Studies in Renaissance Literature

The Renaissance Society of America’s biannual conference takes place in Dublin next week (Wednesday 30th – Saturday 2nd April) coinciding with some recent exciting changes in Boydell & Brewer’s Studies in Renaissance Literature series. In preparation for the largest in-person conference in Renaissance studies to take place since the pandemic started, our new acquisitions editor for the series, Elizabeth McDonald (formerly a tutor in medieval and early modern studies at the University of East Anglia, Norwich), sat down with Series Editor, Jane Grogan (Professor at University College Dublin), and new additions to the team, Brooke Conti (Professor at Cleveland State University, Ohio) and Ramona Wray (Professor at Queen’s University, Belfast), to discuss their plans for the series, pit their favourite writers against each other, and compare notes on their favourite screen adaptations.

What are you most looking forward to as series editor for Studies in Renaissance Literature?

JG – I’m looking forward to getting to read exciting new research by early career scholars, by established scholars and by all those who admire the brilliant series list at Boydell & Brewer as it stands. And I am really pleased that we have an all-female team of editors with expertise across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry, prose and drama, as well as questions of reception and adaptation.

BC – I’m looking forward to the opportunity to play a more active role in helping excellent work make it between two covers, starting earlier in the process (and playing a more collaborative role) than I have been able to when merely serving as an external reviewer.  

RW – I’m really looking forward to working with the wonderful Jane, Brooke and Elizabeth and the whole team at Boydell and Brewer. We share a real commitment to prioritising Renaissance and early modern publications, and that feels very exciting. I like the broad remit of the series, the fact that we welcome monographs and collections, and the fact that we are going to be reading lots of new and urgent work. 

What first drew you to researching Renaissance Literature? What excites you about this period of literary culture?

JG – Ah, the intrigue and endless riches of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – as well as the unsettling realization that this amazing piece of literature was produced by a colonist of early modern Ireland, and worked to some extent in its service. (Although its self-questioning logic means that it challenges the colonial project too.)

BC – Wow, is it too cheesy and un-serious to say that as a 20-year-old first reading Milton I just felt as if I knew him? I know many people find Milton intimidating, but to me there was something intensely familiar about him: the smartest guy you’ve ever met, sure, but also a little ridiculous and self-serious and, at the same time, worried about things I found very recognizable: hey, you hope vaguely for greatness but don’t know in what, and worry it might all pass you buy? Me too!

But along with that sense of familiarity came an intense desire to understand the particulars of Milton’s circumstances and world–things I didn’tknow or recognize, but felt I could. So I wanted to learn everything possible about the lived reality of Milton’s world: the political and historical events, definitely, but also what it was like on the micro, cultural, and material level to live and worship and read and write in seventeenth-century England. What I find energizing about the seventeenth century is its tensions and contradictions, the way it seems torn between enthusiasm for intellectual exploration and new forms of knowledge and experience . . . and anxious lest there no longer be a center that will hold. 

RW – This will both age and date me, but it was reading Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore’s Political Shakespeare when I was in the second year of my BA.  Up to then I generally liked English Studies, but it was then that I fell in love with the Renaissance. I still think – much to the annoyance of my colleagues – that it’s the most important part of the literature curriculum. Everything exciting happens in the Renaissance first! 

What is your favourite screen adaptation of a Renaissance text?

JG – I always enjoy teaching Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, in all its wickedness, though part of the pleasure is in recognizing the sets and the stellar cast (Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Kirsten Scott Thomas, and more).

BC – There is a sad lack of adaptations of nondramatic Renaissance literature! But I will never not enjoy Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado or, like Jane, the Ian McKellan Richard III.

RW – This is a hard one, because I love Shakespeare on Screen and, of course, there’s now such a wide canon to choose from, including world cinema and non-Shakespearean (early modern drama on screen) adaptations. But I’m a huge advocate for The Hollow Crown series, particularly Richard II, which is so visually complex and original. I will also admit a huge fondness for Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet – both films which were glorious originals in their day and have stood the test of time. 

What popular misconception about the Renaissance annoys you?

JG – Not wanting to bite the hand that feeds (!), but the way that so much literary history of the period, and the kinds of concepts and texts we foreground, still centre on Shakespeare can be frustrating. Early modern culture was enormously rich, various, transcultural and polyglot, whether in England or Ireland or France or Cyprus or Persia or beyond, and we miss so much by anchoring it in early modern London, and the London playhouses, whether in literary scholarship or prevailing popular notions of the ‘Renaissance’.

BC – I suppose that I dislike the costume-drama approach to Renaissance literature and history–which focuses on gorgeous clothes and buildings and high art, but that, in making that world glamorous, also makes it seem fussy and prim and just foreign to our own interests and concerns. As someone who’s most in sympathy with cultural-studies approaches to the period, I’m always striving not just to present other voices, but also to suggest the real-world effects of a centralized court culture or the explosion of London’s population, for example, or the debates over such things as predestination or extemporaneous prayer.    

RW – That Shakespeare is boring. Or that Shakespeare is all-encompassing. Shakespeare was only a part of it, of course, and I hope very much that the series will be a way of bringing forward a multiplicity of stories, texts and interpretations of the period, including those about women, race and everyday life. 

Keep an eye out for promotions on our Renaissance titles running throughout RSA Dublin 2022. Elizabeth, Jane and Ramona are all very much looking forward to the conference and all the fascinating papers scheduled. Do say “hello” to them and don’t hesitate to ask them about the series.

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