Volpone and the Second World

Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 2.57.46 PM.png

My ENGL 358 course discussed Ben Jonson’s satire Volpone this week, and its series of con games and plays-within-plays is a perfect set up for some of Harry Berger’s Second World/Green World analysis. Continue reading “Volpone and the Second World”

Volpone and the Second World

SUMMARY: Religious Persuasions, c. 1580 – c. 1620

In Lori Anne Ferrell’s survey of English persuasions from 1580-1620, she starts with the new critical commonplace that the English Reformation was a top-down affair. While English was a Protestant nation, it was not comprised of Protestants. Her article attempts to unpack that paradox.

Ferrell marks 1580 as a turning point at Protestantism became more accepted publicly. The reason it took this long? Catholicism was at the heart of English communal life, and its numerous daily practices and rituals were ingrained into the public’s consciousness. Henry was not a particular clear advocate for Protestantism, and his church looked more like a Catholic church that had him as a pope. In 1547, with Edward VI’s accession, Protestantism finally had political power, but the greatest expression of Protestantism from that period is a Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical manual that had a very slow impact. Once Mary took over in 1553, the culture turned back to Catholicism though Mary did spawn John Foxe and his Acts and Monuments. Elizabeth’s government was stocked with Calvinists though her subjects were largely Catholic.

Ferrell claims that the strengths of the Protestant English church were the same as its weaknesses. They were top-down. Cambridge was a clearly Protestant school. Committees and administrative types helped determine proper sermons and church structure. This left the English subjects often unimpressed however. It was only with the emergence of an English national identity and the defeat of the Catholic power Spain in 1588 that England started to self-identify as Protestant. Unfortunately for the “hotter” Protestants, this also meant that the public wanted a more moderate and nationalistic form of religion. Elizabeth in particular was great at consigning items into the adiaphoric category, the bin of things indifferent. Puritans were the Protestants who couldn’t let such matters go, particularly since their form of church government threatened the state relationship with the church. This tension exposed the ways that social and religious structures were integrated in Elizabeth’s England.

For these hotter Protestants, things appeared to be looking up with James, a Scottish king with a Calvinist background. While he worked on theological consensus and was quite moderate, he ended up labeling the Puritans immoderate and fostered a dynamic of Protestant vs. Protestant. When he tried to marry his son to a Spanish princess, all bets were off. The more fiery Protestants perfected the use of print: be it texts for less educated people, more theologically oriented texts, Bibles, and even sermons. These forty years of Protestant continuity finally erupted in the Civil War. To get a handle on what was at stake in that conflict, Ferrell urges us to examine the dense textual record from this forty year period, the most lasting testament to the period’s religious persuasions.

SUMMARY: Religious Persuasions, c. 1580 – c. 1620

SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

In this survey article, Annabel Patterson attempts to answer the question, “What was the connection between political thought in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns and the popular theater of the time?” The question is a difficult one. Shakespeare, the play’s most popular playwright, was also enigmatic on political issues. Specific critics helped focus the question: David Bevington explored contemporary political allusions, Margot Heinemann explored religious conflict, and Rebecca Bushnell explored how one could tell in the period who was a good king or not. Patterson argues political thought is abstract and deals with the structure of government and the proper representation it occasions. One of the reasons that English drama may be ambiguous in its political commitment is that not many English writers offered original political analysis. Most of those pieces came from the Dutch. The two most important pieces of English analysis (both from the 1550s) were printed in Geneva.

Patterson points out that if one goes to the Henrician interlude or the Restoration era, all of a sudden the political thought of playwrights becomes strikingly clear. As an example, Patterson gives us a dramatization of Queen Esther wherein we have an inset discussion on the relationship between kings and advisors. In a criticism of Cardinal Wolsey, the most effective voice in the play argues for a king to be the lone decision maker. Patterson teases out contemporary applications as well that are a little less secure in the meaning. Whatever the case, we can simply contrast the open discussion from the Esther play with the enigmatic Elizabethan version of this same question in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Another interesting example, though it falls just before the fifty years Patterson focuses on, is Gorboduc where two advisors debate the political reasons for dividing a kingdom or leaving it in tact. Again, the obvious comparison point is a Shakespeare play, King Lear, where it’s impossible to point to any single line for an abstract discussion of the implied principle, “NEVER divide a kingdom.”

Ending her article with the analysis of two Jacobean plays, Patterson shows how conflicted political thought is in the period’s drama. Middleton’s A Game at Chess was meant to discourage Prince Charles’s marriage to a Spanish wife and was clear enough in its targets that it earned a formal protest from a Spanish ambassador. Samuel Daniel’s Philotas is about the dangers of an over-powerful subject. This play seems divided in its treatment. The first three acts appear seem to be a reading of Elizabeth favorite-turned-outcast the Earl of Essex. The final two acts discuss the fact that Philotas’s fellow courtiers were to blame for his downfall. Patterson shows how the first three acts were written in 1600, while Elizabeth was still alive, and the final two acts were complete a year into James’s reign. The resulting negotiation for Samuel Daniel, who Patterson labels a political philosopher, is a complicated one to say the least.

In short, this period’s plays is not where we should go to find political thought.

SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

SUMMARY: The Politics of Renaissance England

In his summary of English Renaissance politics, Norman Jones argues that Elizabeth and James’s reigns were most affected by questions of succession, religious conflict, and economic turmoil. Elizabeth refused to marry, and though she had young male favorites, this reality was as constant source of anxiety for Elizabeth’s advisers and the English people. She made a religious settlement in 1559 which made the Catholics mad and the Puritans upset that the reforms had not gone further. A Catholic seminary in England began to turn out priests that saw their faith as political, and pressure from the Pope and other Catholic nations was common. Economically, the nation expanded its overseas expeditions, and explorers like Drake and Hakluyt provided new bounty for Elizabeth’s coffers.

