Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Susan Wiseman

[1] In her first book, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare, Alison Thorne explores ‘how visual and verbal modes of figuring the world, ways of seeing and ways of talking, are brought into productive relationship’ (2000: 12). It focuses on Shakespeare, placing his writing in an extended framework of cultural transmission. The study’s central concern is how ‘certain kinds of visual experiences might be reproduced in a verbal medium’ and it places visual and verbal rhetoric side by side (xiii-xiv). As Thorne notes, quoting Martin Kemp, innovative visual rhetoric from Italy was ‘“creatively transmogrified”’ as it was taken through Europe, and ‘“in its new country, a certain strangeness tends to persist”’ (Kemp 1990: 53; cited Thorne 2000: 39-40). Alison remained interested in what happens to visual and verbal rhetoric in novel situations. She was analysing particularly how scholars can see forms of rhetoric (verbal but also visual) at work in situations in which these had not previously been understood as central. This was a concern that developed throughout her academic career, from this first study to her research on supplication most recently expressed in an essay on Esther and rhetoric.

[2] In distinct ways, the essays gathered here take their cue from an emphasis on transmitted and changed culture and how new circumstances remake the world. Thus, Veerapen considers slanderous rhetoric in the realm of innocent speech acts, good words made bad; Clark shows us Breton’s wit as a guide to the psyche; Richards discloses how physical voice haunts the material text and changes our understanding of it; Hackett shows us the schoolroom inside the early modern mind and Weis invites us to consider the benefits of literal exhumation for scholarship of Shakespeare’s life and works. They contribute their own research and share in Alison’s interests. At the same time, they are published together because of an intellectual sociability that Alison sustained from her time at University College, London and which flourished in the engaged and adventurous world offered by the University of Strathclyde and Scotland’s Renaissance studies community and to which she contributed so much, not least by setting up a multi-institution Master’s degree in Renaissance Literature.

[3] Douglas Clark’s renovation of how we approach Nicholas Breton elegantly demonstrates how attending to the focus, aims and purposes articulated in his works shows it to be a rich resource of Renaissance thought on the ‘mind’. Clark explores the ways in which Breton reflects on mental experience to elucidate that writer’s engagement with the way reflection, such as memory, renders the subject vulnerable to ‘internal’ and external forces. Breton’s writing shows us a striking consideration of the way thought, in its most powerful and ludic processes, is a weave of passion, reason and desire. Clark’s analysis shows Breton as a thinker whose concerns for this subject are to be aligned with Montaigne and probably Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir John Davies’ Nosce Teipsum (1599). This essay produces Breton as a poet whose synthetic understanding of mind invites us to see him as a thinker. Thus, seeking to explore the dynamics of the subject, Breton both splits and unifies ‘Wit’ and ‘Will’. This allows his work to be understood as a significant exploration of the languages of early modern subjectivity and mind.

[4] At stake in Helen Hackett’s discussion of the grammar school is the way it both made the subject a compliant thinker and, yet, in doing so, facilitated that subject’s critical rethinking of himself and his world in later life. Distinguishing between history and literary criticism as disciplines which study the grammar school, this essay analyses the accounts of the influence and social place of formal school education in the work of literary criticism and in history. It finds literary critical scholarship characterised by an optimistic account of the early modern male writer, such as Ben Jonson or William Shakespeare. However, turning to primary evidence, Hackett writes about the contrastingly ‘negative’, reactive, accounts of the early modern boys’ school to be found in those sources. Recognising the relationship between the school-room subject and that subject grown adult as the unexamined heart of this question, Hackett sees that grammar school writers gave positive or negative accounts of a past which, nevertheless, shaped their writing. She is also concerned to indicate that such grammar school pupils, once educated, were able to use the educational techniques of rhetoric to ends which the authorities could regard as either obedient or subversive. In the right circumstances, rhetorical or actual transgression can facilitate rather than disrupt the securing of social approval from the masculine elite. This essay, with Thorne’s own work and Richards’ important contribution, are part of a significant body of scholarship rethinking the dynamics and dimensions of rhetoric and conceiving its cultural place in ways which situate it more richly in relation to agency, circumstance and the present world of the early modern subject.

[5] Richards’ and Hackett’s contributions to this volume are also contributions to a body of intellectual work and associated intellectual community that is engaged in reframing rhetoric. A key further contribution in this field is the volume of essays Thorne co-edited with Richards, Rhetoric, Women and Politics in Early Modern England (2007). This volume initiated explicit study of women’s relationship to the linguistic tools signalling masculine status and facility. In continuing to address the question of female voice in Protestant discourse, Jennifer Richards’ essay intervenes at a crucial faultline in the study of women, rhetoric and institutional structures. As she elucidates, while critics (such as Patricia Pender) have been attentive and precise in exploring women’s intervention in the rhetoric of print and paratext, the question of voice has been addressed either obliquely, evocatively or in a context laden with assumptions – as in some of the understandings of genre as a form of ventriloquisation. Turning towards the place of the female subject as, literally, a speaker of the rhetoric of Protestantism, Richards pays equally precise attention to the ways in which Askew voices the Bible, and is glossed as a speaker, arguing that by recognising her voice as both saturated with Biblical language and story, and agile in mobilising the force of such words, it is also specific in ways that can be glossed by Bale. Richards demonstrates that a flexible, yet authoritative, female Protestant spoken rhetoric can be excavated from the printed text. She continues to reconsider the place of both Askew’s language within a text, in which her evidence is often seen as over-written by commentary, and a wider re-evaluation of female voices in the early moments of English Protestantism. Such a re-evaluation can add or, arguably, recover the dimension of voice as part of the increasing number of ways in which women shaped the English Reformation in its first half century or so. This essay is also a close and generous companion of Thorne’s work on rhetoric and gender.

