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Cora Fox, Bradley J. Irish and Cassie M. Miura, eds., Positive Emotions in Early Modern Literature and Culture
by Richard Meek

Cora Fox, Bradley J. Irish and Cassie M. Miura, eds., Positive Emotions in Early Modern Literature and Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021. xii + 225 pp. ISBN: 9781526137135. £85 hardback.

This volume represents a timely and important contribution to the growing scholarly literature on early modern emotions. The editors begin their Introduction with an evocative description of Edmund Spenser’s Garden of Adonis – from Book III of The Faerie Queene – and the birth of Pleasure, noting that ‘pleasure is represented as foundational to creation’ (1). This insight is important, they suggest, because most literary studies of the period have tended to neglect pleasurable and positive feelings in favour of negative ones, such as grief, anger, and melancholy. Pioneering earlier work on this topic by Gail Kern Paster and Michael Schoenfeldt (who provides a generous and positive Afterword) pointed to the humoral body and Galenic medicine as central aspects of early modern culture. According to these critics, early modern emotions were embodied and meteorological forces beyond the individual’s control (Paster), or unruly elements within the body that needed to be tempered and contained through neo-Stoic self-control (Schoenfeldt). In this way, these so-called ‘new humoralist’ critics offered a rather humourless picture of the period, in which the passions were the source of anxiety rather than pleasure. More recently, however, other critics have questioned the dominance of the humoral paradigm, and argued for a greater acknowledgement of agency, positivity, and plurality in early modern emotional experiences. This collection takes its place alongside these newer studies and puts the spotlight on authors who explore textual and emotional pleasures – not only canonical writers such as Thomas Kyd, William Shakespeare, and John Webster, but also less well-known figures, such as the mid-seventeenth-century devotional poet Thomas Traherne.

Some readers might point out that exploring positive emotions in early modern culture is not entirely a novel enterprise, given the emphasis on carnival, comedy, and conviviality that we have seen in other critical work. Yet such critics have generally characterised the carnivalesque in Bakhtinian terms: namely, as a politically conservative phenomenon, in which the fun and frivolity uphold the status quo by temporarily allowing individuals and groups to let off steam, only to be contained once again at the end of the festivities. This collection takes a more agential and optimistic approach, again in line with other recent work in the field, emphasising how comedy can enhance well-being and community rather than simply upholding authority. Another possible objection is that it is simplistic to suggest that any emotion is intrinsically positive or negative; after all, grief can be a necessary and positive response to suffering or loss, while pleasure can be excessive, selfish, or self-indulgent. But the editors address this issue at the outset, writing that the essays ‘productively undercut an easy distinction between categories of “positive” and “negative” emotions’ (1). The collection as a whole demonstrates the ways in which apparently positive and negative emotions are often closely aligned or intermingled, or in a productive dialectic with each other. This recognition of the mixed or ambivalent aspects of early modern emotions chimes with present-day thinking about happiness and pleasure; and the editors connect these questions with the work of theorists including Lauren Berlant and Sarah Ahmed. In addition to such presentist impulses, the essays in the collection re-examine classical and early modern conceptions of happiness and contentment, demonstrating in the process that even the most apparently melancholic texts have a lighter side.

The first section of the book – entitled ‘Rewriting discourses of pleasure’ – offers an appropriately positive reassessment of several early modern texts and contexts. Richard Strier’s chapter ‘Happy Hamlet’ provides an excellent opening to the section and the volume as a whole. Complicating the familiar image of the melancholy Dane, Strier argues that Hamlet is ‘not melancholic by nature (or humoral unbalance)’ (21) and was apparently happy before the events of the play began. For Strier, it is essential to see Hamlet as ‘capable of participating in and enjoying key aspects of both the contemplative and the active life’ (21-22). This involves both remembering the positive version of Hamlet that has been lost and celebrating the witty Prince who finds ‘mirth in funeral’. Similarly, Cassie Miura’s chapter on Robert Burton suggests that laughter is indeed the best medicine and examines the capacity of The Anatomy of Melancholy ‘to provoke mirth and merriment despite its sober subject and dry academic trappings’ (44). Once again pushing against humoral readings, which have tended to regard the Anatomy as a repository of medical learning, Miura focuses on the pleasures and ironies of Burton’s extraordinary text, arguing that ‘laughter enables him to advance a therapeutic program for the melancholy reader that his text performs as much as it describes’ (44). Thus, for example, in Burton’s Rabelaisian catalogue of the foods from which the melancholy reader should abstain, ‘the text ironically participates in the very indulgence that it aims to proscribe’ (54).

