Plotting, Probability, and Evidence in English Renaissance Drama (seminar)

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For more past programming from the Folger Institute, please see the article Folger Institute scholarly programs archive.

This was a late-spring 2006 seminar led by Lorna Hutson.

Although plot has an elevated position in the history of poetics—Aristotle called it the soul of tragedy—it is frequently overlooked or treated as crudely basic: “no matter for the pen, the plot shall carry it,” says a hack in Jonson’s The Case is Altered (c.1590). Yet in 1668, Dryden praised “quick turns and counterturns of Plot” as characteristic of English dramatic writing as opposed to the French who preferred a simple plot “like an ill Riddle … found out e’re it be half-proposed.” Where did this English preference for copiousness in plot come from? Why is its contamination of tragedy with intrigue a distinctive feature in the development of English Renaissance drama? This seminar explored that question by way of a focus on the quasi-legal or juridical aspect of plot structure, starting from the ground which classical poetics shares with the probable rhetoric of the law courts. It examined the emplotment or narrative logic of specific Renaissance plays (selected in response to participants’ research interests) in relation to the humanist pedagogy of narrative, tracing the implications of the relationship between classical poetics and judicial rhetoric—looking at Cicero’s murder trial speeches, for instance, as humanist pedagogical examples of narrative emplotment. Finally, it sought to contextualize this exploration of the juridical epistemology of plot by examining developments in the English legal culture of participatory jury trial and evidence-evaluation with which Renaissance dramatists were so familiar.

Director: Lorna Hutson is Berry Professor of English Literature at the University of St. Andrews. She is the author of The Usurer’s Daughter (1994) and co-editor with Victoria Kahn of Rhetoric and Law in Early Modern Europe (2001). She is currently working on The Invention of Suspicion: Forensic Realism in Renaissance Drama.