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Leah Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants: Poetry, Antiquity, Reconciliation
by William J. Kennedy

Whittington, Leah. Renaissance Suppliants: Poetry, Antiquity, Reconciliation. Oxford UP, 2016. x + 239 pp. ISBN: 978-0198754442. $90.00 cloth.

In this book, Leah Whittington considers the dynamics of supplication as represented in classical and Renaissance epic, dramatic, and lyric texts to unleash moral as well as aesthetic questions, problems, and paradoxes. The moral issues seem easy enough to discern. They involve reprisals to aggression, approaches to reconciliation, adjustments to hierarchical patterns of inequality, and the roles that supplication can play in relation to each. The more that writers, artists, and thinkers explore these roles, however, the more ambiguity, asymmetry, and instability they are apt to find. The structure of plea and response in supplicatory acts invites ritual reactions, but the performance of any scripted supplication does not guarantee any scripted outcome. The result “might go either way,” making “each supplicatory occasion suspenseful, gripping, and alive” (17). In a position of “powerful powerlessness,” the suppliant attempts to transition “from one mode of relationship or state of feeling to another” while leaving open “infinite possibilities for disintegration and disruption” (18). In this aesthetic space of possibility, the performance of supplication elicits a “thrill of power” in both the suppliant and the supplicated, and among readers and spectators it “arouses feelings of surprise, admiration, and, most importantly, wonder” (39). In masterly analyses of scenes from (among other Greek tragedies) Euripides’s Medea, Suppliant Women, and Hecuba (23-31) and especially of Priam’s supplication of Achilles for Hector’s corpse in Book 24 of the Iliad (36-45), Whittington delineates criss-crossing relationships among the principal actors which suspend their opposing points of view and implicate audiences in the narrative and dramatic action. These analyses generate aesthetic paradigms that Virgil, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton challenge, adapt, appropriate, and reinvent in successive chapters.

The book’s only reference to Spenser occurs in a single sentence at the end of a footnote on sixteenth-century Homeric commentators who associate supplication with a loss of honor: “Supplication is similarly reserved for low-status characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, e.g. Trompart’s plea for mercy to Bragadocchio (2.3.4-11)” (181, n. 38). This claim startled me, coming as it does eleven pages from the book’s conclusion after a wealth of subtle and learned analysis of classical and Renaissance epic and dramatic texts. The encounter between Trompart and Bragadocchio provides an instance of comic satire, not easily generalizable to the codes of allegory and paradox at stake in Spenser’s epic of penitence and redemption. The truth is that Whittington’s examination of the topos of supplication provides a superb conceptual framework for understanding the dynamics of self-abasement and reconciliation in Spenser’s extensive oeuvre. More about that later. For now, let me comment on the framework that Whittington extracts from the work of Virgil, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton.

While the Homeric paradigm arches over the entire book, the paradigm fashioned by Virgil in the Aeneid deeply inflects the work of authors who follow. Petrarch and Milton devoted sustained attention to the Roman poet, and Shakespeare paid serious attention to him, but neither Petrarch nor Shakespeare knew much of the Greek poet. From Whittington’s perspective, Virgil’s most important contribution was the development of subjective viewpoints articulated by individual characters and above all by the principal narrator. Cicero and, later, Quintilian, developed important rhetorical theories about the mimetic and psychological function of prosopopoeia or imitated speech, and the Aeneid exemplifies its poetic function to stunning effect as it repeatedly “invites the reader to take the loser’s point of view” (80). Whittington’s clear-eyed analysis of the differing responses by Aeneas to Carthaginian depictions of the Trojan War and by Dido to Aeneas’s account of it strengthen the claim (68-72), and her close analysis of the tension between the narrator and Aeneas in the single combat between the hero and Turnus (75-81) reinforces it. Thirteen-and-a-half centuries later, Petrarch extends Virgil’s play of subjective viewpoints to encompass his own recognition of differences between the past and present. In his Latin epic Africa, he incorporates the Provençal Troubadour discourse of supplicant fin amor to represent the multiple, isolated, and conflicting senses of identity experienced by the lovers Massinissa and Sophonisba in Book 5 and by the narrator throughout the poem (97-106). As something of a coda to her chapter on Petrarch, Whittington examines a half-dozen of the poet’s Rerum vulgarium fragmenta to show how they displace Dante’s laudatory poetry of love with a supplicatory poetry that invites the possibility of reciprocation but also of “conscious self-delusion” as a legacy to Renaissance poetry (113). To sharpen the contrast, I’d point out that in his Italian poetry Petrarch never uses the verb supplicare or its noun, adjective, or adverb derivatives; his preferred forms to convey supplication derive from pregare. Dante uses supplicare three times in Paradiso, once each when the pilgrim addresses Cacciaguida (15.85), Adam (26.94), and Mary (33.25).

The book’s final chapters focus on Shakespeare’s Richard II and Coriolanus and on Milton’s Satan, God’s Son, and Eve in Paradise Lost. In Shakespeare’s plays the ritualized practice of political supplication, associated at the Elizabethan court with conciliation and the appeasement of anger, can also become “an instrument of mutual hurt” and “a figure for the capacity of the anachronistic past to shape present concerns” (121). Richard II, master of a ceremonial past and its supplicatory rituals, is outmastered by Bolingbroke who climbs to the throne (so to speak) on bended knee. Once crowned, Bolingbroke finds himself unsettled by supplications to pardon the conspiratorial Aumerle. For Coriolanus in the class-riven society of early Republican Rome, supplication amounts to a self-debasement that entails humiliation. He refuses to supplicate for the plebeians’ political support. Conversely, Volumnia’s supplication of him to lay down arms against Rome “so thoroughly destabilizes [his] experience of autonomy that even when reconciliation is achieved it is felt as a moment of tragic disintegration” (152). Milton builds upon these contrasts. Satan refuses supplicating gestures to God because he views them as humiliating and idolatrous. The Son on the other hand views them as actions that can bring about reconciliation and integration. For these reasons he assumes the burden of sin and death to redeem humankind and abolish hierarchical distinctions among God’s creatures. In this movement from absolute hierarchy to republican equality, Eve takes the initiative of supplicating Adam for pardon and God for mercy, achieving “the paradoxical dignity of humiliation so low that it becomes a form of strength” (181). Supplication transforms her descent into an ascent.

This returns us to Whittington’s footnote reference to Spenser on the same page as the preceding quotation. In the face of her cumulative arguments crafted throughout the book, the claim that Spenser reserves supplication for low-status characters such as Trompart doesn’t hold up. In many instances it’s quite the reverse. From the beginning of his career in The Shepheardes Calender to its near-end in Amoretti, Spenser ambiguates the idea of supplication as an act of self-abasement. The Februarie Eclogue pits Thenot, an incongruously evolving exemplar of old age, feudal nobility, mediated wisdom, and Catholic sentiment, against Cuddie, a likewise incongruously evolving exemplar of youth, courtly aristocracy, brash ambition, and Protestant conviction. Their ideological positions shift and dissolve and reemerge in bono and in malo as Thenot recounts the complaint of a young briar against an ancient oak (“Pleaseth you ponder your Suppliants plaint,” 151), driving both to a miserable end.[1] At the other extreme, the sonnets of Amoretti abound in all forms of supplication (“playnts, prayers, views, ruth, sorrow, and dismay, / those engins can the proudest love convert,” sonnet 14) as the suppliant lover—a high-status though insecure poet in service to the Queen (sonnet 33)—pursues his beloved. The result is all to the good. By sonnet 67 the beloved submits amicably to her lover’s appeals, according him her “owne goodwill” as they accede to a reciprocal relationship in companionate marriage.

The Faerie Queene offers varied examples of both high-status and low-status supplication. In II.viii.16 the virtuous but otherwise indeterminate “Palmer suppliaunt” wards off the intemperate Paynim knights Pyrocles and Cymochles from despoiling Sir Guyon, entranced after his visit to the House of Mammon, until Arthur arrives to rescue him. Book V, the Legend of Justice, is especially rich with acts of supplication. In V.i.14 the Faerie Queene, “Whose glorie is to aide all suppliants pore,” commissions Artegall to rescue the “distressed Dame” Eirena from Grantorto (V.i.4.6, V.i.3.6). Wealthy suppliants—or at least those enriched through bribery and injustice—are dealt with differently, as in V.ii.26.4-5 when Talus chops off the appendages from Munera, “Still holding vp her suppliant hands on hye, / And kneeling at his feete submissiuely.” Conversely the maiden queen Mercilla, monarch of mercy, is accompanied by three Jove-begotten virgins named Litae, “Who often treat for pardon and remission / To suppliants, through frayltie which offend” (V.ix.32.3-4). Presumably these suppliants originate from all strata of society and circumstances in Mercilla’s kingdom, with all manner of misdemeanor and repentance. Finally in the unfinished Book VII we encounter the stunning example of Mutabilitie, the Titaness who offends Nature, again in bono and in malo. As Mutabilitie pleads her case “To thee, o greatest goddesse [Nature], onely great, / An humble suppliant loe, I lowely fly” (VII.vii.14.1-2), she defends her claims with power and conviction as a cosmic force whose discordant and yet concordant impact on the material world enables all things to reach their due perfection. With her dazzling emphasis upon reversal, reconciliation, and integration, she sounds like a precursor of Milton’s Son, or at least like Milton’s Eve.

I adduce these examples to show how Whittington’s achievement with her writers can illuminate our concerns with Spenser, and with other Renaissance writers as well. Though her book focuses upon Homer, Virgil, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton, it accommodates fascinating, powerful, and provocative insights into the work of scores more. Whether in a sentence or two, or a paragraph or three, it brings into dialogue with the topic such expected or unexpected authors and artists as Montaigne, Patrizi, Tasso, Malebranche, Donne, Herbert, Bacon, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Cicero, Seneca, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Plutarch, Quintilian, Brunetto Latini, Boccaccio, Erasmus, Medieval allegorical playwrights, Marlowe, Titian, Jean de Sponde, Dryden, and Picasso. Picasso! Any one of them will reward a re-reading or reviewing in the light of Whittington’s supple, nuanced, and engaging argument.


William J. Kennedy
Cornell University

[1] For distinctions in bono et in malo throughout Spenser’s work, see Carol V. Kaske, Spenser and Biblical Poetics, Cornell UP, 1999, especially pp. 18-64.


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Cite as:

William J. Kennedy, "Leah Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants: Poetry, Antiquity, Reconciliation," Spenser Review 47.2.33 (Spring-Summer 2017). Accessed September 24th, 2018.
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