Glyn P. Norton, ed. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 3: The Renaissance. Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge UP, 1999. xxiii+758 pp. ISBN 0 521 30008 8 Cloth.

Neil Rhodes
University of St Andrews

Rhodes, Neil. "Review of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 3: The Renaissance." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 22.1-8<URL:

  1. "This volume is the first to explore as part of an unbroken continuum the critical legacy both of the humanist discovery of ancient learning and of its neoclassical reformulation ... arguably the most complex phase in the transmission of the Western literary-critical heritage." The publisher's blurb is accurate. There really is nothing to compare with this extremely impressive book, and it will be useful to begin with a description of how the editor has set about his daunting task. To begin with, he has decided on a many-voiced text. There are sixty-one separate essays here, at about ten pages each, some shorter. This pays off enormously in terms of readability, not just on account of the intellectual variety it creates, but because it obliges the contributors to practise the virtues of economy and lucidity. Most of the scholars come from the U.S., there are a dozen from the U.K. and six from elsewhere.

  2. The book is divided into eight sections of unequal size. Much the longest of these, quite properly, is the second section,"Poetics," which comprises four sub-sections on "Humanist classifications," "The rediscovery and transmission of materials," "Rhetorical poetics" and "Literary forms." It is preceded by an opening section on reading and interpretation which is described as "an emerging discourse of poetics" and which deals with theories of language, evangelical humanism and the "four compelling originating voices": Aristotle, Horace, Cicero and Quintilian. The remaining sections cover theories of prose fiction, the cultural and social contexts of criticism, voices of dissent (eg. classicism versus the vernaculars, gender issues), structures of thought (eg. Neoplatonism, Stoicism), Neoclassicism, and national developments. After the initial feelings of oppressive copia have subsided, this structure emerges for the most part as logical, effective and satisfying.

  3. Glyn P. Norton's Introduction offers a synopsis of the entire volume, which is in itself a remarkable feat of synthesis. The intellectual context for criticism in the Renaissance is, of course, humanism, but to give it a more modern inflection the volume is styled as a history of reading in the period; indeed, Norton points out that the most modern aspect of the Renaissance text is its "preoccupation with the status of the reader as the recipient of literary utterance." But the central importance of rhetoric in Renaissance pedagogy meant that reading was conceived as a prelude to performance. The doctrine of imitation required reading to be a process of assimilation leading to emulative composition, and therefore, as Norton puts it, to the "fashioning of selfhood." It is this last phrase which produces the one aberration in this otherwise splendid introduction. Early on he claims that the plan of the volume is indebted to the paradigm of Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, a debt which this reviewer certainly found difficult to detect. Having suggested that there are etymological affinities between "criticism" and "crisis," Norton goes on to argue that the fact that Renaissance readers and literary critics felt obliged to distance themselves from earlier critical positions replicates Greenblatt's "hypothesis that self-identity is achieved within a framework of alterity". But both the contexts and the methodology of Greenblatt's seminal book, which is rooted in social anthropology, make this an improbable connection. Norton's "voices of dissent" include such radical groups as anti-Ciceronians and Ramist revisers of dialectic, rather than the socially and ethnically marginalised. There is a world of difference between a culturally informed poetics, which is precisely what Debora Shuger describes in her excellent chapter, "Conceptions of style," and what Greenblatt called "cultural poetics," which has nothing to do with poetics as such.

  4. To discuss poetics in this period means also to discuss rhetoric. And if we are talking about literary criticism we have to acknowledge that the available vocabulary of this art in the Renaissance was extremely limited, especially in the vernaculars and especially in English, while the vocabulary of rhetoric was extensive and sophisticated. Indeed, we might almost substitute "poetics" and "rhetoric" for our modern terms "criticism" and "theory" in their literary applications, were it not for the fact that some aspects of this volume lie a little outside the scope of the former. As Ann Moss explains in "Theories of poetry: Latin writers," the word "criticus" appears for the first time in the fifth book of Scaliger's Poetices libri septem (1561), which supplies comparative evaluations of passages from Greek and Roman authors on similar topics. But while Scaliger's terminology achieves a high degree of technical precision, his evaluative criteria and vocabulary are essentially those of humanist rhetoric, as Moss points out.