By the 1580s, it was clear that Elizabeth was not going to get married. Instead, she turned her eye to the continent and its religious conflict. She supported the Dutch which further incurred the wrath of Spain. A gust of win in 1588 disarmed the Spanish fleets, and England was saved a gigantic defeat and invasion. Things were more complicated in France where Elizabeth supported the newly crowned Henry IV only to see the war not go well and Henry to convert to Catholicism. Ireland was a mess, especially with the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill. The queen sent her favorite, the Earl of Essex, to take care of the problem, but Essex fails to take care of it. He gets taken off the job, tries a rebellion back in England, and finally loses his head in 1602.

The domestic economy grew at the end of the 16th Century, and the market for English exports (chiefly cloth) were significant. However, war sapped Elizabeth’s bank account, and the nation was in debt when James took control. James tried to bridge the gap between Puritans and Catholics with his own theological wisdom. He got a gunpowder plot from the Catholics for all his work and protests from the Puritans who didn’t like his tyrannical version of church hierarchy. His attempt to merge Scotland and England was ineffective due to the massive cultural gap between the nations, and while James stayed out of wars for most of his reign, he had an awful spending habit. James’s relationship with Parliament was problematic at best and so he had to rely on things like selling titles in order to make money.

One of the biggest worries for the English people was Charles, James’s son who was set to inherit the crown. Namely, James had been trying to match Charles with a Spaniard. He eventually ended that match, but Charles still ended up married to a Frenchman. James got pulled into the 30 years war as a result of his daughter’s marriage to a Bohemian prince. When he died, James left the nation in a difficult state. Norman Jones argues that this difficulty was caused by James’s ultimate outsider status, the royal-authority-believing foreigner who didn’t quite know how the English constitution worked.


SUMMARY: The Politics of Renaissance England

Renaissance or Early Modern?

I am teaching ENGL 358 this fall which is on the books as the English Renaissance course. I believe that I always used the term “early modern” to describe my are of specialization, though I was aware that it was a synonym for Renaissance. In a chapter titled Renaissance/Early Modern Studies for the MLA-published volume Redrawing the Boundaries (written over 20 years ago), Leah Marcus explains the theoretical stakes in choosing the period’s name.

What manner of beast is early modern studies? The scholarly area here characterized under that rubric covers a terrain that is, despite some differences, quite similar to what is often still termed Renaissance studies. The new, or supplementary nomenclanture “early modern” is far more than a mere relabeling, however. To explore the implications of the terminological shift is to encounter an important set of conceptual reconfigurations by which scholars in the are of Renaissance/early modern studies are remapping the field itself. We are moving away from interpreting the period as a time of re-naissance, cultural rebirth, the reawakening of an earlier era conceived of as (in some sense) classic; we are coming to view the period more in terms of elements repeated thereafter, those features of the age that appear to us precursors of our own twentieth century, the modern, the postmodern. (41)

Marcus is clearly on team Early Modern. EM brings with it a focus on interdisciplinarity; effects more than origins; “low” as well as “high” culture; more complicated views of authors, gender, and identity as a whole; and a progressive political focus that examines the fall-out of the period’s colonialism. Marcus admits in the essay’s final paragraph that the new EM studies may be shaping up as just as rigid as its Renaissance forebearer, but its seems that to look at the period the lens of the title Early Modern is to both literally and figuratively look forward. Renaissance is old hat.

On the first day of class we will compare Marcus’s paragraph with a description from a common core lesson plan, a unit from a 12th Grade curriculum, that identifies the period as the Renaissance.

Students consider Renaissance writers’ interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature and myth; their preoccupation with human concerns and life on earth; their aesthetic principles of harmony, balance, and divine proportion; and exceptions to all of these. This leads to a discussion of how literary forms themselves reflect religious, philosophical, and aesthetic principles. As students compare the works of the Renaissance with those of the Middle Ages, they will recognize the overlap and continuity of these periods. In addition, they consider how the outstanding works of the era transcend their time and continue to inspire readers and writers. The English Renaissance of the seventeenth century includes additional works by William Shakespeare. In their essays, students may analyze the ideas, principles, and form of a literary work; discuss how a work bears attributes of both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; discuss convergences of Renaissance literature and arts; or pursue a related topic of interest.
Common Core. Common Core Curriculum Maps in English Language Arts, Grades 9-12 (1).

The description tries to have it both ways. On the one, the period finds its aesthetic ideals in a bygone period. On the other, there is serious continuity between the Renaissance and Medieval periods. This belied by the description’s other focus: the way that “literary forms themselves reflect religious…principles.” An unexplored discontinuity here is the Reformation, a gigantic rift in the Christian church and something not necessarily predicted by the “cultural” rebirth that began in staunchly Catholic Italy.

So where does that leave our discussion?

It seems neither “Renaissance” nor “Early Modern” make room for the indelible effect religion had on the period’s literature. The former title emphasizes resuscitated classical art on behalf of humanism. The latter title emphasizes “constructed identity” and fragmentation that seems a hallmark of post-Enlightenment rationalism. Both try to pull an end-around Christianity. Yet, the period’s most famous poems–The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost–were religious, and the search for a purer religion seems to have had as much effect on the period’s art as did the search for a bygone classical aesthetics or the advent of something not yet Enlightened.

I’ll return to this topic. It’s a crucial one in thinking through the period.


Renaissance or Early Modern?