Dennis Kezar. Guilty Creatures: Renaissance Poetry and the Ethics of Authorship. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 268pp. ISBN 0 19 514295 0.

Scott Newstrom
Oberlin College

Newstrom, Scott. "Review of Dennis Kezar, Guilty Creatures: Renaissance Poetry and the Ethics of Authorship." Early Modern Literary Studies 7.3 (January, 2002): 7.1-5 <URL:

  1. The extent to which there is a relationship between 'representation' and 'violence' is not a particularly new matter of debate, though it seems thus every time politicians decide to take Hollywood to task. What impact mimesis might have on behaviour has been tendentious since Plato banished poets from the republic, yet we still lack a coherent theory for what exactly this impact would entail. French poststructuralists have often revisited this longstanding quandary, notably in Foucault's correlation between authorship and punishment, Derrida's emphasis on the "violence of the letter," and Girard's linking of violence and the mimetic; certain lines of feminist thought have, in turn, found it useful to identify representation itself as fundamentally violent or even pornographic. Such readings have often proved suggestive, but can lead to grandiose yet effectively diluted claims about "the representation of violence," "the violence of representation," or even "the representation of violence and the violence of representation," a tempting chiasmus which has entitled a number of essays and more than one conference. These phrases convey the intuition that some relation in fact exists, but their appeal is diffused by the often unsupported extravagance of their claims (perhaps deriving in part from the anxiety-induced urge to hyperpoliticize literature). The intuition has a particular appeal for students of early modern England, since texts in the period so readily seem to thematize the relation, and 'authority' itself was so self-admittedly preoccupied with 'violence' (symbolic and real) and 'representation' (most familiarly in the analogues frequently made between sovereignty and theatricality). Given these materials, the urge to trace the resonances between aesthetic and cultural contexts has, not surprisingly, often found ample support for linking "the forms of power and the power of forms," to use another chiasmus from an influential early collection of new historicist essays. In retrospect, many of these kinds of arguments from the early 1980s now appear rhetorically over-extended, with too many unsubstantiated leaps across discursive spans. Much of the recent critical work in the period (for instance, the consistently impressive "Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture" series) sets out to fill in such argumentative gaps with a Geertzian "thick description" ever thicker, or rather a process of description which is more consistently "thick" across texts.

  2. Dennis Kezar's ingenious project applies this mode of intensively close reading to moments of intrusive violence in English Renaissance poetry and drama. This kind of specificity allows him to avoid bland generalizations about the topic, devoting his impressive concentration instead to selective texts from Skelton's Phyllyp Sparowe to Milton's Samson Agonistes. Moreover, he avoids imposing unnecessary theoretical jargon by immersing his readings so thoroughly in the discursive environments of his sources. Part of his larger project, in fact, is to read the poets' own defensive self-exculpations as symptomatic of the inherent uneasiness in representing violence through the "killing poem," a term he borrows from Sigurd Burckhardt. Kezar takes Burckhardt's observation (that a tragedy is a kind of "killing poem . . . the killer is, quite literally, the poet . . . it is he, therefore, who must in some sense accept responsibility for it" [15]) quite literally, in that the poets he examines have themselves often anticipated and incorporated a response to the accusation of complicity in "destroying [their] subjects" (1). Thus, for example, Kezar's analysis of Skelton's poem benefits from his attention to Skelton's own repeated self-defences (which are far more extensive than the criticisms of a sixteenth-century contemporary such as Alexander Barclay). The advantage of this kind of scrutiny is that the texts prove quite rewarding; they stand up to the analysis, and often reveal a surprisingly sophisticated thematization of "the violence of representation" and "the ethics of authorship." Yet we never get the sense that Kezar is imposing these readings through a dogmatic theoretical apparatus. Even the fairly well-worn critical move of examining an antitheatricalist such as Stephen Gosson in the context of Shakespeare's plays yields new insight into the tensions over the "harms . . . of representation" (namely, the assertion "that the stage is a law court perverted," a subject of interest to Kezar, who is editing a forthcoming collection of essays on the topic) (87).

