Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation

Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation

Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation

Reading Literature Historically: Drama and Poetry from Chaucer to the Reformation

Synopsis

Pioneer of early-modern literary historicism reads Medieval and early Tudor drama and poetry historically. How far should we try to read medieval and early modern texts historically? Does the attempt to uncover how such texts might have been received by their original readers and audiences uncover new, hitherto unexpected contemporary resonances in them? Or does it flatten works of art into mere 'secondary sources' for historical analysis? This book makes the case for the study of literature in context. It demonstrates the value of historical and cultural analysis alongside traditional literary scholarship for enriching our understanding of plays and poems from the medieval and early Tudor past and of the cultures which produced and received them. It equally accepts the risks involved in that kind of study.

Excerpt

This is a book about drama, poetry and politics in the period from the age of Chaucer and the Gawain-poet to the onset of the English and Scottish Reformations in the mid-sixteenth century. It explores, and hopes to demonstrate, both the potential value and the potential pitfalls of reading the literature and drama of this period ‘historically’, that is, in dialogue with historical events and the political cultures of the communities which produced and received it. The chapters that follow will examine a wide range of dramatic and literary texts from the period, some of which, like Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, the late medieval English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or the Scottish herald, Sir David Lindsay’s monumental drama, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (performed variously in 1540, 1552 and 1554) are relatively well known. Others, like the early Tudor Interlude of Godly Queen Hester (?1529) or the anonymous fifteenth-century addition to the Canterbury Tales, The Plowman’s Tale, are perhaps less so. What unites each of the chapters is that they take their cue from the late Kevin Sharpe’s contention, quoted as an epigraph to this book, that studying the literature of a historical period provides a far richer experience of its culture and politics than consideration of more notionally ‘historical’ documents alone. To read literature historically allows us to see how contemporary men and women deployed the ideas, concepts and symbols that mattered to them and how they represented their own relationships to such ideas and symbols. It allows us to hear them discussing questions of morality, identity, belief, private and public probity and responsibility openly and at length rather than tacitly, or in the midst of other things. And it permits us some insight into how those men and women might respond, emotionally and aesthetically (as well as intellectually, strategically or pragmatically) to moral, social and political issues. To read literature historically is, then, also to attend to history imaginatively and aesthetically, with a wider, fuller regard to the concerns, at once both intimately . . .

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