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Introduction: Alison Thorne and her legacy

Introduction: Alison Thorne and her legacy

Dermot Cavanagh & Rob Maslen

[1] This special issue of the Journal of the Northern Renaissance celebrates the life and work of a scholar who had a major hand in the foundation of the journal, Dr Alison Thorne. The occasion is a sad one. At the height of her powers Alison was struck down by an illness that steadily robbed her of her ability to draw on the rich resources of her memory, forcing her into early retirement at the height of her powers as an academic. But despite the sad events that brought it into being, the process of assembling the issue has been wholly positive – even, at times, exhilarating, since it has given us an opportunity to reflect on Alison’s remarkable contribution to early modern studies, and to express our gratitude for the impact she has had on our lives and on those of our fellow scholars in the field worldwide. The conference at which the original versions of many of these essays were given as papers (‘Early Modern Voices: A Symposium for Alison Thorne’, University of Glasgow, October 2015) was a happy affair, which Alison enjoyed and was clearly moved by. And the issue itself gains a real sense of coherence from its association with her work. In particular it speaks to her interlocking fascinations with the complexities of early modern rhetoric, the rich diversity of Shakespeare’s writings and the constantly expanding territory of women’s studies. The essays in it are distinguished and we think she will take pleasure in them.

[2] The keystone of Alison’s achievement as a writer is her monograph, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Palgrave, 2000). Partly based on the PhD she completed under the supervision of Professor David Daniell at University College London – and this issue marks her links with UCL with essays from two of the university’s most distinguished early modern scholars – the book reads Shakespeare’s work in the light of the close association between early modern theories of painting and of rhetoric, the art of verbal persuasion on which the Elizabethan education system was largely founded. From a meticulous study of the most influential Italian theorists of painting Alison identifies a complex interplay between the quest to establish a set of universal rules on which painters might base their practice – in particular the rules of perspective – and the growing conviction among sixteenth-century artists that the fluidities of intuition and imaginative invention should take precedence over rigid codification in guiding the painter’s hand and eye, as he strove to outdo nature in composing images of unprecedented beauty or memorable strangeness. She went on to discover evidence of Shakespeare’s engagement with a similar interplay between theory and resistance to theory, often articulated through visual metaphors and showing a serious interest in peculiarly English painting practices. Focusing on a number of plays – comedy, tragedy, satire, romance – written between the late sixteenth century and the end of his career, Alison brought to bear on each text some specific aspect of Elizabethan debates about the visual arts, from the multiple points of view at work in As You Like It to the subliminal presence of distorting anamorphism in Troilus and Cressida, the political operations of the imagination’s inner eye in Antony and Cleopatra and the competing verbal and visual perspectives of the court masque as mediated by The Tempest. In the process she brought alive the many metaphors of vision and the visual arts deployed by Shakespeare and his commentators to a degree no scholar had done before, and laid the groundwork for continued study not just of Shakespeare and painting but of Shakespeare’s understanding of the imagination as an engine for shaping the world, and of the individual mind as a nexus for diverse perceptions of the self. The meticulous scholarship in this book, coupled with its rare subtlety of textual analysis and the keen alertness it evinces to social, political and theoretical nuance, marked it out as a major contribution to the growing field of word and image studies.

