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Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes
by William A. Oram

Greene, Roland. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. 224 pp. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013. $35.00 cloth.

Roland Greene’s short, ambitious book charts the cultural history of the long sixteenth century (1525-1675) by the changes in the title’s five words. By “words” Greene means both the words as they appear in English, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, and the concepts that “shadow” them. He argues that, with some exceptions, the permutations of the five words of the title remain more or less equivalent to one another across the languages. The five words are invention, language, resistance, blood and world. These are, he stresses, common words, less obviously ideological than others he might have chosen. But they “open onto different disciplinary problems, invention onto rhetoric and technology, language onto linguistics and ethnology, resistance onto politics and imperialism, blood onto medicine and race, and world onto astronomy and philosophy …” (13) The book thus touches on most of the major issues that define the early modern period.

After an introduction, each of the book’s five chapters takes a word and follows its development, quoting and citing twelve to sixteen texts, of which four to six receive more extended treatment than the rest. The chapters also propose categories for the kind of linguistic change that each word exemplifies. The book thus forms a trial run for “cultural semantics,” Greene’s term for this attention to “meanings in motion” (11). While the timespans of the chapters overlap, they move gradually forward. The first starts with Rablelais (d. 1552), ending with Montaigne (d. 1592), while the last begins with the Scots humanist George Buchanan (d. 1582) finishing with Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (d. 1717).

In Greene’s argument, English texts make up perhaps thirty percent of those cited. Spenser plays a minor role as a conservative defender of royal power in Ireland (the View comes in for more attention than The Faerie Queene). Of Greene’s authors Shakespeare and Cervantes receive the fullest treatment, followed by Sidney, Camões, and the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. While many of the texts on which Greene spends time are conventionally literary, he is careful to include many less fictive works—rhetorical and medical treatises, histories, accounts of language. Greene includes passages from forty or forty-five different authors. He highlights a number of works written in the Americas, insisting on the commonness of the culture between the Hispanic peninsula and its colonies.

Invention is a “semantic palimpsest” in which “new meanings replace but never quite overwrite older ones” (18). The chapter follows the development of the word from the older sense of finding what is already in the world to the newer one of creating something new. Greene argues that the changes chart a new sense of human agency. The older uses of the word, centered in rhetorical practice, stress the discovery of already-extant matter, while the new ones “become human-centered, rather than matter-centered, a way of conceiving how human beings give meaning to the world” (26).

Language is a “pendant”—a word that gains definition by contrast with another word or words. The meanings of the opposed words aren’t fixed, and we see them in the process of temporary semantic crystallization. The pendant word for language is tongue (in French the pairing is langage and langue, and so on). A tongue is native speech conceived of from within; language, by contrast, is more abstract, known from the outside. All men speak their own tongues, but as they learn others they become aware of language as something larger and more artificial than native speech. Greene associates the opposition of language and tongue with the new cosmopolitanism of the European voyages of exploration and conquest, and many of his examples come from works by men who lived in the Americas.  To view one’s own tongue as a language is, he argues, “a feat of estrangement” (67) that looks toward modern conceptions of language as the creation of a particular culture.

Resistance is a “cartone” or cartoon, a verbal equivalent to the painter’s outline meant later to be filled in with color: the word adumbrates the meanings it will gradually assume. In the case of resistance, the word only gradually develops beyond the earlier sense of resistance to an enemy to a sense of resistance to tyrannical authority. While Marsilius of Padua argues against the authority of the Pope, it is only with the rise of absolute power—of empire—that it develops into a fully-argued theory of action. “Resistance comes to exist only in the presence of, or at a close remove from, absolute power; it is a catchall name given to the struggle against power by the absolutely or comparatively disempowered” (79).

Blood is a “conceptual envelope”— a physical phenomenon that has accreted a series of metaphorical (Greene calls them “allegorical”) meanings. Over time the envelope “frays,” the associations weaken and writers focus on the original, unmetaphorized phenomenon before again associating it with a new set of ideas. The late sixteenth century is “an interval between conceptions of blood, in which the medieval horizons of nobility, divinity and the cosmos come to be largely replaced by the modern notions such as family, class and race” (110). After associations with nobility, sacrifice, Christ’s passion and the Galenic sanguine humor fade, early seventeenth-century writers treat blood as a physical liquid.

World is a “semantic engine,” a category different in kind from the others, in that changes in the word catalyze developments in other areas. The new conceptions of the world between the late fifteenth century and the late seventeenth, bring with them shifts in politics, philosophy, cosmology and, of course, literature. Greene’s account moves from the vision of the world as unitary, singular and natural to one in which it appears partial, multiple and constructed. Where in early humanism the world “often conceived with suspicion and disdain” (146) is set against the self, by the middle of the period world and self appear interdependent. By the seventeenth century we move into the Baroque with its multiple, mutually exclusive perspectives on the same object. At the start we thus live in God’s familiar, unitary cosmos and by the end we’re aware of the mind’s part in constructing an ultimately unknowable reality.

A brief afterword argues for critical semantics as a means of getting beyond the focus on individual texts—“the Shakespeare problem” as he calls it elsewhere—in which one focuses on themes within a writer, neglecting to connect the work with its historical context. By making words primary, cultural semantics re-immerses the authors he treats in the culture. “Shakespeare, Cervantes and other major authors are among the many voices whose investment in five words deserve attention, but they are not the final horizons of the project—only the words are” (176).

