'Strange appearance' : the reception of Homer in Renaissance England

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Demetriou, Tania 

This thesis investigates the presence of Homer in the literary culture of Renaissance England. It seeks to identify how the Iliad and the Oqyssry, virtually unread by anyone in early 16th_century England, went on to become well-known texts by the mid-17th century. The thesis focuses on literary texts in which I believe Homer's influence begins to make itself extensively felt. I explore the nature and reasons behind such imitation in the cases of three authors-Spenser, Shakespeare and Chapman -identifying what the 'discovery' of Homer's texts involved in the very different practice of each. I argue that Spenser's reading and use of Homer was motivated and shaped by Homer's connection to other authors that were of key importance to Spenser, like Virgil. Spenser consistently makes literary capital out of the Homeric ancestry of his various sources. I then assess the impact on Shakespeare of a culture where Homer is becoming increasingly visible, particularly when his dramatist-colleague Chapman publishes a successful partial translation of Homer in 1598. I examine Shakespeare's possible interaction with this culture by looking at moments when Homer makes a surprising difference to his reading and transformation of other literary sources. I focus on Troilus and Cressida, which, I believe, engages closely with Chapman's 1598 Homer, refracted through Ovid's imitation of Homer. Finally, I turn to Chapman's translations of Homer over the years 1598-1614. These show Chapman developing a very eccentrically conceived methodological rigour, by which he attempts to understand the Homeric texts almost on their own terms alone. He privileges interpretations derived using only the texts' internal evidence, after reading this evidence in ways that presuppose peculiarly strict coherences in the Homeric texts. The results he arrives at are often startling. This is both a process of intellectual self-fashioning on Chapman's part and connected to Homer's place in the cultural moment in which he lived Each of these authors' imitation is read through and against contemporary reading and interpretative practices relevant to Homer. These trace the outlines of the broader cultural trend that was the 16th_century reception of Homer, a literary and intellectual 'discovery' taking place on the continent just before England. Central to the thesis is how the Homeric texts became accommodated within established bodies of what we now consider competing material: alternative versions to the stories in Homer, other sources for them and better-known imitations of Homer's literary idiom. How and when such antagonism between the received and the new, or the 'secondary' and the 'authentic', became conceptualised are crucial to how 'discovery' is understood. I believe that Homer's presence in Renaissance England has only been noticed after it becomes joined to some such notion of antagonism: i.e. in the case of Chapman, who articulates the antagonism (and the personal and cultural particularity of this articulation has never been appreciated), and of authors after him. But this stage postdates and is the outcome of a period in which Homer is discovered, that is, approached and put to original use alongside 'competing' material, in a fruitful contaminatio that can only be understood on its own terms. The recognition of an earlier awareness of Homer, in a form different from that we have been looking for, is important because it changes our understanding of the literature, but also because it speaks of lingering critical preconceptions which are preventing us from recognising the shapes of renaissance classicism in such periods of 'discovery' until after they have passed.


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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge