Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emotion and the Self in English Renaissance Literature

Paul Joseph Zajac

Well over a decade ago, scholars acknowledged an “affective turn” or “turn to emotions” taking place across disciplines. Yet within the “turn to emotion,” certain types of emotion still turn up far more frequently than others. Reflecting long-standing trends in emotion science, scholars of the humanities have disproportionately focused on what we might call negative emotions. In literary criticism on the English Renaissance, this privileging of negative emotions has produced compelling studies of melancholy, despair, and different species of sadness, but positive emotions have received relatively little attention. Recent scholars have begun to offset this imbalance and broaden our perception of early modern literature and culture. Few emotions may benefit as much from reassessment as contentment, which contemporary theorists and critics have often equated with passivity, resignation, and stagnation. In Renaissance England, however, authors explored contentment as an affective means to preserve the self and prepare the individual to endure and engage the outside world.

Emotion and the Self in English Renaissance Literature: Reforming Contentment offers the first full-length study of Renaissance contentment, which became the gold standard of Protestant psychology and an abiding concern of English literature. This book excavates an early modern understanding of contentedness as dynamic, protective, and productive. While the concept has roots in classical and medieval philosophy (most notably Stoicism), contentment became newly significant because of the social and intellectual changes that accompanied the Reformation in England. Through sermons, translations, and theological treatises, reformers transformed contentment into a form of self-fortification, of protecting the godly subject from the external threats of capricious fortune and the internal divisions caused by the passions. The efforts by authors in overtly religious genres to reform contentedness existed alongside similar representations and thematizations of this state by poets, playwrights, and writers of prose romance. Authors like Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, and Milton revised concepts of content and its role in the Protestant English nation, and they created fictive arenas that put the category into contact and conflict with the full gamut of early modern emotions.

From Luther onward, Renaissance intellectuals sought to develop a theory and praxis of contentment reconcilable with new, rapidly proliferating and ever-evolving religious ideals. The texts collected in Emotion and the Self display a remarkable diversity of thought. Many authors actively sought to generate contentedness through language. Some found a meaningful place for contentment in a world of contingency and suffering, but only with great concession and qualification. Others concluded that true contentation is not achievable, or maybe even desirable, in this life. All of them, however, contributed to expanding the emotional knowledge of their age. By elaborating an affective vocabulary, these writers allowed their audiences to better understand, express, and endure their own experiences, as well as to imaginatively engage in other experiences through dramatic, poetic, and prose fictions. They still allow audiences to do this today.

A study of contentment (or any positive emotion) doesn’t require us to look with rose-tinted glasses, nor will it result in purely Pollyana-ish interpretations of literature. Taking contentment seriously—recognizing the overwhelming evidence that early moderns took it seriously—does not mean reducing literature to a site of wish fulfillment or an escapist fantasy free from the awareness of pressing historical issues: ours or theirs. Instead, contentment could provide one more way to survive in a world beset by these issues, even as it empowers us to address them.
Emotion and the Self in English Renaissance Literature By Paul Joseph Zajac

About The Author

Paul Joseph Zajac

Paul Joseph Zajac is Associate Professor of English at McDaniel College. His scholarly articles have appeared in English Literary Renaissance, Studies in English Literature, Studie...

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