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Simone Chess


This dissertation argues that scholarly characters in popular plays reveal contradictions and conflict in early modern society; moreover, these representations support a broad critique of the early modern social order and suggest scholarliness can contribute to political agency. First, I focus on relationships between scholarly men in William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost and Thomas Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. I argue that these plays use homoeroticism and cuckoldry discourses to make sense of the meaning of scholarliness in the early modern period and its implicit challenge to heteronormativity. Next, I examine two city comedies: Thomas Middleton’s The Puritan Widow and Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s Wit at Several Weapons. I show how representations of scholarly characters outline an urban economy of depredation and want that is further illustrated through discourses of food and consumption. Scholarly characters demonstrate the utility of wit and knowledge in these adverse conditions. I show that Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy also reveals the utility of adapting scholarly practices when Hieronimo deploys scholarly modes of reading to ascertain how his son was murdered. Furthermore, Kyd’s play points to the transgressive potential of both scholarliness and drama. In the last chapter, I show how a critical focus on scholarly characters can add to our understanding of even the most canonical of works. I argue that scholarly practices enable Polonius the royal counselor to navigate court politics in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius relies on humanist reading practices and the purposive manipulation of discourses related to marriage and lovesickness. This dissertation contributes to early modern studies by articulating tensions between university life, scholarly identity, and the social order as represented in popular drama. Understanding these tensions complicates our view of university education in the early modern period by revealing how education shapes and is shaped by social, political, and economic context.

Available for download on Friday, March 21, 2025