logo

http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

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

Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford History of Art. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-19-284269-5. 384 pp. Pbk. £14.99

Reviewed by Andreas Dahlem

[1]  Susie Nash’s Northern Renaissance Art examines the artistic production outside Italy from the late-fourteenth to the early-sixteenth centuries. This approach encompasses a vast geographic area spanning from Krakow in the East and Stockholm in the North to Zaragoza in the South (4-5). However, her study focuses for the most part on the Burgundian Netherlands. From 1420, this region was the centre of  luxury goods production in Europe. The patronage of wealthy Burgundian dukes, aristocrats, and merchants provided a model for their peers throughout Europe and was highly regarded in Italy. In addition to the developments in the Burgundian domains, Nash discusses printmaking in Southern Germany and the Rhineland as well as the works of South German sculptors. In order to present such a wealth of artistic production, the book is organised in thematic chapters.

[2]  In Chapter 2, Nash contemplates a central but easily neglected issue: the impact of the loss of works of art on art-historical studies, and the  manner in which this has subsequently coloured our perception of this period. She argues that the tremendous loss of northern art in the past five centuries, partly caused by iconoclasms that raged in the Netherlands and beyond, has distorted the present understanding of the Northern Renaissance and supported the dominance of the Italian Renaissance that was promulgated as early as the publication of Giorgio Vasari’s Le Vite de più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architetti (1550). Nash systematically explores both the potential and the limitations of various contemporary sources (i.e. inventories, contracts, guild regulations), as well as the analytic methods of restorers (chapters 3-5) in order to give shape to this lost renaissance of the north. This material complements Nash’s stylistic analyses of material that has in fact survived, and allows her to expand into discussions of the social aspects of artistic production: the process of commissioning, creating, viewing and appreciating art (chapters 6-18).

[3]  Nash is to be commended for her comprehensive and reappraising approach to Northern Renaissance art, still an understudied field of art history. She also introduces her readers to a wide range of interpretative materials, drawing from recent critical discourses such as gender studies (in reference to female artists, 77-78), and Marina Belozerskaya’s reassessment of the status of artistic media. Nash reinforces Belozerskaya’s argument (as expressed in Rethinking the Renaissance. Burgundian Arts across Europe, 2002), by establishing that, contrary to twentieth- and twenty-first-century conceptions, painting was not valued as highly as works of art in other media like metalwork, stained glass, and especially tapestries (6, 41-42, 87).

[4]  Nash problematises the potentially conflicting terminology (‘Northern Renaissance’, ‘Late Gothic’,) often employed to describe fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and architecture in the north. These terms suggest artificial fissures that disrupt continuities. It can be assumed that Nash chose the designation ‘Northern Renaissance’ for similar reasons to Jeffrey Chipps Smith, in whose opinion ‘the term, however imperfect, still conveys the richness and diversity of these two centuries better than competing labels such as “Late Gothic” or “Early Modern”‘ (The Northern Renaissance, 2004: 12). A sense of continuity, not rupture, is most important  for further criticism of Northern Renaissance ideas.

[5]  Detailed as it is with regard to the technical and social aspects of art, Nash’s study appears isolated at times since it does not comprehensively explore the exchange between the South and the North, and the Northern Renaissance developments in the later sixteenth century. The author discusses the popularity of Netherlandish paintings with Italian artists and patrons (i.e. Domenico Ghirlandaio, 101-105), and in this context it would have been interesting to examine, for instance, northern works like Michael Pacher’s St Wolfgang Altarpiece (1471-81), which reflects a knowledge of Andrea Mantegna’s paintings. Can Pacher’s altarpiece be regarded as less representative of the Northern Renaissance because of his adoption of Italian notions and techniques? Such questions remain, as yet, unanswered.

[6]  Nicola Coldstream, author of Medieval Architecture (2002) in the same Oxford History of Art series, describes the results of the collision, or rather convergence, of the Late Gothic and the Renaissance in architecture. Even though Nash does not discuss architecture and  intends to redress the perception of Northern art, especially in the context of the Italian Renaissance’s dominance, she could have provided a similar brief outlook on the developments that occurred when the princes, aristocrats and patricians outside Italy began to demand works in the Renaissance style. For example, the courts in Prague, Saxony, the Palatinate, and Bavaria, as well as the patricians in Augsburg and Nuremberg, commissioned artists like Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer and Lucas Cranach to produce works of art in the guise of the Italian Renaissance, but with distinct northern qualities.

