MA in Renaissance Literature and Culture

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On the MA in Renaissance Literature and Culture, you will study some of the most exciting writing produced in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, and you will develop research skills essential for further study, including a knowledge of the history of the book, manuscript studies, databases, and editing. You will think critically about the 'Renaissance' and the 'Early Modern' as conceptual and chronological categories in relation to notions of periodisation in Modern English studies. In the optional modules, you can research topics currently generating debates within early modern studies, including issues such as the place of the stage; drama and the contexts of its performance; early modern reconfigurations of identity; negotiations of gender, class and race; and writing and reading practices.

In the spring term, you will choose two options from:

Identity and Otherness in the Early Modern Period. Early modern English literature plays host to a whole range of 'others' – in plays, travel writing and captivity narratives, pamphlets, newssheets, and letter writing. These texts 'reflect', but perhaps more accurately refract, England's growing engagement (commercial, diplomatic, cultural) with the wider world in the second half of the sixteenth century, arguably registering a heightened consciousness at home of what such encounters might mean. This module examines how this cultural engagement with various 'others' operates, and what it might tell us about early modern perceptions of race, religion, and gender – how, that is, the structuring principle of difference articulates notions of 'identity' and 'otherness'. Sample texts from Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1589 & 1598-1600) and other travel and captivity narratives, alongside a selection of prose and drama, such as, Coryat's Crudities (1611), Thomas Overbury's Characters (1614), The Jew of Malta (c.1591), and The Travails of the Three English Brothers (1607) will be examined as indices of how a range of 'others' – Spanish Catholics, Muslim Turks and Persians, and (perhaps most problematically) Jews and Moors – were perceived.

The Unruly Stage in Shakespeare's London. What was the place of the stage in early modern England – how is the theatre and its cultural role to be understood? On the one hand, theatrical companies served the court, providing entertainment for the monarch; on the other, plays threatened public order through their illicit pleasures and dangerous debates. This module provides the opportunity to explore the contradictory status of the early modern theatre through a range of optional topics. Theatre, the state and censorship provides one avenue for addressing this issue, through the study of censored plays, such as Shakespeare's Richard II and Middleton's popular and controversial Game at Chess. The concept of the 'paper stage' enables us to assess theatre's participation in a wider public sphere by extending the parameters of public performance to include scurrilous pamphlets, satires and libels. Playwrights put London on stage allowing us to analyse the way social spaces (shops, taverns, prisons) are dramatised, from Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday to Middleton's Chaste Maid in Cheapside, as well as conditions of playgoing in early modern London. By attending to the body of the actor in performance, in plays such as Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Jonson's Epicoene, we can engage with recent critical work in gender and performance studies.

Early Modern Reading and Writing. The printed book was a novelty in the early modern period, and many of the conventions that shape our experience of reading (even the presence of a title page or page numbers) developed at this time, in parallel with the traditions of manuscript books. Our ideas about authorship, particularly the differences between composition and copying or translating, were also changing rapidly. In this module, we will consider the potentials and problems of reconstructing the apparently silent, traceless act of reading, by analysing representations of reading in literary texts; by examining manuscript commonplace books kept by women such as Constance Fowler and Anne Southwell; and by considering the marginal annotations that readers left in their books. Through an examination of influential texts, including the First Folio of William Shakespeare (1623) and an original copy of Ben Jonson's Workes (1640), now held in the University of Reading's Rare Books Library, as well as miscellanies compiled from several authors (often by groups of writers), students will consider the degree to which a newly powerful, 'modern' conception of authorship was evolving. By exploring techniques of editing and transcription, we will scrutinise the ways in which we encounter the literature of the past on the printed page.

The final element of the MA is the Dissertation module. At the start of the summer term, and in consultation with the programme director, you will be assigned a dissertation supervisor. Your supervisor will guide you in researching and framing your dissertation project.. 

Staff in the Early Modern Research Centre

As an MA student at Reading, you will be part of our vibrant Early Modern Research Centre (EMRC) which organises regular seminar programmes, international conferences, and publications. You will meet and engage with visiting scholars, and experience the very latest academic research. Early Modern specialists who teach on the course are:

Dr Rebecca Bullard, the author of The politics of disclosure, 1674-1725: secret history narratives (2009) and one of the editors of The Plays and Poetry of Nicholas Rowe, which will be published in 2018. A current project, 'The Gathered Text', investigates the ways in which printed books were made during this period. 

Dr Chloë Houston, the author of The Renaissance Utopia: Dialogue, Travel and the Ideal Society (2014) and the editor of New Worlds Reflected: Travel and Utopia in the Early Modern Period (2010)

Dr Mark Hutchings, co-author of Middleton and his Collaborators (2008),editor of Three Jacobean 'Turkish' Plays (forthcoming), and guest editor ofShakespeare 4.2 (May 2008). His current interests include Anglo-Spanish relations, stage directions, and the influence of Early Modern theatre on the 'new Jacobeans' of modern/contemporary English drama.

Dr Mary Morrissey, the author of Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons, 1558-1642 (2010) and is editing a volume of Donne's sermons for the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Professor Michelle O'Callaghan, the author of The Shepheards Nation: Jacobean Spenserians and Early Stuart Political Culture (2000); The English Wits: Literature and Sociability in Early Modern England (2007); Thomas Middleton, Renaissance Dramatist (2009); and the editor of a digital edition, Verse Miscellanies Online.

Further details

For application materials, please contact Jan Cox:

To discuss the course further, please contact the Course Convenor, Prof. Michelle O'Callaghan:

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Student Feedback

'The MA provided an ideal bridge for me between an undergraduate degree in English Literature and a PhD in early modern travel writing. Being encouraged to attend the Centre's prestigious Research Seminars, meanwhile, provided an inspiring glimpse of the academic world beyond the classroom' - Colm MacCrossan (MA student, 2002-2003)


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