[3] Alison once said that she thought she would only write two or three monographs in her academic career, and it’s clear from Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare why she thought so: the research for each of its chapters would have served a more facile writer with material for several essays. Her plans for a second monograph began to take shape soon after the publication of the first: she wanted to write a major book on female supplication and complaint in the early modern period, identifying supplication in particular as a mode of discourse often associated with women which was seen by rhetoricians as having immense affective power, and hence political efficacy, even when deployed by the most uneducated and marginalized members of any given community. As it turned out, Alison never published this important work between hard covers, but her assembled writings on the topic amount to more than a monograph’s worth in its impact on her fellow scholars. With Jennifer Richards, another of our contributors, she organized one of the epoch-defining conferences of the new millennium, ‘Renaissance Rhetoric, Gender and Politics’ at the University of Strathclyde, and edited the follow-up collection of essays, Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 2007). A brief online search for the book reveals the remarkable impact it has had on women’s studies since its publication. Most significantly, it offered its readers new ways of understanding how women could be conceived of as politically active in the early modern period, despite the overwhelming theoretical pressure on them to remain silent, humble and spatially enclosed at all times. The irony of such injunctions being laid on women in educational tracts and conduct manuals at a time when England was ruled by a female monarch is pointed up in the book’s important introduction, which draws on Alison’s identification in Vision and Rhetoric of the substantial gap between rhetorical theory and practice in early modern England to show how some women took full advantage of the various examples of female articulacy made available through legal and religious conventions, oral tradition and classical literature. The introduction culminates in a discussion of certain forms of rhetoric embraced by early modern women which can be ‘difficult for us nowadays properly to appreciate’, among them ‘such apparently disabling yet pervasively used speech forms as supplication and complaint, which accentuated the speaker’s lowliness, weakness and incapacity’. For Alison and Jennifer, female writers recognised the extent to which such apparently diminishing forms of discourse ‘could provide a highly effective vehicle for social and moral protest’; and Alison went on to explore literary, religious and legal instances of this tradition of female social and political intervention in a series of substantial articles, the last of which was published in 2015, not long after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

[4] As well as Alison’s fellow editor Jennifer, two more of our contributors also made significant contributions to Rhetoric, Women and Politics, Helen Hackett and Susan Wiseman, and it was with Susan that Alison edited a special issue of Renaissance Studies dedicated to the single most important classical source of female complaint literature, Ovid’s Heroides. As well as supplying us with a welcome focus on Ovid’s collection of verse letters from women of Greek and Roman myth and legend, whose influence on early modern literature has long been neglected in favour of Ovid’s more encyclopaedic Metamorphoses, the issue exemplifies Alison’s dynamic organizational activities in the sphere of early modern scholarship. For many years she served as the Scottish trustee on the board of the Society for Renaissance Studies. She also served as the University of Strathclyde’s representative with EMSIS (Early Modern Studies in Scotland), playing a vital role in its running and organising the 2011 colloquium on ‘The Legacy of the Will’. In the late 1990s she was instrumental in setting up the Scottish Institute of Northern Renaissance Studies (SINRS), whose Masters programme she convened for almost a decade (2001-10) with a good humour and efficiency that belied the difficulty of coordinating contributions from academics attached to three different institutions, the Universities of Glasgow, Stirling and Strathclyde. The enduring legacy of SINRS resides in its graduates and this journal, which is also backed, appropriately enough, by the Society for Renaissance Studies; as its co-founder Patrick Hart writes in the editorial for Issue 7, ‘Without Alison’s support and advice this journal would certainly not exist today’. Alison’s support for the journal’s editors is of a piece with her dynamic support of her undergraduates, PhD students  – two of whom, Douglas Clark and Steven Veerapen, contribute to this volume – and professional colleagues, both within and beyond the field of early modern studies. It’s a striking testimony to her extraordinary personal and intellectual generosity that so many of them have come together to make this issue possible.

[5] Our aim, then, in this collection is to reflect the trajectory as well as the scope of Alison’s interests and the continuing resonances of her work. Our contributors seek to challenge some fundamental assumptions about the literary culture of early modernity and they do so by opening new perspectives and listening carefully to some neglected voices. We hope this captures something of the spirit of Alison’s contribution to scholarship. We begin with René Weis’ essay on ‘Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house’, which questions the readiness to overlook connections between Shakespeare’s life and works. The stream of topical references in the plays indicates a continuous responsiveness to public events and there are also more private allusions to friendships and family relationships. His essay explores some suggestive convergences between Shakespeare’s creative life and his experiences as a son, brother and, crucially, father and grandfather. Weis points, especially, to the birth of his granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall (later Barnard), during the composition of Pericles in 1608. His essay considers the physical traces and remains of Shakespeare’s daughters and granddaughter as well as their presence within the narrative and thematic preoccupations of a range of works from Romeo and Juliet until the late plays.

