Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens, eds. Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism. Toronto and Buffalo: U of Toronto P, 1998. 244pp. ISBN 0 8020 0436 9.
Christopher Ivic
Queen's University, Canada / SUNY, Postdam

Ivic, Christopher. "Review of Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 8.1-6 URL:

  1. As the subtitle of this volume makes clear, this collection of essays focuses on not only sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature but also the various ways in which recent critical trends have transformed approaches to dramatic and non-dramatic texts of the period. In their introduction, Comensoli and Stevens remind us that the study of English Renaissance literature has, over the past thirty years, undergone a "paradigm shift" (ix): namely, the rise of new historicist, feminist, and cultural materialist analysis. Of course, the appearance of "new essays on Renaissance literature and criticism" marks another contribution to the paradigm shift. But rather than advancing a specific approach (e.g., historicist, feminist, or psychoanalytic), this volume houses essays that are implicitly and explicitly at odds with one another. Thus, Discontinuities brings together a heterogeneous body of writing that offers up theoretical reflections on the current state of Renaissance studies. Indeed, the "principal aim" of this volume is "not to acquiesce in a facile syncretism and represent Renaissance studies as a cohesive union of various new methodologies, but to represent it [. . .] as a dramatically discontinuous but vital field of intellectual enquiry" (xviii). This principal aim is evident within and across the four distinct yet interrelated sections into which the volume is divided.

  2. Perhaps discontinuity is most apparent in the first section, "Recovering Women's Writing: Historicism vs. Textualism." The opening essay, Sylvia Brown's "'Over Her Dead Body: Feminism, Poststructuralism, and the Mother's Legacy," considers the impact of "deconstructive techniques and poststructuralist assumptions" (4) on the burgeoning study of early modern women's writing. Informed by Elaine Showalter's theory of gynocritics, Brown turns to the popular genre of the mother's legacy book -- books of religious advice written by mothers for their children after the mother's death -- as a test case for the inadequacies of deconstructive feminism. According to Brown, "the logic of poststructuralism works to undermine the study of female-authored texts and [. . .] the feminist aims and concerns that initiated the serious study of women's writing [. . .]" (4). Eschewing the critique of language and subjectivity, Brown opts for "a genuinely historical, coherently feminist approach" (19) to early modern texts. Only "genuine historicization" can "recover something of the voice and experience of a seventeenth-century woman who writes" (22). In keeping with the goal of this volume -- dialogic discontinuity -- the two following essays, Katherine Osler Acheson's "The Modernity of the Early Modern: The Example of Anne Clifford" and Linda Woodbridge's "Dark Ladies: Women, Social History, and English Renaissance Literature," worry Brown's gynocritical desire for, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Harvey's trenchant critique of Showalter, theoretical, ontological, and, more importantly, historical stability. For Acheson, it isn't enough to historicize early modern writers; attention must be drawn to "the rhetorical positioning of the writing subject" (30): and this is precisely what she does in her fine analysis of Anne Clifford's textual and visual self-representations. For Woodbridge, any attempt to "anchor literature in the solid sea floor of History" is "epistemologically problematic" (56). Going against the grain of recent Renaissance criticism, Woodbridge argues that readings of early modern literature are too often underpinned by uncritical appropriations of the work of social historians, especially the controversial work of Lawrence Stone. More of a textualist, Woodbridge demands that we attend to early modern women writers as authors writing within established literary conventions, writing from different subject positions. All three of these essays, to be sure, share a feminist agenda, but by no means do they agree on how feminist literary scholars should go about recovering and reading texts.