[7]  Nash’s study is a good introduction for students who seek an overview of the key art historical discourses, and the works of the period’s prominent artists working in various media. It features numerous excellent reproductions that also show details of the works of art and illustrate the discussions of the technical examination methods.  Nash’s own photos especially represent her notions very well (228). However, since the book is mostly aimed at those readers in need of an introduction to Northern Renaissance art, it would have benefitted from the inclusion of a glossary. Nevertheless, this well-written study can be recommended without reservation.

University of Glasgow, March 2009

Scott Newstock (ed.), Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare (Parlor Press 2007)

Scott Newstock (ed.), Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, Parlor Press 2007), ISBN: 978-1-60235-002-1. 308 pp. Pbk. £18

Reviewed by Shona McIntosh

[1]  Kenneth Burke’s criticism of Shakespeare often takes a distinctly corporeal form, as this collected volume of his writings on the Bard makes clear. His essay on Twelfth Night, a ventriloquistic piece in the ‘character’ of the Duke of Orsino, proclaims that ‘even in our frailest imaginings we must imagine with our bodies’ (34). For Burke, this bodily imagining often takes the form of hunger, as instanced by his repeated references to the dramatist’s manipulation of the audience’s ‘appetite’, and his motif of the ‘recipe’ for Shakespearean drama in which each character fulfils the role of an ingredient. Burke’s own cultural appetites are famously wide-ranging: Scott L. Newstok draws attention to this cultural omnivorism in his introduction, quoting R. P. Blackmur as saying ‘with perhaps as much admiration as censure, “I think that on the whole [Burke’s] method could be applied with equal fruitfulness either to Shakespeare, Dashiell Hammett, or Marie Corelli”, and pointing towards Wayne Booth’s adage that ‘his methods work as well on trash as on King Lear’ (xxvi). Any sense, however, that such a broad spectrum of interests leads to a lack of distinction on the part of the critic is disproved by his extended discussion of Macbeth in tandem with 1970s violent TV. Burke rants against the ‘TV Vulgarians’ as ‘the very Soul of Unimaginativeness’ (207), who can have no grasp of the oblique and poetic ways by which Shakespeare conveys the violence of Duncan’s murder with Lady Macbeth’s retrospective musing ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’. Burke’s focus on this phrase as an example of the way in which Shakespeare uses linguistic resources to convey such a corporeal experience as this excessively bloody murder is typical of his method throughout his career. All of these essays, spanning a time period from 1925 until 1983, return in one way or another to such questions of linguistic and dramatic embodiment.The emphasis on eating suggested by the ‘recipe’ motif also inevitably invokes its corollary, evacuating, as is most evident perhaps in his wonderful piece on Timon of Athens, reprinted here as Chapter 7, which picks apart the often violent imagery of consumption in this play to demonstrate how ‘eating is but an incipient stage of excretion, in the same motivational bin with offal and invective’ (112). Burke declares as an aside in another essay: ‘I respect shit, which is a good fertilizer [sic]’ (206), and it is perhaps this willingness to dig around (perhaps like Timon himself, although with different motives) in the dirty underbelly of Shakespearean plays that makes Burke such a rewarding critic. He resists any temptation towards Bardolatry and always insists on the playwright as above all an entertainer, working primarily for the satisfaction of his audience, ‘as customers who own some shares in love’ (115) for whom Shakespeare ‘will aggrandize their holdings, however modest, by running up the value of the stock in general’.

[2]  Burke’s fondness for Aristotle’s concept of entelechy, which he defines primarily as finding the seed of an ending indicated at an early stage in the play, informs much of his work. It can be seen in his suggestion above that eating is only an incipient form of excretion, and it is given explicit expression in a quotation from a private letter which Newstok uses as a section heading in his introduction: ‘I guess beginnings are logically the same thing as endings’ (xx). Perhaps for this reason, the ultimate ending of death is everywhere in these writings, proclaimed even on the front cover, which shows Burke sitting on a pile of playbooks examining a skull with a magnifying glass. Or, more accurately, he holds a magnifying glass up to the skull while directing a challenging gaze, eyebrows raised, towards his audience. This is an excellent summary of his typical manner of proceeding, highlighting the nuances of particular moments in Shakespeare, and challenging his own audience to make what they will of it. The centrality of death is one of these challenges, and the various ends to which this ultimate end can be put are well exemplified by ‘Trial Translation: Twelfth Night’, and ‘Antony in Behalf of the Play’, the two pieces in which Burke speaks as a Shakespearean character to draw attention to the dramatic strategies at work in each particular instance.

