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Allison K. Deutermann and András Kiséry, eds. Formal Matters: Reading the Materials of English Renaissance Literature
by David Landreth

Allison K. Deutermann and András Kiséry, eds. Formal Matters: Reading the Materials of English Renaissance Literature. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2013. xii + 258 pages. ISBN: 978-0719085536. $100.00 cloth.


This lively and wide-ranging essay collection works to more closely coordinate the methods and priorities of literary criticism with those of book history. Although bibliographic analyses have a rich pedigree, the editors trace their current eminence in Renaissance studies to David Scott Kastan’s cheerful call for a “New Boredom” in his 1999 monograph, Shakespeare after Theory—by which Kastan had in mind a scholarly practice more attentive to the verifiable particulars of the forms in which texts first appeared, forms which (he argued) not only mediate but constrain the interpenetrative flows of text and cultural context that so excited the old New Historicists. Emerging from a major conference at Columbia in 2008, Formal Matters offers a decade’s retrospection upon Shakespeare after Theory: what about the New Boredom of book history has turned out to be interesting to the field of English Renaissance literary studies more largely?

The volume’s answer is, quite a lot. The ten essays in Formal Matters range across an exciting variety of early modern printed texts, from the ephemera of news sheets to such monumental volumes as Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, and from high-culture productions like Sidney’s Defense down to the lower-middlebrow markets for jest books and “penny godlinesses.” The volume is particularly strong in developing accounts of textual productions that elude any model of originary authorship—collations, occasional miscellanies, translations, continuations. Despite the gesture toward physis implied by the book’s title, the “materials” treated by the individual essays are almost entirely intratextual, linguistic ones: this is a volume about textual practices and not about printing-house practices, about how words are brought together to form books rather than how ink, paper, leather, and glue turn words into books.

The volume’s ambitions are well realized in its flagship essay, in which Heather James finds an emergent egalitarian reading position embedded in the sixteenth-century form of the printed English commonplace book. The readerly and editorial practices of commonplacing in English, she argues, situate their practitioners as “common readers” in a newly authoritative relationship to the commonwealth: the books bring together the tools and the venue for any literate individual to participate in productive political critique. In a splendid analytical flourish, James points out that Seneca’s commonplacing bee, who digests the nectar of many authors into its own mellifluous discourse, is simultaneously—in a parallel topos—the ideal citizen of the harmonious, industrious commonwealth of the hive. But, though the commonplace books offer a new venue for Englishmen’s political engagement, they also limit that engagement within the scope of their reader’s position as common reader. Because the books present their sententiae as universal, stripped of context that would link them to a particular speaker or occasion, they detach their political discourse from the traditional forms of deliberative rhetoric, the speech of individuated (and elite) agents reacting to particular political circumstances to demand a particular course of action. The sixteenth-century commonplace book sacrifices the established ethos of political participation in order to create a newly common venue for political discussion; the kind of agent who might emerge from that discussion, and the kind of action s/he might take, are not themselves defined in the commonplace-book’s form. Subtle, witty, authoritative, and provocative, James’s essay is the most memorable critical argument I’ve read this year.

Adam Smyth’s chapter on Renaissance jest books well complements James’s essay, not only in its attention to a form that is compiled rather than authored, but in its consideration of how that form manifests a radical potential. He locates the Renaissance “jest” in a transition from memorably acrobatic, not even necessarily clownish, action (gesta), to its verbal memorialization, to the intraverbal acrobatics of anataclasis, the willful taking of another’s words in a contrary sense. Although anataclasis is very often presented as a weapon of the weak in the jest books, Smyth finds its radicalism not in the momentary embarrassment of a misinterpreted master, but in the consciousness of linguistic mutability embedded in the form.

Matthew Zarnowiecki demonstrates how much more sense, and more interest, we may find in the two joined poems we’ve come to call “The Phoenix and the Turtle” once we remove them from the back of a collected Shakespeare and reinsert them in the volume for which they were composed, the miscellany Loves Martyr. Through the occasional and rivalrous context of miscellaneous composition, Zarnowiecki brings to vibrant life verses that (to me) had always seemed rather inert in isolation, demonstrating that each poem in the volume, Shakespeare’s included, engages the amiably cacophonous “Vatum chorus” of fellow authors, each staking out its own relation to the diverse materials of the volume as a whole.

Where Zarnowiecki’s essay succeeds by reversing single-author editorial practices to focus on the circumstances of polyvocal publication, Jeffrey Todd Knight’s takes a nearly opposite tack, studying how an individual’s authorship precipitates out of those polyvocal circumstances. The instance he begins with is Middleton’s Blacke Booke, a text that presented itself (without an author’s name on it) as a continuation of Nashe’s Pierce Pennilesse, and his argument goes on to consider how so self-effacing and parasitic an authorial position has come to be consolidated into the massive edifice of the brand-new Oxford Middleton—examining both what is effaced, and what is made newly possible, for critics approaching Middleton through the form of a Collected Works. Satisfying though Knight’s account largely is, he tends to express the relationship between polyvocality and authorship as the unidirectional imposition of anachronistic editorial practices; closer attention to Pierce Pennilesse itself as the ground of Middleton’s continuation—both to Nashe’s deployment of Pierce as the persona of his own capital-A Authorship, and to his complaints against the editorial practice of the book’s printer—might usefully complicate this paradigm.

Tanya Pollard’s essay compellingly revises our understanding of the influence of classical Greek drama on the drama of sixteenth-century England, an influence traditionally assumed to be quite limited. Pollard first demonstrates that parallel-text editions of the Greek dramatists circulated widely in England, and goes on to trace how the formats of those editions—which thoroughly explicate technical Greek dramatic vocabulary, and frequently incorporate treatises on genre theory—contribute to the technical development of English drama from “interlude” into self-professed tragedies and comedies.