Ian Frederick Malton’s chapter on pleasure and happiness in the works of François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne follows on neatly from Miura’s discussion – focusing on the ways in which both writers ‘repeatedly contend that happiness is to be found above all in the act of reading’ (60). Malton argues that, while Montaigne was pessimistic about the possibility of achieving eudaimonia in the Platonic or Aristotelian sense – that is, attaining fulfilment through reasoned contemplation – he nevertheless embraced the idea that ‘a happy life is one that is lived fully and ended well’ (65). As a wealthy nobleman, Montaigne was able to achieve happiness through browsing and thinking in his library – although, as Malton points out, Montaigne’s life of contemplation was in fact combined with participating in politics and the management of his estates. This relationship between the active and contemplative life is the central theme of Ullrich Langer’s chapter, which explores how the rustic life ‘integrates agriculture (and animal husbandry) into a supreme enjoyment of nature as a garden’ (74). Langer makes the striking argument that pleasure is ‘an element of the active person’ and thus ‘a potential element of agency’ (76). Through exploring works by Flavio Alberto Lollio and Olivier de Serres, Langer suggests that the rustic lifestyle – which involved the management and cultivation of the land – was not entirely different from the active world of the court. Such arguments have wider implications for how we think about other early modern authors, such as Spenser and Andrew Marvell.  

The second part of the book focuses on happy communities. Timothy Hamilton takes a more explicitly semantic approach than previous chapters, focusing on the various meanings of ‘cheer’ and ‘cheerfulness’ across the early modern period. Originally a term meaning face (cf. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law, with his ‘sobre cheere’), ‘cheer’ makes a shift from bodily and corporeal connotations and becomes bound up with rituals of hospitality, community, and Christian charity. It becomes ‘at once somatic, theological and social’ (98). But this shift from the bodily to the social realms means that cheer can potentially be performed or even faked. This idea is demonstrated through brief readings of several Shakespearean texts – including Richard III, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and (once again) Hamlet. Paul Joseph Zajac adopts a similarly semantic approach to Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, focusing on the terms ‘content’ and ‘contentment’. Zajac’s key point is that, while contentment is conspicuously absent in the first tetralogy, it is nevertheless invoked as an alternative means of attaining stability: ‘a shrewd treatment of positive emotion exists alongside grim representations of historical hardships’ (110). But, while contentment might represent a lost ideal for English subjects, it is even more difficult to achieve for monarchs like Henry VI.

Bradley Irish’s chapter revisits the territory of his recent monograph on the Tudor court and focuses on the role of factionalism in sixteenth-century politics and the Essex circle. Here one might expect a focus on negative emotions and the ‘gloomy disposition’ (123) of Essex and his followers. But Irish suggests that this faction was also characterised by solidarity, and what the sociologist Randall Collins calls ‘interaction rituals’ (123). Irish uses this theory to illuminate the emotional dynamics and social rituals of the Essex circle, for whom the Earl was a site of collective investment. Essex and his followers ‘shared an affective disposition’ (131), which included pride and excitement as well as bitterness and resentment. In a similar vein, Cora Fox’s chapter on merriness in The Merry Wives of Windsor focuses on a positive female emotional community. Taking issue with Falstaff’s negative characterisation of merriness, which is linked to his leaky and unregulated body, Fox suggests that this sociable emotion provides a way for the wives of Windsor to generate cohesion and boundaries. For her, this is the major cultural work that the play performs: ‘to redefine [merriness] away from its associations with transgressive bodily behavior and … towards a more positive, socially acceptable, and ultimately stabilizing festivity’ (141). Once again invoking the work of Sara Ahmed, Fox offers a fresh characterisation of the play’s merriness that is not simply carnivalesque or biocultural but rather generative of ‘individuals and communities through networks of association’ (143).