  5. In mentioning the range of the rhetorical lexicon we are not simply talking about lists of tropes and figures. A wide variety of issues concerned with the theory and practice of imitation required a technical vocabulary beyond that of the specific forms of ornament. In a further excellent essay, "Literary imitation in the sixteenth century: writers and readers, Latin and French," Moss begins by stating that Renaissance debates about art and nature are tied in with the assumption that "the genesis of literary composition lies in rhetoric and in the imitation of model authors," adding that Scaliger's critical method in the Poetices is closely affiliated to the practice of imitation. But the principle of imitation was problematic in ways which are particularly interesting to the modern scholar contemplating such phenomena as, on the one hand, internet plagiarism, and, on the other hand, the sudden growth in demand for courses in creative writing. Renaissance pedagogy did not encourage plagiarism, but (according to Omphalius) emulation, going one better. However, since the humanist goal was the perfect imitation of classical Latin, it's difficult to see how you could improve on this, Moss argues, except by more lavish ornamentation. What's more, how do you define your own identity as a writer if all creativity is dependent upon the following of prior model authors?

  6. At the heart of the matter is the shifting of authority and value -- cultural capital, to use Bourdieu's term -- from the classical to the vernacular languages. This is a process begun in the Renaissance, though far from being completed then, as classicism survived through being indigenized in vernacular culture. Richard Waswo discusses the transition in "The rise of the vernaculars"; Colin Burrow describes the invention of an English critical vocabulary in "Combative criticism: Jonson, Milton, and classical literary criticism in England" and Joshua Scodel surveys the development of a national criticism in "Seventeenth-century English literary criticism: classical values, English texts and contexts." These fine chapters in fact appear in quite separate sections of the book, which makes the development difficult to follow, but since I refer here to a single vernacular (English) this cannot be regarded as a reasonable complaint. The general point should, however, have been given greater prominence in the Introduction. The relationship between reading and performance, criticism and creativity, and imitation and originality in the Renaissance is an issue which is inseparable from the transfer of cultural capital from the classical to the vernacular. Within the context of this volume it is these relationships which provide the real location of the question of "self-identity," and they are rather different from the "framework of alterity" described by Greenblatt.

  7. What, then, would the reader consulting this volume find on the relationship between Renaissance literary criticism and the outstanding vernacular creative writer of the period, Shakespeare? Timothy J. Reiss's learned essay, "Renaissance theatre and the theory of tragedy," deals with the continental neoclassical prescriptions which Shakespeare largely ignored. He does, however, quote the passage from Hamlet on suiting the action to the word and comments: "The actors were not to identify with character. Proper performance involved absorption in action, not the strutting of an agent," which probably misidentifies "action" with plot rather than gesture. Roland Greene briefly summarises Joel Fineman on the Sonnets' radical departure from earlier lyric conventions in establishing a new kind of subjectivity. Joshua Scodel makes some well-judged remarks on Horace and Longinus in relation to Shakespeare's critical reception. And that, with the exception of George K. Hunter's "Elizabethan theatrical genres and literary theory," is about it. Hunter's opening statement sums up the problem: "The practice of Elizabethan drama cannot easily be brought into focus for us by the statements of Renaissance literary criticism." He uses the example of A Warning for Fair Women to illustrate the Elizabethan theatre's playful attitude to neoclassical genre theory, which leads him to the distinctiveness of English tragedy: "The tragic is part of a dialectic that keeps the claims of individual agony and of a "more serious" [spoudaioteros] action always flanked by a memory that real life is composed of ordinariness," and English comedy: "we see characters poised between open alternatives, and becoming freely human by the process of making choices (the process by which ethos is manifested, according to Aristotle)." These generalisations, both succinct and profound, derive from a lifetime's reflection on the relationship between theory and practice in English Renaissance drama.

  8. I have concentrated on aspects of this volume which seem likely to be of particular interest to readers of EMLS, so it is important also to emphasise that the book has very much a European dimension. It would be difficult for a single reviewer to do justice to its multilingual range. That said, what conclusions might we draw from the issues raised in relation to English studies? The main one seems to be that, although this is a book about activities practised by all literary scholars (criticism and theory), its concerns may seem a bit remote from those of the majority of English Renaissance specialists. It is significant that, despite being cited in the Introduction, Greenblatt never reappears in the following sixty-one chapters, even in a footnote. (At least, I think this is the case: the book has a superb index, but it does not run to modern academics.) There are a few well-known names from US English departments among the contributors, but only one from the UK (Colin Burrow). Yet would not theoretically-inflected, historicist approaches to literature wish to engage with theory in its historical contexts? Generally speaking they do not, and this may be because Renaissance literary criticism doesn't seem to provide obvious points of entry into the major creative works in English. But perhaps this outstanding volume will stimulate further thought about the relationship between criticism and creativity in the period. The intellectual, cultural and pedagogical conditions it maps out helped to produce the literature of the Renaissance either through compliance or resistance, or through a combination of both. In the case of Shakespeare, it may be that his creative debt to the precepts of criticism and theory is revealed in his very resistance to them.

Work Cited


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