The sheer reach of this project, which envisions the growth of European culture in six languages and on both sides of the Atlantic, makes this book stand out. One characteristic of all Greene’s books is an exhilarating fertility of invention, and it appears again here. The most entirely satisfying chapter is the one on the shifting senses of invention, where the analysis of the term illuminates the period’s changes in attitude and also illuminates the texts that it treats, setting Roger Ascham against Philip Sidney and Sidney against Anne Lock, making one see both the word and the author freshly. Greene’s insights are matched by his ability to come up with striking phrases, like those he has developed for his five categories. “Palimpsest” captures the ways that words carry their past with them, and “semantic engine” crystalizes the process by which a change in one field influences changes in others. (A comparable semantic engine for the twentieth century might be “relativity.”)

Five Words is a short book—176 pages with 27 pages of notes.  It presents itself not as a definitive account of the early modern period, but as a demonstration of its method, the use of individual words to chart the changes of a culture. Greene’s approach builds on a range of texts mentioned in his first note, which in different ways connect culture with language—the philological tradition embodied in Leo Spitzer’s Essays in Historical Semantics, the analyses in Empson’s The Structure of Complex Words, the account of crucial cultural terms in Raymond William’s Keywords, Reinhart Koselleck’s treatment of history in The Practice of Conceptual History, even the purely philological discussions in C. S. Lewis’ Studies in Words.

But Greene wants also to distance his project from those others, and above all to avoid the reliance on close-reading central to Spitzer and Empson. For him close-reading leads to “the Shakespeare problem,” which removes its texts from the flow of history. He makes a point in the introduction of calling his method “elemental,” capturing the development of humanism not in texts but “at the cellular level” (3), in words. The readings of his book won’t be readings of the works he treats—at least not primarily readings of those works. Instead, the texts appear in order to exemplify the gradual shift in the meanings of the words.  Accordingly Greene’s practice here differs strikingly from that of his first two books, which devote good-sized chapters to readings of particular figures. He moves quite quickly from text to text, never devoting more than five pages to any work at one time, obviating the possibility of a full “literary” discussion. The very brevity of a book treating perhaps forty authors, many of them several times, frustrates the expectation of extended literary analysis.

I think that Greene exaggerates the perils of close reading, and in fact the book offers a number of tightly argued, convincing interpretations of individual texts. In dealing with “invention” he treats the first sonnet of Astrophil and Stella, in which the term appears three times, with an attention that illuminates both the changing uses of the word and the poem. Similarly, when he turns to The Tempest in his second chapter, the play benefits from being placed in the context of evolving conceptions of language as well as the more familiar concern with empire. Greene quotes Caliban: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t, / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language” (I.ii.363-5) and he asks why Caliban doesn’t learn a tongue. “Though he is taught Prospero’s Italian, he learns it as a language he enters from the outside rather than a tongue he can inhabit from within. Not only for Caliban, but for everyone, Prospero’s island turns tongues into languages” (61). Greene’s epigram gets at the way that the island forces visitors to see the world anew. But it’s important for his purpose that we see the passage as an insight into the history of the word language, not a reading of a text.  

Yet the avoidance of full close-readings does come at a price, especially in a book as condensed as this one. We know the meaning of a word in a passage by its context, and the larger and more carefully-considered that context, the surer we can be of the meaning. Greene typically quotes generous passages but where he reads them inaccurately, as he sometimes does, his historical argument is weakened. The opening of the chapter on “world” quotes a diatribe by George Buchanan against the Portuguese colonization of the new world, and finds in it references to the fragmentation of the world, which I was unable to find. The misreading undermines his larger claims.

Further, the attempt to cover so much—to deal with five very different words, covering so many aspects of culture in such a short space—leads him at times to oversimplify the historical account. Human blood in the middle ages, for instance, was not always mediated by metaphor. In Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, when Arcite is dying of his wounds, his infected breast swells and “the clothered [clotted] blood … corrupteth… .” (ll.1887-8). This is blood as blood, not blood as symbol. Nor is blood without symbolic weight in the early seventeenth century: Lady Macbeth may insist that “a little water clears us of this deed” but Macbeth knows better. The tradition of blood on the hands, involved with guilt or even pollution, goes back to the Greeks, and it never departs.

How much does the book alter our view of the long sixteenth century? Many of Greene’s themes are Burkhardian. Europeans develop an increased sense of agency, and the old religious world is gradually eroded by a new secularism, which enables writers to see material substances, like blood, as mere matter. The concern with power and authority—the state as a work of art—is central to his account as it is in Burkhardt’s, but his treatment is much more deeply inflected by the colonization of the Americas, focusing as it does on empire, not on the Italian city-states. The one aspect of the long sixteenth century that Greene seems to me to slight is religion—and that, too, is a Burkhardtian omission. Yet while the historical outline is in some part familiar, its method makes one see the developments of the period differently, through words penned on both sides of the Atlantic.

William A. Oram
Smith College



  • Everett Glimson 1 year ago

    After reading the book "Five Words" by Roland Green, I can't help but share my impressions about it. This book is short and allows the reader to understand the cultural history of the long sixteenth century using five key words. I recommend it to anyone interested in cultural history, as well as those who want to develop their critical thinking, use for this. The author offers an interesting and non-standard research methodology, which makes this book even more attractive. I liked Five Words for its depth and original approach to the study of cultural history.

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Cite as:

William A. Oram, "Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes," Spenser Review 45.2.39 (Fall 2015). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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