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Maria Teresa Micaela Prendergast, Railing, Reviling and Invective in English Literary Culture, 1588-1617
by Peter C. Herman

Prendergast, Maria Teresa Micaela. Railing, Reviling and Invective in English Literary Culture, 1588-1617. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. 230pp. ISBN: 978-1409438090. £55.00 hardback.


Early modern literature can seem like such a decorous affair. Even when characters argue with each other, they generally do so politely and elegantly.  Think of Morus gently leading the prickly Raphael Hythlodaeus into dinner, understanding that the mariner was unlikely to accept any contrary arguments about Utopia.  Better then to talk about the wine and the roast than get into an argument with someone who doesn’t tolerate opposition.  Or the urbane satire of Erasmus’s Encomium Moriae, as well as the sophisticated, restrained agonies of Petrarchan verse.  Even when poets complain in verse, as Spenser does in the “October Eclogue,” the tenor is usually more restrained than a fire hose of abuse.           

But Maria T. M. Prendergast reveals a whole other side to early modern writing.  Between 1588 and 1617, she argues, one finds a sudden proliferation of “railing texts” (2), meaning, texts that engage in “extended, hyperbolic, highly personal insults” (1), or as she puts it slightly later, “highly personal and rhetorically intricate vituperation” (2).  Prendergast locates five movements, as it were, in the popularity of railing, which correspond to her five chapters on the topic: the Marprelate tracts of the 1580s; the Harvey-Nashe quarrel that ignited as the Marprelate controversy petered out; the Poetamachia (The Poets’ War) dramas by Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, and John Marston, along with Shakespeare’s two plays that feature railing (Corialanus and Timon of Athens), and finally, the last wave, the anti-misogynist pamphlets by Jane Anger, Constantia Munda, and Jane Sharp, “the only moment of railing which included (apparently) women writers” (4).           

Prendergast bases her argument on two overlapping theoretical positions, one implicit, the other explicit.  First, throughout this book, although she does not say so overtly, Prendergast participates in the recent pendulum swing away from historicizing toward more formal kinds of analysis.  Certainly, Prendergast does not entirely ignore contexts. She gives, for example, a good summary of the background to the Marprelate tracts (56-58), and she generally associates Shakespeare’s railing plays with the decline in Elizabethan, aristocratic culture following James Stuart’s ascent to the English throne.  But all her historical references are to secondary sources.   When, for example, Prendergast asserts that by “the early seventeenth century, the ideal of the Renaissance warrior aristocrat had lost much of its glamour and appeal” (133), and that Shakespeare’s Jacobean plays participate in “the destruction of the Elizabethan ideal of aureate masculinity” (108), she does not follow through with the sort of primary source research we now expect in the wake of New Historicism and the wide availability of Early English Books Online.  Instead, Prendergast refers the reader to Anna Bryson, From Courtesy to Civility (1992), Daniel Javitch, Poetry and Courtliness (1978), or Richard McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood (1989).  A few signature numbers would have helped ground the argument, as would citing a few more recent books.  But Prendergast’s main interest is not exploring the archive, but in aesthetics, or more to the point, in the “anti-aesthetics” of railing literature (21).

Which brings me to her second theoretical principal: Prendergast argues that between 1588 and 1617, railing texts participated in “something like a queer aesthetic,” by which she means “a radical, erotically informed position that purposefully disrupts any conventional, authoritative aesthetic, gender, or sexual identity” (26).  At times, Prendergast tries to separate “queer” from sexuality.  For example, she avers that “Marprelate celebrates queer Puritanism” (36), by which she means the “innovative, perverse style” (53) of the pamphlets, and she refuses to accept that the Girardian triangle is necessarily always erotic: “seeing mimetic desire as either homosocial or homosexual reduces rivalrous desire to a narrow economy of desire that diminishes its multiple, contradictory, queer aesthetic” (42).  But more often she finds in the bonds between antagonists a genuine expression of same-sex desire. Thus the Marprelate tracts present “an eroticized rivalry over the desire for the machinery of print” (64); the Harvey-Nashe pamphlets figure  “print culture as the effect of aggressive homoerotic desire between male authors” (79); and the anti-misogyny pamphlets, produced by women who transform “themselves into men by writing aggressively within the scene of print,” then “engage in aggressive, eroticized bonding with the very men against whom they write,” and are therefore “more homoerotic than heterosexual” (185).          

The results of this theoretical positioning are mixed.  On the one hand, I think that Prendergast does a spectacular job of demonstrating how the railing pamphlet wars paradoxically created “a close-knit, emerging community of bitter rivals” (43).  For the Marprelate tracts, the bishops (helped along by their publishers, with their eye on the bottom line) realized that long, ponderous refutations not only would not work, they would not sell, and so, “Martin forced the bishops to become almost as creative as Martin himself” (62).  Thus they hired such writers as Thomas Nashe and John Lyly to blast back at Martin with his “own stylistically powerful weapons” (62). The unintended result, however, was to narrow the differences between the antagonists, as they started to sound identical to each other.  Stylistically, there’s not a lot of difference between Martin’s “if ever you be Archbishop of Canterbury . . . that then you shall be a petty pope, and a petty Antichrist” (The Epistle [1588], qtd. in Prendergast 61) and Lyly’s rejoinder: “obscenitie? Nay, now I am too nice, squirrilitie were a better word: well, let me alone to squirrel them” (Pap with a Hatchet [1589], qtd. in Prendergast 68).  As Prendergast says, through print, “the Marprelate pamphleteers shape their community of aggressive bonding” (73).         

