Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Siobhan Keenan, Renaissance Literature, Edinburgh Critical Guides (Edinburgh University Press, 2008)

Siobhan Keenan, Renaissance Literature, Edinburgh Critical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7486-2584-0, 27 + 282 pp. Pbk. £16.99

Reviewed by Willy Maley

[1]  In Of Education (1644), John Milton separated theory and practice when he spoke of the way in which students ought to engage with the world once their initial studies were complete: ‘I should not therefore be a perswader to them of studying much then, after two or three yeer that they have well laid their grounds, but to ride out in companies with prudent and staid guides, to all the quarters of the land: learning and observing all places of strength, all commodities of building and of soil, for towns and tillage, harbours and ports for trade. Somtimes taking sea as farre as to our Navy, to learn there also what they can in the practical knowledge of sailing and of sea-fight.’ Here in this short passage from one of the greatest republican writers of the Renaissance is a practical perspective on the link between humanism and colonialism, education and empire. The need for ‘prudent and staid guides’ is clear, but so too is the requirement to engage concretely as well as conceptually, to apply their knowledge. At its best, Joyce Keenan’s Renaissance Literature, a valuable contribution to the Edinburgh Critical Guides series that leads students through some troublesome terrain with an expert hand, does exactly that.

[2]  You have to specialise in order to be able to generalise with any authority, as anyone who has ever written an introductory guide or encyclopaedia entry – or even a review – well knows. Getting the balance right between conveying the complexity of texts and their contexts and doing so in a lucid and lively manner aimed at a senior undergraduate or early-stage graduate readership is tricky. The new Edinburgh Critical Guides series has been well thought through and the structure of each guide is designed to provide a clear overview of the field as well as focused coverage of particular areas of concern, organised by form, genre and theme. In their Series Preface, the editors, Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley, having noted the range and richness of writing open to readers, ask: ‘But how are readers to navigate their way through such literary and cultural diversity?’ The Critical Guides offer pathways through the problems thrown up by different periods, movements, and authors. The need for clarity and cohesion arguably militates against the guide being able to present the kind of detail for which one must rely on monographs and journal articles, but Keenan has produced an introduction and overview that will stand students in good stead as they make their way into a challenging area of study.

[3]  Although Keenan’s title is Renaissance Literature, her own preface opens thus: ‘This volume provides a concise introduction to the literature of Elizabethan and Stuart England (1558-1649)’. Keenan then alludes to ‘English Renaissance Literature’ (p. x). Now, for a large part of this period a Scottish king presided over an emerging British state, but this fact gets lost in the broad brushstroke of the book. Although I think it’s problematic, I’d actually have liked to have seen ‘Elizabethan and Stuart England (1558-1649)’ as a subtitle, and much more detail in the contents page. There’s a good index and a very good guide to further reading, including electronic resources, in clearly defined sections, as well as a chronology, a glossary and some excellent essay writing advice. But some of this helpful material has to be hunted for, as do some of the careful and crisp readings of writers such as Donne, Jonson, Lanyer, Marlowe, Milton, Nashe, Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and Wroth. The volume could though have been more clearly signposted, perhaps through a different design for cover and contents that allowed the major authors and texts to be viewed at a glance.

[4]  The guide is divided into three chapters, ‘Drama’, ‘Poetry’ and ‘Prose’. Under each of these headings a number of sub-sections deal directly with specific themes and topics: ‘The Professional Stage’, Court Masques’, ‘Pastoral Verse’ ‘The Sonnet Sequence’, ‘Non-fictions’, and ‘Sermons and Devotions’, to name just a few. Within these sub-sections there are some exemplary engagements with particular issues – such as the sexual and social politics of the sonnets – that are addressed with as much density and detail as one would expect from a monograph, but with a lightness of touch that renders it readily intelligible to a readership new to the primary material, the critical tradition, and recent theoretical developments. Although personally I like discursive footnotes, the short reference-only endnotes that are provided here, taken together with the clearly sectioned and signposted further reading, furnishes the student with a road map and toolkit for further study, a strong indication of the variety of critical material available, as well as a model of concise presentation.

[5]  From a Scottish perspective, there is some decent coverage of course of James VI and I, and a few references to his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, but there are only passing allusions – albeit tantalising – to George Buchanan and John Knox in the introduction, and no mention of Alexander Montgomery or William Drummond of Hawthornden. This is unfortunate, as an English republican like John Milton depended heavily on the writings of Buchanan and Knox in his writings of 1649, the year at which this guide ostensibly stops. In terms of gender and genre Keenan’s study is an essential introduction to the period, taking the reader from Marlowe to Marvell and from cultural materialism to queer theory. In terms of geography and the ‘British’ dimension, it can appear less impressive, yet the treatment of colonial and national identities throughout the volume is nimble and nuanced, and there are persuasive close readings of Othello, The Tempest, and Jonson’s Masque of Blackness. Any guide that seeks to embody a century of writing in one of the richest periods of literary history inevitably opens itself up to summary and sound bite rather than sustained analysis, but Siobhan Keenan is to be commended for having achieved precisely the right balance between comprehensiveness, comprehension, and compression. This is a really useful guide to a varied and vibrant period, written in a clear style that never sacrifices complexity in its quest for clarity.

University of Glasgow, March 2009

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