Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Leonard Barkan, Bradin Cormack and Sean Keilen (eds.) The Forms of Renaissance Thought: New Essays in Literature and Culture (Palgrave 2009)

Leonard Barkan, Bradin Cormack and Sean Keilen (eds.), The Forms of Renaissance Thought: New Essays in Literature and Culture, Palgrave, 2009. ISBN: 9780230008984. 296 pp. Hbk. £50

Reviewed by Jonathan Hope

[1]  Although the editors don’t say it in so many words, this is a festschrift for Stephen Orgel. Publishers apparently don’t like the term festschrift anymore, but that is a shame. Some – a very few – scholars deserve them. A volume that traces and reflects upon a career as important as Orgel’s can be a significant thing in a field of study, showing us what has been done and how: knowing where you have been is possibly more important than speculating on where things might go next. Unfortunately, the editors choose to present the collection as a start, rather than a pause for reflection: it embodies, they claim, a new cross-disciplinary approach to early modern studies which takes note of new historicism, but also ‘grants to authors and cultures the grounding force…of a free and productive imagination’ (1). The reality, as you might expect from a festschrift, is rather more prosaic. There are several excellent essays which would be welcomed in any refereed journal, a couple of brief notes, the odd engagingly light conference presentation, and some potentially substantial, but insufficiently thought-through, articles.

[2]  Leonard Barkan’s essay, ‘Praxiteles’ Aphrodite and the Love of Art’, is a case in point. It has a great opening: classical stories of devotees so taken with the beauty of certain sculptures that they attempt to have sex with them. Barkan attempts to read through the textual descriptions of these works of art to recover the ‘real’ object lying behind them (and this strategy is replicated in his analysis of classical copies of the lost statues). This project strikes me as theoretically problematic – a more explicit focus on the textual representations and physical copies of these lost statues as worthy of study in themselves could have given rise to a fascinating consideration of representation and signification as well as the problem of cleaning body fluids off marble. In the end, much like sex with a statue, the essay does not go anywhere. Firmer editorial hands would have returned it for some rethinking and tightening.

[3]  More editing would also have benefitted Sean Keilen’s article, ‘English Literature in its Golden Age’, which considers the notions ‘golden’ and ‘gold’ as they are used in and of renaissance artworks. His concern is to explore the paradoxical relationship renaissance literature has with the classical past. The idealised past provided formal models and a store of mythological content; but it also set up a looming, unattainable set of ‘perfect’ texts. Sifting for gold, Keilen traces the Midas tale in Thomas Nashe and John Lyly, via a reading of Melchior Meier’s striking illustration, Apollo and Marsyas and the Judgement of Midas (1581). Much of the detail in Keilen’s paper is suggestive, but the paper fails to bring its two literary texts together. The final section on Lyly unconvincingly claims that Lyly saw imitatio (when properly followed) as a surrender to the past, and completely ignores the importance of aemulatio to renaissance writers. Confidence in Keilen as a reader, or indeed the other two editors as editors, is not helped by his claims about the following line from Lyly’s play Midas:

Apollo must determine all or Midas see ruin of all

For Keilen this is

a crucial passage in the development of Lyly’s thought about imitation and the subjectivity of the imitating poet.  For the first time in the play, Midas presents himself as the object of the verb “to determine,” rather than its subject, and this shift in grammatical person signals the new order that is coming into being at the end of the text (70)

Unfortunately for Keilen, the object of ‘determine’ here is not ‘Midas’, but ‘all’: ‘Midas’ is the subject of ‘see’. This is not the only time in the volume that linguistic terminology is misused to add an aura of false authority to a reading.