[6] In ‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’, Helen Hackett notes a further possible connection between Shakespeare’s life and work, in this instance The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the name of William (Page) is given to the recipient of a lesson in Latin delivered by the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans. If Shakespeare was recollecting his own educational experience, it is by no means clear who maintains the upper hand in this comic sequence. Yet as this essay points out, historians of education would question whether Elizabethan schooling would have tolerated such playfulness. In many of their accounts, grammar schools were dominated by a dismaying degree of authoritarianism that instilled conformity. On the other hand, literary critics perceive the same schooling in a radically different way: as endowing a generation of exceptional writers with a rich variety of rhetorical and performance skills. On this view, the grammar school fostered not only the expressive powers of its students but also their intellectual independence. How could the same system elicit such divergent interpretations? Helen Hackett’s essay invites us to take seriously the commitment of schools to the cultivation of both literary knowledge and linguistic expertise and queries the readiness of some scholars to see them as places of punishment and constraint. She emphasises the complexity of the links between educational experience, broadly understood, and creative energy in the period and documents the educational backgrounds of a range of leading Elizabethan authors.

[7] In ‘Nicholas Breton and Early Explorations of the Mind’, Douglas Clark turns to the heterogeneous (and sometimes unclassifiable) range of work produced by a writer who is neglected and sometimes disparaged. Clark shows how Breton maintained a compelling, if idiosyncratic, interest in the psyche in ways which deviate from the period’s dominant understanding of interiority. In his view, Breton explored the complexities of mental phenomena in a manner which has been unjustly overlooked – including a canny commercial interest in the appetites and inclinations of potential readers. In The Wil of Wit (1597), Breton offers a surprising account of the will in which it is not automatically connected to excess or transgression. Instead, it is seen more as a wandering vagrant within the mind and part of a general tendency towards disordered thoughts and passions. This is one of several surprising constructions of inwardness in his writing which expands our understanding of how diversely interiority was depicted in the period. The ways in which processes of thought were imagined was constantly shifting and Breton’s work expresses the difficulties of conceptualizing these in fixed or unchanging ways.

[8] In ‘The Voice of Anne Askew’, Jennifer Richards questions a further enduring assumption about the body’s relationship to the mind in early modernity: that the eye prevailed over the ear as the primary sense for understanding. Her essay is concerned to revise our view of male-authored female-voiced texts in the Renaissance, an impulse that also inspired Alison Thorne’s later work. In Richards’ essay, the privileging of the eye over the ear is linked to another influential story that concerns the silencing of women’s voices. The connection between these narratives is explored through the story of Anne Askew who read the newly translated and printed English Bible in Lincoln Cathedral for six days in the early 1540s and who suffered arrest, interrogation, torture and execution as a consequence. Askew’s testimony survives only in the account of her Examinations (or interrogations) which were smuggled out of her cell and then heavily edited by the reformer John Bale. Richards suggests however that the physicality of Askew’s voice can still be heard even within Bale’s account of her experience. Throughout her interrogations, Askew claims the right to speak the words of the Bible aloud and to interpret them: she breathes and speaks scripture. There were precedents for this experience of the Bible as a “stream of speech” that women were entitled to express as well as men – notably in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly – and there are multiple examples of male-authored texts that deploy ventriloquized female personae. These examples also help us to understand how Askew’s voice resists what she is being asked to say and how she speaks back to these demands through the voice of scripture, including her appropriation of King David’s words in the Psalms. By attending to this performative aspect of the Examinations, Richards argues, we can recover more fully the empowerment that can follow from using the voice in the past as well as the present.

