The History Woman's Blog

Shakespeare, Chaucer and Joyce: A Conference on Medieval and Early Modern Authorship

Posted in Conferences, Early Modern, literature by thehistorywoman on July 3, 2010

If it has never occurred to you that Chaucer might have influenced Joyce as much as Homer then you should read more medieval literature – or listen to Helen Cooper (Cambridge). Even though Joyce decided to name his Ulysses after Homer’s classical Odyssey, Cooper argues, his true ‘poetic father’ in the English language was Chaucer, and the Canterbury Tales served as a model for the chapters in Ulysses, each of which is based on a different character or location, using different language and style.

I must say I have learnt quite a few new things over the past few days in Geneva, where the Second Biennial Conference of the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies (Samemes) shed new light on aspects of ‘Medieval and Early Modern Authorship’. Colin Burrow (Oxford), for instance, called into question the notion of an emergent ‘individual authorship’ in the early modern period and emphasised the collaborative nature of early modern textual production. In particular, authors worked closely with the editors and printers of their works and thus were close collaborators with the press rather than detached artists.

Patrick Cheney (Pennsylvania State) meanwhile argued that there was such a thing as ‘the early modern sublime’, and that the emergence of the early modern author was connected to the resurfacing of the classical sublime towards the end of the C16th. Key authors in his narrative are Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney, but also Shakespeare and Milton – the very authors so admired by the Romantics. When Edmund Burke wrote his famous essay on the sublime in the C18th, he was likely inspired by this earlier tradition. The close connection between early modern and Romantic authors was similarly stressed by Neil Forsyth (Lausanne), who traced allusions and references to Milton in the work of Wordsworth. According to Forsyth, Milton is the missing link between Homer and the Lake Poet and inspired the Romantic image of the author influenced by the muses.

In other plenary papers, Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford) illustrated the different faces of Henry Chettle, who among others featured as co-author of Shakespeare, and Brian Vickers (London) gave a demonstration of collocation matching as a ‘breakthrough in authorship attribution studies’. Why he would use free anti-plagiarism software downloaded from the Internet for his purposes when there is perfectly good professional corpus linguistics software available, however, will remain a mystery only known to himself.

Besides the big names there were also a number of younger scholars presenting PhD projects, recent findings and exciting work in progress. From a C17th historian’s point of view I particularly enjoyed a paper by Emma Depledge (Geneva) on Shakespeare adaptations during the Exclusion Crisis. These adaptations, she argues, tended to have a Tory bias and emphasised the importance of patriarchal power and the hereditary succession. Their prefatory material meanwhile served to carve out an authorial identity for the adaptor as separate from that of Shakespeare.

The Exclusion Crisis also featured in a paper by Randy Robertson (Susquehanna) on different editions of Rochester’s libertine poetry. According to Robertson, the first posthumous edition of Rochester’s poems compiled by an anonymous editor and published in 1680 deliberately constructed a Whiggish persona for Rochester, while the later 1685 edition by Andrew Thornecome toned down not just the poet’s explicit sexual references but also his political commentary. This was done to suit the new ‘settled’ political situation after the accession of James II and the revival of the Licensing Act.

Some more Whigs and republicans also featured in papers by Keith McDonald (Royal Holloway) and Stephen Hequembourg (Harvard) on Andrew Marvell and by Daniel Shore (Grinnell College) on Milton. Marvell liked to keep his authorial voice elusive and avoided to take sides. Therefore he found himself in the defensive when he became the subject of a graphologist’s study in France that threatened to reveal his authorship of certain works. McDonald thus shows Marvell as a writer who not only denied authorship but also refused to be a public persona. At the same time, however, Hequembourg argues that Marvell contributed to the shaping of ‘notions of authorship and polemical style at the birth of early modern liberalism’, for instance in mocking the Anglican clergyman Samuel Parker or in figuring the author/text relation in terms of ‘Creator and creature’. Milton’s rhetorical strategy meanwhile often involved a use of the Scriptures, even when he did not refer to them directly. In fact, in his pamphlet Of Prelatical Episcopacy (1641) he pretended to let Scripture speak for itself, while accusing his opponents of misinterpreting it. Accoding to Shore, he thus affirmed the authority of his own interpretations by ‘concealing their status as interpretations in the first place’. A strategy used by many authors, politicians and polemicists to the present day: everybody’s lying, only I am speaking the truth.

In short, it was a highly productive and inspiring conference. Geneva proved more expensive than I had expected. But the good company, perfect organisation and beautiful weather made up for that.

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  1. […] me to improve the piece. Conference material in Geneva was singled for discussion by the engaging Gaby Mahlberg, with whom I panelled, although this space has laid quiet enough to remain […]


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