  3. The introduction acknowledges the inevitable precedent of Stephen Greenblatt's work, and certainly "self-fashioning" in violent opposition to some "threatening Other" (6) is of import throughout the study, but the kind of analysis that Kezar is most indebted to (and which his approach most resembles) is to be found in the vaguely Emersonian line of American writers who take literature (particularly Shakespeare) seriously, even philosophically; by his own admission, this includes Kenneth Burke, Stanley Cavell, and Harry Berger, Jr. Indeed, we might say that the strength of Kezar's book is in taking all of his readings seriously, if not literally, to the extent that the rhetorical progress of a chapter often hinges on an astonishingly emblematic passage that seems to crystallize in parvo the problematic issues of the larger work under examination. Because these moments are so compellingly representative, and Kezar clearly marks them as such in his prose, a brief overview of some major examples will serve well to outline the topics of the individual chapters. In Phyllyp Sparowe, the "prycked" sparrow in Jane's "sampler" stands in as "the representation briefly [come] alive only to announce its capacity to suffer and die in the hands of another" (28); Serena's scene with the cannibals in The Fairie Queene 6.8 presents a "paradigmatic moment" (70) in which "theatricalized poetry of praise . . . not only slanders . . . but tears asunder" (77); Julius Caesar's Cinna the poet becomes the "superlative victim" of "being consciously misread" (91), and stands as "an emblem of this theater's censurable energies and properties"(111); in The Witch of Edmonton, the character of Dog, who "discovers himself as a theatrical invention"(137), "reveals the dramatists' indictment of themselves" (136); and the link between Milton's Samson Agonistes and the ars moriendi tradition is fortuitously reinforced by Jonson's conjunction of the Samson story with Thomas Becon's The Sick Man's Salve in Eastward Hoe (154). (The last chapter steps out of this generally historical sequence to return to Henry V and antitheatrical elegies by W.S. and Milton.)

  4. "Synecdochic reading" is an apt description of this approach, a term Kezar uses in the context of the Renaissance stage (111). Not surprisingly, the figure of Orpheus himself, a poet with an especially vexed relationship to violence, serves as a kind of synecdoche throughout the work, providing a "focus [for] many of the ethical tensions considered in this study" (28). The potential problem with any "synecdochic reading," of course, is the issue of how 'representative' it is of the larger theme; as Burke once put it, somewhat tautologically, "If you don't select [an anecdote] that is representative in a good sense, it will function as representative in a bad sense" (324). Fortunately, Kezar's good sense leads to sharp selections; one only wishes to see what his method would produce in works by poets not examined at length in this study (particularly Marlowe), and other less canonically literary genres (say, parliamentary speeches, or historical chronicles, where the intrusion of textual violence should be equally troublesome). Along the same lines, one is also led to question why early modern political philosophers of violence were not addressed more thoroughly. Hobbes and Machiavelli barely merit footnotes here, but applying Kezar's rhetorical analysis of intrusions of textual 'violence' within their works would seem especially promising.

  5. Another phrase from the book which helpfully encapsulates the argumentative method is "reading . . . alongside" (61). While cautious about over-analogizing contiguous works (he acknowledges, for instance, the temptations to treat texts as transpositions, correlations, or representatives of one another [162-3]), he often draws connections between works in a manner that reveals a real literary intelligence. For instance, the chapter on Samson Agonistes argues that Milton drew on his readers' familiarity with the ars moriendi tradition to present a complex critique of Charles' own art of dying in Eikon Basilike. While the chapters concentrate primarily on the works listed above, each demonstrates a deep and broad familiarity with its respective author's entire corpus, to the extent that each chapter stands, in my mind, as a significant contribution to the study of Skelton, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dekker/Ford/Rowley, and Milton--no small feat. Likewise, while the theme of representational and interpretative violence predominates the entire work, sections of the book fruitfully address longstanding critical issues in Renaissance literary studies (such as the epideictic, a major emphasis of the Spenser chapter, or gender, which underlines much of the Skelton portion); there are also substantial readings of Jonson's plays and Donne's poems. Many incidental allusions to later poets such as Browning, Yeats, and Auden invigorate the prose style, as do frequent paraphrases of Shakespearean lines. The title itself, of course, draws from Hamlet's description of the intended effect of The Murder of Gonzago, and there are witty intrusions from the play throughout the book. While on the whole Kezar engages with the most appropriate critical responses to the texts he examines, and Hamlet admittedly does not receive a full chapter's worth of attention, the omission of two important essays which directly confront the subject of "violence" in the play (by Leonard Tennenhouse and John Guillory) seems an unfortunate oversight. Yet this is a comparatively minor criticism for such a thoroughly well-conceived project.

Works Cited

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

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)