The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature

By David M. Posner | Go to book overview

1
Introduction: “The Noble Hart”

Edmund Spenser summed up the aspirations of a class and an age when he described, in the Faerie Queene (I, v, 1, 1–4), the state of mind of the Redcrosse Knight on the eve of a great tournament:

The noble hart, that harbours vertuous thought, And is with child of glorious great intent, Can never rest, untill it forth have brought Th' eternal brood of glorie excellent…

This image of nobility–as something pure, unmediated, even innocent–is one which late Renaissance nobility liked to hold of itself, at a time when the possibility of artless, unconstrained public self-presentation seemed as if it were rapidly being foreclosed. The historical position and identity of the nobility were being threatened by the rise of the modern nation-state and the new power and importance of the princely court. A nostalgic yearning for a Golden Age of artless self-presentation thus formed an important part of the ideology of nobility in this period. Spenser's text itself executes a double movement of optimism and despair; even as these lines enunciate the idealized image of the “noble hart, ” they simultaneously suggest the impossibility of its realization. This comes about both through the self-conscious archaism of the Faerie Queene as a whole, situating itself in a nostalgically viewed and no longer accessible past, and through this passage's insistence on the inability of that “noble hart” to rest, to be content, until it has attained the “eternal … glorie”–that is, the public fame, the perfect reputation always still to be achieved–that will render it immortal. In Spenser, internal virtue is not enough for the noble soul; that soul cannot rest, indeed noble identity cannot be said to exist, until it is confirmed in front of an audience. 1 It is this imperative of display, of the public performance of nobility, that is the subject of the present work.

The link between theatricality and ideas of nobility and courtly behavior in the late Renaissance, hinted at here in Spenser, is made far more explicit by other Renaissance writers, who regularly use the metaphor of the theatre to describe both the court and noble identity. To be sure, this usage

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