Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England


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Anne Lake Prescott

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Famed for his learning, wordplay, clever fantasy, and insight, the notorious French writer Francois Rabelais (1494?-1553) was also widely known for scoffing, supposed atheism, salacious writing, and irresponsible whimsy. This engaging book is the first exploration in more than sixty years of Renaissance England’s response to the humorous yet difficult and ambiguous Rabelais. Anne Lake Prescott describes in entertaining detail how a host of English writers—Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, John Webster, John Donne, James I, Shakespeare, and Michael Drayton, among many others—collectively and sometimes individually appreciated and condemned Rabelais.

Prescott documents the extent to which Rabelais’s name and work permeated Renaissance English literature and thought. Tudor and Stuart writers quoted him, told funny or scandalous stories about him, imitated him, abhorred him, even judged Rabelais without reading him. In this wide range of responses, from the urbanely appreciative to the pompous and grumpy, Prescott finds new understandings of cultural ambivalence and the ambiguities of literary reception. She shows that precisely because Rabelais’s reputation was contradictory, appropriating his name or words was useful in Renaissance England for expressing division on topics ranging from authorship and sex to heresy and political secrets.

Anne Lake Prescott is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, co-editor of Edmund Spenser’s Poetry: The Norton Critical Edition, and the author of French Poets and the English Renaissance, published by Yale University Press.

"Prescott is really breaking new ground here. Her book is original and entertaining. I can't remember when I've laughed as often while reading a thoroughly scholarly book."—Barbara C. Bowen, Vanderbilt University

"This is a well written, entertaining, and scholarly study of the reception of Rabelais in Renaissance England immaculately proof-read, well produced, and abundantly illustrated. . . . The author’s thorough acquaintance with Rabelais is complemented by her intricate knowledge of the highways and byways of early modern English writers. The result is a comprehensive and convincing picture of what the English made of France’s foremost Renaissance writer of narrative."—Philip Ford, International Journal of the Classical Tradition

"From striking dustjacket down to last footnoote, this fine study of how English Renaissance writers ‘reacted to and reconfigured one famous Frenchman’ makes a lasting contribution to our understanding of a host of texts up to just before 1653. . . . This fresh look at the whole subject provides not only a fuller evaluation of known points of contact but much that is absolutely new. . . . Those willing to pursue what the author calls ‘the hermeneutics of pleasure’ will be rewarded throughout this study by a new sense of the inner delights of the great Silenus that was Rabelais and of his impact on writers across the channel."—Richard S. Peterson, Comparative Literature Studies

"As a piece of storytelling, Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England is fully worthy of its subject matter; again and again I found myself setting the book aside to chuckle, cackle, or grin at its humor."—Bruce Boehrer, Journal of English and Germanic Philology

"In one deft, fluid and amused sentence after another, Imagining Rabelais quietly displays a fine critical sensibility supported by careful and extensive scholarship."— David Lee Miller, University of Kentucky, A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles

"Throughout these pages, we are also the better informed about the literary culture of Renaissance England, the writers that participated in that culture, and the distinctive polyvocality and elusiveness of one authorial figure that intrigued and provoked them."—Stephen M. Buhler, Sixteenth Century Journal

"Anne Lake Prescott has long been one of our best guides in understanding the impact of continental writers on English literature in the Early Modern period. . . . Prescott entertainingly reintroduces us to the diverse writing communities of the era through a series of insightful vignettes, each exploring how individual writers 'read' the figure of Rabelais for their intended audiences."— Sixteenth Century Journal

ISBN: 9780300199826
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
278 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
21 b/w illus.