Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
This dissertation examines scenes of failed persuasion in Renaissance literature. Although recent critical work has profiled early modern concerns with inarticulacy, critics for the most part have neglected a widespread interest in the limits of persuasive speech. Undergirded by humanist convictions about the power of eloquence, rhetoric's assumed utility guided education curricula throughout Renaissance England from grammar school to the Inns of Court. The imaginative literature of the period is a proving ground for this assumption as writers take formal persuasion into unusual scenarios to consider the limitations of rhetorical skill. Unlike rhetorical theory, Renaissance fictions dramatize scenarios in which some aspect of the speaker, audience, or situation dislocates persuasion. Fiction writers from Philip Sidney to John Milton use these moments to address central preoccupations in Renaissance culture. Examining rhetorical failure in amatory, religious, forensic, and deliberative contexts, which represent crucial sites of communication in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century life, I argue that early modern writers use such scenes to assess the value of eloquence, both for the individual and for early modern society, and to demonstrate their own rhetorical skill.