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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.

‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’: debating the achievements of the Elizabethan grammar schools

‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’: debating the achievements of the Elizabethan grammar schools

Helen Hackett

[1] For many decades now literary scholars have assumed that the great flowering of literature that took place in England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had its roots in a humanist educational revolution. This revolution, such scholars have surmised, made a knowledge of classical literature and a training in classical languages and rhetoric newly available to boys from a relatively wide social spectrum via the establishment of many new grammar schools in towns across the realm. Many grammar-school boys, such as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele, and Edmund Spenser, proceeded to university, where they received yet more instruction in this body of humanist literary knowledge and linguistic skills; but some did not, including Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, and, famously, William Shakespeare, implying that an Elizabethan grammar-school education alone was sufficient to set a talented boy on the path to literary greatness (see Appendix). Yet some historians of this period of education have found the schooling offered in these institutions to be authoritarian, supportive of existing hierarchies rather than social mobility, and repressive of creativity. This article will explore how we might make sense of the disparity between the literary-critical and social-historical views of the Elizabethan grammar schools, and how this might help us to understand the foundations of the writing careers of authors born and educated in the Elizabethan period.

[2] After a grounding in basic literacy at petty school, boys entered the grammar school in the ‘lower school’, where between the ages of seven and twelve they principally learned Latin grammar. This was supported from the second form onwards by the use of examples from Latin authors and exercises in dialogue. From the third form to the fifth form pupils practised imitation of such models as Cicero, Terence, and Ovid, and began to progress into composition; in support of this they kept commonplace books recording potentially useful passages from their reading. Then in the ‘upper school’, taking them up to the age of sixteen, students were trained in rhetoric and logic and continued their study of Latin literature, adding in authors such as Virgil and Horace. It was a curriculum indebted to Quintilian and Erasmus which foregrounded the rhetorical skills of inventio (identifying arguments and evidence), dispositio (organising those materials), elocutio (embellishing arguments with tropes and figures), memoria (the skill of memorising a speech), and pronuntiatio (oral delivery) (Vickers 1989: 28, 62-7). Some time was also given to other subjects such as Greek and mathematics. There were variations between schools, but this was the broad outline of the Elizabethan syllabus (Kempe 1588: 226-37; Mack 2002: 9, 11-47; Rhodes 2004: locs 648-69, 705; Dolven 2007: 21-5).

[3] Biographies of early modern authors almost routinely trace the origins of their mature art back to their grammar-school education. Ian Donaldson, for instance, in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Jonson, finds the roots of his subject’s later career at Westminster School – refounded by Elizabeth I in 1560 – under the renowned master William Camden:

Jonson benefited deeply from the school’s traditions of rhetorical and classical training, and, in particular, from the exercise of rendering Greek and Latin verse and prose into their equivalent English forms. Camden, who had a good knowledge of earlier English poetry, seems also to have encouraged his boys to write verses of their own in English.

Camden was one of a number of Elizabethan teachers who included drama in their curriculum, with obvious benefits for a future playwright:

Through the Latin play, a regular event in the life of Westminster School, Jonson had early experience in a medium he was eventually to make his own. He was to retain a special fondness for the comedies of Plautus and Terence which were commonly performed on these occasions, and for the school’s traditions of dramatic performance. (Donaldson: 2004)

Jonson presents a particularly striking case of the potential outcome of a grammar-school education because in later life he was justly celebrated for his impressive classical learning, despite not having proceeded to university.

[4] His friend and rival Shakespeare also went no further than grammar school in his education. The King’s New School in Stratford-upon-Avon had medieval origins, but was re-founded by King Edward VI in 1553 (‘History of the School’ 2011). There is no documentary record of Shakespeare’s attendance there, but his biographers agree that he must have been one of its pupils (e.g. Holland 2004; Potter 2012: 21-39). Jonson was somewhat patronising, in his prefatory poem for the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, about his fellow author’s ‘small Latin and less Greek’ (Shakespeare 2016: A28), no doubt because of his pride in his own erudition. However in a detailed study of 1944 that quoted Jonson in its title (William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Less Greeke) T. W. Baldwin gave a thorough account of the rigour and richness of the school curriculum that Shakespeare would have followed. Building on this, many scholars have traced the foundations of Shakespeare’s art in his education. Lois Potter, for instance, in her biography of Shakespeare made a similar point to Donaldson’s about Jonson, observing that ‘the heavily classical education’ imparted at grammar school was ‘an almost ideal training’ for a writer, and especially for a dramatist, because of the prominence of the Latin playwrights Terence and Plautus in the early stages of the grammar-school curriculum, and because of the use of various kinds of performance in pedagogic practice (2012: 31-2, 33-5; see also Rhodes 2004: locs 315-45).

[5] Such biographical observations find an obvious and direct relationship between the training in languages, rhetoric, literature, and performance that Shakespeare and his contemporaries received at school and their later proficiency as poets and playwrights. Meanwhile other critics have developed more complex hypotheses about the cause-and-effect relationship between the Elizabethan grammar-school syllabus and the literary achievements of the period. Joel B. Altman’s 1978 book The Tudor Play of Mind, for instance, emphasised the prominence in schoolroom rhetorical training of exercises in disputation and debate, developing the ability to argue either or both sides of a case, in utramque partem. This, Altman argued, could account for the extraordinarily multivocal and interrogative qualities of Renaissance drama:

the plays are essentially questions and not statements at all […] the plays functioned as media of intellectual and emotional exploration for minds that were accustomed to examine the many sides of a given theme, to entertain opposing ideals, and by so exercising the understanding, to move toward some fuller apprehension of truth that could be ascertained only through the total action of the drama. (6; see also Rhodes 2004: locs 1057-1446)

Jonathan Bate then pointed to Shakespeare’s introduction to Ovid at grammar school as a formative moment which established a lifelong affinity, building on Baldwin’s identification of ‘something of [Shakespeare’s] inmost self which he found in Ovid’s inmost self’ (1944: II: 673). For Bate, imitating Ovid taught Shakespeare how to simulate full human personality in language:

The Ovidian and the Shakespearian self is always in motion, always in pursuit or flight […] The Ovidian dramatic monologue and the Shakespearian soliloquy create the illusion that a fictional being has an interior life. This illusion is achieved principally by the arts of language. The character’s ‘self’ is both created and transformed by the very process of verbal articulation; her or his ‘being’ is invented rhetorically. (Bate 1993: locs 114-17, 136)

A few years later Alison Thorne, in Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare (2000), a book full of illuminating insights and in many ways ahead of its time, explored the intersections in Shakespeare’s works between rhetoric and Renaissance theories of representation in the visual arts. She found that rhetorical theory provided ‘a common denominator between poetry and painting,’ and ‘proposed a model of persuasive discourse in which language could be understood to operate as if it were a mode of perception’ (xiv). She understood Shakespeare’s knowledge of rhetoric as grounded in ‘the indelible traces’ of the ‘humanistic educational system’, especially the influence of Erasmus’s grammar-school textbook De Copia (9, and see 21, 59). In short, it was his education that gave him the tools to create what Thorne calls, in a wonderfully succinct and expressive phrase, ‘the referential density of Shakespeare’s fictive worlds’ (102).

[6] Neil Rhodes, in his brilliant study of Shakespeare and the Origins of English (2004), took a similar view that ‘We will obviously never know how Shakespeare’s mind worked, but we can still reconstruct the ways in which his mind may have been trained to work’ (loc 1225). He traced back to the Elizabethan grammar-school curriculum Shakespeare’s abilities to recreate spoken language in writing, to write original works based on a training in imitation, to problematise issues, to develop English as a literary language, and to draw on the knowledge-management and retrieval skills encouraged by the keeping of commonplace books. Raphael Lyne in Shakespeare, Rhetoric and Cognition (2011) then contended that Shakespeare’s rhetorical training enabled him to represent the thought-processes of his characters – especially the difficulty of putting emotions, experiences, and mental processes into words – in ways which resonate fascinatingly with modern theories of cognition; while Lorna Hutson has recently proposed that Shakespeare’s ability to imply realistic lives, worlds, and personalities for his characters beyond the text depended on his deployment of the rhetorical ‘places’ or ‘circumstances’ which formed an important part of ‘elementary grammar school exercises’:

[I]f we consider time, place, and causa (motive or purpose) as three of the most important rhetorical topics of circumstance, we can begin to see that it is Shakespeare’s innovative concern with the probable invention of arguments on these topics that has enabled generations of readers to infer from them the subjective experience and psychological depth to which we have given the name of ‘character’. (2015: 58, 43-4)

[7] Thus a number of intellectually powerful and sophisticated efforts to identify and analyze what makes Shakespeare’s writing exceptional, and why the English Renaissance produced such an exceptional generation of writers, have found answers in the knowledge and skills imparted by the Elizabethan grammar schools. Yet if we look back over histories of education written over the same period of scholarship, we find a surprisingly different story. Rosemary O’Day, writing in 1982, found that ‘after an opening up of educational facilities to a broad section of the community in the 1560s, there was a certain closing up of educational opportunity thereafter’ (35). She continued:

the improvement in educational provision was the intensification of an existing trend rather than a dramatic development which emerged ‘out of the blue’ with the Renaissance. There was a rise in the number of schools in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods but this rise was not sudden, nor was it entirely due to the impact of Renaissance conviction that gentlemen must be properly educated to serve the state. (42)

She emphasised that rote-learning such as the use of catechisms ‘was part of the fabric of the learning process in medieval and early modern England: it was common at every level, ABC School, grammar school, university; it placed a premium on memorising accepted thought and frowned upon free thinking’ (44). Classrooms were cramped and crowded, and compliance was frequently enforced by beating (59, 49). Children were sent to school primarily to learn ‘to become a good Christian and a good citizen’, and the gentry and professional classes ‘increasingly saw education as the way to confirm rather than to modify the ramifications of the hierarchical social structure’ (50, 64). Education, O’Day asserted, was regarded as a tool to inculcate loyalty to the state and to new religious doctrines, and to create useful members of society. Hence ‘“Creativity”, individual development, free expression were concepts unknown to the Tudor and Stuart educator’ (75).

[8] This sounds far less promising – even the opposite of beneficial – as a training ground for future authors from humble backgrounds. A similarly negative view was taken by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in their polemical book From Humanism to the Humanities (1986). They accepted that ‘between 1450 and 1650 there was a vast growth in the numbers of those involved in education at every level from the barely literate to the professional scholar’, and that this constituted an ‘Educational Revolution’ (xi). However they argued that humanism, after its early idealism and intellectual innovation, became debased by classroom practice into ‘a curriculum training a social elite to fulfil its predetermined social role’, ‘an ideology of routine, order and above all “method”’ (xvi, 123). The ‘promise held out to parents and prospective patrons’ was that children would be instructed in virtuous – that is, obedient – conduct as much as grammar (143). Humanist education came to serve a new Europe

with its closed governing élites, hereditary offices and strenuous efforts to close off debate on vital political and social questions […] it offered everyone a model of true culture as something given, absolute, to be mastered, not questioned – and thus fostered in all its initiates a properly docile attitude towards authority (xiv).

The historical narratives offered by O’Day and Grafton and Jardine pose serious challenges to the idea that grammar-school education was the foundation of the bold creative innovations of Shakespeare, Jonson, and their contemporaries, and have been supported by other historians of education. Michael Van Cleave Alexander questioned the novelty of humanist educational developments in the Elizabethan period: ‘what seemed to have been an “educational revolution” after 1558 was in fact the culmination of an evolutionary process already more than two centuries old’ (1990: ix); while Helen M. Jewell summarised that ‘[a]n educational revolution, located between 1560 and 1640, has been challenged as only intermittent, and largely confined to higher education. Certainly this period was not one of steady overall progress in terms of scholarship or even of basic literacy’ (1998: 6).

[9] How are we to account for this gulf between different academic discourses? One clue lies in that phrase ‘educational revolution’ which we find repeated by Grafton and Jardine (1986: xi), Alexander (1990: ix), and Jewell (1998: 6). This derives from a seminal article of 1964 by Lawrence Stone, ‘The Educational Revolution in England, 1560-1640’, which compiled some statistical and documentary evidence for educational developments in England over the specified period. In fact the article mainly attends to higher education rather than grammar schools, and gives a fairly nuanced if brief account of changes at school level. Nevertheless its title makes a polemical claim, and Stone does contend that a ‘proliferation of little private schools means that the growth of secondary education at this period was far greater – perhaps twice as great – as the increase of places at endowed grammar schools would suggest’ (47). He also draws exuberant conclusions that, because of advances in education, early modern England ‘boiled and bubbled with new ideas as no other country in Europe’, with ‘widespread public participation in significant intellectual debate on every front’ (80). As a whole, the article seems to have operated as a provocation to some other historians who sought to re-evaluate or contest its claims.

[10] A significant factor in the movement against Stone’s ‘educational revolution’ may have been the topical political context of the 1976 Education Act which swept away the national system of selective state grammar schools set up in 1944 (except for a few survivals in a few local pockets). O’Day cautioned responsibly that ‘It is all too easy to look at the Tudor-Stuart educational scene and equate the ABC and Petty schools with the primary schools of today, and the grammar schools with the present-day secondary schools. Such was not the case’ (1982: 26). Nevertheless negative accounts of Elizabethan education by O’Day and others may well have been inflected by their own context, when institutions bearing the name ‘grammar school’ – and not entirely unlike their sixteenth-century predecessors in their associations with training in ‘traditional’ subjects such as Latin, with academic elitism, and with preparation for university – had come to be seen as outmoded and socially divisive, and had mostly been abolished within the state education system. (Meanwhile some pre-1944 schools with ‘grammar’ in their name, such as Manchester Grammar School, which had come into the state system as part-funded ‘direct grant’ schools, now left it again and reverted to independent status.) When Stone published his article in 1964 free state grammar schools were still seen as vehicles for widening access to academic training and creating an upwardly mobile meritocracy, but by the 1980s and ’90s this project had been largely abandoned.

[11] A helpful middle way through the debate about the impact and value of the Elizabethan grammar schools is offered by the most thorough statistical investigation to date of early modern literacy, David Cressy’s Literacy and the Social Order (1980). Cressy found that the spread of literacy remained limited through the early modern period, and that Stone had over-simplified in asserting consistent educational progress over the period 1560-1640. He offered much more detail on forward and backward movements in particular decades, regions, and occupational groups. Nevertheless, he concluded that ‘Every indicator confirms the period from 1560 to 1580 as one of educational revolution’ and connected this with the ‘proliferation’ of grammar schools. Although after 1580 there was an ‘educational recession’, prior to this ‘the bulk of the evidence, strengthened by the literacy figures, points to the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign as a period of unusual educational excitement and achievement’. Cressy notes that these were the decades when Shakespeare, his literary contemporaries, and much of their audience and readership were educated (168-9). Adding more precision to Stone’s account, then, need not disrupt the hypothesis that the late Elizabethan literary revolution was grounded in an early Elizabethan educational revolution.

[12] It is also helpful to break down the critique of Elizabethan grammar schools into its constituent points and consider them one by one. Four main objections to the concept of an educational revolution have been mounted: first, that the Elizabethan grammar schools were not an entirely new phenomenon, but rather a continuation of developments begun in the Middle Ages; secondly, that they did little to foster social mobility; thirdly, that they relied heavily on rote-learning and corporal punishment as teaching methods; and finally, that they inculcated conformity and conventional thinking rather than creativity and intellectual innovation. Let us consider each of these in turn.

[13] On the first point: it is true that some of the leading schools in England were founded before the reign of Elizabeth. Winchester College, for instance, was set up in the late fourteenth century; Eton College in 1440; St Paul’s School, London, in 1509; and Manchester Grammar School in 1515. A number of schools were also founded or refounded during the reign of Elizabeth’s brother Edward VI, often replacing establishments connected to monasteries or chantries; many such schools still bear his name, as in Birmingham, Chelmsford, and Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet statistical evidence does suggest that, even if some grammar schools were up and running before the Elizabethan period, there was unprecedented expansion at this time. Joan Simon noted that numerous schools were founded or refounded in the 1560s, both in London and across the regions, including Westminster (1560), Hoddesdon (1560), Merchant Taylors’ (1561), Friar’s School, Bangor (1561), Tonbridge (1564), Penrith (1564), Darlington (1567), and many more (1977: 302-16). Corroborating this sense of a recognisable movement, Alexander records that during the Elizabethan period more than £250,000 was contributed to school endowments and 130 new schools were founded, giving a national total of 360 grammar schools by 1603 (1990: 185). Moreover the Elizabethans clearly regarded themselves as living through an educational revolution. In the ‘Description of Britaine’ that he contributed to the 1577 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, William Harrison stated that:

there are great number of Grammer scholes thorowe out the Realme, and those very lyberally indued, for the better reliefe of poore schollers, so that there are not many corporate townes now vnder the Queenes dominion, that hath not one Gramerschoole at the least, with a sufficient liuing for a Mayster and Vsher, appointed to the same. (80)

We should also take note of the observations of Richard Mulcaster, headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School from 1561 to 1586, and high-master of St Paul’s from 1596 to 1608 (Barker 2004). Mulcaster taught Thomas Kyd, Thomas Lodge, and Edmund Spenser at Merchant Taylors’, and has been described as ‘the most undervalued contributor to the English literary renaissance’ (Rhodes 2004: loc 1549). In his 1581 educational manual Positions he noted that ‘during the time of her Maiesties most fortunate raigne already, there hath bene mo schooles erected, then all the rest be, that were before her time in the whole Realme’ (229).

[14] On the second question, whether the grammar schools advanced social mobility, the examples of pupils who went on to successful literary careers present suggestive evidence. The Appendix below compiles information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography concerning the educational histories of the most well-known authors born and/or educated during the reign of Elizabeth. This sample is obviously limited and specialised, but does suggest social range in the grammar-school intake, extending from members of the higher gentry or lower aristocracy like Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville (pupils together at Shrewsbury School) to poor scholars like Lodge, Marlowe, and Spenser. It is particularly notable how many writers attended grammar school from origins in the artisan and tradesman classes: not only the glover’s son Shakespeare and the bricklayer’s stepson Johnson, but also Kyd, son of a scrivener; Robert Greene, son of a saddler, cordwainer, or innkeeper; Lodge, son of a grocer; Marlowe, of a shoemaker; and so on. These were not the destitute poor, nor did careers as authors necessarily confer social respectability or wealth, but evidence from this occupational cohort suggests that the aspirant artisan classes were keen to send their sons to grammar school and saw advantages in doing so.

[15] There is substantial evidence that, once at school, these gifted pupils and their classmates would have been subjected to extensive rote-learning. The school day was long, starting at 6 or 7am and ending at 5 or 6pm, with a mid-day break for dinner, and shorter breaks at 9am and 3pm. Alexander observes that ‘it was not at all unusual for teachers and pupils to spend ten hours a day at school, six days a week’. Schools varied in size: many took around 50 to 80 boys, but some had as many as 350 pupils. They were usually all housed in one large room, seated on rows of benches or ‘forms’ arranged in order of age-group. The master might be assisted by one or more ushers, who would work particularly with the younger forms. These were self-evidently difficult teaching conditions, with each teacher typically having responsibility for between 50 and 70 pupils (Dolven 2007: 19; Alexander 1990: 198-9). Mass drilling rather than individual tuition must inevitably have been the norm, reinforced by injunctions from the government to use prescribed standard text-books such as Alexander Nowell’s Catechism and William Lily’s Latin Grammar.

[16] There is also extensive evidence that corporal punishment was used to inculcate diligent study and good behaviour. Thomas Tusser recalled being flogged at Eton in the 1530s by the headmaster Nicholas Udall:

From Powels I went, to Aeton sent,
To learne straight wayes, the Latine phrayes,
Where fyfty three, strippes geuen to me,
___at once I had:
For fawt but small, or none at all,
yt cam to pas, thus beat I was,
Se Wdall se, the mercy of the
___to me poore lad. (Tusser 1573: 90r)

Mulcaster wrote that ‘the rod may no more be spared in schooles, then the sworde may in the Princes hand’, explicitly connecting discipline in school with the maintenance of order and authority in the state (1581: 277); and Edmund Coote, master of King Edward VI Free School in Bury St Edmunds, included the following verses in his text-book The English schoole-maister (1596):

My child and scholer, take good heed,
___vnto the words which here are set:
And see you do accordingly,
___or els be sure you shall be beat. (63-4; O’Day 1982: 49)

[17] It is difficult to determine how frequently the rod was actually administered, or merely invoked as a threat, as in Coote’s verses. Practice may have varied between schools and between masters, and some may have used the rod only as a disciplinary method of last resort. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, in a scene considered in more detail below, the parson-schoolmaster Evans threatens his pupil William with beating – ‘if you forget your quis, your ques, and your quods, you must be preeches’ – but does not administer it, and indeed immediately afterwards tells William rather affectionately and indulgently, ‘Go your ways and play, go’ (IV. 1. 68-10). William Kempe, master of Plymouth Grammar School and author of The education of children in learning (1588), maintained like Mulcaster that ‘the discipline and vertuous bringing vp of children in good learning is the very foundation and groundworke of all good in euery estate aswell priuate as publike’, and that ‘the vnthriftie […] and those that do amisse’ should be ‘reformed and corrected’. However the rod was only to be inflicted if all other methods had failed: an offender should first be ‘admonished, then rebuked: herein the cause shall be throughly sifted, paciently heard, by equitie iudged, and last of all soundly reproued, that the conscience of the offender may be touched for the fault’. Even if the offender remained untouched in conscience and persisted, punishment might take an alternative form to beating, such as ‘restraining […] libertie of recreation’, or ‘seruice of drudgerie’ such as ‘the sweeping of the Schoole’ (1988: A2r, H2r).

[18] Moreover, although discipline may have been necessary to maintain order in overcrowded classrooms, and may have been understood as producing useful citizens, this need not mean that the objectives of teachers were limited to producing docile conformists and suppressing independent thought. Mulcaster emphasises that in the pursuit of truth it is insufficient merely to accumulate quotations and examples from existing authorities, offering ‘a catalogue of names, and a multitude of sentences’ to make up for ‘want of sound iudgement’. Instead:

I wil reste vpon reason the best, where I finde it, the next where that failes, and coniecture is probable, to proue such thinges, as reason must paterne. If the triall be in proofe, and experience must guide it, I will binde vpon proofe, and let triall be the tuche. For with the alledging of authours, either to shew, what I haue read or to tuche common concordes, where any thing is to much, and nothing is enough, I meane not at all to buisie my selfe. (1581: 13)

Reason, probable conjecture, experience, and proof by trial: these are all forms of active, autonomous, and empirical thought, not mere memorisation, repetition, and deference to authority. Similarly when Kempe sets out his recommended curriculum year by year he emphasises that the pupil must move from translation and imitation to original composition. In Shakespeare and the Origins of English Rhodes asked the pertinent question, ‘Did Shakespeare study creative writing?’. His answer, based on a detailed study of the grammar-school syllabus, was that ‘literary study was directed towards creative practice’, and that imitation was understood not as slavish copying, but as ‘transformation […] assimilation and re-creation’ (2004: locs 695, 758). Kempe bears this out: in the upper forms, he asserts, the pupil should be able to ‘assay otherwhiles, without an example of imitation, what he can do alone by his owne skill’. The objective of the curriculum is that the pupil ‘before the full age of sixteene yeeres be made fit to wade without a schoolemaister, through deeper mysteries of learning’ (1588: H1r). Kempe understands his mission as training his pupils to exceed him, to go beyond the limits of their schoolroom lessons in their speaking and writing skills and in their autonomous pursuit of knowledge.

[19] Kempe also chides ‘parents in these daies’ who have ‘more care to prouide wealth for their children, than wisedome’ (1588: A2r). In a section headed ‘The Vtilitie of Schooling’ he offers a satirical picture of a father who ‘will rubbe his forehead’ and ask why parents should ‘spend their goodes and possessions about that which cannot feede the belly, nor clothe the backe, nor yet helpe a man in time of aduersitie’. Kempe’s answer is that

If Dauid, Salomon, Paule, or any other of these good men should answer thee, he would say that the riches, which thou bestowest to get learning, is but drosse and dung, in comparison of the pure gold and precious pearle that is attayned by learning, and so would decipher the singuler vse and fruites of learning, with such forcible and sound reasons, with such gracious and heauenly eloquence, that it would passe the skill of any man now aliue to expresse it. (1588: D4r)

For Kempe, then, the role of education was not to procure social and financial advantage for his students, but to lead them to intellectual and spiritual benefits. As a key part of this, like Mulcaster, he understood his pedagogy as directed towards enabling his pupils to think independently and originally.

[20] We may wonder how representative Mulcaster and Kempe were. O’Day rightly points out that there were ‘a multiplicity of types of school, each the product of differing traditions as well as of the interplay between these traditions and specific circumstances’ (1982: 40). Yet in omitting from her account of Elizabethan education any mention of the prolific literary activity and remarkable literary achievements of the period she surely leaves a huge gap and produces a distorted picture. The gulf between the versions of an Elizabethan grammar-school education offered by historians of education and by literary critics clearly arises from the fact that they have been asking different questions. O’Day and her colleagues were asking: ‘Was there an educational revolution in the Elizabethan period?’, and were inclined to answer ‘No’, or ‘Only within limits’. Literary critics, by contrast, have agreed that there was a literary revolution in the Elizabethan period, which has led them to ask: ‘How did this extraordinary explosion of original writing come about?’, and, in particular, ‘How did Shakespeare come to write as he did?’, finding answers in his exposure to rhetorical training and classical literature at school. Moreover in investigation of these questions, literary critics have tended to focus on the content of the Elizabethan curriculum, whereas educational historians have concentrated on the methods of delivery, which often present to the modern reader a somewhat dismaying picture.

[21] In spite of the evidence from Mulcaster and Kempe that some schoolmasters did see the encouragement of forms of original thinking as an important part of their mission, we may need to acknowledge that some aspects of Elizabethan classroom practice which are anathema to modern progressive sensibilities were nevertheless effective as a means of imparting knowledge and skills. In particular, learning conditions which may seem to us repressive nevertheless manifestly produced later intellectual benefits for Elizabethan authors. Latin grammar and classical rhetoric were thoroughly learned; classical literature was thoroughly absorbed; all of these tools and materials became resources on which adult authors could draw, and a cultural language which they shared for the purposes of allusion, parody, recognition of rhetorical tropes, and so on. In fact there is nothing revelatory about the observation that discipline is effective in instilling knowledge and skills, even if we might object on other grounds to forms of discipline such as corporal punishment. Nor is there anything surprising in the recognition that repetitive, tedious, even apparently mindless tasks can hone skills in such a way as to support brilliant performance; we might think of musicians practising their scales. Many present-day academics may instinctively share the assumptions of historians such as O’Day, Grafton, and Jardine that rote-learning, routine, and method tend to stifle creativity and individual development, yet at the same time anecdotal evidence from our own experiences and the observed experiences of others may suggest that this is not necessarily so.

[22] Lynn Enterline in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom (2012) offers a further intriguing but also troubling thought: that forms of psychological damage inflicted at grammar school prepared some Elizabethan boys to go on to great writing careers. She suggests that even those parts of the Elizabethan curriculum that we might see as most enlightened and most related to creativity, namely drama and other kinds of performance, trained boys to adopt set forms of speech and gesture, and thereby distanced the boys from themselves:

the cumulative effect of grammar school instruction in socially sanctioned language, expression, and bodily movement was to establish in students a significant detour between event and feeling, orator and the passions he imitated for the sake of persuading and pleasing others. Indeed, school training engrained what I have come to call ‘habits of alterity’ at the heart of schoolboy ‘identity’. (7-8)

She goes on:

One of the stranger aspects of grammar school practice is that the humanist effort to discipline language and affect produced rhetorically skilled subjects whose technical proficiency in evoking assigned passions, from themselves and from an audience, meant that a boy’s connection to his own feelings might become tenuous at best […] From the perspective of the school, scholars achieved their place in their social world by being drilled in the art of feeling and conveying passions that came from somewhere else and someone else. From a psychoanalytic perspective, early modern schoolboys were trained in techniques that distanced them from their own experience in both language and time. (29)

Enterline suggests that such internal self-division was a form of psychological harm but at the same time an essential skill for future actors and creators of fictions, creating the ability to occupy and move between multiple viewpoints and subject positions.

[23] In taking further the perception that the relation between schoolroom experience and later creativity was a complex one, we might also consider Elizabethan authors as making use of the linguistic skills and literary knowledge offered by the grammar-school curriculum while reacting against its authoritarian methodologies. Rebecca W. Bushnell, in a subtle account of the ‘culture of teaching’ in sixteenth-century England, finds that what we broadly designate ‘humanism’ was never a consistent ideology and had inherent contradictions (1996: 19). In particular, corporal punishment, whether actual or threatened, was not necessarily successful in instilling obedience, and might rather have provoked defiance and nascent political awareness: ‘At the core of arguments about flogging we […] find the early modern discourse of political authority, monarchy, tyranny and resistance, with the schoolroom a highly charged site for defining and acting out different poses of authority and resistance’ (34). She goes on to discuss the ‘struggle for sovereignty’ between master and pupil, concluding that ‘humanist education, in its formative stages in sixteenth-century England, could generate authoritarianism and resistance simultaneously’ (67, 74). Jeff Dolven develops a related model of the questioning and critical pupil in his 2007 book Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, arguing that from the 1560s onwards there was a rising tide of dissatisfaction with humanist pedagogy, not least because its students had ‘time to age into disillusionment’. This leads him to propose that in works such as Euphues, the Arcadias, and The Faerie Queene ‘the very possibility of literary didacticism’ is ‘emptied out: their writers lose faith in the idea that literature can teach, because they cannot free their books – their teaching books – from a culture of teaching that they take to be compromised, even bankrupt’ (8, 10-11).

[24] If we look not at Shakespeare’s use of rhetoric or classical allusion, but at his direct representations of schoolmasters and schoolboys, the impression we form is of a pupil who was less than enthusiastic and not particularly compliant. Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is hardly an inspiring figure; while in As You Like It we have the famous description of

___the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. (II. 7. 145-7)

Particularly striking in relation to the issues considered here is the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor between the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, and the Pages’ young son William. It is hard to resist speculation that in giving this schoolboy his own name, Shakespeare was at least partly looking back to his own childhood. Evans takes William through some Latin exercises, including double translation, in which the pupil translates from Latin into English and then back into Latin:

EVANS What is lapis, William?
WILLIAM A stone.
EVANS And what is a stone, William?
WILLIAM A pebble.
EVANS No, it is lapis; I pray you remember in your prain. (IV. 1. 26-31)

This dialogue is on one level a simple joke but can also be read in more complex ways. Does William reply ‘pebble’ out of stupidity, or out of cleverness? He might have misunderstood the nature of the exercise, thinking that Evans wants him to demonstrate facility in copia, the exercise taught from Erasmus’s text-book, De Copia, of varying expression and saying a thing in as many different ways as possible (Mack 2002: 31-2; Rhodes 2004: locs 706-12). Alternatively, it may be that his mind spontaneously flits sideways to think laterally; or it may be that he is deliberately and subversively mocking Evans. It is by no means clear which of them has the upper hand.

[25] The master then takes William through the declension of the demonstrative pronoun hic, and they reach the genitive plural, which William dutifully recites as ‘horum, harum, horum’ (IV. 1. 53). Mistress Quickly, thinking that William is calling someone named Jenny a whore, scolds Evans: ‘You do ill to teach the child such words’ (IV. 1. 57). The joke is of course about her characteristic slow-wittedness and propensity to find double-entendres where none are intended; but it is also about how the humanist education being bestowed upon the sons of the middling sort is equipping them with forms of knowledge unfamiliar to the older generation, taking them into new intellectual and social territory and giving them forms of mastery over their elders and ‘betters’. At the end of the scene William’s mother says, slightly anxiously perhaps, ‘He is a better scholar than I thought he was’ (IV. 1. 71). This overtaking of the older generation by the young might include not only parents and their friends, but also the schoolmaster himself. Throughout this scene Evans does not seem significantly more learned or intelligent than his young charge, and there is good reason to think that as William grows up he will become the more intellectually advanced of the two. Even when William forgets or mistakes his answers, these diversions seem like implicit comments on the tedium and restriction of the whole catechetical exercise. William can march through his Latin grammar successfully when he puts his mind to it, but much of the time his mind is wandering elsewhere, presumably to more interesting territory, such as when he will be released to play.

[26] The scene between Evans and William readily conforms to Dolven’s model of Elizabethan writers looking back on their educational experiences in a spirit of disillusionment and cynicism. Yet at the same time what happened to them at school, or rather how they interacted with the forms of instruction that they encountered at school, was clearly a formative experience for them as authors. Rhodes offers helpful insight into the complex relationship between what was taught and what was learned, what was offered or inflicted by schoolmasters and what was taken away by pupils: ‘Essentially, what Shakespeare was taught was a process. What he learned was that the process could be absorbed while abandoning most of the rules associated with it’. He concludes that ‘Shakespeare, along with the entire Elizabethan literary renaissance, to which he is central, was the product of a creative abuse of the Tudor education system’ (2004: locs 846, 1053, and see 1435).

[27] In a different context, Stephen Greenblatt has sought to locate one of the origins of the Renaissance in a single event which he calls a ‘swerve’, or, borrowing a term from Lucretius, a clinamen, which Greenblatt defines as ‘an unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter […], an unforeseen deviation from the direct trajectory’ (2011: 7). Greenblatt’s swerve is the rediscovery in 1417 by the book-collector Poggio Bracciolini of a manuscript of Lucretius’s De rerum natura (Of the Nature of Things) in a German monastery, ultimately eventuating in the dissemination of Lucretius’s ideas across Renaissance Europe. Greenblatt describes Bracciolini’s extraction of the manuscript from the shelf as a ‘key moment’ which was ‘muffled and almost invisible, tucked away behind walls in a remote place. There were no heroic gestures, no observers keenly recording the great event for posterity, no signs in heaven or on earth that everything had changed forever’ (12). As Willy Maley has observed, this concept of a swerve has much in common with the well-known idea from chaos theory that the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can set off a chain of events which has epic consequences many continents away (2011). Whether this particular moment was indeed, as Greenblatt claims, a swerve which ended the Middle Ages, initiated the Renaissance, and explains ‘How the World Became Modern’ (the subtitle of the US edition of the book) has been vigorously debated (e.g. Burrow 2011, Hinch 2012, Monfasani 2012). Nevertheless it might be helpful to appropriate and adapt Greenblatt’s model of the unseen and local origins of historical change in order to imagine numerous ‘swerves’ up and down Elizabethan England, in various cities and provincial towns, as individual grammar-school boys who would go on to be notable writers not only imbibed instruction from their school-masters, but also resisted their authority and strayed in unregulated and ungovernable mental directions.

[28] It is a commonplace of early modern studies to observe that a spread of literacy motivated by the pious goals of improving direct access to Scripture eventuated in a growing reading public for all kinds of secular literature, some of it far from pious. Similarly with grammar-school education, even if the professed intention was often the training up of dutiful citizens, the skills and knowledge conferred did not necessarily have this outcome – indeed in some cases manifestly had unintended and unexpected consequences. To mention only a couple of the most obvious examples: Marlowe’s schoolmasters can hardly have anticipated that he would write Tamburlaine and Doctor Faustus; Shakespeare’s schoolmasters can hardly have understood themselves as preparing him to write Hamlet and King Lear. Here is a means of reconciling the high claims made for Elizabethan grammar-school education by literary critics with the more limited and critical accounts of it given by educational historians: incipient writers at once learned valuable skills for their trade at school, and exceeded or even resisted or rejected lessons learned at school. We might return to a telling phrase from William Kempe: he understood his mission as a schoolmaster as making his pupils ‘fit to wade without a schoolemaister, through deeper mysteries of learning’ (1588: H1r). In this many schoolmasters of the period evidently succeeded. The sheer number of Elizabethan authors who attended grammar schools points to a connection between a grammar-school education and later literary achievement, but this connection must have been complicated, not necessarily a smooth transition from skills and training enthusiastically imbibed at school to later literary success. Forms of psychological damage inflicted at school might have been paradoxically productive of great writing; and the repressive and tedious aspects of Elizabethan pedagogy might have created habits of resistance and ‘swerving’ that were also conducive to later literary originality. Thinking about just what it was that happened in the Elizabethan classroom, and the various processes by which this might have been connected to the later literary achievements of former grammar-school pupils, highlights the extreme complexity of the relations between education and creativity in general, a continuing issue for us today.

University College London


Educational backgrounds of leading authors born and/or educated during the reign of Elizabeth I

All information from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004-16),
<http://www.oxforddnb.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/> [accessed 5 April 2016].

a. Authors educated at grammar schools who did not proceed to university or the Inns of Court

Thomas Dekker, b. c.1572: no record of parents; no record of education, but ‘his writing strongly suggests that he had a grammar school education’ (ODNB).

Ben Jonson, b. 1572: stepson of bricklayer; attended Westminster School. May have been admitted to St John’s College, Cambridge but withdrawn after a few weeks for financial reasons, to work with his stepfather.

Thomas Kyd, bap. 1558: son of scrivener; entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1565.

William Shakespeare, bap. 1564: son of glover; probably attended King’s School, Stratford-upon-Avon.

b. Authors educated at grammar schools who did proceed to university or the Inns of Court

Robert Greene, bap. 1558: son of saddler or cordwainer/innkeeper; probably attended free grammar school at Norwich. Probably matriculated at St John’s College, Cambridge; proceeded to MA at Clare College, Cambridge; also awarded an MA by Oxford.

Fulke Greville, b. 1554: son of well-connected Warwickshire landowner; entered Shrewsbury School in 1564. Matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge but left without a degree.

Thomas Lodge, b. 1558: father was grocer, Lord Mayor of London, bankrupt; entered Merchant Taylors’ School in 1571 as ‘poore scholar’. Took BA at Trinity College, Oxford, then proceeded to Lincoln’s Inn.

John Lyly, b. 1554: grandson of one of the authors of the standard Latin grammar; son of a registrar (minor ecclesiastical official); probably educated at the King’s School, Canterbury. Took BA and MA at Magdalen College, Oxford.

Christopher Marlowe, bap. 1564: son of shoemaker; entered King’s School Canterbury as poor scholar c. 1578. Took BA at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, on a Parker Scholarship.

George Peele, bap. 1556: son of clerk of Christ’s Hospital; educated at Christ’s Hospital. Took BA and MA at Christ Church, Oxford.

Philip Sidney, b. 1554: son of Lord President of the Council in the Marches; attended Shrewsbury School from 1564. Attended Christ Church, Oxford but did not take a degree.

Edmund Spenser, b. 1552?: parentage uncertain; attended Merchant Taylors’ School as poor scholar. Took BA and MA at Pembroke College, Cambridge as a sizar (poor scholar performing servants’ duties).

John Webster, b. 1578-80: son of coachmaker; probably attended Merchant Taylors’ School. Proceeded to Middle Temple.

c. Cases where pre-university education unknown (but progression to university makes grammar-school education likely)

Samuel Daniel, b. 1562/3: early life uncertain (but matriculated at Oxford in 1581)

Thomas Heywood, b. c. 1573: early education not known (but matriculated at Cambridge as a pensioner in 1591)

John Marston, bap. 1576: matriculated at Oxford 1592; entered residence at Middle Temple 1595

Thomas Middleton, bap. 1580: early education not known (but matriculated at Oxford in 1598)

d. Authors not educated at grammar schools

George Chapman, b. 1559/60: son of yeoman; spent early adulthood in household of Sir Ralph Sadler

John Donne, b. 1572: son of ironmonger; educated privately. Matriculated at Oxford in 1584; admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592.

Michael Drayton, b. 1563: son of butcher or tanner; claimed to owe his education to patronage of Goodere family.

Thomas Nashe, bap. 1567: son of clergyman; probably educated by father. Matriculated as a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1582.


Alexander, Michael Van Cleave. 1990. The Growth of English Education 1348-1648: A Social and Cultural History. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press)

Altman, Joel B. 1978. The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley: University of California Press)

Baldwin, T. W. 1944. William Shakspere’s Small Latine and Less Greeke, 2 vols (Urbana: University of Illinois Press)

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The Voice of Anne Askew

The Voice of Anne Askew

Jennifer Richards

[1]  When Thomas Tomkis explored the question of whether the voice could be a sixth sense in the university play Lingua (1607), he gave us a clue as to what he thought the answer would be before he had even begun by making Lingua, both tongue and speech, the only female character. The answer, obviously, had to be a resounding ‘no’. The play begins with Auditus reminding Lingua that there are only five senses, and that ‘she’ – ‘an idle pratling Dame’ – is not one of them. This rejection inspires her revenge, and she puts the five senses, Auditus, Visus, Tactus, Olfactus and Gustus at loggerheads by placing a coronet in full view for them to fight over, a ruse these ‘hot-spur’ gallants fall for (Tomkis, Lingua, A3r, C3v). Only the winner of this struggle in the end is not Lingua. She is exposed as a presumptuous, talkative woman who needs to be silenced. Her punishment at the end of the play is to be locked up by ‘Common Sense’ in a ‘close prison’ in Gustus’s house (that is, the mouth), while the crown over which the senses fight is awarded, no surprise here, to Visus (Tomkis, Lingua, M4v).

[2]  The argument that this play dramatises is a familiar one. Tomkis is reaffirming a maxim from the period that is all too familiar to feminist scholars, that women should be silent (Hannay 1985: 4). However, the play also dramatises another narrative that often implicitly underpins the work of book historians and historians of reading: that this period saw a shift from the ear to the eye as the primary sense of understanding. With a very few exceptions these two ‘stories’ – the one of the silencing of women, the other of the rise of sight as the privileged sense – are not usually linked, although they should be, as this essay implies.[1] It sets out to reverse this shift, proposing that we ‘listen’ to the inscribed words of a woman who was imprisoned in this period, Anne Askew.

[3]  Do we really need to learn to ‘listen’? I propose that we do. In the last decade it has become more usual for feminist literary scholarship focussed on the early modern period to adapt and apply to women ‘recent developments from the history of the book’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 1). Thus, in addition to Gabriel Harvey, John Dee and William Drake, we now have differently ‘goal-orientated’ women readers and patrons like Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Margaret Hoby, and three queens, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. And we can now establish that a commercial playwright like Ben Jonson who aspired to ‘literary status’ had his female counterparts too. By studying the ‘design’ of a printed closet drama like Elizabeth Cary’s Tragedy of Mariam – ‘its layout and typography, from the initial logotype on the title page through to the closing ornament’ – we can show, Marta Straznicky argues, that it too ‘was marketed as the kind of drama that had emerged by 1613 as befitting a selected and educated readership’ (Straznicky 2004: 12, 48-9). But there are uncomfortable questions we also need to ask. Is one effect of this turn in literary scholarship that we silence women’s voices in an entirely different way even as we genuinely deepen our understanding of the ‘authorship, publication and circulation’ of books by women (Pender and Smith 2014: 1)? What do we lose when we advance our knowledge of the role women played in material textual publication but don’t also attend to their material voices?

[4]  It wasn’t always like this. Earlier work in the field that was intent on establishing a canon of women’s writing traded productively on the many meanings of the noun ‘voice’: ‘A mode of expression or point of view in writing; a particular literary tone or style’; ‘a right to express a preference or opinion’, or even ‘Sound produced by the vocal organs’ (Oxford English Dictionary, entries 1g, 3 b, 1). All of these meanings are helpfully blurred in Kate Chedgzoy’s introduction to Voicing Women, a collection of essays published in 1996, which reminded us that the role of feminist scholars is to recover women’s ‘voices’ as well as to create ‘a space where they can be heard afresh’ (Chedgzoy 1996: 4). Chedgzoy conveys the complexity of this task when she discusses an anonymous poem attributed to Anna Trapnel, the non-conformist faith of whom led her to wish to ‘bury’ her voice ‘underground’ in order to let the words of the Lord ‘run forth’.[2] Is it always clear who we are listening to in an anonymous religious poem in this period, she asks? And can we be sure that our ‘desires’ are not influencing ‘what it is that we hear’ or, indeed, that we are not speaking for or over women of the past (Chedgzoy 1996: 4, 8)?

[5]  This essay returns to this preoccupation with the ‘voice’ of early modern women writers, and it sets out to explore anew how we can make sense of the writing – and agency – of a woman who suppressed her voice in order to let the Lord’s voice ‘run forth’. Anne Askew spoke the Word of God more than a century before Trapnel, in the early years of the English Reformation, the 1540s; she was burned at the stake at Smithfield in 1546. The written record of her interrogations in prison survives only in an edition heavily annotated by a male contemporary, the reformer John Bale, making Chedgzoy’s question especially relevant here too: ‘whose is the voice that is speaking in this text?’ My concern, though, is not to add Askew to the canon of women’s writing. This has already been achieved, although a question remains about whether she could have managed to write about her interrogations after she had been tortured. That is, she may have dictated rather than written down what she remembered. What I want to do instead is to focus attention on Askew’s physical rather than literary voice, as it is represented and highlighted by Bale in the Examinations (1546; 1547) in order to respond to a slightly different question: who has the right to speak the Bible?[3]

[6]  Focussing on the historical physical voices of the past may well seem a foolish undertaking. The earliest scratchy recording in the British Library’s sound archive was produced with a graphophone in 1878.[4] It is deafeningly obvious that we can have no recordings of the voice, scratchy or otherwise, for periods earlier than this. What we do have, though, thanks to recent work on male-authored, female-voiced texts in the English Renaissance by, among others, Alison Thorne, Danielle Clarke, Michelle O’Callaghan, Suzanne Trill, Susan Wiseman, is an understanding of how the voices of women were understood as meaningful. This essay builds on this work, but it also departs from it, arguing for a focus on the physical voice so as to understand the transformative potential to a reformer like Bale of Askew’s speaking through the Bible. In so doing, it values the act of uttering words one believes in – sending them forth with one’s breath, tongue, teeth – over and above writing them. Or to put this another way, it privileges recitation over textual citation.

Uttering the Bible
[7]  Chedgzoy was not alone in the mid-1990s in her desire to ‘hear’ the voices of past women writers. Unsurprisingly, we find a similar blurring of literary and real voices among scholarly editors of women’s writing in this decade too. In the introduction to her edition of Anne Askew’s Examinations, published in 1996, Elaine Beilin draws attention to a knotty problem in a lively way. Askew (ca. 1521-1546) was the young woman who famously walked into Lincoln Cathedral in the early 1540s, and who occupied it for six days, reading the newly translated and printed English Bible on display. This was done in a decade that saw the 1543 Act for the Advancement of True Religion, which determined who could not read the bible: ‘“no women or artificiers, prentices, journeymen, serving men of the degrees of yeomen or under, husbandmen, nor labourers”’ (Cambers 2011: 162-3). Noblewomen and gentlewomen, in contrast, were allowed to read the bible but only ‘to themselves, alone’ (Simpson 2007: 166). Askew was arrested, interrogated and tortured in the Tower of London, then burned at the stake in 1546, but the record of her two interrogations in 1545 and 1546 was smuggled out of her prison cell and edited by the Reformation propagandist, John Bale, who also provided a paratextual apparatus framing and interpreting it. Here lies the knotty problem: thanks to Bale’s efforts, Askew’s testimony has survived, but only in an intrusively edited edition. ‘At every possible opening’, Beilin complains, he ‘interrupts’ her (Examinations 1996: xxxiv).

[8]  We can see why Beilin chooses the verb ‘interrupt’ to explain the effects of Bale’s paratext just by looking at the layout of the two tracts. Together they contain an account of Askew’s two periods of interrogation which she ‘wrote unto a secrete frynde’ from prison. Bale tells us that he ‘receyved it in coppye, by serten duche merchauntes’ who had been present at her execution (Examinations 1996: 88). In the text Askew recalls what she was asked, by whom, and how she answered. However, her testimony is surrounded by Bale’s commentary in which he sets out, as Beilin puts it, ‘to demonstrate by continual comparison that Askew’s words, actions, and beliefs are closer to the Scriptures and to the primitive church than anything written or performed by Roman Catholics for at least the previous nine centuries’ (Examinations 1996: xxxiv). To be fair, Bale’s gloss always appears in a smaller font, ensuring that Askew’s words are given prominence on the page (Figure 1). Yet, Bale also has so much more to say than Askew, and he shapes our reading of her words for his own purposes, de-authoring Askew (Beilin 2005: 347), or taming her voice to create ‘a passively silent, compliant victim’, as scholars have argued (Kemp 1999: 1033).

Figure 1: The first examinatyon of Anne Askewe (1546): © British Library Board, C.21.a.4 (1), 10r

[9]  Beilin has undoubtedly done important work, adding to the canon of early modern women’s writing someone who was half-hidden in Bale’s edition. All the same, her hankering for the ‘real’ voice of Askew now seems anachronistic because of recent developments in material book history, which emphasise the collaborative nature of a printed book’s production. One scholar who explored the Examinations in the light of these developments was Patricia Pender. In a thoughtful essay, she refuses to repeat ‘the feelings of regret and loss’ expressed by many scholars in the absence of Askew’s original manuscript, viewing the Examinations as ‘an exemplary instance of the kind of collaborative coauthorship that might prove valuable to the study of social theory of the text, early modern histories of books and reading, and feminist scholarship more broadly’ (Pender 2010: 520). To focus only on Askew as an author who is used by Bale for his own ends is ‘to ignore the many ways in which [her] words and figures exceed the frame that Bale provides for them’. Bale may have wisely sought to disguise Askew’s combativeness by presenting her as a ‘weak and humble woman’ but ‘this does not mean’ that he always ‘succeeded’. Pender invites a different reading of the relationship between text and paratext in the Examinations, looking for ‘[s]igns of interpretive struggle’ between a feisty author and her editor (Pender 2010: 519-520). And she discovers not a woman who is repeatedly interrupted, but one who ‘unapologetically […] studies’ (Pender 2010: 514).

[10]  There is no doubt that Askew is presented as an exemplary Reformation reader. ‘In processe of tyme’, Bale writes, ‘by oft readynge of the sacred Bible’, Askew ‘fell clerelye from all olde superstycyons of papystrye, to a perfyght beleve in Jhesus Christ’ (Examinations 1996: 93). But how exactly did she read? Pender’s depiction of her as a studious reader is based on the fact that she cites Bible chapters in her responses. For example, when she is asked by one of her interrogators, Christopher Dare, if she would prefer ‘to reade fyve lynes in the Byble, than to heare fyve masses in the temple’, she confesses ‘that I sayd no lesse’, explaining that ‘the one ded greatlye edyfye me, and the other nothinge at all’. In support of this statement, Askew adds that ‘saynt Paule doth witnesse in the xiiii chapter of hys first Epistle to Corinthes’, and she quotes him as saying ‘If the trumpe geveth an uncertayne sounde, who wyll prepare hymselfe to the battayle’ (Examinations 1996: 21).

[11]  There are many such examples whereby Askew ‘repeatedly out-references her foes, sometimes to the point of exhaustion’ (Pender 2010: 514). This habit of citation recalls Bale’s claim that she read the Bible ‘oft’. It also makes her look like one of the new readers created by print, someone who was able ‘to detach “sentences” from the interpretive place they have been given within Catholic tradition’, and re-arrange them independently ‘in a countertradition’; this is how Pender’s source, Peter Stallybrass, describes what Askew is doing (Stallybrass 2002: 69). Attention to the selection and re-use of sentences usually supposes a model of silent study: the reader pores over her book, perhaps marking sentences in the margin with a pen so she can find them again, perhaps adding them to a commonplace book. Later Protestant readers would use the navigational aids of the Geneva Bible (1560) – the first Bible to divide the text into numbered verses – to locate them. Askew’s discontinuous reading of her Bible is all the more remarkable since in the mid-1540s no such aids were available (Stallybrass 2002: 69-73; on the Geneva bible as a ‘Study Bible’ see also Molekamp 2015: 41-46).

[12]  Such an emphasis discovers a different side to Askew in a text that many feminist scholars have found troubling because it seems to control her voice. Yet, by the same token, we might well ask what is lost when we give up the everyday, often personal language of feminist scholarship of the 1990s. Without Beilin’s imaginative depiction of Bale interrupting Askew, for instance, might we also forget that this text is a record of an oral event and a celebration of a woman’s voice? Is it possible that Pender inadvertently makes Askew’s voice less effective even as she recovers her agency in other ways? Pender doesn’t say explicitly that Askew’s reading of the Bible was silent, but I assume that she thinks it was. It is not just that the ability to detach sentences – or to read discontinuously – is usually regarded as the product of silent study. For Pender, key moments of Askew’s rebellion are wordless. Thus, she focuses on the silent exchange between Askew in Lincoln Cathedral, when she is reading the public Bible, and the priests who approached her. The priests came two at a time, Askew says in the Examinations, ‘myndynge to have spoken to me, yet went they theyr wayes agayne with out wordes speakynge’ (Examinations 1996: 56). Pender describes this as an ‘eerily silent encounter’, as well as Askew’s ‘actions’ in the Cathedral as ‘silent’ (Pender 2010: 512).

[13]  Askew may well have read the Bible in this public place silently. But she may also have read it aloud, perhaps murmuring the words as she followed the text. We just don’t know. Legere sibi, to read to oneself, usually meant legere tacite, to read silently, Brian Cummings notes, but ‘this may have meant a low mumble rather than total silence’ (Cummings 2013: 136-7). It is also true that her most chastening responses to her interrogators are wordless. When she is asked by the Lord Mayor whether a mouse that eats the host can be said to have ‘receyved God’ she responds by saying nothing: ‘I made them no answere, but smyled’ (Examinations 1996: 27). She also repeatedly thwarts her interrogators by not telling them what they long to hear. In fact, she often has little to say. When she is asked by Bishop Bonner ‘whye I had so fewe wordes’, she responds meekly and rebelliously in the same breath: ‘God hath geven me the gyfte of knowlege, but not of utteraunce. And Salomon sayth, that a woman of fewe wordes, is a gyfte of God. Prover. 19’ (Examinations 1996: 51). Askew is reminding her rhetorically-trained interrogators that she lacks eloquence, and that she fulfils the ideal of the meek, silent woman.

[14]  And yet, paradoxically, she is also uttering this riposte, and in doing so she knowingly recites the words of wise Solomon. This is one of many easily missed moments in the first of the Examinations when we are being asked to ‘listen’ to Askew in a different way, and to recognize this text’s play with one of its keywords, the verb ‘utter’. Askew does not utter – or speak – with skill, she confesses. She has not received formal training in rhetoric at grammar school or university. But she is far from silent. She utters – in the sense of sends ‘forth a sound’, or gives out or emits ‘in an audible voice’ – the words of the Bible (Oxford English Dictionary, entry II. 5). This act of uttering, moreover, is not passive but full of knowledge and understanding.

[15]  It is this sense of giving voice that underlies the distinction Askew herself draws at another significant point in her examination between reciting and teaching the word of God, between reading aloud and speaking from the Bible and preaching it. This time she finds authority for what she says in the words of St Paul:

Then the Byshoppes chaunceller rebuked me, and sayd, that I was moche to blame for utterynge the scriptures. For S. Paule (he sayd) forbode women to speake or to talke of the worde of God. I answered hym, that I knewe Paules meanyinge so well as he, whych is, i. Corinthiorum xiiii. that a woman ought not to speake in the congregacyon by the waye of teachynge. And then I asked hym, how manye women he had seane, go into the pulpett and preache. He sayde, he never sawe non. Then I sayd, he ought to fynde no faute in poore women, except they had offended the lawe. (Examinations 1996: 29-30)

It is also this sense of ‘utter’ that underlies Bale’s defence of Askew’s recitation of the Bible. (And again, the interplay between saying and knowing is foregrounded.) ‘Plenteouse ynough is her answere here, unto thys quarellynge’, he argues, adding that ‘Manye godlye women both in the olde lawe and the newe, were lerned in the scriptures, and made utteraunce of them to the glorye of God’. And he goes one step further still, to recall the women who ‘gave knowlege’ of the resurrection to Christ’s ‘dyscyples’, including Saint Hilda, who ‘openlye dysputed … agaynst the superstycyons of certen byshoppes’ (Examinations 1996: 30-31).

[16]  To focus on utterance as a physical act of giving voice is to acknowledge Askew’s ‘material status as embodied text’ in a distinctive way (Pender 2010: 518). She has not just absorbed and memorised Scripture, by whatever method; she also breathes or speaks it, bodying it forth. We need to remember that Examinations is a written record of an oral event, and that Bale himself is sensitive to this fact for the simple reason that he believes the priests – Askew’s interrogators – would silence the Reformation. Bale argues in the conclusion to the first examination that there is a conspiracy of ‘subtyle sylence’ on the topic of the Pope among the Catholic clergy: ‘Ye shall not now heare a worde spoken agaynst hym at Paules crosse, nor yet agaynst hys olde juglynge feates’ (Examinations 1996: 67-8). Examinations aims to reverse this in several different ways. Bale not only fills in this ‘subtyle sylence’ by reminding us repeatedly of the corruption of the Pope and his ministers; he also teaches us to hear correctly the disarmingly gentle – or, as he describes them, ‘foxysh’ – voices of Askew’s interrogators, who are always trying to persuade her to ‘utter the secretes of [her] hart’ (Examinations 1996: 58-61). In his own responses, moreover, he turns up the volume. ‘Gentyll and soft wyttes are oft tymes offended’, he acknowledges, because he is ‘so vehement in rebukes’. But what modesty, he asks, would you use if you were ‘compelled to fyght with dragons, hyders [hydras], and other odyble monsters’? (Examinations 1996: 69).

[17]  Most importantly, though, he draws attention to the fact that Askew speaks according to Scripture, providing more citations in his commentary, often out-referencing her. When the Lord Mayor recalls that she had denied ‘the sacrament of the aultre’, to which she tersely says ‘that that I had sayd, I had sayd’, Bale adds a little more: ‘In thys brefe answere, she remembred Salomans counsell, Answere not a fole, all after hys folyshnesse’ (Examinations 1996: 32). On another occasion when Askew answers a question about whether she thinks she has ‘the sprete of God’ in her with characteristic brevity, saying ‘if I had not, I was but a reprobate or cast awaye’, Bale again offers more by way of explanation, citing multiple authorities for what she says from Scripture, that one has the spirit of God if one hears the Gospel and believes:

Electe are we of God (sayth Peter) through the sanctyfyenge of the sprete. i. Petri i. In everye true Christen belever dwelleth the sprete of God. Jo. 14. Their sowles are the santyfyed temples of the holye Ghost. 1. Corin. 3. He that hath not the sprete of Christ (sayth Paule) is non of Christes, Roma. 8. To them is the holye Ghost geven, whych heareth the Gospell and beleveth it, and not unto them whych wyll be justyfyed by their workes. Gala. 2. All these worthye scrpytures confirme her saynge. (Examinations 1996: 24)

Indeed, as this last example should make clear, it is Bale, not Askew, who is the scholarly reader represented in Examinations. No matter how much Askew has studied the Bible, Bale, we are shown, has studied it more. Askew may give references for what she says – for example, reminding her interrogators not just what Paul said about women speaking in public, but also where they can find his statement: ‘i. Corinthiorum xiiii’. More often, though, she paraphrases Scripture, and it is Bale who provides a reference to make it known that she speaks the Word of God. It is not that he is dismissive of her ability to cite chapters of the Bible; it is just that he values more her ability to recite Scripture from memory, without embellishment since this makes her the living embodiment of the Word of God to whom her interrogators should listen. In effect she is reading aloud the Bible without the book.

[18]  To call Bale the scholarly reader of Examinations is not to make Askew a lesser reader. In fact, the opposite is true. A literary example that Bale may have had in mind can help us to understand why. This example is ‘Folly’, the fictional female orator of Desiderius’s Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (1511). To be sure, the Protestant firebrand Bale could not seem more different to the moderate, Catholic reformer, Erasmus. Yet Erasmus’s biblical scholarship, especially his Paraphrases, had a formative influence on the English Reformation in the 1540s, including on Bale. This work aims to make the New Testament accessible to everyone by translating it into ‘“an oratorical stream of speech’” (Cottier 2012: 31). In July 1547, six months after the death of Henry VIII, Gretchen E. Minton notes, the reformers stipulated that all churches were to have on display a copy not just of the whole Bible but also of Erasmus’s Paraphrases, the translation of which Nicholas Udall assembled: Paraphrases, The first tome or volume of the Paraphrase of Erasmus (1548). In the same year, she adds, Bale was completing his own paraphrase of one of the books of the New Testament that Erasmus had left out, Revelation: Image of Both Churches (Minton 2002: 291-2). Moriae Encomium, translated into English by Thomas Chaloner just a couple of years later, sets out in a rather unconventional way to make sense of this simple – or foolish – idea, that the meaning of the Bible is best communicated not with learned commentaries but with an ordinary, speaking voice. This is one of the arguments that Bale is also making in his very different and much less playful way in Examinations. Like Erasmus, moreover, he uses a feminine voice to make the case.

[19]  Moriae Encomium is an oration spoken by Folly, and she begins by mocking the poor delivery of famous wise men, including Socrates. If this seems a lightweight subject suitable only for Folly herself, as it should do, then we may be surprised to find ourselves listening more attentively later in her speech when she turns to the poor delivery of university schoolmen and divines. Late in her oration, Folly dramatises the sharp voice of a friar-preacher asserting that heretics should be burned at the stake. And she sends up the way in which learned divines stretch the literal meaning of Scripture with their complicated, allegorical commentaries (Erasmus 1549: R3r-v; Q4r-v, R1r).

[20]  The interesting question for us is why Erasmus chose to put this attack in the mouth of a self-confessed fool: a woman. One explanation, offered by Elizabeth D. Harvey in Ventriloquized Voices, is that Erasmus uses Folly as a ‘shield’, allowing him ‘to say with impunity what he might otherwise not be able to articulate openly’ (Harvey 1992: 63). It is his privilege to do so of course, and as Harvey notes, he is able ‘to take on temporarily the voice or perspective of the disempowered precisely because he is not dispossessed of various enabling factors: he is male, educated, and knowledgeable not only about those subjects he anatomizes … but also about the modes of expression correlated with each’ (Harvey 1992: 63-4). But there is another reason why he hides behind Folly, I suggest, which puts those ‘enabling factors’ under critical scrutiny. The argument of Moriae Encomium – that reading the bible aloud in a plain speaking voice reveals its meaning much more readily than does the commentary of erudite divines – is best made by an obviously foolish speaker, literate but without a formal university education: a woman. When Folly speaks the same verses over which the divines labour, their literal meaning is made clear. Bale is making a similar point in Examinations, although he used the voice not of a fictional character but of a ‘real’ person, the gentlewoman Anne Askew, and in so doing he also goes beyond Erasmus, providing a powerful counter-defence of the right of a modestly educated woman to recite and embody Scripture in a meaningful way without the say-so of the male Catholic elite.

[21]  This essay began with the suggestion that the material turn in literary studies at the start of this century is neglecting the voices of women writers, and I focussed on Anne Askew’s Examinations both to show how this is happening but also to recover her voice in so far as that is possible. I sided with scholars two decades earlier who were intent on recovering women’s voices in a variety of different senses. But my aim to recover the physical voice of Askew will no doubt seem a foolhardy enterprise. Even in these earlier studies it was not the real voice that scholars were hoping to recover after all these centuries. ‘Voice is a powerful metaphor’, Elizabeth Harvey observes, ‘for the rebirth of what has been suppressed by patriarchal culture since language provides the currency in society and because voice registers in an immediate way that linguistic power’ (Harvey 1992: 5). The tenor of this metaphor of ‘voice’ is female agency but it keeps some connection to its ‘vehicle’, language and speech. We can see this metaphor at play in the introduction to Beilin’s edition, where she describes Bale as interrupting Askew. We can see it again even more clearly in an essay by Boyd M. Berry, which explores how Askew’s ‘shrewd, tactical female voice’ is ‘replaced by an impersonal, self-less voice’ – that of the Protestant martyr – by her male editor and interrogators (Berry 1997: 182-3). The ‘voice’ is a powerful and seductive metaphor in these studies. It is not hard for us to imagine Askew being talked down to and talked over even as we suspect that Beilin and Berry are actually interested in something entirely different: whether it is possible to reclaim Askew’s literary voice or writing – her ‘authorial presence’ (Harvey 1992: 1) – from Bale.

[22]  The recognition that ‘voice’ is a metaphor led scholars like Harvey in a different direction to the one I am taking in this essay, away from the pretence that we might actually ‘hear’ Renaissance women to a study instead of the appropriation of female-voiced narrative in the writing of this period, and of the cultural work of silencing and marginalising that it does. Poststructuralist literary theory has ‘repeatedly challenged the stability of the categories that appear to lend “voice” its coherence as a metaphor’, Harvey argues, and as a result we cannot assume any longer that there is a ‘clear correlation between the gender of a body and the gender of a text’ (Harvey 1992: 5). Indeed, it would be foolish to assume that ‘voice’ is meant literally.

[23]  The fact that so many male-authored texts with female personae survive from the Renaissance, should not surprise us. Male writers in this period were well trained in the art of impersonation at the Tudor grammar school, and this extended to female voices too, so much so, Lynn Enterline proposes, that ‘transvestite theater’ was an integral part ‘of school training in how to become a Latin-speaking gentleman’ (Enterline 2012: 88). There is a ‘dramatic, self-conscious process of impersonation’ at work in all school exercises, Enterline writes, from speaking the single sentences collected in the vulgaria by boys in the early forms in the character, perhaps, of a master or a schoolboy, to the more advanced rhetorical exercises of the later forms, especially prosopopoeia: ‘a certaine Oracion made by voice, and lamentable imitacion, upon the state of any one’ (Enterline 2012: 80; Rainolde 1563: A4r; N1r-v). In these last exercises, it is the personae of women that dominate: Hecuba, Niobe, Andromache, Medea, Cleopatra (Enterline 2012: 83).

[24]  What is being impersonated in the performance of these female voices? It cannot only have been their different quality. There has been a great deal of thought given to how boys’ voices were used and represented on the Renaissance public stage, and many references to squeaky and cracking voices have been collected (Bloom 2007: 21-65). But there is so much more to an expressive voice than this. After all, Bottom makes a laughable mistake in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he declares that, if he is given the woman’s part to play, ‘I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice’ (Shakespeare 2016: 1.2.43-44), line 299). Equally important is the emotional range of the classical, literary female voices available for imitation and the subject position they represent. Richard Rainolde’s sole example of prosopopoeia is a speech by Hecuba, a grieving mother and Queen of Troy, at the point of the city’s utter devastation. It is full of figures that express strong emotion: ‘What kyngdome can always assure his state, or glory? What strength can always last? What power maie always stande?’ (Rainolde 1563: N2v).[5]

[25]  Unsurprisingly, Renaissance female impersonation was sometimes so good that it has created debate among modern scholars more than four hundred years later about the authorship of some anonymous texts with female personae.[6] One of these debates concerns the authorship of an elegy titled ‘The Doleful Lay of Clorinda’. The elegy is one of several mourning the death of Philip Sidney, appended to Edmund Spenser’s Colin Clouts Come Home Again (1595), and the only one without an attributed author. ‘The Lay’ is related by the male narrator of an earlier elegy, ‘Astrophel’, but its performer, Clorinda – the ‘I’ of the ‘Lay’ – is identified by him as Philip’s sister, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. Here, then, is a conundrum. Did Mary Sidney write the ‘Lay’, as some scholars have claimed, or did Edmund Spenser write it for her, taking on her persona and ‘drawing upon her own poetic habits and quirks’? (Clarke 2000: 454). In a classic study of the ‘Lay’, Danielle Clarke steps outside the debate about its authorship, observing that even if Mary Sidney was a contributor in some way, its placing in this book by Spenser means that he, not she, owns it, prompting her to consider a new question: why would Spenser choose ‘to adopt a feminine literary persona’? (Clarke 2000: 452). Clarke’s analysis has much to tell us about the use made of women’s voices in this period. Rather as the Hecuba example suggests, they carry emotion from a subject position not usually available to a male writer. In the case of ‘The Lay’, adopting Mary Sidney’s ‘voice’ places Spenser in a closer personal relationship to her aristocratic brother and esteemed poet than his status and ‘tenuous (although much desired) connection warranted’ (Clarke 2000: 457, 466-7).

[26]  This sensitivity to the effect of ventriloquization is clearly relevant to Examinations too, which has a similarly emotionally-charged investment in its main speaker, Anne Askew, although perhaps not in the way we might expect. I am not thinking of Bale’s possible ventriloquization – and silencing – of Askew. In the absence of her original manuscript we cannot know whether he interfered with her text or not. In any case, it is generally accepted that the testimony is hers. Instead, I am interested in Bale’s and Askew’s joint preoccupation with what happens to her voice, what she is made to say and how she speaks back. Steven Connor’s distinction between passive and active forms of ventriloquism will help me to make sense of this. Ventriloquism, he proposes, can denote either ‘the experience of being spoken through by others’ or ‘the power to speak through others’ (Connor 2000: 14). The first form – an ‘author speaking through the voice of the other gender’ – preoccupies Renaissance feminist scholars like Harvey since it ‘fostered a vision that tended to reinforce women’s silence or to marginalize their voices when they did speak or write’ (Harvey 1992: 2, 5; on the complex metaphorical meanings of ‘voice’ see Dolor, 2015). It also preoccupied both Bale and Askew. An example of this form of ventriloquization is Bishop Bonner’s reading aloud of Askew’s confession of faith:

Be it knowne (sayth he) to all men, that I Anne Askewe, do confesse thys to be my faythe and beleve, notwithstandynge my reportes made afore to the contrarye. I beleve that they whych are howseled [received communion] at the hands of a prest, whether hys conversacyon be good or not, de receyve the bodye and bloude of Christ in substaunce reallye. Also I do beleve it after the consecracyon, whether it be receyved or reserved, to be no lesse than the verye bodye and bloude of Christ in substaunce. Fynallye I do beleve in thys and all other sacraments of the holye churche, in all poyntes accordynge to the olde catholyck faythe of the same. In witnesse wherof, I the seyd Anne have subscrybed my name. (Examinations 1996: 59)

This is an emphatically oral event. As Askew explains, Bonner ‘wolde not suffer me to have the coppie therof’, and what she shares is based on what she heard and can remember (Examinations 1996: 58). It is also a very odd event. Askew is being asked to endorse a doctrinal point of Roman Catholicism to which she does not assent, that the sacrament is the body of Christ. But it is odd for another reason since it involves layers of reported speech. Askew is ‘being spoken through’ in the moment of this confession’s performance. Bonner is putting words in her mouth: ‘Then he redde it to me, and asked me, if I ded agre to it’. Yet, it is Askew who is sharing the story – perhaps even dictating it – and this means that she is ventriloquizing Bonner ventriloquizing her, and exposing his attempt to speak through her. Her resistance is quietly evident. She responds by refusing to affirm what he says, saying only that ‘I beleve so moche therof, as the holye scripture doth agre to’ (Examinations 1996: 60). Askew joins the ranks of other martyrs who used their voice to resist rather than confirm what had been written for them, those like Thomas Bilney who read aloud a recantation of his heresies that was passed to him at his execution on the 16th August 1531 at Lollard’s Pit in Norwich but, according to at least one account, by ‘muttering’ the words so ‘softly’ that it was uncertain whether he had recanted at all (Cummings 2013: 133-7).

[27]  Bale builds on this moment of simple resistance. Part of his purpose in Examinations, I argued earlier, is to stop the silencing of the Reformation, and he does this in various ways. This includes reminding us at every opportunity, and in his own distinctively loud voice, just how corrupt are the Pope and his minions. But another way he does this is to turn Askew into an active ventriloquist. Indeed, what else is Askew’s uttering of Scripture but an act of ventriloquization? By the same token, what else is Bale doing when he provides references to support her brief responses other than showing that she has ‘the power to speak through’ the women and men of the Bible? If we are in any doubt about whether this is happening, I suggest we turn to Askew’s psalm, the epilogue to the first of the Examinations: ‘The voyce of Anne Askewe out of the 54. Psalme of David, called. Deus in nomine tuo’. The title is wonderfully provocative. The literary persona of the psalm is King David, and he is calling down God’s revenge on his enemies. However, psalms are performance scripts, and their meaning is activated when they are said or sung. Matthew Parker made this very point in the preface to his Psalter when he explains the spiritual benefits of voicing psalms: ‘Verse harde in mouth: while oft I chowde, / I spied therin no wast: / Cleare sent to mynde: more sweetely flowde, /earst thus not felt in tast’ (Parker 1567: B4r; see also Hamlin 2015). The meaning of this psalm is also activated once we understand, not so much that Askew wrote it – if she did – but that she voiced it. When she did so, she breathed life into King David even as she stands in for him, ensuring that the link between God and his favoured people is not broken.

For thy names sake, be my refuge,
And in thy truthe, my quarrell judge.
Before the (lorde) lete me be hearde,
And with faver my tale regarde
Loo, faythlesse men, agaynst me ryse,
And for thy sake, my deathe practyse.
My lyfe they seke, with mayne and myght
Whych have not the, afore their syght
Yet helpest thu me, in thys dystresse,
Savynge my sowle, from cruelnesse.
I wote thu wylt revenge my wronge,
And vysyte them, ere it be longe.
I wyll therfor, my whole hart bende,
Thy gracyouse name (lorde) to commende.
From evyll thu hast, delyvered me,
Declarynge what, myne enmyes be.
Prayse to God.

(Examinations 1996: 72)

This is a female-voiced complaint with a difference. We are not reading a male author impersonating a woman, say the defeated Queen of Troy, Hecuba. Instead, we are reading – and perhaps also performing ourselves – a woman who has paraphrased a psalm and who is speaking it, making David’s call for revenge her own. In short, what matters is not that she wrote this paraphrase but that it is in her ‘voyce’. With her breath, Askew transfers to herself the spirit of David’s call for revenge and, if her ‘voyce’ is read aloud with understanding, the work of Reformation continues.

[28]  My argument, then, is a simple one: the idea that Askew voiced this psalm is empowering. The same applies to Askew’s recitation of Scripture in the rest of the Examinations. To put this another way, I am less concerned with the question of whether Bale’s editing interferes with Askew’s written record – or even with the possibility that she did not write this testimony down herself – than with the emphasis she and Bale place on the fact that she utters Scripture throughout. Askew has found her place in the canon of early modern women’s writing thanks to the efforts of Beilin and others. She has yet to find her place in the historical defence of women’s public reading of the Bible. Unless we pay attention to the performative emphasis in the Examinations we will continue to overlook this. One of the most forceful contributions to this defence, which has been recognized by feminist scholars, came a century later. The Quaker Margaret Fell would use her physical and literary voice in 1666 to argue with a directness Askew lacks, that ‘Woman’s speaking in the Power of the Lord’ is justified. Fell contests the same misreading of Corinthians 1.14 that Askew did, reminding us that women have speaking parts in the bible – ‘Elizabeth spoke with a loud voice [to Mary]. Blessed art thou amongst Women’ – and also of the hypocrisy of male ventriloquism, directing her anger at ‘blind Priests’ who ‘will make a Trade of Women’s Words to get Money by, and take Texts, and preach Sermons upon Women’s Words, and still cry out, Women must not speak’ (Fell 1666). Fell’s defence is more focused on female-voiced narrative than Askew’s but her argument that women do ‘speak in the Power of the Lord’ is exactly the same.

[29]  One of the many benefits of the material turn in literary studies is that it has prompted us to interrogate and expand the ‘idea of early modern women’s writing’. This field ‘has never been richer in terms of volume and variety of texts and authors’, argue Patricia Pender and Rosalind Smith in the introduction to a superb collection of essays, Material Cultures of Early Modern Women’s Writing, ‘but our assessment of what constitutes a woman writer often remains tied to an identifiable female voice and a more or less original text considered in its first context of production’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 2). Attention to recent developments in book history – especially Matt Cohen’s emphasis on the ‘choral’ elements of book production in The Networked Wilderness (2006) – allows them to include ‘literary activities that have hitherto been considered “extra-authorial”, such as women’s patronage, editing and even translation’, and to explore women’s writing as ‘publication events taking place in multiple modes over time’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 1-2, citing Cohen 2009: 6-7). ‘Choral’ is a suggestive word for scholars not uninterested in oral cultures, a group that includes Pender, Smith and some of their contributors. Yet, the primary aim of this collection is to remind us that print-publication is ‘choral’ in the sense of collaborative, ‘involving typesetters, printers, book-sellers, and readers as well as authors’ (Pender and Smith 2014: 2). This is despite the fact that Cohen presents the most far-reaching re-examination of the neglect of orality by book historians to date because he aims to close the gap between the history of the early modern book and Native American systems of communication, describing publication as ‘choral’ to allow for the voice as well as ‘a series of producers’ (Cohen 2009: 12-19).

[30]  Does the neglect of the material voice matter since so many other rich insights are shared? In this essay I have argued that it does, exploring what an emphasis on voice might mean for the way we read Anne Askew’s Examinations, noting that she is empowered by her male editor John Bale as a reader and speaker rather than as a writer. I want to conclude, though, by registering why this matters for literary scholarship more generally, recalling Chedgzoy’s recognition that there is a correlation between the textual ‘voices’ of the past and the living, breathing public voices of the (now) twentyfirst-century feminist critics who are doing the work of their recovery; and I would like to suggest one way we might strengthen that.

[31]  We know from daily experience that the physical voice is a powerful means to agency and, dare I say it, perhaps more so than the literary voice. This is why the voice matters to a feminist campaigner like Naomi Wolf. Just think about the recent attention she gives to the vocal fry of Californian valley girls: ‘Young women’, she writes, ‘give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice’. Or recall the observations of the sociologist Anne Karpf on the deepening of women’s voices since the 1950s. ‘In pursuit of social and economic equality’, she asks, ‘have women traded in one vocal convention for another? Instead of liberating women, and men, to use the full range of intonation and colour, has the new tyranny of huskiness made women with higher voices feel inadequate?’ (Karpf 2006: 177).

[32]  However, rather than focussing on the changing qualities of the gendered voice for the study of earlier texts, or the meanings that a change in tone might produce – the implications of which I consider in my forthcoming book – I propose instead to end with a simple observation that transcends history: that using the voice is in itself empowering. The voice may be ephemeral but it is also curiously material or bodily. It emanates from within us, and it touches those who hear it, evoking feelings, positive and negative, producing actions. Indeed, the voice is, Steven Connor allows, translating Guy Rosolato, ‘“the body’s greatest power of emanation”’, enabling even the most dependent person to experience in the act of voicing ‘a sense of sonorous omnipotence, the power to exercise its will through sound’ (Connor 2000: 20).[7] This effect of the voice was understood by Renaissance schoolmasters who thought delivery ‘the chief grace or excellency in Rhetorick’ (Brinsley 1612: 2E2r); by the puritans of the Reformation who argued that the ‘living voice’ of the preacher was needed to activate ‘the latent force’ of the ‘written word’ of scripture so as ‘to strike home to the heart of the listener’ (Hunt 2010: 27); and by the satirists of the 1590s who often emulated ‘a kind of shouting on paper’ (Raymond 2003: 43-4). It mattered to women too if we learn to listen, as I have been proposing. Just imagine what new histories we might recover if we were to pay more attention to what the physical voice meant to the readers of the Renaissance and even re-animate with our own voices the ‘sonorous’ empowerment of someone like Askew, as Bale intended.

University of Newcastle


I am grateful to Alison Thorne, who first drew my attention to the rhetorical power of the female literary voice, and to Richard Wistreich and Felicity Laurence, both of them musicologists and professional singers, who helped me to understand the power of the physical voice.

[1] Monica Green’s book-length study of the effects of the development of male literate medicine on the oral traditions of female midwifery, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine (2008), is one such exception.[back to text]

[2] Chedgzoy 1996: 4-5, citing from a section headed “From the 29th day of the 10th month, 1657”, Bodleian Library S.1. 42. Th., p. 257.[back to text]

[3] These two tracts are titled The first examinacyon of Anne Askewe lately martyred in Smythfelde, by the Romysh popes vpholders, with the elucydacyon of Iohan Bale (1546), and The lattre examinacyon of Anne Askewe latelye martyred in Smythfelde, by the wycked Synagoge of Antichrist, with the Elucydacyon of Iohan Bale (1547).[back to text]

[4] It happens to be a woman’s voice, although who it belongs to is not entirely clear. It might belong to Queen Victoria who might be saying something like: ‘Greetings… the answer must be… I have never forgotten’.  http://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/collections/2010/09/20/a-regal-recording/, last accessed 29th August 2015.[back to text]

[5] On the importance of Hecuba as an example for Erasmus in De Copia, and in Reinhard Lorich’s Latin translation of Aphthonius’s Progymnasmata as well as in the Tudor schoolroom see Enterline 2012: 124-39. For discussion of the vocal range offered by the female voice see Trill 1996.[back to text]

[6] See Lyne 2008 and Thorne 2008. Both are responding to the pioneering work of the classicist Spentzou 2003, who explains why the fictional women letter-writers of Ovid’s Heroides should be treated as authors with their own separate ‘voice’. See also Kerrigan 1991; Clarke 2008.[back to text]

[7] Citing Guy Rosolato, ‘La Voix: Entre corps et langage’, Revue française de pyschanalyse, 38 (1974): 76.[back to text]


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Wolfe, Naomi. ‘Young women, give up the vocal fry and reclaim your strong female voice’, The Guardian, 24 July 2015. Accessed 25 June 2017.  http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/24/vocal-fry-strong-female-voice

Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Nicholas Breton and Early Modern Explorations of the Mind

Douglas Clark

[1]  Nicholas Breton (ca. 1554/5-1626) had a prolific and heterogeneous literary output, spending most of his adult career vying for the patronage of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, though as Conny Loder contends in the only scholarly monograph to analyse the intellectual vitality of Breton’s canon to date, ‘Today, he remains neglected’ (Loder 2014: 9).[1] The presiding factor in this critical neglect seems to stem from the apparently prosaic nature of his writing, despite its generic variety and intellectual scope. Drew Daniel, for instance, comments in his assessment of the correlation between Breton’s poem ‘Of the Four Elements’ and Empedocles’ materialist philosophy that ‘Breton’s curio of justly forgotten verse is helpful because of its very pitch perfect mediocrity’, emphasising the value of its ‘mundane exemplarity’ as a means to understand how a certain strand of classical philosophy percolated through early modern intellectual culture (Daniel 2014: 289). The ostensibly poor quality of Breton’s verse and prose has often occluded the usefulness of Breton’s work as an expedient means by which to deepen our understanding of English Renaissance literature and thought. His work has often been marginalised and even denigrated, yet, his work has begun to be profitably studied for its subject matter.

[2]  Judging from recent scholarship, a prevailing interest still lies in Breton’s writing. His works have been variously cited to substantiate the importance of numerous aspects of early modern culture, ranging from: experiences and representations of the deaf; the invention and manipulation of genres; commendation of geographical exploration; the celebration of cuckoldry; advice manuals to mothers; and the history of penitential verse (Cockayne 2003; Fowler 2003; Fuller 2007; McEachern 2008; Poole 1995; Gazzard 2016). The following essay continues in this tradition of critical reclamation. In the spirit of this special edition, I aim to illustrate the importance of Nicholas Breton’s literary voice by investigating his specific interest in exploring the qualities and inner-construction of the mind in a selection of his verse and prose works. Clarifying Breton’s interest in mapping aspects of the psyche in relation to his literary contemporaries will help to further emphasise the critical utility and value of his work, beyond the aesthetic concerns which have confined his writing to the extremities of the early modern canon. This examination will help to demonstrate how his work modifies or deviates from early modern paradigms of mind and interiority as conceived in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing.

Dreams and the Sorrow of the Mind
[3] Breton’s creative energies often seem to be divided between exploring the mind and its associated functions, and deliberating upon the peculiarities of mental travel into countries ‘unknowne’ (Breton 1597: sig. G1r). Dreams, for instance, frequently function as particularly useful narrative devices for this objective, as witnessed in ‘The Blessed Weeper’ (1601). In this meditative poem, the poetic speaker uses the ghostly vision of Mary to contemplate the constraints put upon the mind to conceive of the interior and exterior world. The speaker caught ‘half in a slumber, and more half a sleepe’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r, l. 2) describes how the apparition of Mary Magdalene appeared to them in a dream-vision as vehicle to convey her penitential ‘weeping’ (sig. D4r, l. 6). By the conclusion of the forty-nine stanzas of rhyme royal in which the ‘discourse’ of her ‘passions’ are laid out, the speaker suggests that ‘her speech … wisht all women might such VVeepers be’ (sig. F4r, ll. 442-443). Patricia Badir astutely argues that this text demonstrates Breton’s distinctive attempt to depict female forms of mystical spirituality that are rooted in intellectual and ethical virtue, rather than bodily sacrifice. We should, thus, understand the Magdalene figure to be used as a model of self-reflection that taps into the ‘incomprehensibleness of spiritual experience’ (Badir 2009: 115), questioning the constraints placed upon the mind which one must struggle with in order to conceive of the world and the moral self. Bearing witness to the ‘truth’ (Breton 1601: sig. F3v, l. 395) of Mary’s tears, the speaker finds an answer for their initial quandary stated at the beginning of the poem, as they expressed how their ‘troubled senses at a strange debate’ questioned ‘VVhat kind of care should most my spirit keepe’ (sig. D4r, ll. 3-4). The mind, as depicted in this poem, provides succour for the troubled ‘spirit’ and corporeal ‘senses’, acting as a receptacle for this dream-vision of divine intervention. It is able to house the vision of Mary Magdalene, allowing for the poetic speaker to delineate the cathartic truth of penitential grief for himself and his intended audience.

[4] Breton’s ‘The Blessed Weeper’ represents an example of early modern penitential verse which is structured upon contemplating the complex operational dynamic between sense experience and mental activity. His work, moreover, subverts normative paradigms of female physicality and sacrifice being depicted as the font of curative spirituality in this strain of Renaissance poetry, although the conclusion of the speaker’s contemplation of sorrow and its purifying effects does intimate a rather prescriptive use of female grief – ‘all women’ are encouraged to cultivate their minds to follow Magdalene’s example of being paragons of spiritual and physical purity. Critics have drawn parallels between Breton’s writing and that of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, largely because of Breton’s proclivity for depictions of despondency and weeping in his penitential verse (Kuchar 2008; Sweeney 2006). Comparing the ‘plain’ style of poetry that Southwell and Breton represent, Sweeney describes Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within The Workes of a Young Wyt (1577) as a complaint which relies on the ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body and the effects of emotion’ to situate its poetic ‘action’, lingering on the function of the mind as merely an allegorical aesthetic backdrop to structure his moralistic verse (Sweeney 2006: 186). This particular poem, alongside the mental landscapes elucidated upon in A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577), are proposed to typify Breton’s cultivation of mental schematics within his writing:

When he does turn to the inner landscape of the mind he places it in the dream-world … Breton uses poetic landscape the way the theatre might – a prop against which to present his text, or as emblem, not as a method of eliciting a response which gives him insights into his own psychological state (Sweeney 2006: 186).

To this end, Sweeney proposes that Breton does not share ‘Southwell’s sharper understanding of psychology’ as his poetry often ends in allegorical moralising reminiscent of Tudor morality plays (Sweeney 2006: 188). Breton does, however, continuously reflect on the nature of mental experience through a variety of his poetical works, and the greater implications of psychological inquiry for his own mind and those who might read his poetry. We have seen previously how the dream-vision in ‘A Blessed Weeper’ is used by the speaker as a means to understand and possibly augment their own ‘spirit’ (Breton 1601: sig. D4r) in accordance with female modes of penitential practice. Although Breton does often linger upon the relationship between body and mind as a way to promote an ethical ideal of human virtue, the poetic landscape of the mind that Breton constructs throughout his canon is not facile, or merely subordinate to the concerns of a ‘Petrarchan foregrounding of the body’.

[5] By drawing comparisons between Southwell’s ‘Vale of Tears’ from his collection Moeoniae in 1595 and Breton’s poem, Sweeney proposes that Southwell’s ‘non-generic’ ‘psychologised landscape’ is ‘integral to the narrator’s self’, unlike the landscape of Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt and A Floorish Upon Fancie: ‘it [Southwell’s landscape] is created by the narrator’s interior experience, not merely for it to be played out upon’ (Sweeney 2006: 186). Identifying Breton’s ‘O wretched wight’ poem within Workes of a Young Wyt as a ‘version’ of Southwell’s ‘vale of tears’ (Sweeney 2006: 186) which concentrates on erotic betrayal rather than spiritual grief, Sweeney highlights how Breton’s poetic speaker converts the sorrow he feels over the actions of his cruel mistress into ‘musicke’ through the percussive beating of his ‘breste, / And sobbing sighes, which yeelde a heauy sounde’ (Breton 1577: sig. D1r). The poetic environment that Breton cultivates through this piece serves to place focus upon the physicality of the wight’s body, rather than his mind in Sweeney’s estimation. Yet if we continue through this larger work we will find the image of a ‘wight’ (this time being described as ‘wofull’ and ‘in pitious plight’) being used for the specific purpose of providing an insight into the poetic speaker’s own psychological state (Breton 1577: sig. E4v).

[6] The descriptor of ‘woeful wight’ is later used to portray a man within a portion of the poetic speaker’s own dream-vision in Workes of a Young Wyt – a man who is ‘driuvn by destinie’ to wander the ‘luckless land’ of the speaker’s mind (Breton 1577: sig. E4v-F1r). He can, in Breton’s terms, find no ‘comfort’ ‘nor sparke of joy, to cheere the mourning mynde’ (sig. F1r). Engaging this pitiable man in conversation, the speaker reflects that ‘his words more halfe amazed in minde’ stimulated ‘more inward griefe, then now I can descrie’ (sig. F1r). This encounter leads the psychological journey to reach its conclusion, as the speaker descends into a cave beneath ‘hard happe hill’ (sig. F4r) to hear the laments of the ‘ghost’ like figure of ‘Care’ (sig. G1r) and the other ‘sundry sorrowes’ (sig. G1v) of those who reside in the ‘dungeon of despair’ (sig. G2r). The speaker’s vision is ended by the collective ‘shriking’ of the unfortunate souls who are led to enter a mysterious chamber inside the dungeon (sig. G2r). Started from his slumber by this noise, the speaker hopes that God ‘send us all the ioyes of heaven at last’ once ‘worldy woes are past’ (sig. G2r). Instead of concluding decisively by eliciting ‘cheering communal prayer’ (Sweeney 2006: 188), the rather chilling experience of the speaker’s dream-narrative shifts onto a poetic episode where the speaker is forced by his ‘Muse’ to write ‘madly’ in ‘remembrance’ of his ‘passion’ for ‘the delicate ladie’ he espied within a ‘garden’ in a previous moment of his waking-life (Breton 1577: sig. G2v). The pain that Breton’s poetic persona feels over both spiritual grief and sexual desire never deserts him – it is continually stimulated and exacerbated either by the cultivation of melancholy within his own mind, or by the intervention of his poetic muse throughout the work as a whole. This persona is thus left in almost complete subservience to internal sorrow and external inspiration. In this way, to augment Sweeney’s proposition, the psychic trauma and mental landscapes portrayed in Breton’s Workes of a Young Wyt are created and cultivated both by the narrator’s interior experience, and through the mind’s active relationship to sense experience, memory, and the whims of a cruel muse. This creative dynamic allows Breton’s poetic speaker to provide a more robust poetic commentary on the nature of mental phenomena and how the landscape of the psyche is developed in harmony with emotional affect.

[7] The figuration of mental landscapes proves to be a vitally important tool for how Breton wishes this particular text to be interpreted as a product in the early modern marketplace. As he notes in the primordium to Workes of a Young Wyt, this collection ostensibly marks his inaugural foray into the world of published poetry: ‘this is first tyme I have stird my brayne’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3r). Envisioning potential readers of his poem as consumers of an aesthetic product, sampling and judging his verse as one would taste ‘Cheese’ or ‘meat’ (sig. A2r), Breton encourages his reader to account for his ‘braine’ as ‘a new digd ground, / My rimes wild Oates, which every where abound’ (sig. A4r). Whether the reader judges that ‘it is bald rhyme, not worth the reading’ or that ‘it is good enough to reade, when a man hath nothing els to doo’ (sig. A2r-A2v), Breton wishes his reader ‘well’ (sig. A2v). Regardless of their reaction to this particular text, the poet hopes that his future labours will ‘prouide you some other newe ware for your olde golde’ (sig. A2v). He conveys an understanding of his book’s role within the early modern market place and its relationship to earlier forms of versification.

[8] Breton, in this preface, demonstrates a witty understanding of his own value as a commercial poet, as well as being sympathetic of the thoughts which are stimulated in the minds of the browsing readers in the bookstalls of St. Paul’s – he ‘imagines his verse thumbed through, sniffed at, and criticized’ (Harrison 2014, 245-46), in addition to considering what the contents of his own ‘brayne’ signify. The commonplace rhetorical topos of poetic humility which prefigures Workes of a Young Wyt explicitly foregrounds the importance of organic landscapes as they and the speaker’s verse develop through the collection as a whole. We are made repeatedly aware of how crucial the conveyance of interior, mental experience is to the progress of the speaker’s voyage through their mind, in addition to how we understand and judge the work as an aesthetic accomplishment: whether ‘it is prety poetrie’ or ‘mean stuffe’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). The creation of mental landscapes are, therefore, integral to the development of the narrative in Workes of a Young Wyt – the piece as a whole is framed by the sustained conceit of the brain as arable land which may produce poetic fruit or grain. This image of organic potency within the poet’s pastoral mental world (one which is just about to bloom) prefigures the succeeding cornucopia of verse works, providing justification of the poet’s creative capabilities.

[9] Reflecting on the mind’s constitution and the exploration of its interior landscape pervades a large breadth of Breton’s works. One of his later works, Strange News out of Divers Countries (1622), portrays itself as a found narrative, divulging to the reader ‘strange matters’ from ‘a strange land’ whose ‘strange people’ worship Nature as a ‘goddesse’ (Breton 1622: sig. A3r-A3v). The narrator opens the piece by providing a brief exposition on the qualities of this country (the language, religion, dress, and social formalities adhered to). This opening serves to introduce the discovery of a cache of travel writing from one of this ‘strange’ country’s own inhabitants – a fool of the population’s ‘owne chusing’ (sig. B2r). The fool’s papers and books expound upon the natural topography of his own land as well as some locations which still remain ‘unknowne’ to its own inhabitants (sig. C1v). This fantastical travel narrative reaches its conclusion with the speaker noting, upon this fool’s death, how he entered the inner chamber of the fool’s library and delved to the bottom of his ‘olde chest’ (sig. C4v) to find a number of dreams that the deceased had set down in poesy. This epistolary voyage is, then, only complete once the tour of a foreign wit’s pastoral dreamscapes has been presented to the reader.

[10] We are made aware that the fool’s poetry which ‘fitted the humour of his noddle pate’ is ‘left for a Legacie to his cousins Loblollies’ (Breton 1622: sig. C4v). This seemingly absurd poetic legacy is realised in the recital of eleven contemplative verse fables written in iambic heptameter. Each poem features the interaction between two types of different animals (for example, a monkey and bee), and although the fool’s sleep is punctuated by ‘laughing at the sport’ that a duck and goose make (sig. D2r, l. 18), or is perturbed by the ‘musicke’ (sig. D3r, l. 11) that a peacock and an ass create in unison, no particular conclusion or moral judgement is made by the fool himself upon these episodic dreams. Only at the end of the poetic sequence, after forests, fields, rivers, brooks, and the occasional dunghill have been psychologically traversed, does the fool seem to reflect on the meaning of his dreams via the death of ‘a great wilde Bore’ (sig. D3r, l. 1) at the hands of ‘Huntsmen’ (sig. D3r, l. 14) and their ‘mastiues’ (sig. D3r, l. 16): ‘Wherewith I wakt, and marueld what this kind of hunting meant’ (sig. D3r, l. 18). The fool’s thoughts on this matter are, however, left without comment.

