Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber, eds. Renaissance Figures of Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 306pp. ISBN 978 0 521 86640 8.

Melissa Hudler
Lamar University and Anglia Ruskin University

Melissa Hudler. "Review of Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber, eds. Renaissance Figures of Speech". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.

  1. Renaissance Figures of Speech is a collection that casts a neglected element of rhetoric into a much-deserving scholarly light. Each chapter is devoted to an individual figure of speech and is prefaced by its definition from a Renaissance rhetoric handbook as well as by illustrations of its figure. These structural and textual features result in the volume’s mirroring of Renaissance rhetoric handbooks, an intentional organizational strategy of which the editors make note in their introduction. As the contributors prove, figures of speech hold provocative implications for Renaissance literature, arts, and other cultural practices.

  2. The volume opens with chapters devoted to revealing and restoring the significance of certain figures of speech. Sylvia Adamson begins this valuable endeavor with her chapter on synonymia. She first discusses the fall of synonymia, noting that time damaged the figure to the point that it became labeled as a stylistic vice by the 1600s. This unfortunate fate was preceded by a pedagogical and literary life, to which Adamson gives thoughtful and useful attention. Russ McDonald follows with a study of compar. McDonald’s aim is to prove that compar is more than just “a tactic for arranging clauses” (40). Indeed, he seeks to reveal the figure’s “artistic and philosophical significance” (40). Evidence from prose and poetry reveals the ultimate power of compar to forge the ideas of justice and cultural harmony. McDonald then provides a brief study of architecture that builds to an intriguing parallel of writing and construction techniques. Fighting for the dignity of puns, Sophie Read explicates the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes and the tragedies of Shakespeare, thus providing an engaging illustration of the “absolutely natural” (82) use of Renaissance wordplay. Read observes that there were various types of puns and that these types possessed specific and clearly understood uses for Renaissance writers. Yet, the appearance of the umbrella term pun in the late seventeenth-century banished the figure to a life of frivolity. Read’s study uncovers the grave nature of Renaissance wordplay through an examination of works that illustrate its intellectual, literary, and theological triumphs. Katrin Ettenhuber also works for the redemption of a figure: hyperbole. Ettenhuber analyzes theological writings and takes into account classical understanding of the sublime, in order to rescue hyperbole from the realm of rhetorical distrust. The author proves that this figure does not damage but, indeed, maintains the moral and intellectual integrity of the writings in which it is put to use.
  3. The collection takes on a more creative and visual focus with the chapters on prosopopoeia by Gavin Alexander and ekphrasis by Claire Preston. Their essays elucidate the impact of rhetoric on Renaissance characterization. Alexander’s contribution addresses character in terms of persona and identity. Accordingly, ethos is central to his study, which illustrates that prosopopoeia creates only the words a person speaks, not the person and not "even [the] voice" (112). To argue this point, Alexander provides a fascinating dismembering of character, as he engages with person, persona, voice, and words in Spenser, Milton, Sidney, and Shakespeare. With a focus on ekphrasis, Preston’s study analyzes character through visual details. Also working with Spenser, Sidney, and Shakepeare, Preston reveals that vivid description in literature provides a window to the psychology of poetic characters. Moreover, through analyses of Arcadia, The Rape of Lucrece, and The Faerie Queene, Preston proves that ekphrasis is a figure powerful enough not only to “embody abstractions” but also to “manipulate readerly point of view” (121)—a power that emphasizes the forensic background of this figure.
  4. Rhetoric and reversal proves a fascinating point of study through essays on hysteron proteron, paradiastole, and stylistic vices. Patricia Parker’s study of hysteron proteron looks at rhetoric’s far-reaching grasp. Through analyses of literary and religious writing, Parker reveals the figure’s ability to express a varied range of disorder, including corporeal, social, and political. An absolutely compelling section of the chapter addresses witchcraft and religious conversion in terms of “the preposterous.” Quentin Skinner’s essay on paradiastole and William Poole’s "The Vices of Style" survey rhetoric’s transformative powers, which allow character and stylistic flaws and vices to be recast and interpreted as virtues. For paradiastole, this means that someone can say he is wise instead of crafty, courageous rather than reckless, or careful, not niggardly. Poole addresses this flexibility of interpretation by outlining vices at work in various genres to the conclusion that adapting the art of classical oratory to Renaissance practices of writing and reading resulted in changed theories and practices of elocutio. These, along with Brian Cummings' study of metalepsis, share in Ettenhuber's attention to rhetorical boundaries and the effects of their apparent flexibility. Along with Skinner, Ian Donaldson addresses rhetorical pairings to illustrate the evaluative function of syncrisis. His study takes the figure from its pedagogical use to its function as the foundation of literary criticism, which he asserts is the medium through which comparison becomes an art form.
  5. Studies of periodos by Janel Mueller and testimony by R. W. Serjeantson further contribute to the historical and theoretical achievements of this collection. With this volume, the editors set out to amend the academic perspective of Renaissance figures of speech, concerning their relevance to and impact on the construction, reading, and interpretation of texts, as well other cultural constructs. To be sure, this collection's innovative focus and scholarly precision make for a necessary addition to Renaissance rhetorical and literary studies.


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© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).