[6] The significance of words and rhetoric in a legal setting is the subject of Veerapen’s essay exploring the way high legal concepts of slanderous intention could be subverted by simple – and simultaneously pleasurable–uses of particular ballad tunes (or, indeed, the simple naming of particular tunes). This use of music to slander is, as he writes, both represented and investigated on the Renaissance stage. In arguing that the principle of mitior sensus invited an interpreter to consider the slanderous potential of a speech as inoffensive, Veerapen sees this as setting the terms on which accusations were made and offences committed. Citing the whistling of a tune in the anonymous history play Woodstock, as well as ministers’ use of portions of the Bible, the essay shows the densely embedded place of both literary writing and events in addressing power and effecting changes in political perception.

[7] René Weis’s essay takes up one of Thorne’s key interests, Shakespeare, to explore the pleasures and perils of literal exhumation for scholarship on Shakespeare’s life and writing. Making the point that, although we cannot know what Shakespeare was thinking, we can see resemblances between events in his life, for example in the the number and names of his children and the names of characters in his plays. It builds on this to speculate whether we can know more about both by digging up, as Weis puts it, ‘the daughters of his house’ – and perhaps even the great sire himself. The essay offers a cultural study of those claiming to have availed themselves of forensic glimpses of the bard in situ. Weis’s essay, then, takes us underground to emphasise the value of empirical, indeed physical, as much as textual, evidence.

[8]We can turn to the text and its users and consider both with regard to the political agency of female subjects in one of Alison’s most recent pieces. While the connections with her first monograph are clear, we can also see the continuing benefits of her creative and sophisticated thinking on rhetorical situations. In this later research, her concentration is not simply on the empirical but also on how a story can be complex and nuanced yet, equally and simultaneously, experienced by its users as ready at hand, agile and applicable in actual circumstances. If Thorne began her writing career with Shakespeare, her recent contribution to feminist scholarship has been in terms of a discussion of the Book of Esther as used in supplication texts by early modern women. In a complex and wide ranging analysis, Thorne supported her contention that ‘the convergence of female pleading with the hidden operation of divine providence or fateful coincidences lays the bedrock for a political partnership that will ultimately deliver justice and preferment for the persecuted Jewish diaspora’ (2015: 95). As Thorne reminds us, Esther’s combination of sagacity and daring made her both a political model for both sexes and particularly for church reformers, but also for women poets who might use her case to claim fellowship with a persecuted minority. Thorne traces the way many took up Esther’s complex resolution, ‘so I will go to the King, which is not according to the Law: and if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:16), commenting that this ‘earned her a resounding tribute in Aemilia Lanyer’s poem, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611)’ as an exemplar of female godliness joined to determination and purity of heart:

Though virtuous Hester fasted three dayes space,
And spent her time in prayers all that while,
That by Gods powre shee might obtain such grace,
That she and hers might not become a spoyle
To wicked Hamon, in whose crabbed face
Was seen the map of malice, envie, guile;
Her glorious garments though she put apart,
So to present a pure and single heart.

                         (Lanyer 1993: 115–16; cited Thorne 2015)

Thus Thorne’s work on Esther takes its place in a significant collection of essays and in doing so continues to contribute to two areas in which her scholarship has made such an important contribution: the question of words and rhetoric in the texts of those not previously seen as using them, and within that, the study of women as rhetorical agents and subjects.

[9] The question of rhetoric recontextualised, but also rethought to disclose areas obscured by the way scholarship has operated, underpins Thorne’s work. The question Vision and Rhetoric was asking of the formative effect of reception and transmission is taken up here in precincts quite distinct from her field of argument. However, these essays are united in their attentiveness to the way subjects, or evidence, or texts are remade in new circumstances that the contributors explore by putting their own work in relation to Thorne’s. The topics linked to Alison’s work include the closely related field of rhetoric libel and law (Veerapen), the question of the rhetoric of the subject (Clark and to some extent Hackett), and the remaking of our understanding of the past in terms of voice (Richards) or in terms of combining material and written evidence (Weiss). As important, these essays imply and in part express Alison Thorne’s generous and rich intellectual friendship and conversation, from her work at University College London as a graduate student to her close collaborations at Strathclyde and in Scotland. These essays are a product of many voices and conversations with Thorne’s generous discursivity at their core.

Birkbeck, University of London


Thanks to the editors for inviting this contribution, and for their patience.


Kemp, Martin. The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (New Haven and London: Yale, 1990)

Lanyer, Aemelia. Poems: Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, ed. by Susanne Woods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

Pender, Patricia. Early Modern Women’s Writing and the Rhetoric of Modesty (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012)

Thorne, Alison. Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000)

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

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