The Englishness of Tudor Poetry

Today I’m working on an abstract for the Shakespeare Association of America’s annual conference, and I’m totally stuck, so I’m going to write about being stuck as a way to un-stick myself.

I’m participating in a seminar on the languages of Tudor Englishness, broadly conceived; shifts in political and cultural dynamics meant that new vocabularies for Englishness emerged, and new words for signaling foreignness as well. I could certainly rehash some things from various conference presentations or my dissertation, but I like to use SAA as a place to push myself to do new work, and for me that means pairing historical texts and computational tools.

I’m most familiar with this topic in the context of my dissertation, though; there, I argued that poets in the 17th century no longer needed to grapple with the questions of whether or not English was a valid literary language. In other words, they had absorbed the classics so thoroughly that English literature could just sort of exist on its own grounds.

And perhaps this is what is difficult for me; in my current speciality, Englishness is the unmarked standard, and authors signal their individuality or creativity through deviations from that standard. Ben Jonson, for instance, signals his unique position (and aspirations) by repeatedly and insistently marking himself as a classicist. Shakespeare refers to the classics as “antique,” which in the period is pronounced like “antic”; and this pun signals his simultaneous valuation of and doubt about the status of the classics in his modern English moment. (This is similar to Colin Burrow’s description of Shakespeare’s emic classicism, whereby Shakespeare has absorbed his classical influences so thoroughly that he is most Roman when he is most English.)

So how to use computers to search for unmarked Englishness? is the way to create a test corpus that is unEnglish, and then compare it to another corpus? or should I attempt to create a set of vocabulary that I think is definitely English, and then look for that vocab across a larger set? The latter is easiest, but I think least interesting.

I guess this means my current problem is how to look for the unmarked or absorbed sense of English identity in the early 17th century. This is an interesting problem, to say the least.

I think for now I’ve become, if not unstuck, at least stuck in a different, more productive place.

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