Wit's Treasury: Renaissance English and the Classics

Penn Press
"There are many other books on aspects of sixteenth-century classicism in the arts, literature, education, and the sciences, but none with the combination of erudition, direct engagement with visual and textual material, brevity, and accessibility that Stephen Orgel brings to Wit's Treasury. Orgel is a scholar of unique standing in his field. This is a book to be welcomed wherever Renaissance literature is taught and enjoyed."—Greg Walker, University of Edinburgh

As England entered the Renaissance and as humanism, with its focus on classical literature and philosophy, informed the educational system, English intellectuals engaged in a concerted effort to remake the culture, language, manners—indeed, the whole national style—through adapting the classics. But how could English literature, art, and culture, become "classical," not only in imitating the ancients, but in the sense subsequently applied to music: "classical" as opposed to popular, as formal, serious, and therefore as good?

For several decades in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Stephen Orgel writes, the return to the classics held out the promise of refinement and civility. Poetry was to be modeled on Greek and Roman examples rather than on the great English medieval works, which though admirable, lacked "correctness." More than poetry was at stake, however, and the transition would not be easy. Classical rules seemed the wave of the future, rescuing England from what was seen as the crudeness and the sheer popularity of its native traditions, but advocacy was tempered with a good deal of ambivalence: classical manners and morals were often at variance with Christian principles, and the classicism of the age would need to be deeply revisionist. "Christian humanism" was never untroubled, Orgel writes, always an unstable or even paradoxical amalgam.

In Wit's Treasury, one of our foremost interpreters of Renaissance literature and culture charts how this ambivalence yielded the rich creative tension out of which emerged an unprecedented flowering of drama, lyric, and the arts. Orgel has here written a book that will appeal to anyone interested in English Renaissance art and literature, and particularly in the cultural ferment that produced Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Jonson, and Milton.

Stephen Orgel is Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Stanford University. His most recent books are The Reader in the Book and Spectacular Performances. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Associazione Sigismondo Malatesta. In 2017 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Venice.

About the Author

At Stanford Since: 1985


Stephen Orgel has published widely on the political and historical aspects of Renaissance literature, theater, art history and the history of the book. His work is interdisciplinary, and is increasingly concerned with the patronage system, the nature of representation, and performance practice in the Renaissance. His most recent book is Spectacular Performances (2011), and The Reader in the Book is forthcoming in 2015. He is also the author of Imagining Shakespeare (2003), The Authentic Shakespeare (2002), Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge, 1996), The Illusion of Power (Berkeley, 1975), Inigo Jones (London and Berkeley, 1973, in collaboration with Sir Roy Strong), and The Jonsonian Masque (Cambridge, Mass., 1965). He has edited Ben Jonson's masques, Christopher Marlowe's poems and translations, the Oxford Authors John Milton, The Tempest and The Winter's Tale in The Oxford Shakespeare, Trollope's Lady Anna, and Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, The Age of Innocence and The Reef in the Oxford World's Classics. He is the general editor of Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, and of the new Pelican Shakespeare. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, NEH Fellowships, and ACLS Fellowships; he has been a Getty Fellow, a visiting fellow at New College, Oxford, and the Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and on the board of the Associazione Malatesta in Italy.