[11] Attempting to provide a rationale for the implicit meaning of this dream sequence may, at first, be rather problematic. As Garrett Sullivan observes, sleep and dreaming in this period were often equated with both the binding of the senses and the overindulgence of them:

In the case of sleep-as-sensory binding, reason is literally disabled as the body slumbers; in that of sleep-as-sensory-overindulgence, reason fails to assert authority over a body whose intemperance manifests itself during both sleep and waking. (Sullivan 2012: 18)

Such scenarios may be illustrated in the prophetic, passionate, and supernatural dreaming of Philisides and Gynecia in Books two and three of Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia, in addition to the ‘dreame of loues and lustful play’ (I.1.47.4) which leaves the Redcrosse Knight ‘straight benumbd and starke’ (I.1.44.5) and the ‘wastefull luxuree’ (II.12.80.8) of Verdant’s eroticised slumber in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Adhering largely to a classical Platonic notion of ‘wild’, ‘unruly’, and ‘lawless’ (trans. Waterfield 1993: 571c and 572a) pleasures being roused from the particular material qualities and moral disposition of a person in sleep, the actions of these dreamers to their dreams would seem to justify Sullivan’s proposition that ‘sleep is a time where the operations of reason are suspended’ (Sullivan 2012: 51) marking the limit of one’s ability to control the power of the appetites or passions.

[12] The threat of ungoverned passions and the formation of portentous dreams of personal and political significance that pervade Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are, however, amiss in many of Breton’s works which employ dreams as narrative devices, especially in Strange News. Nor do they conform to the predictive dreams that early modern dream theorists such as Julius Caesar Scalinger explicate while examining the Aristotelian tradition of dream interpretation in his 1533 work New Epigrams (Haugen 2007, 820-21). Neither do they adhere to the divine or politically portentous dreams which Thomas Hill explores in The Most Pleasant Art of the Interpretation of Dreams (1571). More exactly, Breton’s Strange News out of Divers Countries culminates in a series of episodic dream-poems which linger on the frequently violent relationship between beasts and animals, without providing the moral maxims or axiomatic statements often expected from the fable genre. The foolish poetic dreamer is always at an advantageous position to be entertained or titillated from the frequently violent interaction between the animals, avoiding any psychic harm from the episodes; he merely views, rather than interacts.

[13] Although these dreams lack any divine import, they are not merely fanciful or nonsensical in nature – these fictive dreams may be interpreted as oblique, satirical commentaries on the iniquitous nature of human relationships. For instance, ‘A Dreame of a Chough, a Pie, and a Parot’ details the dangers of sartorial extravagance via a roguish parrot who is equated to one who gulls ‘giddie heads’ to ‘sell their lands’ (Breton 1622: sig. D1v, l. 18); whereas the ‘A Dreame of A Swan and a Goose’ seems to emphasise the consequences of both marital impropriety and the transgression of class boundaries through a tale of an adulterous Swan. The sequence ultimately seems to be bound together through the reiterated topoi of retributive violence enacted upon or by each individual group of animals mentioned, as well as the schadenfreude that the fool derives from these creations of his mind. Instead of being shown a developing mental landscape which expands as the poetic protagonist thinks, reflects, and journeys onwards through their own mind, the reader’s passage through Strange News is gradually funnelled through successively narrower architectural confines. It begins with a consideration of the quality of this reportedly strange land, to then delineate the fool’s abode, library, and then finally his chest as a means to understand the ‘humour of his noddle pate’ (sig. C4v) through an analysis of his dreams. Its narrative arc is directed towards introspective obscurity, rather than on an illuminating expansion on the quality of mental experience. Moreover, unlike ‘The Blessed Weeper’ and Workes of a Young Wyt, the dreams of Strange News are utilized in misanthropic fashion, rather than being deployed for morally virtuous purposes.

[14] The topics of mind-travel, dreaming, and personal introspection are fundamental to Breton’s writing, and these features, as witnessed in Strange News, often converge in rather peculiar ways. A Floorish upon Fancie and The Toyes of an Idle Head (1577) centres upon depicting another voyage into the poet’s mind itself. The narrative thrust of this piece is directed toward analysing the unknown qualities of the human psyche. Like ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish upon Fancie is didactic in method, though instead of instructing women readers to be pious and penitent in their lives, A Floorish upon Fancie wishes to instruct ‘young gallant youthes’ who are ‘rather addicted to trauaile through the world’ to direct their minds along a path of wisdom so they may attain ‘perfect Paradise’ (Breton 1577: sig. A2r). It details how they should take some time to ‘sit at home’ in order to attain ‘wisdome’, instead of looking to travel the world for their ‘owne advancement’ (sig. A2r). By providing a cautionary tale of his own inadvertent adventure into the realm of poetic creation (Fancie), the narrator attempts to persuade any potential reader to employ their reason if they plan to voyage around the world in order to attain ‘the fort of fame’ (sig. A3v).

[15] The poetic speaker prefigures his tale by describing how any potential student of the text may interpret ‘eche point’ contained within it, in addition to the narrative itself, as being inspired by one of the ‘maisters’ of poetic art – ‘fancy’ (Breton 1577: sig. B1r). Taking this intermediary role between master and student, the speaker conveys how the content of the text should adhere to what is expected from its title (‘The Schoole of Fancie’), otherwise, as he suggests, his ‘minde from reason greatly swerues’ (sig. B1r). Breton uses poulter’s measure, alongside a jocular instructive tone, to convey the subsequent treacherous and lugubrious meanderings the speaker has had to take through his own psyche – travelling to and exploring ‘school of fancie’ (sig. B1r) to then journey over ‘Harebraine Hyll’ by the thicket of ‘wild and wanton will’, past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ to ‘the Fort of Fancie’ (sig. B5r), where he eventually meets Fancie’s servants, her fool, and the queen who presides over the injurious part of his mind. This journey into the psyche is constructed to highlight how indulging in one’s own creative fancy and ‘wordly vanitie’ (sig. C3v) will result in the destitution of the mental faculties as well as the financial poverty of any aspiring gallant or writer. Instead, seeking ‘perfect pietie’ (sig. C3v) should be the goal of any ‘younge gentilmen’ (sig. A2r) who might read this text.

[16] Much of the poetic ‘art’ (sig. B1r) of the poem and the succeeding section of the book, Toyes of an Idle Head, adheres to this densely alliterative alternation between fourteeners and alexandrines. It is unsurprising that at this early stage of Breton’s career that his verse forms seem to draw upon, in Brennan’s terms, the ‘outdated style of versifying’ of his stepfather, George Gascoigne which is ‘heavily dependent upon laboured alliterative effects and narrative prose links between poems’ (Brennan 2004). The alliterative and assonantal traits of the poulter’s measure that Breton utilizes may be indeed associated with older forms of literary artifice from sixteenth-century English psalm tradition, of which Gascoigne was an integral part (Hamlin 2004: 116). The possible mnemonic benefit of his highly alliterative verse form for those wishing to learn from this cautionary tale would seem to complement the work’s morally didactic function, but the metrical form of this text is not simply a sign of archaism: it represents a popular, if common, facet of Tudor poetic aesthetics (Munro 2013, 118-19). While Henry Howard’s ‘Psalm 55’ of 1547 is noted as one of the earliest instances of this verse form being employed in English, the contributors to Songes and Sonettes or Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) regularly utilize poulter’s measure (Hollander 1988: 170; Warner 2013: 121). Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney also employ this form for the first time in the Shepherd’s Calendar (1579) and ‘old’ Arcadia (1580). Through this popular verse form, Breton explicitly denigrates his own poetic powers, questioning the efficacy of his own verse to instruct and delight. On the other hand, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s rhetorical framework, which is indebted to his reluctant and injurious relationship to his poetic muse of fancy, may implicitly highlight the deleterious effects that his creative relationship to Gascoigne has had on his verse. Nevertheless, A Floorish Upon Fancie’s on-trend aesthetic form and its unique dedication to exploring the topography and nature of the psyche in verse for the benefit of those who would read and study its content, should be understood as a notable part of the flurry of poetic innovations within the mid to late sixteenth century.

[17] A similar instructive purpose informs Breton’s later heterogeneous collection of poetry and prose, The Wil of Wit (1597). Where The Wil of Wit may lack the descriptive richness attributed to the pastoral landscapes in Strange News out of Divers Countries, or the architecture of the mind portrayed in A Floorish upon Fancie, its prolonged examination of the psyche and the internal faculties does provide another intriguing and important example of Breton’s interest in the human mind.

Navigating the Mind in The Wil of Wit

We must probe right down inside and find out what principles make things move; but since this is a deep and chancy undertaking, I would that fewer people would concern themselves with it (Montaigne 2008: 380)

[18] Contrary to Montaigne’s (ironical) wish that fewer people would concern themselves with investigating the nature of volition, concepts of the will were abundantly used to help conceive of, and subvert, models of psychic and moral order in early modern England.[2] Our mental life, according to Thomas Wright in The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1621), should be directed towards eradicating sin – we must ‘chasten’ our body in order to ‘bring it into servitude’, but to do so we must first understand how our passions may corrupt our souls (Wright 1621: 5). Wright directs the reader to consider how every person may know ‘the nature of his enemies, their stratagems, and continuall incursions, even unto the gates of the chiefest castell of his soule, I meane the very witte and will’ (5). In this exploration of the potential attacks upon the ‘castell of the soul … the very witte and will’, we are invited to contemplate the body as the soul’s repository, and the soul as a unified object. Wright proposes a conception of the soul based upon an architectural metaphor (this ‘castell’) which suggests order, hierarchy and structural integrity. Our wit and the will are seen as the figureheads of this order, however the characteristics that Wright ascribes to the will actually serve to undermine the integrity of the soul’s proposed constitution.

[19] Wright’s largely Augustinian reading of the will proposes that it should both govern and be governed in order to protect the soul from the molestation of inordinate passions, that our will should play a crucial role in the moral temperance of the self, and that the will should impose authority and order in the subject even though it is vulnerable to external influence and is prone to be misled. The will is deemed to be equally powerful and vulnerable in such a state. The dialogue between Will and Wit in Breton’s The Wil of Wit thus provides a telling imaginative example of the period’s concern with trying to theorize and represent the higher faculties of the mind. Reflecting on the necessitous function that the faculty of the will takes in the individual is vital for Breton’s work – it is not simply eradicated from the moral subject, or typified as a fatal component of its internal constitution as we witness through a similar, albeit fleeting, dialogue in Philip Sidney’s ‘old’ Arcadia:

R.           Your will is will; but Reason reason is.
P.           Will hath his will when Reason’s will doth miss.
R.           Whom Passion leads unto his death is bent.
(OA, Book II, ‘The Second Eclogues’, 119).

The reconciliation portrayed between Reason and Passion in the Arcadia conveys how ‘the rational faculties as equal to the passions’ and that ‘the two are in constant need of each other’ (Steenbergh 2009: 184). Control over the will is vital to operational harmony and peace between these personified faculties of the self. The power that the will has to determine the fate of the individual is similarly accentuated in The Wil of Wit, though it is not so quickly or easily achieved in Breton’s work; the chivalric romance, bucolic detail, and swift reconciliation which underpins the dialogue between the shepherds of Reason and Passion is missing from the Wil of Wit. Even within Breton’s attempt to explicate through a prolonged dialogue between Will and Wit, it still remains unclear whether the intellect or the will is to govern the ethical telos of the human subject.

[20] The Wil of Wit, Wits Will, or Wils Wit is comprised primarily of six discrete discourses.[3] The work as a whole is unified by a common advocacy of moral temperance, conveying this message by emphasising the importance of companionship for the human subject to achieve ethical purity. It depicts the turbulent relationship of the human subject’s internal faculties in a mode reminiscent of Tudor Interludes such as Wealth and Health (1557), The Marriage of Wit and Science (1570) and The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom (1579), though rather than offering a relatively crowded and comical psychomachia which is grounded upon promoting a humanist ethical ideal, The Wil of Wit features only two internal faculties to further its own sustained and detailed reflection upon the nature of the individual’s mind. This exploration of the human subject’s psyche relies upon the notion of self-voyage, but unlike Floorish upon Fancie, it depicts a world almost completely devoid of detail or setting. Sole focus is placed upon the operative relationship of the wit and will of the human subject which, in turn, leads to the discovery of how they constitute and are constituted by mental space. Their subsequent exploration of the mind fittingly troubles the coherence of its organisational structure. As Breton pronounces in the introductory poem to the work as a whole, Wit and Will’s work is to be ‘agreede’ for the proof of ‘good Bretons will’ (Breton 1597: sig. A4r): these two powers must operate together for the benefit of the human individual so as to provide a lesson on temperance and equality that the reader should come to understand in Wit and Will’s ensuing discussion. Their relationship, delineated for the reader through an in utramque partum dialogic mode, is in fact characterised in Breton’s text by ambiguity instead of operational unity.

[21] We are introduced to the structure of Wit and Will’s inner-world initially through Will’s opening lament, where he reflects on the condition of his own psyche without his companion, Wit:

Longe have I travelled, much ground have I gone … Oh my wit, I am from my Wit, and haue beene long. Alas the day. I haue bin almost madde, with marching through the world, without my good guide, my freende, and Companion, my Brother, yea, my selfe. Alas, where is hee? When shall I see him? How shall I seeke him, and whither shall I walke? I was too soone wearie of him, and am now weary of my selfe without him. (Breton 1597: sig. B1r)

Will laments the absence of Wit since the only sense of self Will can envision at this juncture is one that involves his companion, his ‘guide’. Being reunited with Wit would provide a remedy for the misery Will feels in this state of functional suspension, yet, the emptiness Will feels only occurs because of his decision to follow a path without the aid of his Wit. Will recognises this deficiency in his allegorical constitution when he acknowledges that his own ‘wit’ suffers from the disconnection from his brother ‘Wit’, leading Will to question his own sense of purpose.

[22] Fortunately, Will soon finds Wit, and they proceed to engage in a conversation which details how they came to be separated at the ‘Well of Wisdome’ (Breton 1597: sig. B2r), and how Will was saved from the ‘Ditch of Despair’ within a ‘wilderness of woe’ by the aged character, Experience (sig. B2r). Journeying alone, Will only managed to venture down a ‘straye pathe’ (sig. B2v) – the character of Experience eventually leads Will to recognise the folly in his actions and entreats Will to seek Wit out. By reuniting, Wit and Will may reach their ultimate and rather abstract goal of ‘paradise’ (sig. B3r), but what they would do afterwards or how they would achieve their reconnection is left unaccounted for by Experience and Will alike. If we are supposed to use this discourse to help us reflect upon the intended temperance of our own wisdom and desire, the obscure correlation between these two characters of Wit and Will does not help matters. We do, fortunately, receive a more rounded account of what this paradise entails when Wit explains to Will how he was separated from his kin.

[23] Wit mentions that they had both been travelling from ‘Fancie’s Forte’ but had parted from Will in the ‘Lane of Learning’, and had subsequently tried to reach the ‘Fort of Fame’ (Breton 1597: sig. B3v). In this respect, The Wil of Wit may stand as a development of the mental journey that had been undertaken twenty years previously by the speaker of A Floorish Upon Fancie, where the speaker describes the structure of ‘the fort of fame’ (Breton 1577: sig. A3v) as well as the mental anguish he suffered in his journey to this destination. Attaining true wisdom and fame are still deemed to be positive objectives in The Wil of Wit, as well as being loci which cannot be achieved by the sole power of one’s wit. Even though Wit actively explored and revelled in an idyllic region of the mental world while lost, he was still greatly affected by Will’s absence: ‘Oh, there was a place of pleasure: if in the world there bee a Paradize, that was it: Oh that thou haddest beene with mee’ (Breton 1597: sig. B4r). In spite of Will previously describing his need of Wit to achieve Paradise, it seems that Wit had apparently found it by himself without the aid of Will at all (albeit he wishes that his brother were there to experience it with him). Although this would imply that Wit would be able to achieve bliss without Will, Wit is extremely perturbed by this situation and does not enjoy paradise for what it should be, suggesting that paradise for these two faculties can only be achieved when both Wit and Will work in harmony.

[24] By the conclusion of this lengthy dialogue, Will argues that the blame for their separation lies in Wit’s hands: ‘wil had beene good, had not wit beene bad: wil had not lost wit, had wit lookt vnto him: Wil would doo well, if wit woulde doo better: wil woulde learne, if wit woulde teache him (Breton 1597: sig. C2v). In these somewhat deferential sentiments, Will manages to consolidate the rift between himself and Wit. Both Wit and Will agree that their companionship must be upheld for both their sakes, mutually deciding to ‘bee merrie, shake hands, sweare company, and neuer part’ (sig. C2v). A final resolution is then made to seek out the aid of Care, in order to comfort the worst of woes: ‘the griefe of minde’ (sig. C4r). It would seem, then, that Wit and Will may facilitate each other’s happiness through due care and attention to each other.

The Will of Wit: The Subject Split
[25] Breton resolves this fittingly obtuse dialogue by illustrating how Wit and Will agree to work towards attaining virtue, encouraging the reader to work towards the ‘profit of themselves, and good example to others’ (Breton 1597: sig. D1v). Their final declaration is given to the reader (by Will) as follows: ‘From our heart … ingenii voluntas’ (sig. D1v). Ingenii voluntas: wit’s will, or the will of wit. The genitive case of the Latin noun ingenium (meaning the natural capacity of intelligence, or wit), here, shapes the syntax of the parting phrase. This sense of possession implied by the phrase’s syntax seems to eradicate the invitation given to the reader in the title of the text to ‘chuse you whether’. Indeed, the choice for the reader to determine which faculty is the possessor and which is the possessed informs the whole of the discourse, yet this opportunity for personal choice or judgement that is presented to the reader seems to be set at odds with the underlying didactic purpose of the work: Will is supposed to agree to obey Wit in order to achieve the good. It would seem that Will is in fact Wit’s possession after all, though no evidence is given to the faculties’ actual collaboration in the text, apart from this final agreement to collaborate. Their estrangement, as highlighted at the beginning of the discourse, is thus left relatively unresolved.

[26] Achieving the good is supposedly the Wit and Will’s primary goal, but the chief problem of Breton’s work is found in the attempt to represent the ‘will’ as a faculty of the human subject. Wit’s interrogation of Will’s parentage and reason for being only yields the fact that Will seeks ‘Content, by hooke or crooke’ because ‘the fates appoint it so’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3r). He lacks the ability to reflect on and justify his nature to Wit. Due to this failure of self-knowledge, Will professes to Wit: ‘Oh Lord that Will were wise’ (sig. C3r). Will, thus, only has a vague conception of why he exists, and only finds refuge in the realm of man’s mind once he agrees to follow Wit into his ‘closet of conceit’ (sig. D1v). They would then exist inside man’s mind within the sub-structure of Wit’s own personal space (his closet), but this only comes to be once Wit has convinced Will to stay with him. Will apparently has no natural home other than man’s mind in general. Further to this, both faculties are said to have come into existence through the power of their own dreams, even though they recognise that these dreams are ones that mankind has facilitated: Wit and Will were apparently in a state of dreamlike contemplation of their own existence until they ‘did awake with the fall’ (sig. C2r). The mind then houses Wit and Will, yet it is also depicted as a space in which these mental faculties may lose themselves within, and are generated from.

[27] Will’s pre- and post-lapsarian actions are made distinct from the wild and lawless nature of human dreaming as Plato outlines in The Republic. Their actions also diverge from the depiction of the ‘wild and wanton will’ found past the ‘Lodge of luckelesse Loue’ near the ‘Fort of Fancie’ (Breton 1577: sig. B5r) as previously depicted in A Floorish upon Fancie (1577). Instead of emphasising its ability to stimulate morally transgressive behaviour, Breton chooses to focus on Will’s apparent lack of reason as his primary negative attribute, even though Will displays enough acuity of mind to reprimand Wit extolling exceedingly banal adages like ‘Faint hart neuer woon faire Lady’ (Breton 1597: sig. C3v). Will states that such sentiments caused him to wander from Wit’s council in the first place. Wit’s predilection for romantic notions ironically proves him to have the more ‘rude will’ (Shakespeare 2012 [1597]: 2.3.24), in Friar Lawrence’s terms, than Will himself. This depiction of the will’s lack of connection to excessive or transgressive eroticism also subverts the normative depiction of this internal faculty as highlighted in a vast array of dramatic, poetic, and philosophical writing in the early modern period, as I have argued elsewhere (Clark 2016). Taking Will’s advice on board, Wit professes that he will aim to avoid such romantic sentiments: ‘Wee wil to Care, and intreate him, to lend vs his helpe, for without him in deede we shall make an ilfauoured ende’ (Breton 1597: sig. C4r). Although Will’s own operational lack is promoted throughout this discourse, his moral purity and use of reason is deemed to be crucial for his eventual alliance with Wit.

[28] If we read this discourse as promoting that the will desires the good to the extent to which the intellect offers it, Breton may be arguing that our own operations should be governed by the Wit. But how can the Wit operate without the will, as the opening of this discourse suggests: ‘what is Wit, without good will’? (Breton 1597: sig. A4r). The conclusion of the narrative and the didactic imperative of its opening are set at odds with the freedom of choice that the title of the piece suggests. Breton’s work also seems to propose that the good can only be achieved through harnessing the power of the will. Governing the human faculty of the will seems to be in the capacity of an individual’s wit, but it is the character of Will who assents to the terms that Wit offers in Breton’s work. Finding the will and harnessing it for the good is, crucially, only achieved by a will that is willing to be ruled by our intelligence, but this goal is put in jeopardy because of the inherently wayward nature of the will itself.

[29] The will, in this respect, is depicted as a part of the psyche which is vital to the formation of selfhood but is somewhat of a wandering vagrant in the mind or soul of the individual. Breton’s work also credits the wit and the will with governing the telos of our being, though there is deemed to be a tension between these faculties when working towards this virtuous end. Even if the human subject is judged not to have the power to achieve summum bonum without external aid (for example, God’s grace), the necessity of the will in directing the human agent towards a good and noble end is constantly stressed. We are presented, then, by The Wil of Wit with a segment of the psyche which is hypostatised in order to properly define its function, yet the will is placed in a position where its natural function, its wilfulness, must be negated or compromised for its ‘proper’ function as part of the virtuous self to be exercised. Thus, in his imaginative exploration of the psyche and its inner-workings, Breton conceives of the mind as a space which may generate its own disorder, and may only find purpose through the chance collaboration of a witless Wit, and an innocent and obedient Will.

Nicholas Breton: Psychonaut
[30]  Taking stock of Breton’s intricate and involved exploration of the mind and its workings, as suggested at the beginning of this article, may allow us to reconsider the value of his writing, especially when placed alongside other imaginative early modern literature which centres upon portraying figurations of mental space. What I have attempted to clarify is Breton’s interest in depicting the complexities of the human psyche in a variety of generic forms – ones which do not simply assume an overly erotic or soteriological discursive function, unlike the popular depiction of faculty psychology in early modern moral philosophy. His negotiation of the mind and its topography does not seem, in the examples given, to coalesce with the amatory poetic inflection of the mind’s spatial construction, as witnessed, for example, in Spenser’s Amoretti (1595): ‘Her temple fayre is built within my mind, / In which her glorious ymage placed is’ (Sonnet 22, ll. 4-7). Breton does not solely harness fashionable ideals of Platonic beauty and love to construct and shape the landscape of the mind, and his use of dreams also often lacks the erotic inflection usually associated with their literary deployment in the period. Rather, such fictive dream-visions, as discussed, may be used as narrative devices which serve a rhetorical function of self-deprecation, as well as a means to provide oblique satirical commentaries upon contemporaneous trends in courtly fashions and etiquette. Moreover, as opposed to constructing narratives which comment upon the general state of the mind, evidenced within Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall and a plethora of other early modern moral and natural philosophy, works like A Floorish upon Fancie and The Wil of Wit offer comprehensive and sustained accounts of Breton’s own idiosyncratic imagined construction of the mind and its intriguing topographies. We must take seriously the conception and intricate depiction of mental loci found throughout his canon if we are to fully appreciate the diverse depiction of inner experience in the early modern literary tradition. Aligning Breton’s writing with contemporary work on cognitive ecologies may be helpful to pursue this objective.