  3. Brown's and Acheson's essays reveal how much feminist and new historicist research has opened up the Renaissance canon. But is this true of the dramatic canon? The second section, "What to do with Shakespeare?," includes essays by Elizabeth Hanson ("Against a Synecdochic Shakespeare") and Karen Newman ("Cultural Capital's Gold Standard: Shakespeare and the Critical Apostrophe in Renaissance Studies"). Again, these essays pull the reader in opposite directions: Hanson, away from a totalizing Shakespeare; Newman toward an edifying Shakespeare. When exploring the categories of class, gender, sex, race, and nation, critics of Renaissance drama, Hanson points out, tend to treat the Bard's texts as representative of early modern culture. Seeking to shake up the "overwhelming centrality of Shakespeare" (75), Hanson suggests that any attempt to understand early modern English culture without reference to Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights -- in particular, "the banalities of professional practice and local ideological investments" (83) -- amounts to a selective and therefore impoverished literary and cultural history. To buttress her argument, Hanson concludes her essay with a comparison of The Merchant of Venice and Jonson, Chapman, and Marston's Eastward Ho!, analyzing the plays in terms of the respective ideological work they perform. Newman, on the other hand, sees no need to destabilize Shakespeare's canonicity: in fact, she argues that there are valid, indeed professional, reasons for clinging to the synecdochic Shakespeare that Hanson wants critics to abandon. Indebted to Pierre Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, Newman promotes Shakespeare's symbolic value in the face of late twentieth century's institutionalization of mass cultural forms. Evidence of Shakespeare's symbolic value comes in the form of Newman's reading of Shakespeare's "dubiously canonical" (100) Timon of Athens, a text that, through an act of critical apostrophe, evinces "a [homoerotic] chapter in the history of early modern sexuality" (97-8). While Hanson urges us to diversify the early modern dramatic portfolio, Newman asks us to (re)invest in Shakespeare.

  4. Not unlike all of the essays in Discontinuities, those in the third section, "Rethinking Subjectivity: The Turn to Lacan," can be read against one another as well as in relation to the volume as a whole. For instance, Tracey Sedinger's "Historicism and Renaissance Culture," a plea (contra Greenblatt) for the application of psychoanalytic theory, shares Woodbridge's emphasis on the affective power of literature, though Sedinger, unlike Woodbridge, has little or nothing to say about early modern literary texts. Informed by the work of Kristeva, Nate Johnson's "Donne's Odious Comparison: Abjection, Text, and Canon" examines the dubious textual history of Donne's "The Comparison," a text that editors have been trying to "clean up" for centuries. In that Johnson's essay invites us to consider not only how we receive early modern texts but also how we approach them, it is indicative of the metacritical perspectives on our discipline that this volume yields. Susan Zimmerman's "Marginal Man: The Representation of Horror in Renaissance Tragedy" offers a theoretical model for analyzing early modern horror in (non-Shakespearean) theatrical texts, a model that (following Woodbridge) takes into account the psychosocial dynamics of drama and (like Hanson) directs our attention away from Shakespeare to the work of Middleton and Webster. Many of these essays, then, are more cohesive than the editors suggest, though some (e.g., Brown's and Sedinger's) are at complete odds with one another.

  5. In the fourth section of Discontinuities, "Political Engagement and Professional Discontinuities," Barry Taylor ("Academic Exchange: Text, Politics, and the Construction of English and American Identities in Contemporary Renaissance Criticism") and Sharon O'Dair ("The Status of Class in Shakespeare: or, Why Critics Love to Hate Capitalism") focus on questions of identity. Taylor examines the identity politics underpinning the opposition between English/British (Taylor's slippage) and American Renaissance scholars, in particular how English/British cultural materialists represent their work as politically engaged by othering so-called non-radical American new historicist "textualists." One of the many insights of this essay is its acknowledgement that many Renaissance scholars (including many of the contributors to this volume) forge their own critical positions in opposition to a once dominant (now residual?) new historicism (read Stephen Greenblatt). The critical slippage between status and class forms the basis of O'Dair's essay, which seeks "to theorize inequality, that is, the relationships between superiors and subordinates in Shakespeare's plays, and not incidentally within early modern England" (203). Again, we arrive at a synecdochic Shakespeare; however, like Newman, O'Dair works with the much-neglected Timon of Athens. Moreover, like Newman, O'Dair performs a wonderful critical apostrophe in her comparison of Timon and modern-day academics, who, "not unlike early modern aristocrats, compet[e] for prestige rather than money" (217). O'Dair's is a powerful essay, one that reveals what we as early modern scholars desire, disfigure, and repress when we read sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature.

  6. The last word goes to Marta Straznicky, who provides a brief afterword that teachers of early modern texts will want to read. Straznicky touches on the discontinuity between research and teaching, a discontinuity that has "prevented us from formulating the new paradigm of research in Renaissance literary studies in ways that are meaningful for non-specialists, and from devising new pedagogical strategies that teach historicist analysis rather than adding to students' stock of 'themes' in literature" (225). This polite polemical conclusion provides a perfect close to an important collection of essays, essays that, as the editors claim, bear witness to "the extraordinary vitality of contemporary Renaissance studies" (x).

Work Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).