The same paradigm can be found in the slow motion pamphlet war (it went on for about five years, with long pauses in between, before Elizabeth’s bishops, for reasons that remain a bit mysterious, decided to put a stop to it by ordering everyone’s books burned) between the Harvey family and Thomas Nashe.  This quarrel, if such it can be called, since it “is an extended debate about nothing of major significance” (82), also served to emphasize similarity rather than difference.  Both included little mocking illustrations of each other, and both accused each other of every sin in the book, plus one: “Perhaps Harvey’s virtuoso moment of insult is his rich and varied association of Nashe’s output with every possible kind of unnatural sexuality, as he associates Nashe with ‘impure Ganimeds, Hermaphrodits, Neronists, Messalinists, Dodecomechanists, Capricians, Inventors of newe, or revivers of old leacheries,’” etc. (Pierces Superrogation [1593], qtd. in Prendergast 93; I will leave the reader to look up the various definitions, though nobody knows exactly what a “Dodecomechanist” does).  Similarly, Prendergast finds in the Poets’ War plays, in which Marston, Dekker and Jonson seem to do little else than spew abuse at each other, a developing measure of solidarity: “within this bitter rivalry, some kind of theatrical community was being shaped, and was shaped, ironically, by the very scurrility that fueled the rivalry between these playwrights” (116).  In his Satiromastix, for example, Dekker used one of Jonson’s characters (Tucca, from Poetaster), leading Jonson to accuse Dekker of plagiarism, and Dekker defended himself by accusing Jonson of plagiarizing somebody else (118).  One has the sense of all these playwrights gleefully reading and stealing from each other while equally gleefully denouncing the practice, then going out afterward for a beer.         

But other parts of this book are less successful.  Prendergast’s use of “queer” seems highly problematic and imprecise. Sometimes Prendergast uses the term as a kind of synonym for “contestatory” and “innovative,” such as when she argues that the Marprelate writers create “a style which emphasizes experimentation over orthodox meaning and marginal over centrist language,” thus inventing “a queer, homosocial poetics at the borders of authoritative thinking and culture” (53).  At other times, Prendergast asserts that the relationship between railers is overtly sexual. Nashe and Harvey, for example, represent “print culture as the effect of aggressive homoerotic desire between male authors” (79).  I buy that the railers created for themselves “a community of antagonistic rivals” (xi); I don’t buy that there is anything sexual or homoerotic about it.  When Coriolanus says that his rival, Aufidius “is a lion that I am proud to hunt” (1.1.234), he wants to kill him, not screw him.  Referring to this community as “queer” strikes me as jumping on a bandwagon, and it’s not necessary.         

Prendergast’s chronological focus also seems questionable.  Railing was clearly part of Henrician religious polemics, such as those amazingly scatological tomes produced by Thomas More and Martin Luther (which Prendergast notes [70], even though they are not in the index), and political discourse, such as John Skelton’s anti-Wolsey diatribe, Why Come Ye Nat to Court?  It also informed revolutionary England’s literary landscape (e.g., Milton’s and Salmasius’s hatchet jobs on each other).  So focusing so precisely on the period between 1588 and 1620 seems misplaced.  Her treatment of railing in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens also overly rely on secondary sources.  I’m still not convinced that Shakespeare comments on the Poets’ War in Troilus (Prendergast admits that the relationship is tenuous, as the play “stands apart” [105] from the other Poets’ War dramas), or that the problem in Timon’s Athens is exclusively usury, given Timon’s compulsive spending beyond his means and ignoring warnings. When Timon asks his steward, Flavius, why he had not “fully laid my state before me / that I might so have rated my expense / As I had leave of means,” his servant replies, “You would not hear me, / At many leisures I propos’d” (2.2.25-28).  I would have also liked to hear more about the presence of railers in particular plays, such as the splenetic Plaine-Dealing, in Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon.  When Kent in King Lear unloads ten lines of insults on to the puzzled Oswald, calling him, inter alia, “a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave” (2.2.16-17), or when Caliban has at Prospero in The Tempest (“All the charms / Of Sycorax, toads, beetles, bats, light on you! [1.2.342-43]).  Prendergast’s analysis implies that they participate in a larger context, and so the book could have profited from more attention to this aspect of railing culture.

But these reservations should not disguise the fact that Prendergast’s Railing, Reviling, and Invective reveals the unsuspected importance and complexity of railing in early modern culture.  She sheds new light on the Marprelate Tracts, the Harvey-Nashe controversy, the anti-misogynist tracts, and a host of early modern plays.  Prendergast not only recovers a submerged tradition, she reminds us of how communal early modern print culture could be, even when writers hated each other, and for that, we should be very grateful.


Peter C. Herman

San Diego State University


Cite as:

Peter C. Herman, "Maria Teresa Micaela Prendergast, Railing, Reviling and Invective in English Literary Culture, 1588-1617," Spenser Review 43.1.6 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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