[4]  Michael Wyatt’s article ‘Translating for Queen Anne: John Florio’s Decameron’ is a slight one, but I do not mean that disparagingly. It is brief, and makes no broad theoretical claims, but it does point out something that might be of especial interest to readers of this journal. In the first English translation of the Decameron (1620, and almost certainly by John Florio), changes were made to the third story of the second day which seem explicable only as a response to the newly British political context. In Boccacio’s extraordinary original, an Italian man shares a bed in an inn with someone he believes to be an English abbot. In the course of the night, his bedmate reveals herself to be the daughter of the king of England, on her way to Rome to seek the permission of the Pope for her intended marriage to the king of Scotland. The Englishwoman (never named) seduces the Italian, and has the Pope marry them – the couple then return to England, are reconciled to the king, and the Italian (made Earl of Cornwall) conquers Scotland and becomes its king. The 1620 translation writes Scotland out of the story: the English princess is to be married to the king of North Wales, and her Italian husband ends up conquering and reigning in Ireland. It is clear to see why Boccacio’s original would have raised concerns in James I and VI’s court. Wyatt’s account brings an interesting example of ‘archipelagic’ literature to a wider audience.

[5]  One essay that brilliantly justifies the editors’ claims for the volume is Margreta de Grazia’s ‘The First Reader of Shake-speares Sonnets’. De Grazia takes John Benson’s 1640 volume, Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent., routinely dismissed by editors of Shakespeare’s poetry as sloppy and pirated, and builds an elegantly convincing case for viewing the volume as a considered response to Shakespeare’s work. Benson has been pilloried for merging individual sonnets into longer poems, and for giving titles to these ‘new’ works – but de Grazia points out that this is very like the way Early Modern commonplace books treat poetry: readers compile their own anthologies, add titles, combine and juxtapose poems, engage, in short, in a creative reading process that creates meanings and which can itself be read. One of her many palpable hits comes when de Grazia shows that the thematic groupings of the sonnets offered by Stanley Wells often look very like Benson’s.  The essay is a delight to read, and ranges over book and printing history, reception studies, renaissance ways of reading, theories of form – virtually the entire range of renaissance studies.

[6]  Jonathan Goldberg’s ‘The Play of Wanton Parts’ is a substantial consideration of the role of Lucretius in Spenser, especially in relation to what Goldberg sees as normative critical readings of the Bower of Bliss and Garden of Adonis episodes. The essay is at its strongest (though also its least forgiving on the reader) when it considers the philosophical issues at stake between Lucretian and Platonic notions of material and forms. Less successful is Goldberg’s tendency to find normative (i.e. homophobic) readings everywhere in Spenser criticism – and the way Spenser’s text disappears behind these critics so that it becomes hard to distinguish, in Goldberg’s account, between Spenser and his critics. It is strange, in such a philosophically sophisticated essay, to see Goldberg dealing so crudely with the notion of ‘normal’ and setting up a barren dichotomy of queer/normal, with the first ‘good’, and the second, ‘bad’.  It does not take much training in deconstructive theory to see that Goldberg’s argument is entirely dependent on the existence of a ‘normal’ hegemony he claims to wish to subvert and banish. As Valerie Traub points out in relation to Queer readings of early modern sexuality later in the volume, one danger of Queer criticism is the desire to queer ‘everything’ (188), while another is the tendency to construct an epistemology of sexual relations ‘not nearly as supple, nuanced, or complex as its representations warrant’ (182).

[7]  ‘Shakespeare’s Narcissus, Sonnet’s Echo’ by Bradin Cormack reads the Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet through Ovid’s myth of Echo and Narcissus, with a particular interest in form and repetition. This is potentially rich material, especially in relation to the Sonnets, whose obsessive repetition and recapitulation deserves formal consideration. The essay does not live up to its promise however, because its handling of Romeo and Juliet is too conventional: Mercutio is ‘the agent of language that catches and propels him on’ (128). This is the ‘madcap’ Mercutio of critical, stage and film tradition, carried along by a torrent of words he does not control – but a close reading of the play with an awareness of renaissance ideas about language shows that Mercutio is constructed as the master user of language: it is Romeo, the lover, who is unable to use language ‘sociably’ (following Early Modern norms). Similarly, rather than spend time defending homosexuality against Freud’s charges of Narcissism, Cormack should have looked even more closely at Ovid’s treatment of Echo: like Romeo the lover, she is trapped by language – he by cliché; she by whatever has just been said. A crucial exchange in Ovid between Echo and Narcissus plays on ‘copia’ – ‘power’ – but also, as we know from Erasmus, ‘plenty’. Cormack’s essay would have been richer for a consideration of repetition as plenty – the way similarity (especially in the Sonnets) can produce variety.

