unequivocal praise of patience in his later works. This fine chapter also contains a wonderful discussion of bourgeois marriage, demonstrating how...