[9] In ‘Slanderisation and Censure-ship’, Steven Veerapen explores another means by which dissentient voices could speak, in this case within the discourse of slander that flourished in the Tudor period long before the more familiar era of Stuart libel but anticipating some of its most important techniques and implications. His essay shows how writers exploited loopholes or areas of indeterminacy in the face of increasingly censorious action being taken against language that was deemed to be socially divisive, including laws against slander, libel, and treason. The discourses of counsel and satire were especially useful resources in attempts to outwit these constraints, but Veerapen concentrates on the equally ingenious deployment of seemingly innocent or even edifying language for a scandalous purpose; moments when ‘good texts go bad’ but in ways that are not actionable. Indeed, the risk (and pleasure) involved in such instances belongs to the reader’s interpretation rather than the author or performer’s intent which can always be defended to some extent with a plausible denial of any malicious purpose. The essay identifies some key examples of this practice from contemporary sermons and ballads. Its opportunities and risks are dramatized forcefully in the anonymous chronicle play Thomas of Woodstock — or, as it is sometimes thought of, Richard II, Part 1 – where a melody that is only whistled is thought of as potentially treasonous. As the play shows, such tactics had their dangers especially at moments of heightened tension where their applicability was an especially volatile matter. A further graphic example of the hazards involved is evident in the fate of Shakespeare’s Richard II when a performance was apparently commissioned by the Earl of Essex before his much disputed ‘rebellion’.

[10] We close this editorial with a list of Alison’s publications, which we hope will inspire our readers to construct for themselves a path through the remarkably diverse yet unified rhetorical and socio-political concerns she traced throughout her career.


A bibliography of the work of Alison Thorne

1. Alison Thorne, ‘Problems of Perspective in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida’, PhD, UCL (1989)

2. Alison Thorne, ‘“To write and read / Be henceforth treacherous”: Cymbeline and the problem of interpretation’, Shakespeare’s Late Plays: New Readings, ed. Jennifer Richards and James Knowles (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp. 176-191.

3. Alison Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare: Looking Through Language (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

4. Alison Thorne, ‘“Awake remembrance of these valiant dead”: Henry V and the politics of the English history play’, Shakespeare Studies, vol. 30 (2002), pp. 156-181.

5. Alison Thorne (ed.), Shakespeare’s Romances, New Casebooks Series (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

6. Alison Thorne, ‘“There is a history in all men’s lives”: reinventing history in 2 Henry IV’, Shakespeare’s Histories and Counter-Histories, ed. Dermot Cavanagh, Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Stephen Longstaffe (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), pp. 49-66.

7. Alison Thorne, ‘Women’s petitionary letters and early seventeenth-century treason trials’, Women’s Writing, vol. 13, issue 1 (March 2006), pp. 23-43.

8. Jennifer Richards and Alison Thorne (eds.), Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

9. Alison Thorne and Susan Wiseman (eds.), Renaissance Studies, vol. 22, issue 3 (June 2008), Special Issue: The Rhetoric of Complaint: Ovid’s Heroides in the Renaissance and Restoration.

10. Alison Thorne, ‘“Large complaints in little papers”: negotiating Ovidian genealogies of complaint in Drayton’s England’s Heroicall Epistles’, Renaissance Studies, vol. 22, issue 3 (June 2008), pp. 368-384.

11. Alison Thorne, ‘“O, lawful let it be/ That I have room … to curse awhile”: voicing the nation’s conscience in female complaint in Richard III, King John and Henry VIII’, This England, That Shakespeare: New Angles on Englishness and the Bard, ed. Willy Maley and Margaret Tudeau-Clayton (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 105-124.

12. Alison Thorne, ‘Female captivity and the rhetoric of supplication: the cases of Lady Mary Grey and Lady Arbella Stuart’, Lives and Letters, vol. 4, no. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 152-171.

13. Alison Thorne, ‘Narratives of female suffering in petitionary literature of the Civil War period and its aftermath’, Literature Compass, vol. 10, issue 2 (February 2013), pp. 134-145.

14. Alison Thorne, ‘The politics of female supplication in the Book of Esther’, Biblical Women in Early Modern Literary Culture, ed. Victoria Brownlee and Laura Gallagher (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 95-110.

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