Satire and Authorial Distinction in the English Renaissance, 1573--1644

Date of Completion

January 2012


Literature, English




This project shows how two early modern phenomena helped each other grow. The figure of the superior author features prominently in the literary culture of the English Renaissance. I argue that satire largely defined and distinguished this figure, and that in turn authorship's growing importance spurred the development of satiric literature. Multiple social changes in this period, especially the surging quantity and diversity of texts, provoked certain authors (including William Shakespeare and John Milton, as well as less-canonical figures such as George Gascoigne, Joseph Hall, Thomas Middleton, and Robert Burton) to distinguish themselves from the throng of their inferiors via literary attack. Tracing the satiric vein across multiple genres, I demonstrate how key authorial attributes – license, good judgment, intelligence, esotericism, and originality – were newly defined and developed by ridiculing these qualities' antitheses. ^ Especially by exposing what I call "insider satire," or veiled satiric meaning accessible only to certain readers or hearers. I explain how satirists imagined and wrote for select audiences who could appreciate and attest to literary superiority, sneering at dunces and hacks. An author could elevate not only himself but also a select audience through satiric distinction. My project examines some of the words, ideas, and material contexts surrounding satiric distinction, detailing how the strategy emerged from both individual idiosyncrasies (e.g., a poet's struggle for recognition) and larger cultural shifts (e.g., the increasing standardization of education). I thus intervene in ongoing critical debates concerning models of Renaissance textual production and genre. Examining how early modern ideals of authorship were constructed, trait by trait and work by work, helps me to collapse the persistent binary split between viewing texts as intensely individual acts of creation and reading them as collaborative or culturally determined. Likewise, attending to satire as a "vein" rather than a form allows me to foreground remarkable consistencies across varying genres, ranging from public stage comedies and verse imitations of Juvenal to prose treatises and private entertainments. ^