[31] A wide range of concepts, theories, and critical practices have sprung up from or have been aligned with the study of literature and the mind in recent years, such as philosophies of mind, cognitive studies, embodied cognition, and the concept of psychogeography. Although these critical approaches may not be entirely applicable to the texts discussed in this article, they do provide a helpful theoretical framework to understand Breton’s writing. The argument contained in David McInnis’ study Mind-Travelling and Voyage Drama in Early Modern England is particularly useful if we are to more fully define the discursive strategies of Breton’s work. Building on the use of distributed cognition theory which features in the work of Evelyn B. Tribble, John Sutton, and Bruce McConachie, McInnis suggests that ‘the early modern stage was a technologically advanced machine for imaginative travel’ that offered people a pleasurable ‘psycho-physiological experience of distant lands without leaving their home’ (McInnis 2013: 3 and 20).[4] Here, McInnis devises of the notion of ‘mind-travel’ to explain how the early modern theatre provided the pleasures and moral risks of ‘escapist travel’ (121) for its spectators. In a similar vein, Andrew Bozio’s work on embodied thought in early modern drama provides a historicized analysis of the theory of ‘cognitive ecology – that the mind is distributed across bodies, objects, and spaces – in order to suggest how drama represents and engages this spatialization of thought’ (Bozio 2015: 265). Redefining these concepts (the ‘spatialization of thought’ and ‘mind-travel’) in relation to the period’s poetry and prose, I suggest, may advance our understanding of the intellectual practices of the period, especially in relation to writers like Breton. Where McInnis uses ‘mind-travel’ expression to depict a kind of mental exercise, enabled by the voyeuristic nature of early modern theatre which leads to shaping the lived experience of pleasure within the human audience member, I, on the other hand, would propose that we may make good use of word ‘psychonaut’ to distinguish the type of prolonged and deliberate voyage made into the realm of the mind by writers like Breton.

[32] As noted in the OED, the two morphemes ‘psycho’ and ‘naut’ derive from the Greek soul or mind, and voyager or traveller, respectively. However, the current definition of the psychonaut stresses the use of psychotropic drugs to be involved in the potential voyage through the mind: altering an individual’s state of consciousness is crucial for this kind of exploratory voyage to occur. I propose that we give this term a new literary context – one distinct from the kind of correlation that it may potentially have with the literature of the British Romantics, or the Avant-Garde writings of the American and British Beat Generation. The term psychonaut may be appropriately applied to work like Breton’s, as it deals with the detailed exploration of the mind through the narrative devices of private contemplation and dreams without any connection to drug use, or, indeed, any form of extreme or delirious religious experience: a psychonautics fuelled by wit, instead of a chemical or divine hit. I contend that Nicholas Breton is an exemplary psychonaut, and that his oeuvre, as outlined above, reflects upon the nature of the mind by exploring the dynamic relationship between inner, mental experience and the spatialization of thought. Closets, chests, caves, forts, and schools provide material focal points by which to consider the pain, grief, disappointment, and frustration associated with the attempt to quantify the dynamic development of mental processes, when stimulated by sense experience and emotional affect. Breton’s imaginative explorations of the mind’s topography and internal architecture do also simultaneously emphasise the difficulty associated with the conceptualisation of thought. Travelling through the space of the mind ultimately highlights the significance of the illogical or inconceivable facets of the early modern psyche.

[33] ‘The Blessed Weeper’, A Floorish Upon Fancie, The Workes of a Young Wyt, and The Wil of Wit all represent telling examples of Nicholas Breton’s concern with trying to represent the attributes and internal topography of the psyche. This essay has considered Breton’s unique literary depiction of mental experience for the purpose of contributing to and advancing the scholarly understanding of early modern conceptions of mind. I have articulated how we may understand Breton’s literary exploration of the mind in relation to his contemporaries, providing a critical and theoretical framework that should prove useful to advance and further explore the wider cultural importance of his diverse articulation of inner experience and psychology in early modern intellectual culture, so as to help reconfigure the early modern literary landscape.

University of Exeter


[1] Two major attempts have been made to organise Breton’s canon: A. B. Grosart. 1879. The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton. Vol. I and II (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), and Jean Robertson. 1952. Nicholas Breton: Poems not hitherto reprinted. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press). Other notable editions of Breton’s work can be found in U.K. Wright. 1929. A Mad World my Masters and Other Prose Works by Nicholas Breton: Vol. I and II (London: The Cresset Press), and H.E. Rollins. 1936. The Arbour of Amorous Delights by Nicholas Breton and Others, 1597 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). No complete edition of Breton’s canon exists to date. [back to text]

[2] See also “On Restraining Your Will” in Book 3 of the Essays. Other examples include: William Baldwin, A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie (London: 1547); Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford: 1621); Pierre Charron, Of Wisdome: Three Bookes (London: 1608); Haly Heron, A New Discourse of Moral Philosophy (London: 1579); Richard Hooker, Of Lawes Ecclesiastical (London: 1604); Phillipe De Mornay, The True Nature of Man’s Owne Self (London: 1602); Juan Luis Vives, An Introduction to Wisdome (London: 1544).[back to text]

[3] The Wil of Wit forms the opening section of this work. The other parts are: The Authors Dreame; The Scholler and the Souldiour; The Miseries of Mauille; The Praise of Women; A Dialogue between Anger and Patience. [back to text]

[4] See: Bruce McConachie. 2008. Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); John Sutton. 2012. ‘Porous Memory and the Cognitive Life of Things’, in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, eds. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson, and Alessio Cavallaro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press); Evelyn B. Tribble. 2011. Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Palgrave).[back to text]


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Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Slanderisation and Censure-ship: When Good Texts Went Bad in Early Modern England

Steven Veerapen

[1] In 1653, the playwright, poet and antiquarian Arthur Wilson’s The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I was published. The text included a reflection on what had become an axiom of political culture in the Stuart age: that poetry and libel had an interdependent relationship. To Wilson,

peace begot plenty, and plenty begot ease and wantonness, and ease and wantonness begot poetry, and poetry swelled to that bulk in his time, that it begot strange monstrous satires against the King’s own person, that haunted both court and country. (Wilson 1653: 289-90)

Wilson’s jaundiced view of poetry seems fanciful; yet the rise of the verse libel in the Stuart era is well documented. Not only do legal reports of the early modern period recognise the problematic growth of libel, but recent scholarship has made significant inroads in tracing the blossoming of verse libels as a distinct and multifaceted cultural mode, often containing licentious accounts of individuals or political events (Hawarde, Reportes: 143). Indeed, the developing vehicle of the verse libel rapidly became, as Andrew McRae notes, a recognised feature of political and literary culture in the Stuart age (2004a: 1). These often pithy little poems were naturally anathema to the law, not least because they were characterised by their invariably anonymous manuscript circulation. Anonymity itself proved to be an extremely useful means of circumventing legal reprisal, and explosive libels ‘were at one and the same time both written and spoken, simultaneously oral and textual’; and yet the relative success of adopting anonymity as a means of circumvention was not one with which Elizabethan slanderers were routinely armed (Fox 1994: 65). Instead, it emerged gradually, and was met with a flexible legal system that was willing to prosecute anyone who could be found to have knowledge of material deemed seditious or slanderous, whether they were its creators or not.

[2] However, Alastair Bellany has noted that ‘our understanding of the verse libel’s genealogy is hazier than it should be’. In order to understand the rise of these texts, which were so problematic to the Stuart regime (and worthy of exasperated recognition by Wilson), it is useful to consider the varied means by which slanderous, libellous and seditious discourses were disseminated and countered during the pre-Stuart period (Bellany 2007a: 1165). Although Wilson’s view might suggest a pre-Jacobean world of harmony and industry, this was demonstrably not the case. Rather, libel and slander flourished in the Tudor political and domestic spheres, notwithstanding the nascence of the formalised, anonymous verse libel. Indeed, the blossoming of this particular form is arguably a product of pre-Stuart experimentation involving various means of disseminating slanderous discourse, as well as the testing of the power of authority to curb dissent.

[3] Slander (also known as libel, as no distinction between written and spoken words yet existed in law) referred in the period to words spoken with malicious intent before a third party which resulted in the demonstrable loss of reputation, credit or trade. In order for words to be slanderous, they had to be ‘actionable’ – that is, if one wanted to sue someone for saying them, one had to be able to demonstrate before the law that loss had been incurred as a result of the words spoken. If accused of slander, one could plead the truth of the words spoken (provided it could be proven), or else plead misinterpretation, with the principle of mitior sensus (literally, the least sense) inviting an increasing number of defendants to claim that their words had been intended without malice. This principle itself gained currency in the court of Common Pleas in the 1570s and 80s and sought to stem the flow of actions for slander by maintaining that ‘no action should lie if the words could be construed in a milder sense’ (Habermann 2003: 45). Sedition occurred when words spoken incited rebellion or ‘brought into hatred’ individuals of higher social standing, whether a breach of the peace was intended or not. It is tempting to think that these words had to be false in order to be slanderous, but in the period there was a hardening of legal opinion which resulted in the belief that true slanders against superiors were worse than false slanders, because they laid bare the faults of an ordered society and incited disorder. During the reign of Elizabeth, litigators and judges grappled with a variety of laws and statutes in punishing slander, and it was not until the subsequent reign that Edward Coke was to provide a definitive common law remedy (known as seditious, or criminal, libel), which took the opportunity to clarify ideas and autocratic beliefs about slander, sedition and libel, the proper prosecution of which had been the cause of vexation throughout the previous reign. Thus the 1605 birth of the common law crime of ‘seditious libel’ brought together the laws of slander and sedition, linking the speaking and writing of defamatory words, whether true or false, with disorder and malice. This has led Roger Manning (1980: 100-101) to recognise that, in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, ‘it was not necessary for seditious utterances or writings [against the reputations and/or actions, public or private, of public officials, magistrates and prelates] to be published, and if the facts alleged were true, that only made the offence worse, since a true slander was more likely to cause a breach of the peace than a public one.’

[4] In practice, the law and its agents were less than blind in their dispensing of justice. Plebeian disputes involving injurious words spoken between neighbours were treated by the book – truth was an acceptable defence and the rule of mitior sensus was encouraged by judges eager to stem the flow of frivolous lawsuits. In more serious cases, however, the terms ‘slander’ and ‘sedition’ became catch-all terms for any language deemed inappropriate, contentious, unlicensed or illicit, regardless of its intent or the actual losses incurred as a result of its reaching a third party. Further, authorities were keen to find and prosecute anyone involved in the production and dissemination of any material they deemed slanderous. As a result, original writers, publishers, owners of manuscripts or even those simply repeating words they had heard could find themselves at the mercy of what we might term ‘language laws’, which ranged from the statute of Scandalum Magnatum to felony statutes, proclamations against certain books, the crime of seditious libel and the tort of slander. Indeed, the statute of Scandalum Magnatum – which can be traced to 1275, and provided for the punishment of those who spread defamatory rumours about important personages of the state – was re-enacted with changes in the second year of Elizabeth’s reign (Milsom 1981: 388). John Baker (2002: 437) notes that the statute was designed to prevent discord between classes, ‘but the purpose of an action on the statute was clearly to vindicate the magnate’s name by recovering damages’.

[5] Particularly during the reign of Elizabeth, various techniques of deploying libellous and seditious speech (whilst simultaneously attempting to evade punishment) existed. Poets, critics, and those who sought to use transgressive language attempted to benefit from the slipperiness of the law. Some sought to adopt the rhetoric of counsel. Notoriously unsuccessful attempts to frame speech castigated as ‘slanderous’ as conciliar attempts to advise the government can be witnessed in John Stubbes’ The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf (1579), and A Treatise of Treasons Against Q. Elizabeth and the Croune of England (1572). Others invoked the classical provenance of satire. Here Alastair Bellany (2007b: 156) recognises John Donne’s appreciation of the form when handled correctly, and Pauline Croft (1995: 272) notes that the work of classical satirists was beginning to circulate around literary London. Aiding such efforts were illicit presses, with perhaps the most famous example of Elizabethan usage of illicit printing presses being the Martin Marprelate affair of 1588-9. Arguably, this celebrated episode provided lessons to would-be slanderers in the difficulties of maintaining presses outside the ambit of authorities, whilst also providing evidence that anonymity and pseudonymity (later key ingredients of verse libelling) were an invaluable means of eluding authority.

[6] Still others attempted to take advantage of the porous nature of censorship, and as a consequence the study of early modern censorship has long provided fertile ground for disagreement between scholars. Theories of censorship can be found in, amongst others, in the work of M. Lindsay Kaplan (1997); Janet Clare (1999); Cyndia Clegg (2004); Debora Shuger (2006); and Annabel Patterson (1984). Ultimately, what emerges is a sense of censorship being a loaded term that is largely unhelpful in understanding any distinct legal process or approach to legislating and controlling language. Further, it is one which no longer seems suitable in historicising events and outbreaks of transgressive language which can comprise the destruction by authors of their own work; the judicial trials of slanderous malefactors; the unknown excisions of texts by government officials; the conscious or unconscious regulation of spoken, written and printed language by those living in a litigious society; the state licensing (or non-licensing) of texts; and a slew of other procedural, cultural and legal processes.

[7] However, one method of evading legal reprisals for dissenting, slanderous or seditious speech that has gone largely unexplored is what we might begin to term ‘slanderisation’: the appropriation of outwardly innocent, licensed, or even ostensibly-edifying texts with slanderous or malicious intent, particularly at moments in which circumstances or political events can give them an unpleasant gloss. As a definition, one might think: ‘when good texts go bad’. The very innocence of the language of such texts allowed – in theory – their deployment to be defended on the simple, legal grounds that the speaker did not write them; they were neither actionable nor legally defamatory and they may even have been fully licensed by the state previously. Further, the use of slanderisation may be seen in various walks of Elizabethan life, with religious, musical and dramatic texts engaging with the use of seemingly innocuous compositions for scurrilous purposes.

[8] It is well-established that the early modern period coincided with a cultural, legal and historical fascination with precedent and the reading of contemporary events in existing texts, histories and legal cases – indeed, the common law itself was a justice system built on precedent, as Rosemary O’Day illustrates via her provision of a useful list of the means by which ‘precedent books’ were utilised in law teaching, with ‘one volume [used] for each major kind of case – case, trespass, slander, promises, nuisances, etc. (2014: 167-8).’ This led to what Johanna Rickman has described as a legal system that constituted a ‘contentious … ongoing cultural dialect’ rather than ‘a static background’ against which people lived their lives (2008: 15). Similarly, we know that there were anxieties surrounding the way in which texts might be received. One can turn, for example, to the notorious case of Fulke Greville’s manuscript Antony and Cleopatra (c1600-01). Written for a carefully limited, elite coterie, the play was nevertheless committed to the flames by Greville himself due to concerns raised

by the opinion of those few eyes which saw it, having some childish wantonness in them apt enough to be construed or strained to a personating of vices in the present governors and government. (Greville 1986 [1625]: 93)

Greville’s actions suggest, to Janet Clare a ‘climate of fear and caution’ (which is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the proliferation of slander with which the period coincided; if people were fearful of legal reprisals, it did not prevent them exercising their tongues, as the volume of litigation attests [Brooks 1998: 23-24; Clare 2014: 13]). Yet misinterpretation was not just a danger to be fearfully guarded against. It could be a welcome tool for slanderers who might rely on material being read with a contemporary, defamatory gloss, but who could then hope to use ‘misinterpretation’ as a mean of deflecting accusations of slander. Such individuals could simply place blame, as Greville more ingenuously did, on the wicked minds of the third party: the hearers. It is thus useful to shift our focus from the interpretation – or misinterpretation – of texts to those who took advantage of plurality of interpretation with the knowledge that audiences would not take things in mitior sensus. Significant also is what David Cressy (2010: 42) recognises as the tendency of early modern readers and listeners to believe libellous words; and it is a notion supported by one anonymous commentator on the Martin Marprelate affair, who remarked somewhat disdainfully that Martin’s ‘seditious libels made easy way into the hartes of the vulgar [because such people] were apt to entertaine matter of Noveltie especiallie if it have a show of restraining the authoritie of their Superiours’ (Black 2008: xxxii). Thus, slanderers or those with seditious intent might not have written the words they recited, nor even ‘caused them to be written’ (as was an ancillary accusation often levelled against those accused of reciting defamatory language), and this offers us the possibility of identifying a useful strategy of evasion. But have we evidence for this strategy being employed?

[9] The state church and its officials were masters of defining slander and sedition through their legal authority over language and their ecclesiastical right to condemn and punish slanders which pertained to moral and spiritual offences. However, this mastery extended to their slanderisation of Biblical texts in the pursuit of religious and political goals. Certainly this strategy was famously employed in early modern Scotland, where tensions between Church and monarch were more sharply drawn, particularly during the tenure of John Knox. Queen Mary’s censure-ship did not bear fruit, but her short-lived husband Henry Stuart had slightly more success in forbidding the cleric from preaching for fifteen days following a 1565 sermon that likened the monarchs to Ahab and Jezebel. In England, a 1569 sermon by the clergyman Edward Dering, who had been disgraced for his provocative preaching in the past, began with his casting the blame for his disgrace on ‘the slanderous tongues of many envious men’, before going on to preach the necessity of ‘the plain law of the Lord’. ‘This law’, Dering asserts, he ‘knows not how your Majesty shall interpret, because I know not your spirit’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 139). The language is breathtakingly disingenuous; Dering’s attempt to lay blame for any potentially malicious interpretation of his allusions on the listener – the queen – is obvious. As he expounds vociferously on the Biblical precedents of ‘David disallowing wicked men in his house and Asa putting down idols’, we can see in practice a preacher simultaneously deflecting accusations of attacking the queen whilst tacitly inviting consideration of religious reform and professing not to know what constructions might be put upon his language. It is in such performances that we see in practice what M. Lindsay Kaplan recognises as the peculiar ‘boomerang effect’ of slander (Kaplan 1997: 90).

[10] This process of appropriating what is in this case an unimpeachably upright text with the express purpose of criticising existing policy was one which was understood by early modern English clergymen. However, it would be dangerous to overestimate the success of Dering’s strategy; as he notes in his sermon, he has ‘heard of how much your highness misliked of me’ (Dering 1971 [1569-70]: 140). In the absence of a realistic ability to ban or censor particular religious texts at impolitic moments, the disfavour of the queen might instead be considered a singular politico-religious indication of what was and was not condoned.

[11] Certainly Queen Elizabeth was ever apt to remind her preachers that they were her subjects. Peter McCullough recounts in particular the 1565 sermon of Alexander Nowell (against religious images), to which Elizabeth bluntly announced, ‘do not talk about that’ (1998: 47). Nowell attempted to continue his sermon, resulting in further interruption from the queen, who instructed him to ‘leave that – it has nothing to do with your subject and is now threadbare’. McCullough notes also the 1579 incident in which the queen pointedly turned her back on the pulpit when a preacher launched into a sermon attacking her mooted match with the Duc d’Alençon. Certainly, in a system in which was encoded a network of patronage and favour, those who sought preferment in public office could thus take their cue from royal reactions to particular textual allusions. As a consequence, we might consider the Elizabethan approach to ‘slanderised’ religious text as not censorship, but censure-ship. Governmental attitudes to what was and was not permissible did not have to be enforced by legal means or explicit diktats, but could rather be expressed through informal channels. Here was not brazen nonconformity, but resistance and criticism voiced in the language of conformity and expressed in the guise of wholesome religious texts, the preaching of which was one of the cornerstones of the Elizabethan religious settlement.

[12] Church figures’ deployment of otherwise acceptable texts in a deliberately provocative manner (and their subsequent ‘censure-ship’) do not, however, provide the only examples of the use of and reaction to slanderisation. In her comprehensive overview of the circulation of ballads in early modern England (2014), Jenni Hyde has recognised the extent to which the Tudor regime viewed the seductive language and attractive tunes employed by ballads as a potential menace. Interestingly, Hyde also recounts the case of a particular ballad’s seditious afterlife. ‘The Hunt is Up’ was a popular tune at the centre of court life during Henry VIII’s reign, with the earliest form of the text, attributed to William Gray, reading:

The hunt is up, the hunt is up,
And it is a well nigh day;
And Harry our king has gone hunting,
To bring his deer to bay.
(Gray 1533: 60)

Although the text appears fairly innocuous, the melody was appropriated by one John Hogon during the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1537, with lyrics added that complained ‘the masters of arte and doctors of dyvynyte / have brought the realme owght of good unite’ (Hyde 2014: 233). As Chappell and Macfarren recognise, Hogon’s alleged crime was failing to comply with a 1533 proclamation, which was issued ‘to suppress fond books, ballads, rhymes, and other lewd treatises in the English tongue’, by ‘singing with a crowd or a fyddyll’ a political song to that tune (1859: 60). Chappell and Macfarren’s study of the ballad’s history is illuminating. In addition to the legal circumstances of its 1537 appropriation by Hogon, the tune is also noted as being referred to as a good one for dancing in the Complaynt of Scotland (1549) and as having a number of parodic and theatrical afterlives. More pertinently, however, Chappell and Macfarren recognise that in the Hogon episode, ‘some of the words are inserted in the information [i.e. the Privy Council records], but they were taken down from the recitation and not given as verse’. The hesitance to proliferate slanderous material, even in the confines of the courtroom, can be found also in the proceedings of the Star Chamber. In a 1596 case, the Lord Keeper lamented that one libeller ‘made this Court (of such authority and state that [the Lord Keeper had] not heard nor read of the like in the world) an instrument to publish [and] record his blasphemies, and to have the nobles of the land from her Ma[jes]ties side, vpon whose sacred person they showlde attend, to hear his slanders and libels’ Ultimately, he ordered the depositions ‘to be withdrawn from the Courte’ (Hawarde, Reportes: 55).

[13] Evidently, ballads provided a genre capable of being mutated, repackaged and reworded according to the intentions of those spreading them. The slanderisation of this curiously universal genre therefore provides us with evidence that it was not just the original language of innocent texts that could prove a handy tool for those wishing to slander enemies and sow sedition, but musical arrangements and form. As Hyde further notes, ballads thus constitute ‘a sophisticated form of knowingness [that] could, on occasion, be created by … tune alone (2014: 237).’ It is no great leap to assume that a tune known for its associations with the royal court would, when misused, invite mocking criticism of the court itself. Popular melodies could therefore become laden with meaning and cultural associations, and that meaning could be manipulated via alteration of lyrics or usage in incongruous or sensitive situations. As Peter Lake and Steve Pincus remind us, ‘there were emerging protocols to be observed when having recourse to the politics of popularity, but they remained hazy and ill defined, and it was always horribly easy to fall over the edge into sedition’ (2007: 7). Hogon, in his appropriation of a popular melody in order to take advantage of its cultural associations, did not fall over the edge, but willingly leapt.

[14] In the case of ‘The Hunt is Up’, Hogon performed his version of the ballad in the homes of Robert Frances, John Kettleburgh and John Harlen, relying on the tune’s royal provenance to encourage criticism of Henry’s policies. However, his audience recognised his attempt at deliberately slanderising the popular tune and reported him to their local authorities. The men in his rural audience claimed to be unable to understand some of the veiled references in the song, and those references ‘served as protection for both parties: Hogon’s words did not become unmistakably seditious until they were explained and the Norfolk men could not be accused of troublemaking if they had not understood the meaning of the song without that elucidation’ (Hyde 2014: 234). The slanderisation of a musical piece, at least on this occasion, was confounded by the unwillingness of the audience to become complicit in enjoying the seditious overtones of its topical deployment. But nevertheless they were sufficiently aware of the manipulation of the tune to report it, and investigators were sufficiently aware of the propensity for musical ballads to have political repercussions to take action. As a method of resistance and dissent, slanderisation was, we might conclude, unsuccessful – but only insofar as Hogon had the misfortune of performing his slanderised version of ‘The Hunt is Up’ before an unreceptive audience.

[15] Yet the very fact that a musical piece – a fairly simple tune – could provide those looking to disseminate slanderous and seditious language with a vehicle is one which requires further consideration, for echoes of Hogon’s strategy can be found on the popular stage. In the anonymously-authored Thomas of Woodstock, the tendency of authorities to fret about the power of music in circulating dangerous speech is, seemingly, held up to ridicule. Although it has been argued that the play postdates Shakespeare, it is often speculated as being a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II (MacDonald P. Jackson: 2002). Central to the plot is the depiction of events in England prior to the murder of Richard’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, and the play includes the corrupt machinations of the king’s, favourite, Lord Chief Justice Tresilian. As Tresilian’s paranoia and avarice grow in inverse proportion to the civil liberties of the king’s subjects, Richard’s tyranny – as, typically, refracted through Tresilian – is highlighted in the actions of the favourite’s subordinates:

Nimble: Close again Master Bailiff, he comes another whisperer, I see by some – oh villain, he whistles treason! I’ll lay hold of him myself.

