Summer 2022 Undergraduate English Courses

358:317 Truth, Lies, and Literature in the English Renaissance

B1   5/31-7/8   CAC   05064   MTWTH  10:30 AM- 12:25  SELMER, A.   MU-204

Truth, Lies, and Literature in the English Renaissance

Course Description: At a time when anxiety over fake news and misinformation dominates conversations about how we communicate among ourselves, it can be difficult to justify the basic work of literature: that is, of mediating between what is “real” and what is “false” through patterns of representation. What “truths” can dramatic performance, poetic verse, or prose fictions tell? To a surprising extent, these same questions motivate many authors of the English Renaissance (a period that covers about 1550-1670), whose works reflect strong, at times embattled desires to use their creative media to reveal truths about the human experience, or else, the wayward relations that humans have to both truth and fiction. In this course, we will examine the relationship between literature and truth-making in early modern England. This period saw “truth” take radically new forms that resonate to this day: this includes tense debates over traditional gender, sexual, and racial categories; the Protestant Reformation’s challenge to inherited ideas about religious truth; the development of modern scientific methods; and the emergence of new ways to figure the “personal” and “political,” the “individual” and the “nation.” Running parallel to (and intersecting with) these intellectual and social developments, we find lasting literary innovations: the invention of modern drama, the founding of the English sonnet tradition, the very first work of science fiction in English, an ebullient flourishing of religious poetry, and the creation of Paradise Lost, a work whose encyclopedic intellectual scope and deep ambivalence over the value of rational inquiry offers a lasting challenge to its readers: to struggle through the fictions art requires, to the truths art alone can tell.

Over this course we will read several plays by William Shakespeare, including Twelfth Night, Othello, Richard III and/or Henry IV, pt. 1. We will consider poetry from Shakespeare, Aemilia Lanyer, Sir Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney, John Donne, Lady Mary Wroth, George Herbert, and John Milton. We will also encounter literary prose by John Milton and Margaret Cavendish. Finally, we will augment our consideration of the period’s literature with short contextual readings from writers such as Niccolo Machiavelli, Sir Francis Bacon, and Queen Elizabeth I.