The third section of book is more loosely focused on questions of form, attachment, and ambivalence. It begins with an illuminating essay from Leila Watkins on objects and earthly pleasure in the devotional poetry of Thomas Traherne. Watkins argues that Traherne’s poetry merges elements of premodern and modern conceptions of happiness: that is, the earlier idea of eudaimonia as an objective condition of the mind or soul, and the more recent understanding of happiness as a subjective, temporary feeling. Traherne’s poetry is distinctive, she suggests, because it does not simply reject material possessions but rather urges readers ‘to seek happiness in natural objects with real use value’ (157). Unlike other devotional poets from the period, such as Henry Vaughan, Traherne suggests that such objects have an aesthetic and intrinsic as well as symbolic value, and advocates ‘expanding one’s definition of material wealth to include the natural world’ (159). Such insights speak directly to our own cultural moment, when reconnecting with nature is seen as vital to improving our health, happiness, and well-being.

We then have three further chapters on early modern drama. Lalita Pandit Hogan’s chapter on The Duchess of Malfi investigates the relationship between disgust and distrust, arguing that this mixture of emotions makes the play all the more powerful. Drawing upon the idea of ‘moral disgust’ and the insights of Trust Theory, she is especially interested in concepts of imprisonment, surveillance, and service in the play. Eonjoo Park focuses on Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and the concept of ‘aesthetic justice’, which she suggests is even more important than retributive or legal justice. By writing his own dramatic script for a play-within-a-play, Hieronimo ‘channels the obligatory notion of satisfaction into a more aesthetically productive form of emotional satisfaction to enact aesthetic justice’ (185). This involves an instance of ‘situational mimesis’ (193), in which the Duke of Castile and the Viceroy are made to witness the deaths of their sons in order that ‘Hieronimo can transfer to them the same degree of pain and grief that he bore’ (193). One might note, however, that Hieronimo’s emotional satisfaction stems from the pain and suffering of others, reminding us that what is positive or negative depends on one’s position and point of view.

This relativity is acknowledged and explored in Patrick Colm Hogan’s chapter on All’s Well that Ends Well, which emphasises that the valence of a particular emotion is never entirely unequivocal, and that ‘even single emotions are complex and to a degree internally ambivalent’ (200). This leads on to a stimulating discussion of genre, in which Hogan suggests that literary texts – especially in the case of prototypical genres such as comedy and tragedy – play an important part in managing this ambivalence. Yet a problem comedy like All’s Well is a useful test case because its characters are not always likeable and do not fit with certain generic expectations. Hogan concludes that emotions do not exist in a pure form, either in life or literature: ‘ambivalence remains and some genres exhibit ambivalence more extensively than others’ (211). That ambivalence is captured in a line from All’s Well that Hogan does not quote – the First Lord’s aphoristic observation that ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together’ (4.3.74-5).

Like several of the preceding essays, Michael Schoenfeldt’s wide-ranging Afterword cautions against any clear opposition between negative and positive emotions. He also offers a pointed critique of previous caricatures of the period: ‘early modern England is certainly not a nightmarish world haunted relentlessly by angst and oppression … but neither is it a relentlessly festive Renaissance fair’ (217-18). Schoenfeldt does conclude, however, by restating his own particular interest in self-control, and offering a new characterisation of the Renaissance – as ‘a continual effort to counterbalance the contrary claims of positive and negative emotions’ (220). Overall, then, reading this book – which is so concerned with the pleasures of the early modern text – is itself a pleasurable experience, and helps us see the period in new and surprising ways. I would have liked to see the contributors draw out the suggestive points of connections between the chapters (this is mostly left for readers to do themselves). Some essays might have done more to bring out the broader significance or contemporary relevance of their analyses, while in other cases the treatments of the primary evidence do not quite live up to the multidisciplinary frames and methodologies presented. Nevertheless, for a book produced during the pandemic – perhaps the most unhappy period of recent times – this project represents a happy and welcome attempt to accentuate the positive in early modern culture, creativity, and scholarship.


Richard Meek

University of Hull


  • composite fencing nz 7 months ago

    It opens with an insightful article by Leila Watkins on material possessions and earthly pleasure in Thomas Traherne's religious poetry.

    Link / Reply
  • Search Engine Optimization cary nc 6 months, 2 weeks ago

    I think it's nice to explore positive emotions in a novel. It is so interesting!

    Link / Reply

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Cite as:

Richard Meek, "Cora Fox, Bradley J. Irish and Cassie M. Miura, eds., Positive Emotions in Early Modern Literature and Culture," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed February 28th, 2024.
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