Whistler: Out alas, what do ye mean sir?

Nimble: A rank traitor Master Bailiff. Lay hold on him, for he has most erroneously and rebelliously whistled treason.

Whistler: Whistled treason! Alas sir, how can that be?

Bailiff: Very easily sir. There’s a piece of treason that flies up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad, and this being the very tune of it thou hast whistled treason.

Whistler: Alas sir, ye know I spake not a word.

Nimble: That’s all one: if any man whistles treason ‘tis as ill as speaking it. Mark me Master Bailiff, the bird whistles that cannot speak, and [yet] there be birds in a manner that can speak too: your raven will call ye [rascal], your crow will call ye knave, Master Bailiff. Ergo, he that can whistle can speak, and therefore this fellow hath both spoke and whistled treason.
(Thomas of Woodstock 2002, III.iii.1685-1701)

To Sandra Clark, this exchange depicts a police state under Richard II’s rule; to Irving Ribner, it underscores ‘the corruption of law … [and] the utter perversion of order in the tyranny of Tresilian and his men’ (2007: 97; 2005: 137). Neither reading, however, situates the text within its contemporary framework. The alacrity with which Nimble and the Bailiff are quick to identify the Whistler’s melody as treasonous, and in particular as flying ‘up and down the country in the likeness of a ballad’ would likely have struck Elizabethan audiences as entirely plausible, even if laughable. The Whistler’s protestations, too, take on a different complexion given what we know about slanderisation. Although his defence seems reasonable, it is just as possible that the character invites audiences – familiar with the power of melodies to carry seditious overtones – to consider whether he is really as uncomprehending as he claims. Of course, even if he is entirely innocent of the knowledge of the treasonous gloss attached to his tune, the problem faced by authorities remains: how can dissent be controlled when slanderisation brings with it plausible deniability? With this understanding, what seems like a caustic depiction of Richard II’s England actually encourages comparison with contemporary attempts to control discourse. If the ostensibly Plantagenet desire to find criminal activity in the whistling of a tune is thus held to be a ‘perversion of order’, then so too is the Tudor response to the slanderisation of ballads seen in the John Hogon episode.

[16] Adding weight to the notion that the Whistler’s defence is purposefully ambiguous is the preceding arrest of a Schoolmaster for writing a libel in verse against Tresilian. The illiterate bailiff, despite the Schoolmaster’s witty attempt at defending himself for his libel, is as quick to hear ‘the most shameful treason’ (III.iii.1671-2) as he is when he hears the ‘treasonous’ whistling. A number of issues arise from the zealous efforts of Nimble and the Bailiff. Firstly, as the Schoolmaster is guilty, a shadow is thrown over the Whistler’s use of a tune recognisable as seditious. The Whistler’s defence – that he had lost his calves and mistook the Bailiff and Nimble for them – is dubious, as is the apparent coincidence that he would chance upon the tune of a ballad which even the illiterate Bailiff recognises as having acquired seditious overtones.

[17] From Schoolmaster to cowherd, the willingness to give voice to and immediately deny dissent makes, as the Bailiff states, dangerous speech likely to fly ‘up and down the country’. It will also be noted that the Schoolmaster is engaged in reciting his railing rhyme (which he acknowledges as ‘little better than libels’ [III.iii.1630) to his serving man, with the suggestion thus made the lower orders are as eager to learn dangerous speech as their masters are to compose it. But here we must also recognise resonances of what Hyde has described as the ubiquity of the ballad as ‘experienced throughout society in homes and on the street, in cottages and at court, in taverns and at the theatre’ (2014: 34). The Schoolmaster’s use of unambiguous libel (despite his specious claims to the contrary) throws into doubt the protestations of ignorance by the whistling cowherd. Although the Bailiff, as a representative of authority, is portrayed as an illiterate buffoon, his instinctive willingness to ‘hear’ treason in the poetic words and tunes of others is less a mark of social perversion than an aggressively anxious reaction to a real problem. If the Whistler is innocent, he is damned not by the Bailiff and Nimble alone, but by the Schoolmaster’s willingness to libel authority and thus excite the instincts of autocrats; if he is guilty, his denial is plausible and audiences are invited to sympathise with a figure knowingly engaged in slanderising a text. Neither libelling nor overly zealous state responses to libelling emerge from the play as clear and unproblematic processes. If the England of Thomas of Woodstock is a police state, then it is a remarkably familiar one, containing many of the tensions between willing (and chancing) dissenters and frustrated, somewhat oversensitive authorities recognisable in the late-Tudor state. More likely, however, the humour of the scene suggests less a strictly authoritarian state (and less still Janet Clare’s ‘climate of fear and caution’), than a faintly ridiculous game of negotiation and exchange between dissenters and authorities, with deniability and stiff-necked refusal to accept deniability at loggerheads, especially during moments of crisis. If one recognises a climate of fear and caution in the play’s treatment of the Schoolmaster and the Whistler, it is on the part of the Bailiff and Nimble rather than the two slander-peddling citizens.

[18] Through its depiction of the arrests (and protests) of the composer of a libel and the whistler of a tune, Thomas of Woodstock illustrates the limitations of both verbal and melodic transmission of transgressive sentiments. As long as one made impermissible sounds – or, rather, words or noises which could be interpreted as slanderous or seditious – the potential existed for authorities to make an association with libellous or even treasonous activity. Yet music and verse were, quite clearly, effective (and popular, if tunes or words gained currency) ways of dissenting. As a consequence, it is perhaps unsurprising that the anonymous, handwritten verse libel became a means of voicing dissent without using one’s voice in the decades following the play’s composition.

[19] As Greg Walker and Henry James have noted, theatregoers were particularly apt to view events on the stage as having contemporary resonances (1995: 109-121). Furthermore, responding to Annabel Patterson’s study of censorship, interpretation and the relationship between poets and the state, Richard Dutton has noted that governments could not hope to regulate what people would think or link to a text to at any given moment (2000: xv). However, the corollary of this is that neither could malicious slanderers and seditionists, whose reliance on timeliness, topicality and unpredictable audience reception underpinned their opportunistic borrowing of texts. Nevertheless, what authorities could and did do was to seek to find the intent behind words recited at moments at which they judged them to become laden with unacceptable or potentially dangerous meaning. Slanderisation thus became an unstable, almost paradoxical process: the texts appropriated derived their scurrilous gloss from fleeting events, and yet fleeting events are what instigated authoritarian crackdowns on literary expression.

[20] This certainly seems to have been the rationale behind the Earl of Essex’s famous commissioning of Richard II’s performance immediately prior to his abortive rebellion in 1601. The play’s subject matter had been burdened with a history of contention, and interesting questions arise here about the censorship of non-dramatic historical works, and the extent to which this implies that early modern audiences were likely to consider history as analogous to contemporary events. Licensed historical texts could provide ready-made, popular conduits for commenting subversively on events, in essence acting as scripts which invited slanderisation. We should therefore not be surprised to find that more mechanised state censorship was occasionally used in the publication of historical material. Indeed, Cyndia Clegg (2014) provides a useful history of the (rather haphazard) censorship of Holinshed’s Chronicles, which is itself accepted as a source for Shakespeare’s Richard II. Yet the play itself had been fully licensed and entered into the Stationer’s Register in 1597; yet its performance on the eve of an uprising against the sovereign saw the players brought before the Privy Council for questioning. The fact that the company was soon released and apparently swiftly restored to royal favour is particularly interesting, raising as it does issues concerning the differing intent behind the performers and the commissioners of the production. Evidently, the inherent legality of the text, combined with the fact that the players recited it without malicious intent on their part, may have been sufficient for investigators to conclude that the actors’ performance of a text which had been in legal circulation for decades be taken in mitior sensus. The use of the legal rule applied in slander cases is deliberate. Censorship of the play had evidently failed to prevent its staging, and the laws of slander and libel did not apply to actors innocently reciting non-actionable words which had previously been endorsed by the state. Yet the fact that they were interrogated and their actions open to authoritarian scrutiny prevents us from concluding that the slanderisation of the text – at least on the part of Essex and his followers, who were the seditionists – proved successful.

[21] Interestingly, it might be argued that Shakespeare and his company were aware that the performance of play texts and their multiplicity of interpretations – whether innocent or subversive – was something to be recognised and guarded against. Casting blame for malicious interpretation on the interpreters rather than the speakers or writers was an invaluable, even a playful strategy. Puck’s speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream provides us with ratification of this, as he defends insubstantial, formless and motiveless actors.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended—
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue
(Shakespeare 1979 [1595], V.i.417-427)

In particular, we might note the subtle turning of blame for any offence on the ‘slumbering’ audiences, and Puck’s eagerness to escape the ‘serpent’s tongue’ – an image not far divorced from the tongues of evil-minded, slanderous misinterpreters, who were invariably conceptualised as being dangerously venomous. The perception of slander as a ‘poison’ was an enduring trope. Commentators such as Thomas Adams were apt to consider slander as a form of oral poison, which passed through the ear and corrupted the soul. Of more pressing concern was the notion that the audience could be ‘implicated in [a slanderous text’s] immorality’ (Bellany 2007b: 151). A hissing, hostile, offended audience thus makes itself the venomous slanderer – if, of course, we believe that Puck is honest and innocent of malicious intent. At any rate, Shakespeare recognised that theatrical audiences had the power to react negatively, and defence against negative reaction was required by those whose words – and, as we have seen, even whose use of music – could be construed in an actionable or otherwise scurrilous sense. Again we can identify a method of defence as being to deftly cast blame for slanderous interpretation on those who constructed it; but once again the slanderer finds himself in the position of having to make such a defence and ‘mend’ the suddenly hostile relationship between actor and audience. Once again, speaking publicly places power in the hands of the hearer, even if the speaker has a strategy in place to either ‘make amends’ or blame the hearer for a negative reception.

[22] Ultimately, these examples indicate that slanderisation was not, as it might be tempting to imagine, a safe or reliable way of evading either censorship or slander and sedition accusations, but it was certainly tested out despite the unpredictability of its reception. Thus we might consider the invitation for audiences to read defamatory, seditious and topical allusions to their contemporaries one of several methods tried prior to the introduction of the free press. Slanderisation failed if one could not trust one’s audience to be complicit and refrain from forcing an explanation of the meaning behind the words spoken. Nevertheless, the process of deploying outwardly innocuous texts with scurrilous intent erodes any comfortable understanding of censorship as an active programme focused on preventing unquestionably provocative or actionable speech. All texts – be they religious, literary or musical – have afterlives which may involve unexpected subversion for scurrilous or slanderous purposes – and this has implications for studies of censorship, legal development and literary history.

[23] Thus, we might return to Arthur Wilson’s recognition of the growth of verse libels and their indication of a subversive link between poetry and slanderous language. Having now witnessed the rather unreliable appropriation of innocent texts (religious, dramatic and musical) and their potentially hostile reception, it is clear that slanderisation was a method tested by early modern malcontents, and found lacking. As a result, we can glimpse another paving stone in the road to the popular Stuart verse libel. Yet it must be noted that these cases of singers, clergymen and players being caught or questioned are generally isolated or at least remarkable cases, usually due to their textual deployment reaching hostile audiences or the attention of authorities (which was obviously the point, particularly in the case of religious sermons, the subversive glosses of which were intended to inspire changes in religious policy). What we cannot know is how widespread this practice of slanderisation was at moments of political stability; bureaucratic inefficiency; legal relaxation; when audiences simply failed to interpret things in scurrilous ways; or even when they did but were sympathetic, and the intended double-meanings were kept quiet.

[24] Having thus recognised slanderisation as a process, we might ask a number of questions. Were innocent songs sung at politically-sensitive times in rural towns, with audiences secretly enjoying the naughty pleasure of interpreting them as slanderous? Were Biblical allusions made against the queen in prophesyings and sermons which have not yet been scrutinised with a view to assessing their potential scurrility? Were plays performed which mocked specific figures and events which are now obscure to us, and which went either unnoticed or unpunished? The answers to these questions are elusive. Yet it is nevertheless evident that although the process of slanderisation is recognisable from those moments in which it failed, this does not preclude it having been used successfully in ways which would, by virtue of that success, be unlikely to come to our attention via court records, governmental investigations or reports of royal displeasure. What these episodes do tell us is that using existing texts in order to invite slanderous interpretation was a risky business, and though it offered the potential avenue of innocent intent and not being the original author, neither were robust safeguards against censure-ship or intermittent authoritarianism. As long as one used one vocalised material, there were means by which authorities could apportion blame and punishment if that material found itself taking on a dark complexion.

[25] In order to build a fuller picture of the period’s relationship with transgressive language, it is crucial that scholars of early modern slander and censorship widen their scope of study beyond obviously slanderous and seditious texts and pay greater attention to the misuse of licit and innocuous texts – and even musical arrangements – for slanderous and seditious purposes. In a culture accustomed to the sensitivity of language and the legal repercussions of deploying explicitly proscripted speech and writing, it is necessary to consider the ways in which shifting and evolving legal and political circumstances could turn good language bad, as well as the opportunities afforded to individuals in twisting (or inviting alternative interpretations of) the meanings of innocent, licensed texts.

University of Strathclyde


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Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house

Shakespeare’s DNAs and the daughters of his house

René Weis

[1] The extent to which Shakespeare’s life is reflected in his work remains a contested issue in Shakespeare studies and has done so at least since the Romantic period. Ever since readings of the Sonnets as a poetic diary of the poet’s turbulent emotional relationships with real people have been vigorously challenged. And yet at the same time it seems inconceivable that in the course of twenty years and some forty plays and poems Shakespeare’s own life would not bleed through into his works. An important caveat is to acknowledge that if there are clearly identifiable areas of overlap these do not therefore diminish the works or impose biographical readings on them. In a letter of 1819 Keats famously remarked that

A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life – a life like the scriptures, figurative – which such people can no more make out than they can the hebrew Bible. Lord Byron cuts a figure – but he is not figurative – Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the comments on it. (Keats 1970: 218)

Keats’s train of thought is a complex web of whimsical playing on figure and figurative while suggesting that the mysterious imaginative potential of each life, its hidden parable, needs be acknowledged. Some, he suggests, have the supreme gift to recognize and render the parable, foremost among them Shakespeare. For Keats, Shakespeare the private man from Stratford and Shakespeare the dramatist and poet are not separable, even if the link is allegorical and therefore not literally accessible. I propose going one step further than Keats and would argue that the connections are also literal. Why, for example, would Shakespeare pun on ‘Will’ the way he does in sonnet 135 (‘So thou, being rich in Will, add to thy Will | One will of mine, to make thy large Will more’) and conclude 136 with ‘Make but my name thy love, and love that still | And then thou lovest me, for my name is Will’ [emphases added] unless his name was indeed William?[1] To deny such a subjective, self-reflexive gesture by the speaker would seem to be counter-intuitive. Rather, there appear to be multiple overlaps between the life and work. This essay seeks to tease out some of the more striking links between Shakespeare’s literary and literal ‘DNA’. I will argue that identifiable, real life footprints in the works are complemented by the story of the Shakespeare family graves and that these in turn may cast new light on the women of the Shakespeare family and the mark they left on his works.

1. Literary DNA in the plays and poems
[2] At times the plays appear to refer demonstrably to real life events as, for example, in Gloucester’s ‘These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us’. It is hard not to see in this an allusion to the eclipses of 17 September and 2 October 1605, which would have been very recent (‘late’) at the time of the first act of King Lear, which was almost certainly written during the winter and spring of 1605-6, that is in the immediate wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605. The ‘Powder Plot’ (as it was known at the time) is itself directly evoked by the Porter’s drunken speech in Macbeth. Not only does he allude to the Jesuitical practice of using equivocation in their defence, but his reference to the farmer who hanged himself ‘on th’ expectation of plenty’ (2.3.4) is more specific than may appear at first sight, as ‘Farmer’ was the alias of the very person who was thought to have orchestrated the plot, Father Henry Garnett, whose grisly death outside St Paul’s Cathedral in May 1606 Shakespeare may echo in the blood-soaked imagery of Macbeth: ‘As they had seen me with these hangman’s hands’ (2.2.30).

[3] Political allusions in the drama of the period were not uncommon but potentially dangerous and in any case were bound to attract the censor’s interest. Shakespeare learnt that lesson the hard way with the near fiasco over the naming of Oldcastle, which resulted in the apologetic disclaimer of the epilogue of 2 Henry IV: ‘For Oldcastle died martyr, and this is not the man.’ (Epilogue, 28). Similarly, it is widely, though not universally, accepted that the reference in Henry V, to the ‘General of our gracious Empress’ returning from Ireland bringing ‘rebellion broachèd in his sword’ (Chorus 5.0.30-33), alludes to Essex’s contemporary campaign in Ireland (March 1599 – September 1599). The reference to the maverick earl may well account for the absence of the Act V chorus from the early printed texts of the play (it first appears in the First Folio, which may be based on Shakespeare’s 1599 foul papers), as Essex was in disgrace by the summer of 1600.

[4] The reason why Simon Forman does not mention the Porter’s scene after seeing Macbeth at the Globe Theatre on 20 April 1611 is because the scene was not staged: it had clearly been cut for performance. It survives in the only extant source text of Macbeth, which is printed in the 1623 Folio and probably derives from a scribal transcript of Shakespeare’s foul papers, with bits of Middleton’s 1616 The Witch grafted on to it. The fact that the play that Forman saw in 1611 and the 1623 Folio text are essentially the same suggests that Shakespeare’s surmised collaboration with Middleton on Macbeth was minimal, if it happened at all. Certainly the Folio syndicate seemed to think that the play was all Shakespeare’s even if they did allow incrustations from The Witch.

[5] But there are more intimate, personal echoes across the divide of life and literature, where the rhymes would seem to be not so much between history and the works but between Shakespeare the private individual and the plays and poems. The most intriguing of all these rhymes across the life / art divide is probably the reference to Richard Field in Cymbeline. When Imogen is asked her master’s name she replies with ‘Richard du Champ. If I do lie and do | No harm by it, though the gods hear, I hope | They’ll pardon it.’ (4.2.374-76) There is no doubt that the allusion is to the Stratford printer Richard Field (‘Champ’ is French for ‘field’ and Imogen in disguise is ‘Fidele’), Shakespeare’s senior by three years, who sixteen years earlier had printed his fellow Stratfordian’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. This mystifying gesture, probably an act of affectionate friendship, should put paid to any notion that Shakespeare’s work is ethereally disembodied from its author.

[6] Moreover, Shakespeare, the father of cross-gender twins wrote two comedies about twins, The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night. The first of these was staged before the poet’s twins, Hamnet and Judith, were ten years old while the second, Twelfth Night, was written and performed five years after the boy twin’s death. The Shakespeare twins were christened at Holy Trinity on Candlemas 1585 while Twelfth Night appears to have had its famous premiere on that very day (2nd February) in Middle Temple in 1602. This puts it, probably, right after Hamlet (c.1601) which may have been written during Shakespeare’s father’s last illness (John Shakespeare died in September 1601), if not immediately after his death. The timing of Shakespeare’s famous father-son tragedy, in close proximity to his own father’s death, would seem to be echoed in his mother-son play Coriolanus (1608): ‘O mother, mother! | What you have you done?’ says the play’s protagonists whose heroic deeds were all done, according to his detractors, to ‘please his mother’ (5.4.182-83; 1.1.32-33). The play, which alludes to the severe frost of 1607-8, was written the same year in which Shakespeare’s mother died, an unlikely coincidence.

[7] Nor is Hamlet the first of his plays to intersect allusively with Shakespeare’s life: his daughter Susanna was aged 13 in 1596, the probable date of Romeo and Juliet while the thirteen-year-old Juliet’s dead double, Nurse’s daughter, is another Susan. The name Susan is moreover unique to Romeo and Juliet. At least two other names in the works would appear to have been carried over from life. Thus Shakespeare’s wife Anne’s maiden name of ‘Hathaway’ may have found its way into Shakespeare’s poetry very early on. Sonnet 145, written uniquely in octosyllabic lines and, perhaps, a piece of callow juvenilia, perhaps a poem written by the teenage Shakespeare during his courtship of Anne Hathaway, concludes with the couplet ‘“I hate” from “hate” away she threw | And saved my life, saying “not you”’. Andrew Gurr (1971: 221-6) first noted that this short lyric might allude to Anne Hathaway in line 13, while Stephen Booth further thought that ‘And’ punned on the name ‘Anne. The poet’s later playing on his own name in sonnets 135 and 136 would suggest that he saw nothing strange in feeding private autobiographical information into his work, and particularly into poems that seem to be tantalizingly personal to the point where many have searched for confessional clues in them, notably with regard to the fair friend and the dark lady.

[8] Finally, and in a play contemporary with (probably) the writing of most of the Sonnets, the name of Emilia Bassano, mistress of Lord Hunsdon, who was patron of Shakespeare’s company, should be considered. This Venetian Jewish musician at court has been a favoured real life claimant for the Dark Lady of the Sonnets since A. L. Rowse first argued this in 1973 in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: the Problems Solved. Rowse’s theories about the Dark Lady and the ramifications of her presence in the Sonnets were called into question by Samuel Schoenbaum’s researches but they are not to be discredited self-evidently, contrary to Schoenbaum’s assertions (Schoenbaum 1970: 761-64). Rowse’s extensive use of Simon Forman’s diary when writing about Emilia Bassano and her husband Will Lanier sheds interesting light on the Will poems 135 and 136, notably with regard to the surplus Wills of the Dark Lady, an echo perhaps of her two wills (or Wills), Will Shakespeare and Will Lanier. Emilia Bassano’s surname moreover occurs prominently in The Merchant of Venice albeit in the guise of a feckless young fortune hunter, Bassanio, who seems to be as embroiled in a gender-bending triangle (Bassanio – Antonio – Portia) every bit as ambiguous as that of the fair youth, poet, and dark lady scenario envisaged in the Sonnets. The Sonnets would suggest that Shakespeare’s answer to Juliet Capulet’s ‘What’s in a name’ might have been ‘quite a lot’.

[9] But the most intriguing link between the life and work may be the poet’s twice-married granddaughter Elizabeth Barnard, née Hall. Her parents Susanna Shakespeare and John Hall married on Friday 5 June 1607 and Elizabeth was born 9 months later, on 21 February 1608. At the time her grandfather was working on Pericles, which was entered on the Stationers Register on 20 May 1608. The first of Shakespeare’s two uses of the word ‘child-bed’ in that play occurs at the birth of Marina in Act 3. Parting from his ‘dead’ queen, her father Pericles notes ‘A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear, | No light, no fire.’ (3.1.55-56). The only other occurrence is in The Winter’s Tale, when Hermione claims that she was ‘the childbed privilege denied, which ‘longs | To women of all fashion’(3.2.101-02)

[10] Connecting contemporaneous events in the poet’s life to Pericles, the Arden editor Suzanne Gossett writes that

Susanna Shakespeare delivers a daughter in the week of 21 February 1608. Shakespeare, with painful memories of losing a child revived by the death of Edmund’s son and obsessed with the possibility that Susanna will die in childbirth, is relieved. Around this time he takes over the play, pouring his grief over the deaths of Edmund and his infant son, his fears for Susanna and his delight at his granddaughter’s birth into the scenes of birth and apparent death in the third and fourth acts. (Gossett 2004: 61)

Elizabeth Barnard is a significant figure in the Shakespeare story, as the last survivor of the poet’s direct line and the one about whom we probably know most. Her father, the distinguished doctor John Hall, husband of Shakespeare’s eldest child Susannah, wrote at length about her health which is how we know that she suffered from a neurological condition known as Bell’s palsy, a form of temporary facial paralysis. Also it is because of the importance of 22 April in her life (she returned from London in 1626 on that date and she married her first husband Thomas Nash on 22 April 1626) that people have wondered, ever since Thomas De Quincey first remarked upon it, whether this was not after all Shakespeare’s real birthday. Moreover she reputedly moved books from her home in New Place with her when she joined her husband in Abington. All these, taken together with her generous, family-minded last will (she included the Hathaways in it, unlike her grandfather), suggest that she may have seen herself as the guardian of her family’s memory. By the time she died in 1670 the Shakespeares had become the first family of Stratford, after the Cloptons. Not only did Elizabeth know her illustrious grandfather during the first eight years of her life, at a time when she quite probably lived in the same house, New Place, as him and her grandmother, but he remembered her in his will. In the long years that followed – she survived him by 54 years – she would every Sunday have seen his bust in Holy Trinity from the Halls’ prestigious pew next to the Clopton Chapel in the north aisle.

