“It is difficult to overstate Lyly’s impact on early modern culture, but this book will do its very best” (3). In John Lyly and early modern authorship, Andy Kesson introduces the most famous English dramatist most people have never heard of, and demands that we remap swathes of Early Modern literary territory as a result. He interrogates the image of Lyly which predominates in the scholarship of the last two centuries – a sycophantic, etiolated figure churning out fiddly and fussy prose to amuse courtiers – and seeks to resituate the writer at the heart of Early Modern textual and theatrical culture. The book investigates how Lyly’s modern reputation was created, before turning to analyse the production of his prose works and plays to “enabl[e] a new understanding of the ways different kinds of textual authorship could be received, commodified and celebrated in the early modern period” (25). It then considers the process which have kept Lyly out of the literary canon, and – crucially – what those tell us about the construction of the canon itself, and how his reinstatement might effect a shift in canonical relationships.
To carry out this ambitious project, Kesson deploys meticulous historical scholarship. John Lyly and early modern authorship plunges the reader into the dense textual culture of the period: tracing allusions, reading titlepages, picking apart the contours of a prose style and deftly teasing out how all these contributed to the meaning of a text for contemporary readers. “The imaginative world of [Euphues: the Anatomy of Wit] is…created within a dazzling matrix of intertextual information” we are told, and “Lyly’s style requires the reader to dance around his many imaginative suggestion” (55). Kesson guides us around this process of reading, allowing us some glimpses into the web of implication and significance which Lyly’s works created, and gesturing towards the depths which remain unexplored. The intricacy of these forays into the texture of the works are rhetorically compelling, helping to persuade the reader that Lyly’s popular image traduces his real quality.
The historical specificity also insists that we rethink certain narratives about the past, by demonstrating how far they have been determined by the historical processes they seek to explain. For example, Kesson cites Emma Smith to the effect that when Shakespeare appears in lists of writers drawn up his contemporaries he is “prominent but not pre-eminent”, and that this might usefully inflect our attitude to Shakespeare in our own critical practice. However he goes on to point out that “early modern witnesses are not indifferent, and Lyly is, very often, prominent and pre-eminent” (3). Unexpectedly, and provocatively, Kesson cites contemporary attitudes not in order to relativize Shakespeare’s greatness, but to demand attention for someone who appeared much greater. A scholarship which goes back to the sixteenth century to map the beginnings of Shakespeare’s dominance will have to make compromises, he implies, whilst a scholarship which actually listens to the voices of the period would wonder why so much money is spent these days subsidizing Shakespeare (and perhaps conclude that it is to stop him disappearing under the tidal wave of Lyly worship.)
This provocation is typical of the book’s style, which delights in claiming “firsts” and “originals” for its subject. The originator of the single-story prose text, the first playwright to shepherd his plays into print, the first best-selling Elizabethan playwright, the source of a cultural phenomenon in “Euphues”. Kesson is aware of the ironies of using postmodern conceptions of authorship and textual function in order to dive back into the past and come up triumphantly brandishing “the original”. His analysis carefully navigates the tension between pointing to the ways in which Lyly – and the models of authorship his work instituted and embodied – laid the groundwork for the Shakespeare phenomenon, and the fact that Lyly’s work failed to maintain its enormous influence across the succeeding years. Neither history nor literary texts can be deconstructed and cited as evidence at the same time, and Kesson’s book shuttles nimbly between the two modes of argument, daring traditional scholarship to defend itself. Whether it could totally integrate those two impulses within its own account of Lyly is less clear at times, but this fades into insignificance given the critique it makes.
Kesson makes a stylish and relentless argument for Lyly’s value both at the time and in our time, that “what it meant” and “what it means” (in Stendahl’s phrase) should have more of our attention. In doing so he pushes back slightly against the critical movement discernible in some papers by Emma Smith and Genevieve Love, which would relinquish the performance and production of history of non-Shakespearean Early Modern drama to the Bardolators at some point. This movement would admit that there will never be an equally powerful narrative to tell on the non-Shakespearean side (because of Shakespeare’s dominance in brute historical fact) and seek other modes, such as fantasy criticism, to follow. Whilst Kesson’s book does not directly address this issue, it demonstrates by its own force and richness that there is plenty of strangeness in the past, accessible via a traditional modernist-historical framework, which could challenge the cultural and academic Shakesbeast.
The work’s concerns are not solely historical or critical, however, and there is a lively insistence on the value of Lyly’s plays in the present. They are, the book boasts, the only plays to have made audiences at the Read Not Dead readings at Shakespeare’s Globe both laugh and cry (25). Despite the intricate historical concerns of the middle section, the introduction and conclusion position Lyly as a writer for our time, whose value in academic debates will be fuelled by his unignorability in production. John Lyly and early modern authorship makes a compelling case for its subject, and makes a striking intervention in its field.
John Lyly and early modern authorship. Andy Kesson. (Manchester University Press, 2014). ISBN: 978-0719088247 £65.00. I am grateful to Manchester University Press for providing a copy of the volume for review.