[3]  The knowledge of death coincides with the rhetorical manoeuvrings of a ruler in ‘Trial Translation’, as Burke comments on the first 18 lines of Twelfth Night, picking up on the ‘dying fall’ of the music which seems to move Orsino so effectively in line 4 and exposing the volte-face which the Duke enacts with his opening words. Burke’s Duke brings death into the picture almost immediately, talking of man’s ‘responsiveness to beginnings’ which ‘even (ironically enough) treats burial as a symbol of a birth-in-heaven’ (33). The imagery of the following paragraphs subconsciously harks back to this knowledge of burial as the final end, with its focus on feeding larvae, ‘ground […] stretching beneath fine rain’, and the symbolic meaning of ‘fall’ to people ‘whose heaven is above them and who are put to rot six feet under’ (34). This essay skilfully shows how Shakespeare’s Duke begins his speech with a disingenuous claim to passivity which, in his imagistic shift from sound to smell, is swiftly discarded as he assumes the active and aggressive pose of the huntsman about to give chase to a prey whose scent has caught in his nostrils. Burke’s own language mirrors this shift, as the passivity of burial drops out of focus in favour of a more visceral imagining of death as caught up in the violence of Elizabethan life – ‘a turbulent nation of brawlers and huntsmen’ (35) to whom a show of weakness verges dangerously on ‘invitation’. Such an audience must be intimidated with a show of virility if they are to be conquered, either politically or dramatically.

[4]  But of course, as Burke is well aware, the audience of brawlers and huntsmen also experience a desire to be conquered (in the playhouse at least). The active complicity of the audience in the violence and murder dealt out on stage is explored in ‘Antony in Behalf of the Play’, which shows the fatal consequences of the ‘invitation’ which Orsino makes sure to avoid. Caesar’s bodily weaknesses are listed: ‘he had the falling-sickness […], had a fever […], cried out as “a sick girl” […], his wife is barren […]. And worst, for an emperor, on a night of storm and portents he appeared on stage in his night-gown – so let him die’ (40). Noting that the audience’s complicity in Caesar’s murder is balanced by the limited sympathy which is nonetheless elicited from it, Burke’s Antony suggests to them that ‘in weeping for his death you will be sweetly absolved’ (42), but I suspect Burke himself knew this to be as ingenuous a pose as Orsino’s playing dead. The necessity of death and violence as ingredients in any play is also at work in his assessment of Othello which begins by examining the cathartic role of Iago, noting ‘Iago has done the play some service’ (66). His perception of any play as a form of conspiracy between dramatist and audience informs all of these essays and provides endless interpretative possibilities. He is also constantly aware of the various levels of the audience of which (and to which) he speaks, seeming to hold in mind at once the Elizabethan audience, current theatrical audiences, and the audiences for his own lectures, of which so many of these essays are essentially transcripts. This leaves the reader with a distinct sense of his or her own complicity in the appetites of which Burke speaks, continually demanding a self-reflexive interrogation of one’s own expectations and assumptions regarding Shakespeare.

[5]  In general, the essays speak to one another in a remarkably coherent fashion, as Burke’s preoccupations with certain issues recur, but each time offering new emphases or perspectives which prevent any sense of repetitiousness. The ‘Notes on Troilus and Cressida’, (Chapter 11), sits uneasily with the rest of the collection, however, being Burke’s note, not on the play itself, but on an essay about Troilus written for him by a student – what is reprinted here is distinctly fragmentary, omitting his comments on his student’s writing style but including statements such as ‘I’m having trouble trying to see the play your way’ (167). Not being privy to the original essay, this makes for a disjointed experience for the reader, and the slightly surreal feeling that one has strayed into some kind of Nabokovian hyper-text. Newstok’s notes throughout the whole edition also tend towards the intrusive. While it is an admirable aim to make this volume useable for students of all levels, it seems a little unnecessary to footnote Coleridge or Freud, and frankly ludicrous to have a footnote on page 24 explaining that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an ‘English dramatist’ (24 note 5). However, these are minor quibbles with what is otherwise a very successful collection, and Newstok, having pointed in the ‘Introduction’ to Burke’s slightly tangential relationship to the Academy, is clearly staking out his claim that Burke deserves to be fully acknowledged as a major figure in Shakespeare studies whose insights, particularly into the (ever popular) theme of the relationship between art and political power, can still be considered relevant. In this, Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare proves its editor entirely correct.

University of Glasgow, March 2009