Henry S. Turner considers how the matter of alien lands and languages comes to reach English readers through the many forms of transmission and translation embedded in Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations. He argues forcefully that we should understand Hakluyt’s translation practices in spatial and material terms, not only intralinguistic ones: for Turner (here following Bruno Latour), every movement, transference, or recombination of matter is an act of translation, from the commodification of resources to the listing of data to the wresting of phonemes into letters.

Amanda Bailey’s chapter on Slade’s Case and Michaelmas Term focuses not on the forms of published texts, but on the proliferative textuality attending the changing concept of contract in the period. Her methods and her goals have more to do with law-and-drama as a subfield than they do with book history, and in that sense the essay might seem to stand apart from the rest of the volume; but Bailey’s close attention to the materiality of inscription, through which legal forms attempt to capture or supplant the materiality of the bodily hand, draws the chapter into a potentially productive, if as yet implicit, dialogue with its companion pieces.

Alan Stewart analyzes Shakespeare’s dramaturgy in terms of the cacophony of foreign news reports in sixteenth-century England, which sought to offer current, eyewitness accounts of such developing Continental crises as the French civil war, but whose breathless urgency was matched only by the unreliability of their testimony and their haphazard transmission. In a compelling and wholly persuasive contribution, Stewart shows that Shakespeare imitates not only the form of individual dispatches, but the experience of their reception—as a uniformly urgent, individually dubious, mutually contradictory, and usually nonsequential presentation of an already-chaotic nexus of events abroad—as the lens through which he presents the past events of the English chronicle, the central reality effect through which he renders history as a present form upon the stage.

Peter Lake argues against too distant a reading practice in book history, which he argues can produce a misleading picture of the meaning of particular books by attending to their paratexts and circumstances of publication to the exclusion of what they actually say. The case study he takes up is the print career of John Andrewes, a crucial figure in the seventeenth-century market for piety on paper. Deftly reversing the generalizations of several well-known historians of English religion who oppose an elite Protestant doctrine to the essentially unreformed, mercenary demands of the print market, Lake closely reads the relation of medium to message as it develops across Andrewes’s production, and finds Andrewes striving to accommodate official doctrine to the marketable form of cheap print, rather than disregarding or opposing that doctrine. The tensions that Andrewes’s production manifests between the value of grace and material, transactional values are, Lake argues, characteristic of Calvinist doctrine itself; rather than opposing godly values with an alien value system, the reformulation of elite doctrine into the crudity of cheap print lays bare the fault line within that doctrine’s system of value.

In the volume’s final chapter, Shankar Raman compares Descartes’s geometric theory to the theory of poiesis put forward by Sidney in the Defence of Poesy. Unlike earlier geometers, Raman demonstrates, Descartes abstracts geometry from material conditions: it produces its own truths, rather than describing truths of the phenomenal world. Raman finds a close analogy to the constructibility of truth in Descartes’s geometry in Sidney’s insistence on the poet as the maker of “another nature,” rather than someone making propositional claims about this one. Rather than a license to fabricate, the position of maker invests both mathematician and poet with a deep ethical responsibility to the materials they construct. Raman grounds the analogy between the two arts in the neo-Aristotelianism shared by the two theorists. It’s a richly engaging nexus, and I feel as though Raman is on the verge of drawing a further argumentative claim from it that is for the moment implicit to him within the analogy; I hope he will develop it in scholarship to come.

The least satisfying elements of Formal Matters are its paratexts. It’s a nuisance not to have a bibliography at the back of the book, and to have so cursory an index—both would have been useful tools in developing a distant reading of the book’s collective concerns. The Introduction is not very helpful in this regard either. Deutermann and Kiséry present the volume as a work of “historical formalism,” but this is not an allegiance claimed by any of the authors of the chapters. The pages that attempt to squeeze these ten essays into this unlooked-for pigeonhole might better have been devoted to coordinating the different ways in which these critics each relate “form” to “matter” and to “materials.” Kastan’s brief Afterword demonstrates the complex changes that may be rung on these terms, but without any particular reference to the chapters that have preceded it.

As is fitting for a volume so concerned with how texts manifest themselves to the eye and hand as books, Formal Matters is a handsome package, both inside and out. The striking cover imitates the white-on-black typography of the title page of The Blacke Booke, and the interior design relies on a small but elegant font, a Perpetua, that packs many characters on the page without seeming dense or crowded. The intellectual properties used in the design—Perpetua and the Huntington’s copy of Blacke Booke—are duly credited, but the designer of Formal Matters is left anonymous. I mention this lapse not only because I would have liked to be able to praise the designer by name, but because it suggests how far we still have to go in incorporating not only the insights, but the collaborative values, that we are learning from book history into our own writerly and editorial habits of critical production.

David Landreth
University of California, Berkeley


  • Virginia Beach Mobile Mechanic Co. 2 months, 2 weeks ago

    The volume’s ambitions are well realized in its flagship essay, in which Heather James finds an emergent egalitarian reading position embedded in the sixteenth-century form of the printed English commonplace book.

    Link / Reply
  • amanda the adventurer 1 month, 2 weeks ago

    It shows how far we still have to go in integrating not just the ideas, but also the designers' names, which is disappointing because I would have preferred to be able to do so.

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

David Landreth, "Allison K. Deutermann and András Kiséry, eds. Formal Matters: Reading the Materials of English Renaissance Literature," Spenser Review 44.2.40 (Fall 2014). Accessed July 18th, 2024.
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