Ben Jonson’s Walk to Scotland
Co-written with Anna Groundwater and Julie Sanders, this book tells the story of Ben Jonson’s celebrated walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. At the heart of the book is an account of the journey written by Jonson’s travelling companion, taken from a manuscript that lay, unrecognised, in a collection of family papers until 2009. The account is a revelation – an amazing perspective on a piece of performance art undertaken by one of English literature’s finest authors, and an astonishing series of snapshots from a Jacobean summer. In editing the text we sought to reveal what lies behind its stories of places visited and people encountered, and in so doing brought its extensive cast of characters into focus. Our edition, with contextual essays exploring the implications of the account for our knowledge of Jonson and his world, is available from Cambridge University Press.
Shakespeare, Jonson and the Claims of the Performative
Co-written with Mark Robson, this book set out to examine the ways in which the concept of ‘performativity’ can help us understand the dramatic potential of familiar plays by Shakespeare and Jonson. At the same time, we wanted to demonstrate how its history reveals a fruitful, if not always easily readable, instability in the concept of the performative itself. The book is more a work of performance theory than of performance history – it’s an element in a longstanding interest in the varying dimensions of performativity as that has been understood in literary and dramatic criticism. It’s also an attempt to revisit some of the customary assumptions about Shakespearean and Jonsonian drama that still sometimes surface in contemporary criticism.
Stanley Cavell: Philosophy, Literature and Criticism
Co-edited with Andrew Taylor, this collection of essays is one of the first books to offer a comprehensive examination of the relationship between the celebrated philosophical work of Stanley Cavell and the discipline of literary criticism. We were fortunate enough to be able to bring together an impressive range of interlocutors – including Jay Bernstein, Joan Richardson, Richard Eldridge and Timothy Gould – who set out to explore the shape and substance of Stanley Cavell’s persisting sense of the literary as a category in which, and through which, philosophical work can be undertaken. A number of the book’s essays address his engagements with modernism, tragedy, and romanticism, while others consider Cavell’s own aesthetic modes as a writer. Above all, the book explores the ways in which the reading of literature, and the practice of philosophy, might continue both to influence each other across disciplinary boundaries, and to challenge the internal topographies of those disciplines.
This book is an attempt to trace the history of a concept – or, at least, it started out that way. The term ‘performative’ was first coined by the ‘ordinary language’ philosopher J. L. Austin in the 1950s, as an attempt to of isolate a distinctive way in which language in use might make something happen – indeed, might be an event or an action in itself. The term and the idea, however, quickly got away from Austin’s own usage, achieving an entirely unanticipated form in the varying contexts of deconstruction, queer theory and performance studies. But when I set out to write this book I found that all the transformations to which Austin’s insight had been subjected had overlooked areas of theoretical promise more or less latent in its original articulation. So the book became an attempt to revive aspects of the performative that had been buried in the standard telling of the concept’s history.
Offered the chance to sum up the life, writing and critical history of Ben Jonson in roughly 80,000 words, I stupidly said yes. But as I read and reread my way through Jonson’s extensive corpus and the voluminous mass of criticism that work has generated over the years, an intriguing picture of a unique, socially engaged, and self-made writer gradually took shape. Jonson has suffered something of a reputational decline over the centuries, and his plays are thought to be overly obscure and difficult to perform. He is sometimes even thought readable only by scholars burrowing their way through culture for the purposes of their research. But the picture this book sought to paint was one in which this self-ironising, healthily sceptical, expansive and clearly charismatic writer could have his due. Like other fine poets concerned to find a place for their voices in the public sphere, Jonson shows an acute understanding of both the possibilities and dangers. He’s also, believe or not, often really funny.
Royalism and Poetry in the English Civil Wars
This book is a study of the intersection between the politics of royalism and the practice of poetry in the 1630s and 1640s. It grew out of the research I did for my PhD, which took me away from the usual literary-historical narratives of ‘cavalier poetry’ and the like, and had me grappling instead with the polemical and pamphlet literature that bubbled from the busy presses of the era. The book concentrates on the way in which writing that is polemically committed to the royalist cause imagines and represents itself, on the one hand, and copes with the fluctuating (well, collapsing) fortunes of the cause it is pledged to support. Its heroes, if that’s the right word, are intelligent, uncompromising and now largely forgotten polemicists such as John Cleveland and John Berkenhead, rather than the disengaged poets of rural retirement who have more commonly been blessed with the ‘cavalier’ label.