Renaissance literature: The Canon

Renaissance literature

Authors and Texts

Over the years, the range of texts studied on Early Modern and Renaissance courses has gradually expanded, and, as a result, many lecturers would argue that students are now exposed to a far richer mix of 16th- and 17th-century genres and voices than would have been the case in the past. Both survey courses and specialist modules routinely incorporate a number of previously non-canonical authors. (Mary Wroth, Aphra Behn and Katherine Phillips are three examples.) Meanwhile, the works of hundreds of other writers are newly available for undergraduate study thanks to the existence of online text sources such as Early English Books Online (EEBO). New historicism has led to an increase in the teaching of ‘non-literary’ texts such as letters, journals, court records and so on.

Perhaps as a result of these developments, debates over ‘the canon’ seem a bit less heated than they did a few years ago. Important questions remain, however:

1. The canonicity of some parts of the period as opposed to others. This topic has perhaps been less discussed in the past than the canonicity of individual writers and texts. By and large, Renaissance courses tend to focus on the Shakespearean period (late Elizabethan and early Jacobean literature), meaning that earlier (early Tudor) and later (Caroline, Commonwealth and Restoration) segments of the period can be marginalized. Where these ‘subperiods’ are taught, they are sometimes coupled with an adjoining, non-Renaissance period: early Tudor texts (particularly drama) appear alongside late medieval writing; Restoration authors such as Rochester appear on 18th-century modules. As Patricia R. Taylor argues, ‘Separating Restoration literature from Renaissance literature in a consistent and systematic way, as the literary anthologies and many courses do, creates a hyperbolic sense of change and separation—even literary revolution—that erases the continuities between the two periods.’

The Norton Canon.You can explore the vagaries of canonicity using the Norton Anthology website: it tracks appearances in the anthology and disappearances from it for all texts ever included, spanning seven editions (1962-2000) grouped both by period (16th century,17th century and Restoration and 18th century) and alphabetically by author.

2. The rise of thematically-based modules can lead to students leaving their degrees without very much of an overview of literary developments in the period. Is this good or bad? (Indeed, would such an ‘overview’ be much more than a whiggish fiction?) Are there ‘core’ facts/texts we would like our students to be familiar with? To what extent do we think it important that students enrolled on Renaissance modules read Donne? Or Spenser? Are we happy for them to work on the manuscript diary of Lady Margaret Hoby without having read Marlowe?

3. Should texts by women be taught alongside texts by men, or in a separate module/unit? Does the same thing apply to other categories of ‘minority’ text?

These are tricky questions with no obvious answers. One approach, however, could be to explore them openly with students, as jumping-off points for assessments and seminar discussions. The growth in ‘neo-formalist’ and ‘presentist’ approaches to Renaissance texts (reacting against the historicisms of the past twenty years) could provide a fertile ground for this debate: aesthetic features, together with personal reader response, are once more topics for discussion.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Ask students to compare our twenty-first century canon to Renaissance ideas about literary quality and prestige
  • Analyse with your students the reception of ‘The Renaissance’ in criticism, scholarship, educational writings and the wider culture, and bring this material to bear on your and their reading of primary texts.
  • At the end of a Renaissance module, run a questionnaire asking students to specify which text(s) on the module they liked best, together with their reasons. Use the responses as the basis for a seminar on literary value.
  • Set up a role-play activity in which students each articulate the different view of an imaginary person (critics of a particular ‘school’, Renaissance readers of various types, etc.).