Theses Doctoral

Impossible Heroes: Heroism and Political Experience in Early Modern England

Lowrance, Bryan John

During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the English commonwealth was caught between competing concepts of the political. England's political culture had traditionally combined monarchy with local autonomy, office-holding, and a republican ethos that understood politics in terms of dynamic individual action and potentiality. In the Renaissance, however, this plural and personalized political paradigm was increasingly at odds with the centralizing tendencies of the Tudor-Stuart monarchs. The tensions that resulted led to both real-world tumults (the Northern Rebellion of 1569, Essex Revolt of 1601, the Civil Wars of 1642-51) and more subtle expressions of political pessimism and anxiety across England's literary and cultural discourses. But this same period also saw a sudden surge of interest in heroism. In a moment when the political impotence of individual action was widely felt, many of England's most prominent writers turned to heroic fictions that imagined personal potential triumphing over constituted political authority. Impossible Heroes argues that we can understand this paradox only if we recognize that heroism functioned in early modern England as a complex political fantasy, one that tried to suture symbolically the widening rift between individual action and the increasing abstraction and alienation of state power. This political function is apparent across early modern English literature, from Spenser's Faerie Queene to Davenant's Gondibert and Dryden's heroic tragedies. But while these writers (and others) use heroism to reconcile the individual to the political totality of the state, Impossible Heroes focuses on four writers--Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, and William Shakespeare--who deploy heroism to craft a different political fantasy. All these writers worked during the final years of Elizabeth's reign and the early years of James I's, anxious decades when royal authoritarianism went hand-in-hand with a widespread sense of political alienation. But rather than using heroism to alleviate this alienation, they emphasized the growing incompatibility between a dynamic, action-oriented experience of political life and institutional situations that conspired (as the Earl of Essex put it) to "suppress all noble, virtuous, and heroical spirits." Sidney, Marlowe, Chapman and Shakespeare portray heroism as impossible in practice. But out of this practical impossibility, their work posits heroism's potential as a utopian poetic and political fantasy of individual action.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Howard, Jean E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 21, 2012