Anna R. Beer. Sir Walter Ralegh and his Readers in the Seventeenth Century: Speaking to the People. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997. 255pp. ISBN 0 333 66076 5 Cloth.
Scott Nixon
Queen's College, Oxford


Nixon, Scott.  "Review of Sir Walter Ralegh and his Readers in the Seventeenth Century." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999):10.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/nixorev.html>.

  1. In his influential study of Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric, Arthur Marotti argues that scholars of early modern literature should move away from a narrow focus on the ideal of the authorially sanctioned text, and should instead be willing to examine variant traditions which have in the past been dismissed as "corrupt." By examining such material, we will get a greater sense of the manner in which seventeenth-century writers were encountered and interpreted by their contemporaries. As a prime example, he claims that the "'Ralegh' that emerged within the transmission and reception of a body of verse that was a mixture of authorially sanctioned work, additions and revisions to these texts, and the incorporation of texts by other writers is, finally, an authorship sign that makes sense historically in terms other than those of verifiable canon" (145-6). These remarks about Ralegh's verse are borne out by Anna Beer's study of the transmissional history of Ralegh's prose. She demonstrates that not only Ralegh's works, but also Ralegh himself, were rewritten, read and interpreted in a range of widely divergent contexts during the seventeenth century. By analysing these modes of publication and interpretation, she is able to expand the traditional notion of what "Ralegh" meant to his own and subsequent generations.

  3. Beer's study will be of interest not only to scholars of Ralegh, but also to those interested in the relationship between manuscript and print in the early modern period, and, more generally, in the history of ideas and the establishment of the canon. Her main focus is on the prose that Ralegh wrote during imprisonment, and she traces the process by which texts which were originally written for a royal audience with the "private" aim of alleviating Ralegh's own predicament became widely available in print after his death and were read as the output of a "public" voice, speaking to the people for the people.

  5. Particularly impressive in this regard is Beer's analysis of the reception of A Dialogue betweene a Counsellor of State and a Justice of Peace. The initial intended reader of the text, composed in the spring or summer of 1615, was King James himself, and Ralegh's primary aim was to seek his release from the Tower and restoration to a position of influence. He speaks "in the voice of a proxy Privy Counsellor" (63), comparing his own wise advice to that of a corrupt and self-serving courtier. The first appearance of Ralegh's text in print is in 1628 under the title The Prerogative of Parlaments in England. Beer argues that the five editions published that year (under the false imprint "Hamburghe" or "Midelburge") show that Ralegh's Dialogue was perceived as directly relevant to the debate about the powers of the Parliament and the King, and the concern over the influence of Buckingham. In this way, "Ralegh" moves from being a voice giving private counsel supportive of the Crown to a public voice aligned with Parliament against the Crown. This shift is further marked with the appearance of two further editions of Ralegh's work in 1640, at a time when Charles's two most despised counsellors, Laud and Strafford, were being delivered up to the people.

  7. Ralegh's speech from the scaffold in 1618 played a crucial role in altering the way in which its author was regarded and read. It represents his most direct and effective adoption of a public voice. Beer discusses in detail the extent to which this text engaged with the "genre" of such speeches, and consequently challenged royal authority. She describes and quotes from a range of manuscript sources, pointing out that the speech was usually transcribed alongside, and hence read in the context of, accounts of Ralegh's trial of 1603 and arraignment of 1618. The effect is, she argues, to question the validity of Stuart justice itself.

  9. One possible criticism is that, even though Beer's monograph is relatively short, there is an element of repetition. For example, on pp.98-99, one passage is quoted twice in quick succession in order to make the same point each time. This is not uncommon in the age of word-processing, and frequently arises when a more substantial dissertation is reduced for publication, with the essential arguments being retained. It is perhaps a pity, given the extent of the material analysed by Beer, that the editing process did not put a greater priority on retaining example rather than precept. Closer and more detailed reference to individual sources would have enriched, rather than cluttered, the argument.

  11. In addition to a full bibliography of primary and secondary sources, Beer provides two appendices which set out, respectively, Ralegh's prose works (including a list of manuscript sources), and those texts attributed to Ralegh, or written in response to his life and work, which were published between 1618 and 1660. On the one hand, these appendices highlight the range of sources and the concomitant problems of text and canon which frustrated the plan of the Clarendon Press to produce a modern critical edition of Ralegh's works. On the other, they illustrate the wealth of material that may profitably be harnessed in an approach such as that adopted by Beer. The value of her study lies not only in the information that it sheds on Ralegh's texts and their reception, but also in presenting a model for similar enquiries into other seventeenth-century writers.


Works Cited

Marotti, Arthur. Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).