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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Sidney and His Contemporaries: English Renaissance Readers Searching, Sifting, and Extracting for Value in the Ancient Texts


Though a culture which produced such literary genius as Sidney, Shakespeare, and Milton should alone command closer examination, little attention has been given to how English Renaissance readers actually responded to and engaged with the pages of the Classics, their ancient Greek and Roman texts. As the scholarship work of Anthony Grafton suggests, few were passive readers, rather, as taught by men such as Erasmus, they approached the Classics with goal-oriented determination. While some sought political strategy and others sought literary stylistic techniques, mostly, and often simultaneously, they sought moral philosophy—the moral lesson or the mentor to follow—that which they judged could improve their lives. With a passion comparable to one searching and sifting for gold, these readers—the scholars, the translators, and the commonplacers (readers who kept their own personal notebooks) —searched and sifted through the riverbed of their ancient texts, interpreting and reinterpreting and, at times, reinventing these texts in order to extract a central core of moral philosophy—the gold! Citing specific examples of reading in the translators’ prefaces and commentaries, a scholar’s marginalia, and the commonplacers’ personal notebooks, I demonstrate how this practice of reading to extract moral philosphy connects to Sir Philip Sidney’s model of "how one should read" as revealed in his treatise,The Defense of Poetry.Since there is evidence of a wide-spread cultural practice of such active reading, I also explore how these reading practices may have affected the English Renaissance literary culture.

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