Kenneth J. Graham. The Performance of Conviction: Plainness and Rhetoric in the Early English Renaissance. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1994. 231 pp.
Review by,
Shannon Murray
University of Prince Edward Island

Murray, Shannon. "Review of The Performance of Conviction: Plainness and Rhetoric in the Early English Renaissance." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 10.1-4 <URL:

  1. Claims to plain speech or plain truth are far from plain and simple, as Kenneth Graham points out in this far-ranging and valuable study of the difficult convergence of rhetoric and plainness in early modern England. Graham explores the problems inherent in a rhetoric of plainness, bringing into the discussion the lyric poem, the theological tract and educational treatise, and--in the book's last and best sections--the drama. He is careful to point out the difference between his own interest in plainness as a way of knowing and the earlier debates involving, among others, C.S. Lewis, Yvor Winters, and Stanley Fish. Those debates concentrated on the plain style, or plainness as a way of speaking; Graham's subject is plainness in a rhetorical context, a context that includes language and also audience, historical moment, and the position of the speaker. What makes that subject so fascinating is the inherent antirhetorical emphasis in the claim to plainness: what is true and plain should always be so, no matter who the speaker or who the audience or what the social or political moment. And so the marriage of "rhetoric" and "plainness" leads to the two problems which make up the centre of the book: the relationship between public and private plain speaking and "the ethical problem that plainness creates in the absence of rhetorical criteria for truth" (23).

  2. The first and third chapters demonstrate Graham's strength as a careful and sensitive reader of poems. His readings of Wyatt's anti-courtly poems and especially of Greville's Caelica take up the discussion of Wyatt's withdrawal and Greville's dualism in a way that clarifies the former and makes an especially good and strong case for attention to the latter. Wyatt's assertions of "plain truth," he argues, are not wholly anti-rhetorical because his speaker requires the performance, the expression of his truth in order to convince himself. Those assertions are rhetorical insofar as they depend on the presence of an audience that could be persuaded to reassure the speaker of the truth of his own convictions. He is not independent from his audience: "He needs an audience in front of whom he can perform his convictions, and so earn his privilege" (48). Especially good here is the section that looks at "privilege"--that is, the "privus-lex" or "private law" by which an individual may determine evidence, judge, and "pronounce and enforce that judgement as he sees fit" (38). In contrast to Wyatt's private plainness is Fulke Greville's balance between it and a public purpose. The third chapter takes as its starting point the position of Ronald Rebholz, Richard Waswo, and others, that Greville's life and work are characterised by an irreconcilable dualism, a pessimism that comes from seeing between the human and the divine an unbridgeable chasm. Graham suggests instead of this dualism a triad of peace, order, and confusion. His conclusion is that for Greville, Protestant theology and Tudor politics were not at odds: "rather these two forms of reform converge in his writings, cooperating to give them their characteristically authoritative tone" (124). While the final chapter is perhaps the best, this one may represent the book's greatest scholarly contribution, because it makes a strong case for looking again at one of the age's most undervalued poets.

  3. If Wyatt tends toward private withdrawal and Greville works to reconcile the demands of public and private duties, The Admonition to Parliament and Ascham's The Scholemaster-- the subjects of Chapter 2--help Graham illustrate the workings of plainness in wholly public if quite different spheres. The chapter begins by exposing the reformer's problem: if Scripture is plain and universally accessible, why would one need to preach? In the end, these and other Puritan tracts depend for authority solely on God, and their interest is necessarily less in persuasion than in bringing together a community of like-minded Christians. In Ascham, Graham's attention turns to the problem of teaching what is plain, a problem any of us who have attempted to "teach" truly plain-style lyric poems know in little--the truly plain should not need the mediating force of the teacher. He manages to play two very different texts off against each other in a way that does not seem strained by showing how each represents a struggle between "the certainty of conviction" and the "consensus of community" (74). In The Admonition, that struggle is between "feeling and historical faiths"; in Ascham, it is between "learned and popular authorities" (74).

  4. The last three chapters turn to the ethical problems that plainness causes, beginning with the one-sided expression of plainness in angry genres such as revenge tragedy and satire. But the strongest arguments of the book are in the last chapter on King Lear. Graham prepares for those with a look at the characters of Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, whose pretensions to plainness demonstrate the danger when conviction and desire are not properly separated: at that point, he argues, "they appear to lack a centre of moral choice" and are more "compulsive" than "morally responsible" (187). In Graham's line of argument, though, King Lear appears as a pleasing, even moving, resolution. Quick to point out that his is not a "redemptivist" reading of the play, he offers instead one that rests between that and the sceptical: there, the private plainness which Cordelia demonstrates in a painfully public scene shows that "private conviction can seek the public good, and the performance of conviction can serve others as well as the self" (205). What Kent, Cordelia, the Fool, and Edgar all do, Graham argues, is find a plainness that maintains its conviction but acts as the situation demands: that is, they learn to connect private plainness to "rhetorical intelligence" (218). The discussion is a strong finish to a useful study, which Graham points out is neither a chronological nor a representative survey of plainness in the period, and his own prose serves as a model for the pleasingly plain in academic writing.
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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)