[8]  Peter Holland’s ‘Coriolanus: The Rhythms and Remains of Excess’ is an exemplary piece of performance criticism, showing how a consideration of dramatic form can inform our understanding. Plays are not words on a page or even ideas in peoples’ heads: they are bodies in time and space. Why, for example, does Shakespeare bring the dead Goneril and Regan back on stage at the end of King Lear, given that lugging two corpses on and then off again is so awkward? What did the first audiences of Coriolanus think when confronted by the star actor playing some guy called Caius Martius? As with much great criticism, Holland takes something most would dismiss as irrelevant or incidental – the positioning of the intermission in Coriolanus – and shows how it illuminates the whole structure of the play.

[9]  I have already quoted from Valerie Traub’s ‘The Joys of Martha Joyless: Queer Pedagogy and the (Early Modern) Production of Sexual Knowledge’, which takes as its starting point Richard Brome’s 1638 play The Antipodes.In that play, Martha Joyless, three years into an unconsummated marriage, bemoans to her friend Barbara, both her husband (‘He ne’er put… anything toward it yet’) and her own ignorance (‘I cannot guess/ What a man does in child-getting’). Martha remembers once being in bed with ‘A wanton maid’ who ‘kissed/ And clipped and clapped me strangely’ and then invites Barbara either to sleep with her, or her husband, so they can find out what it is they should be doing (1.01.252-68). As Traub points out, one of the striking things about the way the play presents this is the lack of any shock or surprise at the kissing, clipping and clapping that went on between Martha and the wanton maid. She cites this as a useful reminder that Early Modern representations of sexuality may be more strange and multiple than our often dichotomous models lead us to expect. (Her reading of the word ‘clapped’, following OED, takes it as implying a degree of force, and while this may be what the term means here, it is worth noting a less violent sense of ‘clap’, now restricted to Scotland, which uses it in the sense of ‘stroke’ – as in to stroke a pet – see ‘Clap, V’ in the Dictionary of the Scots Language (

[10]  The collection ends with its most thematically coherent subsection, ‘Intimate Matters’, containing four articles focusing on material culture, or what Bill Brown has called ‘thing theory’ (see Critical Inquiry, 2001). Al Braunmuller’s ‘Bearded Ladies in Shakespeare’ is survey of Early Modern freak shows: bearded ladies, rams with four horns, ‘a strange Ratt’, conjoined twins. These intersected economically and legally with the Early Modern theatre (such shows were licensed by the Master of the Revels) – and they can show us what the Early Modern period considered normative and otherwise. Anton Bosman’s ‘Shakespeare in Leather’ considers the development of Shakespeare’s biography, as early biographers seized on evidence that John Shakespeare was a glover as well as a wool dealer, to emphasise his status as a manufacturing tradesman rather than a manual labourer. The piece goes on impressively to detail the centrality of worked skins to Early Modern culture (gloves, footwear, belts saddles, bellows for driving blast furnaces, clothes) and particularly in book production, not just for book binding, but in printing. Not surprisingly, metaphors drawn from this field are common: Erasmus in The Praise of Folly picks up on Psalm 104, which has God the creator stretching out the heavens as a skin (lost in the Geneva Bible, which translates ‘skin’ as ‘curtain’). Bosman goes on to trace leather metaphors throughout Shakespeare in an impressively well-structured paper.

[11]  Bill Sherman’s ‘Digging the Dust: Renaissance Archivology’ is an engaging consideration of material and immaterial archives.  It ranges widely, from on-line versions of Shakespeare’s will, to Derrida’s notion of archive fever, Delia Bacon camping out, shovel in hand, to dig up Shakespeare’s grave, dust in contemporary art, and why you might want to sniff archived letters for vinegar. Less immediately engaging is Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass’, ‘Of Busks and Bodies’, which opens by reprinting the infamous ‘tampon’ exchange between Prince Charles and Camilla. This may be in the public domain, but it really does nothing for the argument of the paper (despite some laboured close reading by Jones and Stallybrass) and the editors should have pointed this out. The paper proper considers busks, and their meanings – it is an assemblage of references to busks rather than a developed argument, but there are lots of points of interest.


 Strathclyde University,  August 2009

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