2. The DNA of the Shakespeare graves
[11] In June 1981 Elizabeth Barnard was exhumed in Abington. Given her importance in the Shakespeare story, it seems extraordinary in retrospect that her exhumation did not cause more of a stir in the national press. It took The Times nearly three months to report it (18 September 1981: ‘Shades of Shakespeare’s Past’). It remained virtually unknown until the publication of The Shakespeare Circle, when the manuscript account of the exhumation, by Arthur Marlow, was discovered in the archives of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, after an extract from it had been shared by the genealogist John Taplin with the author of this paper (Edmondson & Wells 2015: 122-134). The details of the exhumation of Elizabeth Barnard need not detain us here, but a unique opportunity of taking a DNA sample from her was missed.

[12] Quite how permission for exhuming Elizabeth Barnard was sought and granted is not known. The prospect of a similarly full exploration of the Shakespeare graves in Holy Trinity has long exercised researchers and the wider public. On Saturday 26 March 2016 Channel 4 broadcast a programme called ‘Secret History: Shakespeare’s Tomb’. The timing was presumably not fortuitous, with the following day being Easter Sunday 2016. Not that Channel 4 were quite implying that Shakespeare would rise from the dead, but they wanted to find parts of him and particularly his skull. A rumour held that the poet’s head had been removed at some point from the tomb in the chancel of Holy Trinity and had migrated to Beoley. According to the Telegraph of 23 March 2016,

St Leonard’s Church, located 15 miles north-west of Stratford in Beoley, is home to a lone skull in a sealed crypt that some have thought could be Shakespeare’s. The current vicar … sought permission from the Church of England’s Consistory Court to have the skull tested for DNA, but had the application rejected on a lack of firm evidence.

When permission to test was eventually secured it turned out that the bardic pretender skull belonged to a woman in her 70s. Not that this proof was needed. The afterlife of the famous grave in Stratford-upon-Avon is after all reasonably well documented through the ages, thanks to a number of Stratford antiquarians, in particular the Stratford grammar school teacher Reverend Joseph Greene (1712-90), the Reverend James Davenport (1787-1841), and Robert B. Wheler (1785-1857). They are among the largely unsung heroes of the Shakespeare story. It is thanks to them that we have Shakespeare’s will, which was found by Greene, and his wedding licence or ‘bond’, which Wheler unearthed in 1836 thus confirming the identity of Shakespeare’s bride. Until then all that was known about her was Nicholas Rowe’s remark in 1709 life of Shakespeare that ‘his wife was the daughter of one Hathaway, said to have been a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood of Stratford’, an assertion not helped by the fact that the grant on the Shakespeares’ wedding licence preserved in the Worcester Register gives her name as ‘Whateley’. It is courtesy of the upright Reverend Davenport that we know that Shakespeare’s grave was inadvertently disturbed when the newly widowed Davenport was having a grave dug for his wife in 1796. What happened, it seems, is that the gravedigger broke through the side of Shakespeare’s burial place, realized what he had done, and resealed it, after taking care to ensure that the poet’s grave remained safe from prying eyes. He did not poke around in it nor did he leave an account of what he did not see. Writing about these events in 1820, Washington Irving noted that it was likely that when the ‘adjoining vault’ was dug [for Margaret Davenport, the vicar’s wife], ‘the earth caved in’, leaving a space through which it might be possible to reach Shakespeare. The same sexton who acted as Irving’s guide in Holy Trinity had kept watch in 1796 until the work was finished. He did however look through the hole himself ‘but could see neither coffin nor bones; nothing but dust. It was something, I thought, to have seen the dust of Shakespeare.’ (Irving 1861: 324-325).

[13] Documenting these events years later, Halliwell-Phillipps concurred:

The most scrupulous care, however, was taken not to disturb the neighbouring earth […] the clerk having been placed there till the brickwork of the adjoining vault was completed to prevent anyone making an examination. No relics whatever were visible through the small opening that thus presented itself, and as the poet was buried in the ground, not in a vault, the great probability is that dust alone remains. (emphases added; Halliwell-Phillipps’s comments are reproduced in the Gettysburgh Compiler of 17 June 1908.)

To explore the same space some 220 years later, Channel 4 were allowed to use Ground Penetrating Radar. But it did not in truth yield much by way of information, even if it appeared to suggest that the poet was buried not in a coffin or shell but wrapped in a winding sheet directly in the earth, in an essentially shallow grave. Can this really be so when his granddaughter instead was buried in a vault? What would have been needed is for a laparoscopic camera to be lowered into the grave in Holy Trinity but that was a step too far even if it would probably not have disturbed the poet’s bones. The injunction on the grave, or the ‘curse’ as some have called it, to leave his remains alone (‘Good friend for Jesus sake forbear, | To dig the dust enclosed here!| Blessed be the man that spares these stones, | And cursed be he that moves my bones’) has been one of the main reasons why Shakespeare’s grave has not so far been opened. It is as if the nation’s favourite son’s writ were still running.

[14] Or maybe not. The Pittsburgh Gazette Times of Sunday 1 December 1912 reports that Charles Knight (publisher and editor of a well-known 19th century illustrated Shakespeare), had apparently seen Shakespeare’s remains during the restoration of Holy Trinity in, presumably, 1835. In Shakespeare’s Lives Schoenbaum calls Knight ‘an honourable man’ and a champion of ‘Victorian humanitarianism’ (Schoenbaum 1970: 384). In 1842 Knight settled in Stratford to write the biographical volume of his Pictorial Shakespeare. The source of the assertion that Knight claimed to have seen Shakespeare in his grave (‘the positive statement’) is not given. If true, it is odd that Knight should not mention this in his 1843 biography of Shakespeare, which is reticent about anything relating to the grave in Holy Trinity.

[15] According to the Pittsburgh Gazette Times, ‘[Knight] subsequently made the positive statement that he had seen the remains of the poet.’ But did he? In a forceful letter to the London Times of 30 January 1888 (‘Stratford-on-Avon Church: its ancient charnel-house and Shakespeare’s grave’), Halliwell-Phillipps voiced strong reservations about more proposed restoration (’mischief’) of Holy Trinity at just that time as it might compound the damage done to this famous building by earlier so-called restorations, of which there were moreover were no proper records. The works that fifty years earlier had allegedly allowed Knight to gaze on Shakespeare’s remains are singled out for special opprobrium:

No detail later extant of the extensive alterations made in the chancel in the closing years of the last century, and, strangely enough, no particulars are recorded of the deplorable metamorphoses of the interior of the entire building that was effected so recently as 1835.

The dreaded restorations that Halliwell-Phillips feared would go the same way as the 1835 ones went ahead anyway, it seems, and no better records appear to have been kept then than were of the earlier restoration. Moreover, and for a third time in the space of less than a hundred years, they may have exposed Shakespeare’s remains again. If the Pittsburgh Gazette Times can be believed, after Charles Knight it was the turn of the Holy Trinity sexton Martin Bird sexton to see Shakespeare:

The last time the grave was opened was about 30 years ago [1892], and the remains viewed by Martin Bird, who was then the sexton of the church, and who is still alive and residing at Stratford. Mr Bird is now in his ninetieth year and lately made an affidavit setting forth the following facts: ‘I have lived in Stratford-on-Avon 70 years. About 30 years ago I was present when Shakespeare’s remains were exposed to view, at which time a stone was moved, a candle let down and I could see the bones of Shakespeare … In the short minute they were exposed to view, I could plainly see, by the aid of the light of the candle, a perfect skeleton.’

There is no obvious reason to doubt the trustworthiness of Martin Bird. The Gazette Times did not make him up. A quick genealogical check in ancestry.co.uk reveals that a Richard Martin Bird, born about 1823, died in Stratford in 1918 at the age of 95, so he would indeed have been in his ninetieth year in 1912. The 1911 census gives his address as ‘Arondale Alveston, Stratford-on-Avon’ and his profession as wine merchant. Did he double as sexton? He does not refer to himself as sexton (the Gazette does that), only noting that he had been a resident in Stratford at the time of the 1892 removal (or temporary shifting?) of the grave stone. Did he really see ‘a perfect skeleton’ 276 years after Shakespeare’s burial? While this may chime with Charles Knight’s apparently seeing the poet’s remains 57 year earlier, it hardly does with Irving’s and Halliwell-Phillipps’s reporting of what was (or rather was not) seen in 1796. Then again, in 1796, it seems to have been a matter of peering through an accidental aperture while Bird specifically mentions the moving of the gravestone.

[16] The Shakespeare graves in the chancel in Holy Trinity as given by the authoritative Victoria County History volume (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks /vol3/pp269-282) on Shakespeare’s church are laid out as follows:

Carefully preserved in the floor, east of the communion rails, are the grave-slabs connected with Shakespeare’s family and others. (1) Northernmost, with a brass inscription to Anne wife of William Shakespeare, died 6 August 1623, aged 67. (2) (William Shakespeare) … (3) Thomas Nash, married Elizabeth daughter of John Halle, gent., died 4 April 1647, aged 53… (4) John Hall, married Susanna daughter of William Shakespeare and died 25 November 1635, aged 60 … (5) Susanna, wife of John Hall, died 11 July 1649, aged 66. (6) Francis Watts of Rine Clifford, 1691. (7) Anne, wife of last, 1704. There is also a slab for Judith Combe with a white marble border for the inscription.

The wife of Malone’s trusted correspondent, the former vicar James Davenport, is buried west and down the chancel from Shakespeare’s grave.

3. Judith Shakespeare, daughter of her father’s house
[17] If Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall naturally rests with her second husband in Abington, what of that absent member of the Shakespeare family who should be in the chancel of Holy Trinity, Judith Quiney, née Shakespeare, the twin sister of Hamnet? She is not mentioned in the row of graves even though she almost certain rests here too. Judith was buried on 9 February 1662; she was 77 years old. Is the reason for her absence that she wanted to be interred next to her twin brother Hamnet? Unlike us she would have known exactly whereabouts in Holy Trinity or in its churchyard little Hamnet Shakespeare was buried. She was eleven when he died and she must have attended his funeral on 11 August 1596 along with other members of her family.

[18] There may of course be a more mundane reason for her not being in the family row in the chancel: like her sister and her niece in Abington Judith too may have been buried next to her husband, the reckless Thomas Quiney who may have died in in the same year as her, around 1662-3 when the registers of Holy Trinity show a gap. The obvious place of burial for Judith and her husband would be to be buried alongside her sister Susanna and Dr John Hall. This notwithstanding the fact that 46 years earlier Thomas Quiney had darkened William Shakespeare’s last days on earth by betraying Judith and plunging his new family into scandal. In other words, Judith and her husband should rest next to Susanna and John Hall, in graves numbers 6 and 7, occupied by Francis and Ann Watts who have no connection to the Shakespeare clan. In the light of this it seems likely that the Quiney-Shakespeare grave was opened at some point to receive the Watts couple and that a new stone was laid down with their names on it. Certainly that would seem to be indicated by the arrangement of the graves in the chancel, particularly as the Watts graves are at the outer edge of the Shakespeare row on the south side and therefore furthest from the Shakespeare nucleus. This might account for the fact that it was Judith and Thomas who were disturbed rather than Susanna and her husband, in spite of the fact that Judith had only been dead for 29 years when Francis Watts was buried in her and Thomas’s grave (if they were).

[19] There is a further possibility regarding Judith’s and Thomas’s graves. By 1639 the couple’s three sons had all died. One can only imagine their heartache. Would it not be natural for them to be resting alongside their children, perhaps somewhere in the churchyard of Holy Trinity? Unless the Quiney-Shakespeare boys occupied the grave that now bears the Watts’ name long before their parents. Which leads one to wonder whether or not Hamnet Shakespeare may not after all be buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity. Eleven years later, on New Year’s Eve of 1607, the little boy’s father had paid twenty shillings to honour Hamnet’s uncle Edmund in St Saviour’s in Southwark, by ‘a forenoon knell of the great bell’. From the record it is clear that Shakespeare arranged for his younger brother to be buried in the church rather than outside of it. It stands to reason that the ‘gentle’ playwright, who bought the largest home in Stratford, also wanted to ensure that his only son rested somewhere where his family, his twin sister, and his mother and father could share the presence of his mortal remains at the very least in church every Sunday. If in the future the Shakespeare graves are examined in full it would make sense to search in the graves for the children of the Shakespeare families, Hamnet and his three nephews by his sister Judith.

[20] The most salient documentary fact about Judith Shakespeare is her father’s rewriting of his legacy to her in the second draft of his will of 25 March 1616, introducing her specifically into his will by name, replacing his son-in-law. We don’t know for certain why he did so but it is widely surmised that this astringent act intended to ring fence her share of the estate against her husband Thomas Quiney. Judith married Quiney on 10 February 1616. A Lenten marriage required a special dispensation. This had clearly been granted. As Judith was not pregnant, it seems that she was keen to marry before her father died, to be given away by him, further proof perhaps that Shakespeare was seriously ill during the two months that separate the January and March 1616 drafts of his will. Within six weeks of the marriage Quiney was exposed as the father of the baby of Margaret Wheler who died in childbirth with her infant so that Judith’s marriage was followed not long afterwards by the funeral of her newly-wed husband’s lover and baby, on 15 March 1616.

[21] Ever since 1616 Judith has been overshadowed by her elder sister Susanna who received the lion’s share of her father’s estate and who had married one of the most brilliant physicians in the country. Susanna is moreover credited on her grave with being like her father: ‘Witty above her sex, but that’s not all, | Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall, | Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this | Wholly of him with whom she is now in bliss.’ Neither the redrafting of the will nor the tribute to Susanna turn Judith into a Cinderella figure, even if she was evidently less fortunate than her elder sister in her wedded state. And Judith is not quite as shadowy as is sometimes assumed: on 4 December 1611, over four years before her father’s death, she witnessed a deed of sale for a family who had resided at New Place until the summer of 1611, an action that implies considerable trust and legitimate authority.

[22] Did Judith stand in for her father on this occasion, traditionally a time when, we think, he would be in London, earning the money that allowed the Shakespeares to live in style in Stratford-upon-Avon? That her father may have been absent during this wintry period is suggested by the fact that a new play of his, The Tempest, had just recently opened in London. By the time The Tempest was staged at Court on 1 November 1611 (its first recorded performance), the household at New Place appears to have contracted to Shakespeare, his wife Anne, and his daughter Judith. Shakespeare’s lawyer cousin, Thomas Greene (the same Greene who in 1614 refers to ‘my cousin Shakespeare coming yesterday to town I went to see him how he did’: Chambers 1930: 143) had moved out by then. So too, probably, had the Halls and their daughter, following the Greenes to Old Town. The house, for centuries known locally as ‘Hall’s Croft’, is in all likelihood the house that the Halls had built for them at just that time, with dendrochronology dating the timber of the building conclusively to around 1612-13.

[23] Along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest is probably the Shakespeare play least indebted to a structuring source even if its debt to Ovid’s Metamorphoses is pervasive at local levels. So is his use of Montaigne’s Essays and, perhaps above all, the tribulations, including shipwrecks, of the Virginia Company as it sought to explore new worlds. It has long been seen as perhaps Shakespeare’s most overtly autobiographical play, if one dare put it like that. In Ungentle Shakespeare, Katherine Duncan-Jones singles out As You Like It for this accolade because of its ‘William’ and the fact that the work seems to play in Shakespeare’s family’s own rural backyard, the Forest of Arden.

[24] What people usually mean by calling The Tempest autobiographical is no more than to note the obvious parallel between Prospero’s bidding farewell to his magic and Shakespeare’s retiring from the stage. The play is his last solo effort, even though he would return to collaborate on Two Noble Kinsmen and, finally, two years later, on Henry VIII.

[25] That Shakespeare ‘retired’ is not a solecism while at the same time retirement was clearly differently understood from today. He would have known all about the idea of retiring from reading Virgil and his Roman historians about, among others, Cincinnatus and Sulla. He had been a grandfather for three years by the time he wrote The Tempest, a magnificent neo-classical fable about nature and nurture, innocence and guilt, sexuality and power. Its prominence in the 1623 commemorative First Folio – it opens the collection – is in itself revealing about the valedictory status of the play and the esteem in which it was held by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors. And also, perhaps, because they knew that it had been his own leave-taking from the stage that had made his fortune and to which he must have been profoundly attached. It stands to reason that the most acclaimed dramatist of all time loved his stagecraft and the invigorating madness and camaraderie of writing and acting. What better way to part company from it than with a masterpiece that moreover demonstrated to all and sundry that he could be as neoclassically disciplined as the best of them, including his friend Ben Jonson, who would pay tribute to him twice in the 1623 Folio?

[26] The creative arc of Shakespeare’s work concludes with the group commonly classed as romances, not a genre recognized by the First Folio which lists them under tragedies (Cymbeline) and comedies (The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), with Pericles left out probably because it was a collaborative venture. As in the comedies so in the romances young women rule the roost, even if their play worlds have darkened and death enters into lists as it never quite did in the comedies, not even in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s last comedy and probably his bleakest. But the young women of the romances, starting with Marina in Pericles, followed by Imogen, Perdita and, particularly perhaps Miranda, are imagined quite differently from Portia, Viola, and Rosalind. They are daughters of fathers first and young women second, and their marriages form part of a process that helps to redeem and reestablish the domestic world. Whereas Portia, Viola, and other comedy heroines are cut off from mother and father (dead in both their cases), the young women of the romances carry different burdens from romantic union. Time and again they seem to be connected imaginatively to redemptive yearnings which is why these works are sometimes thought to resonate with religious motifs, whether in the Pauline echoes of The Winter’s Tale and its repeated returns to faith or the monastic life fervently embraced, or so he claims, by Prospero on his return to Milan.

[27] There may well be something in this. Shakespeare, though still only in his late forties at the time of the romances, may have been mellowing after the searing play Coriolanus which coincided with his own mother’s death. Just before Pericles Shakespeare became a grandfather and by the time he wrote The Tempest he shared his house New Place with, mostly, women: his wife Anne, his daughters Susannah and Judith, his granddaughter Elizabeth and of course his son-in-law John Hall, who may have spent much time out of the house, riding across Warwickshire tending to his many patients. Is it entirely fanciful then to wonder whether the reemergence of young women as powerful benign forces in late Shakespeare might not after all have its roots in his domestic circumstances?

[28] Twins were ever close to Shakespeare’s heart and his dramatic imagination. It would be counter-intuitive to think that Twelfth Night could be divorced from his real life twin children, not least because of the play’s close proximity to Hamlet, a play that even if it is not named after his dead son – there was an earlier, now lost, play Hamlet by a dramatist (Thomas Kyd?) other than Shakespeare – at least shares his name. Hamlet and Hamnet, the name commonly given to Shakespeare’s son, were used interchangeably in Stratford-upon-Avon about Hamnet / Hamlet Sadler, the very person after whom Shakespeare’s little boy was almost certainly named, with Shakespeare’s friends Judith and Hamnet Sadler acting as godparents to the Shakespeare twins by the same names. It seems inconceivable that Shakespeare could ever have pronounced the name Hamlet without thinking of his dead son who, if he had lived, would have been well into his teens when his father wrote Hamlet, the ultimate father-son play. In Shakespeare’s Language (2001) Frank Kermode remarked that after Hamlet everything in Shakespeare changed. The scale of the play’s philosophical range, its drive, and the texture of its rhetoric, hitherto unparalleled even in Shakespeare, not to mention its epic scale – why would Shakespeare write a play that is twice the expected length of a tragedy – all may point to a profound personal investment in the work. If we are right to propose a date of composition for Hamlet after Shakespeare’s father’s death or during his final illness, that is a date close to the play’s entry on the Stationers’ Register of 26 July 1602, that might firm up the idea that the play carries an autobiographical punch, with Shakespeare forcibly reminded in 1601/02 of his own roles as both father and son. (In their edition of Hamlet, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor note that the ‘firmest external evidence’ for dating the play is the 1602 entry in the Stationers’ and, of course, Q1’s 1603 title-page (Thompson and Taylor 2006: 43-59)).

[29] The chronology of the plays matters because Hamlet may intimately connect with Twelfth Night in a context of real life domestic parallels with imaginative motifs. The first recorded reference to the famous comedy occurs in the diary of the law student John Manningham, who saw the play performed at Middle Temple on the 17th anniversary of the christening of Shakespeare’s twins in Holy Trinity. This may be a coincidence – could Shakespeare really dictate the performance calendar at Middle Temple? – but a play about cross-gender twins by a father of boy-girl twins would hardly be so. It would stretch credulity as a fortuitous connection, the more so since other evidence suggests that Shakespeare may not have been averse from drawing on his own life. If the imaginative drive of Romeo and Juliet and Pericles may at least in part be powered by personal concerns, to the point where Romeo and Juliet may be response to the loss of Hamnet, as Julia Kristeva has argued (Weis 2012: 55), so that post hoc > propter hoc, then to argue that Hamlet Shakespeare and Hamlet the Dane are somehow linked may not be entirely outlandish. Such an interpretative arc, however tentative, would suggest that Twelfth Night fits perfectly into this narrative.

[30] Hamlet and Twelfth Night are not an immediately obvious pair, but they may become so when set against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s family. If the most famous father-son play in the world resonates with the domestic memories of the Shakespeare family, as it may well do, then Twelfth Night, the play that immediately and perhaps surprisingly follows it, also needs to be seen in that light. How could it not given that it is, quite independently from context, the play that most directly engages the Shakespeare family’s children. The hero of the tragedy is of course Hamlet while the protagonist of Twelfth Night is Viola. Is this most vulnerable yet hugely charismatic of heroines inspired by Judith Shakespeare? If so, it is tempting to view the play as a ritual almost of thanksgiving for her life. And whereas in real life she spent the six years that separate the Middle Temple premiere of 1602 from the death of her twin brother in 1596 missing him, in the play Shakespeare grants the twins the fantasy of a happy ending, of that ‘deity in my nature | Of here and everywhere’ that reunites two halves. To simplify, if Hamlet shows Shakespeare privately wrestling with the loss of Hamnet, in Twelfth Night he indulges in an impossible dream featuring his daughter Judith as Viola. What this all would seem to suggest is that Shakespeare’s family, his mother and father, his three children and his granddaughter all left a profound trace history in his writing to the extent where consciously or unconsciously his pattern of writing was influenced by events. If the writing of the anomalously positioned tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – chronologically it comes too early and who has ever heard of children as tragic protagonists? – was triggered by the death of Hamnet, then all the other surmised links between the works and the life acquire a logic of their own. In the process Shakespeare emerges as a Romantic writer long before any such concept ever existed. It also creates links between Viola and the young women of the last plays, all of them perhaps sharing in Judith Shakespeare.


[1] All references to Shakespeare’s works are to The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. (2016). Ed. by Stephen Greenblatt et al (New York: Norton) [back to text]


Booth, Stephen. 1977. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Chambers, E. K. 1930. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 2

Duncan-Jones, Katherine. 2001. Ungentle Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning)

Edmondson, Paul and Stanley Wells (eds). 2015. The Shakespeare Circle: An Alternative Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Gossett, Susan (ed.) 2004. Pericles, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Thomson Learning)

Gurr, Andrew. 1971. ‘Shakespeare’s first poem: Sonnet 145’, Essays in Criticism, 21: 221-6

Irving, Washington. 1861. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, (London: John Murray)

Keats, John. 1970. Letters of John Keats. Ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Schoenbaum, Samuel. 1970. Shakespeare’s Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor (eds). 2006. Hamlet, The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Thomson Learning)

Weis, René (ed.). 2012. Romeo and Juliet , The Arden Shakespeare Third Series (London: Bloomsbury)



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