323 Benson Science Hall
Nancy Perot Mulford Professor of English Vanderbilt University
My research and teaching revolves around the connections among rhetoric, emotion, gender, and sexuality in renaissance literature and classical antecedents. I remain fascinated by what theories of language, rhetoric, and poetics (from the ancient world to our own) reveal about the (often violent) way cultures organize gender, bodies, knowledge, and matter. After finishing my B.A. in English with a minor in Greek at Vanderbilt, I read for a second BA in Classics at Somerville College, Oxford. I did my PhD work at Cornell – first in the Medieval Studies Program, focusing on Italian studies, before moving to the English Department to specialize in Renaissance literature and contemporary literary theory. From 1989-98 I taught in the Departments of Comparative Literature and English at Yale, during which time I published The Tears of Narcissus: Melancholia and Masculinity in Early Modern Writing (Stanford University Press, 1995) and wrote The Rhetoric of the Body from Ovid to Shakespeare (Cambridge UP, 2000). My first book argues that if we read the rhetoric of melancholia in Tasso, Shakespeare, Webster, and Marvell alongside contemporary psychoanalytic theory (particularly that of Lacan and Kristeva), we perceive the decidedly fragile contours of early modern subjectivity and masculinity. Each analysis begins with the distinctive formal features associated with melancholia – apostrophe, allegory, meta-dramatic figures, and gestures of “un-metaphoring” – to analyze the way each text’s symbolic economy impinges on its depictions of desire and loss. The Rhetoric of the Body turns to passionate female voices to demonstrate how decisively the intersection between Ovid’s and Petrarch’s poetics influenced 16th century investigations of embodied subjectivity, particularly among English writers who took up the practice of “cross-voicing” on stage and off. The analysis revolves around the continued presence of Ovid’s “phonographic imaginary” in the renaissance – an imaginary in which ancient practices of reading and writing produced dominant figures for authorship that resist normative gender distinctions even from within such compelling stories of violence and desire as that of Medusa, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Narcissus, Echo, and Philomela.
My research into the transmission of Ovidian rhetoric and the undoing of identity implicit in it prompted me to investigate the institutional parameters rhetorical training and literary reception in the Tudor period. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) examines moments of considerable emotional power in Shakespeare's poetry alongside the discursive and disciplinary practices of sixteenth-century grammar schools, the institution in which Shakespeare first read and learned to imitate Ovid. Humanist training in Latin grammar and rhetorical facility was designed to intervene in social reproduction, to sort out which differences between bodies (male and female) and groups (aristocrats, the middling sort, and those below) were necessary to producing proper English "gentlemen." But I uncover a rather different story from the one schoolmasters invented to promote the social efficacy of their pedagogical innovations. Beginning with the observation that Shakespeare frequently reengaged school techniques through the voices of those it excluded (particularly women), I argue that when his portraits of "love" and "woe" betray their institutional origins, they reveal both the cost of a Latin education as well as the contradictory conditions of masculine cultural capital in sixteenth-century Britain.
Current Research Interests
I am currently engaged in two projects: the first, “The Impersonator,” extends my research into grammar school archives to the poetry of Andrew Marvell, a former schoolboy, gifted Latinist, and sometime tutor. The second, “On the Passions of Nymphs,” revolves around the intersection between rhetorical practices in grammar schools and at the Inns of Court, asking what the outburst of complaining nymphs in Elizabethan minor epics reveal about the connections between these two educational institutions as well as the kind of “masculine” cultural capital thought to have been acquired in them. Construed more broadly, my fields of research include: the histories of ancient, medieval, and renaissance rhetoric, emotion, and sexuality; Shakespeare and theory; feminist, psychoanalytic, and queer theory; theories of the performative; Renaissance classicism and materialist theory (ancient to modern); humanist pedagogy and masculinity; impersonation, ventriloquism, prosopopoeia, and trauma in 16th and 17th century poetry.