Power and Intersubjectivity in Renaissance Rhetoric

Angela Furry, Fordham University


Ancient and early modern Europe conceptualized rhetoric as a means for speakers to control their listeners, but also taught that the rhetorical process necessitates giving up power to others. Early modern English authors depicts attempts to dominate other people by exploiting reciprocity: people gained power over others by giving up power. In Shakespeare’s Richard II, this dynamic depends on unstable meanings of words, represented through the rhetorical devices of paradiastole, by which speakers contest different meanings of words, and obscurity, by which speakers depend on silent agreement which can be contested. This rhetorical world points to a world lacking shared truths and in epistemological crisis. With the end of divine right kingship, shared truths are replaced by perspectivism, atomism, and nihilism. Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller shows both rhetoric and revenge to be characterized by a logic of imitation and a decentralized, equalizing relativism that seeks mastery and obliteration of the other. The dynamic parallels between rhetoric and revenge illuminate Cutwolfe’s simultaneous domination of and vulnerability to his audience, his exploitation of social egalitarianism for social dominance, and above all, in his deployment of revenge through rhetoric. This dissertation examines how Cutwolfe’s performance as an orator and his speech about revenge and justice results in a picture of a social hierarchy simultaneously threatened and maintained. Shakespeare and Nashe both characterize rhetoric as antisocial, a weapon of violence and the art of deception. In his poetry, George Herbert confronts the question of religious poetry’s moral status as rhetoric, treating the problem of sincerity versus artful language not as an irreconcilable opposition but as a creative tension. Herbert transforms cultural ambivalence about rhetoric into a sophisticated poetics by creating a sincerity effect in his poetry, thus legitimatizing religious verse. This dissertation analyzes Herbert’s sincerity effect in his non-religious Latin poetry, including “Memoriae Sacrum Matris,” as well as his religious English poetry. In the end, Herbert achieves a sincerity effect in his rhetoric by acknowledging rhetoric’s limited ability for sincerity. This acknowledgment of its limitation functions not to reject rhetoric, but to validate and redeem it.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Rhetoric

Recommended Citation

Furry, Angela, "Power and Intersubjectivity in Renaissance Rhetoric" (2022). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI29206772.