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Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance

Gregory M. Colón Semenza

Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance is the first book-length study of the crucial relationship between sport and the political and imaginative literature of Renaissance England. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, educators, medical practitioners, and military scientists were among the many contemporaries who praised sport as necessary and functional—physiologically beneficial to the individual practitioner, vital to the preparedness of the military, and necessary to the maintenance of the traditional class hierarchy.

Sport’s significance in the period is perhaps best registered by its literal and metaphorical centrality in such popular words of literature as Shakespeare’s history plays, Walton’s Compleat Angler, and Milton’s Samson Agonistes, as well as its prominence in ecclesiastical and secular legislation and polemics. By reconstructing a cultural history of sport and investigating representations of it in contemporary prose, poetry, and drama, Sport, Politics, and Literature demonstrates sport’s pivotal position in the interlocking spheres of Renaissance science, politics, and art. While the book offers a long view of representations of sport over two centuries, each of Semenza’s chapters examines sport within the highly specific political and literary contexts of a single period: early Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Caroline, Interregnum, and Restoration.

Sport has played a significant but misunderstood role in studies of Renaissance culture. Critics and historians have typically assumed it to by synonymous with disorderly holiday mirth, excessive drinking, and other such “unlawful” recreations. While Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential concept of carnival would appear to describe notorious “unruly” activities like wrestling and football, such sports were just as often praised in the period for contributing to the physical, mental, and social stability of the English nation and its people. Nonetheless, scholars have continued to view sport through a Bakhtinian lens, suggesting that Renaissance men and women typically perceived all recreations as a potential threat to order and sobriety.

Challenging such Bakhtinian conceptions of physical activity, Semenza argues that sport also symbolized order in Renaissance England and even figured as a major component of the English national identity. Indeed, English educational and social theorists such as Sir Thomas Elyot and Richard Mulcaster recommended as vital to Englishmen the practice of various sports and athletic games. Such unequivocally positive attitudes toward sport were just as common as the more famous critiques of sport by Puritans, and they were almost certainly more influential.

The originality of Semenza’s approach consists precisely in his focus on the unusual ability of sport to emblematize extremes of chaos and order, sin and morality, unlawfulness and lawfulness. Such polemical reversibility made the subject of sport an extremely effective vehicle for social commentary in practically every written form available to the Renaissance author.
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University Press Copublishing Division / University of Delaware Press
Pages: 240Size: 6 3/4 x 9 3/4
978-1-61149-238-5 • Hardback • January 2004 • $79.00 • (£52.95)
Gregory M. Colón Semenza is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.