Spenser with Huizinga

Shinn, Abigail. 2022. Spenser with Huizinga. Spenser Studies, ISSN 0195-9468 [Article] (Forthcoming)

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Reading Spenser with Johan Huizinga I aim to establish cultural play as an important conceptual tool for analysing Spenser’s literary world-view. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture explores ‘man the player’ and establishes play as the archetype for human culture. Spenser’s playfulness has long been acknowledged and recently Joe Moshenska has established play as an ‘indispensable horizon within which to experience and interpret Spenser’s work’. Turning to Huizinga, I take another look at Spenser’s play in order to argue that the play-element in Spenser’s poetry also manifests itself in a ludic approach to cultural forms which combines elite and popular. Examples of Spenser’s cultural play can be seen throughout his work, in his self-conscious adoption of the popular almanac format in his Spenser’s Calendar, the combination of epic and fairy tale in The Faerie Queene and the use of beast fable and orality in Mother Hubberd’s Tale. Considering how Spenser self-consciously toys with different cultural objects, I ask whether Huizinga can help us to reinterpret Spenser’s approach to literary value. Characterized by competitiveness and exhibitionism (two terms of central importance to Huizinga) Spenser’s display of cultural eclecticism advertises his skill as a poet but also nods to the ‘amphibious’ elite reader who has access to all cultural forms, whether high or low. This reader can participate in Spenser’s game as they untangle numerous points of cultural interaction. This playfulness is not necessarily benign and Spenser’s engagement with the popular can take the form of appropriation, mockery, and cruel showmanship, mirroring Huizinga’s focus on the ‘antithetical and agonistic’ aspects of play. Reading Spenser with Huizinga reframes and complicates how we define elite and popular in the early modern period and adds to our understanding of how Spenser marshals his vast range of influences.

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© 2022 by The University of Chicago

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


19 March 2022Accepted

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Date Deposited:

22 Mar 2022 16:02

Last Modified:

12 Jan 2023 17:16

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.



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