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Title: Rethinking Renaissance Symbolism: Material Culture, Visual Signs, and Failure in Early Modern Literature, 1587-1644
Authors: Pope, Stephanie Louise
Advisors: Smith, Nigel
Contributors: English Department
Subjects: English literature
Art history
Issue Date: 2021
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation investigates the three-way intersection of visual signs, material culture, and literature in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth century England in order to offer a revitalized account of early modern symbolism and its relationship with literary writing. Taking four major instruments of visual meaning — the impresa, the emblem, the hieroglyph, and the gesture —, each chapter explores how literary writers, primarily dramatists, made use of “symbolic” material in far richer and more complex ways than previous scholarship has allowed for. I make three central contentions. The first is that the unique epistemological affordances of these signs — that is to say, the unique ways in which they communicate meaning — act as poetic models for certain late-sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century literary genres or modes. This challenges a critical tradition that has sought to homogenize these signs with each other, claiming them to be of significance only as instances of an early modern symbolic world-view; I show there exist much deeper and involved connections between visual signs and literature as cultural idioms. Each chapter investigates a relationship between a particular sign and a particular literary phenomenon: Chapter 1 examines a shared poetics between the impresa and Sidney's prose romances, the Arcadias; Chapter 2, between the emblem and Shakespeare’s late drama, particularly Pericles and Cymbeline; Chapter 3, between the hieroglyph and the Jonsonian masque; Chapter 4, between the gesture and late Elizabethan revenge drama. Second, it introduces, theorizes, and explores a concept I have designated “material hermeneutics”, in relation to visual signs. By this I mean the ways in which the (historical) materiality of these signs produce meaning, often complicating or enriching that of their abstract, two-dimensional counterparts. Thirdly, I suggest that forms of visual communication were often of most interest to literary writers in their failures to work as vehicles of unambiguous meaning. Failure has been at the heart of some seminal accounts of the humanist project, but I show how for literary writers the various crises of representation to which the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries bore witness were creatively productive, rather than (or as much as) ideologically problematic. As a whole, the project seeks to bring the early modern worlds of visual signs and of literature — what if not a world of visual signs? — into more productive conversation with each other, and reveals how the correspondences between the two constituted another culture of images, powerful but previously unexamined.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:English

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