Cover image for Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature: Studies in Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne By Murray Roston

Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature

Studies in Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne

Murray Roston

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Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literature

Studies in Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne

Murray Roston

Deconstructionist critics have argued that literary works contain conflicting or contradictory meanings, thus creating an aporia, or impasse, that prevents readers from interpreting the work. Here, however, Murray Roston offers detailed and essentially new analyses of works by Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne, arguing that the seemingly contradictory presence of traditional and subversive elements in their major works actually creates the source of much of their literary achievement. Chapters explore The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, “Faerie Queene,” Volpone, and the Meditations of John Donne, highlighting the creative tension between centripetal and centrifugal factors (borrowing Bakhtin’s terms). As Roston demonstrates, this tension exists in a variety of genres, including poetry, epic and drama, and even in religious prose which, he acknowledges, might be thought to be exempt from such inner conflict because of its doctrinal and theological focus. The tension between tradition and subversion, both linguistic and cultural, then, can be seen to produce not aporia in any negative sense, but a positive complexity of response from the audience, animating and profoundly enriching each work. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Shakespeare merges the previously despised figure of the merchant with a Christ-like figure, brilliantly reasserting the Christian condemnation of profiteering while simultaneously advocating its seeming opposite, a validation of the burgeoning mercantile activity of the Renaissance. Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literary Studies is a thoughtful study, rich in both historical scholarship and in its survey of modern criticism. Even those who are quite familiar with the texts discussed here will find Roston’s focus on the tension between maintaining the expectations of the culture and pulling toward new ideas an illuminating way to freshly consider these literary works.

 

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Deconstructionist critics have argued that literary works contain conflicting or contradictory meanings, thus creating an aporia, or impasse, that prevents readers from interpreting the work. Here, however, Murray Roston offers detailed and essentially new analyses of works by Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson, and Donne, arguing that the seemingly contradictory presence of traditional and subversive elements in their major works actually creates the source of much of their literary achievement. Chapters explore The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, “Faerie Queene,” Volpone, and the Meditations of John Donne, highlighting the creative tension between centripetal and centrifugal factors (borrowing Bakhtin’s terms). As Roston demonstrates, this tension exists in a variety of genres, including poetry, epic and drama, and even in religious prose which, he acknowledges, might be thought to be exempt from such inner conflict because of its doctrinal and theological focus. The tension between tradition and subversion, both linguistic and cultural, then, can be seen to produce not aporia in any negative sense, but a positive complexity of response from the audience, animating and profoundly enriching each work. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, Shakespeare merges the previously despised figure of the merchant with a Christ-like figure, brilliantly reasserting the Christian condemnation of profiteering while simultaneously advocating its seeming opposite, a validation of the burgeoning mercantile activity of the Renaissance. Tradition and Subversion in Renaissance Literary Studies is a thoughtful study, rich in both historical scholarship and in its survey of modern criticism. Even those who are quite familiar with the texts discussed here will find Roston’s focus on the tension between maintaining the expectations of the culture and pulling toward new ideas an illuminating way to freshly consider these literary works.

Murray Roston is professor of English at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and permanent adjunct professor of English at UCLA. He has published many books, among them Biblical Drama in England, Renaissance Perspectives in Literary Studies and the Visual Arts, Milton and the Baroque, Sixteenth Century English Literary Studies, and Graham Greeene’s Narrative Strategies: A Study of the Major Novels.

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