Renaissance literature: Writing exercises

Renaissance literature

Over the past few years, one of the most exciting developments in the teaching of English at HE level has been a ‘creative-critical crossover’: the use of small-scale creative writing exercises in literature modules, both in class and as assessment tasks. Rob Pope’sTextual Intervention(1994) and Active Readingby Ben Knights and Chris Thurgar-Dawson (2006) are the key texts on this topic.

Writing parodies and adaptations of and supplements to literary texts can be valuable both as a way of finding out about how texts work and as a means of exploring parallels and disjunctions between set texts and the students’ own lives. In Renaissance Studies, however, there is the opportunity to give such approaches an extra dimension. Small-scale writing exercises can be used as a stimulating way of introducing students to the rhetorical training of the early modern schoolroom and to its application and extension in the literature of the period. Exercises in textual composition originally designed for use with Latin can easily be adapted to English Studies courses of the twenty-first century. (A handy outline of classical rhetoric, including descriptions of pedagogical exercises is available on the Forest of Rhetoric website.)

Possibilities include:

  • Asking students to write ‘themes’ (and other exercises from the progymnasmata) on contentious topics. The subject-matter could be either modern (derived from the students’ own lives or filtered through media outlets) or early modern (classical myths, Renaissance history). The exercise will be most worthwhile if the students are able to follow up the activity by looking at similar structures and devices in Renaissance texts.
  • Students could collect material for use in writing exercises by putting together a commonplace book, whether hard copy or digital.
  • Peer review can be used to model the circulation of coterie texts in a replication of the manuscript system.
  • Writing exercises can help familiarise students with specific tropes and schemes. Students might simply look for devices in a given passage, might construct a mini-edition in the manner of Spenser’s E.K, might write their own texts to demonstrate the workings of specific devices, and so on.
  • Students could be asked to write speeches or letters in the personae of characters in a work of fiction they are studying (ancient (the Metamorphosesis an obvious choice), Renaissance or modern) with marginal notes identifying the parts of the composition and the troopes and schemes used.
  • Students could be asked to compose texts of the type found in rhetorical manuals (and in literature) such as letters of apology, petition, defence and so on, and then, retrospectively, to analyse them rhetorically, to find out what kinds of rhetorical devices seem effective now. They could also analyse their own essays and other modern texts.
  • As students begin to read Renaissance texts rhetorically, they will swiftly realise that much of the use of rhetorical technique in Renaissance literature seems geared to demonstrate the inadequacy and/or ethical dangers of rhetoric. It might be interesting to link this realisation both to (a) an interrogation of the ideological project(s) of Renaissance rhetoric, and (b) reflection on the extent to which recent educational debates about functional and transferable skills and the purposes of education overlap with the concerns of Renaissance educationalists.

Writing exercises of other types will be useful too, for example:

  • Rewritings of stories from Renaissance texts in other forms.
  • Planning imaginary Renaissance plays, based on classical or early modern source material.
  • Writing ‘back-stories’ for characters in Renaissance texts.
  • Writing biased prefaces for imaginary editions, to explore different critical approaches.