Introducing: Professor Lorna Hutson

Lorna Hutson is the Merton Professor of English Literature and Co-Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies, who joined the University of Oxford in Michaelmas 2016. 


Lorna Hutson

I’m delighted to be returning, at this late stage in my career, to Oxford, where I first studied English Literature as an undergraduate and then completed a DPhil on Thomas Nashe, under the supervision of Professor Emrys Jones. But I am also delighted, as part of my role as Merton Professor, to be taking on the co-directorship of the Centre for Early Modern Studies. The interdisciplinary mission of CEMS – which seeks to promote the study of the early modern period throughout the university – chimes with all that I’ve found most rewarding in my own research.

Back in the 1980s, when I was doing my DPhil, New Historicism was just beginning to take hold and to transform us all from literary critics into analysts of the poetics of early modern culture. These were stimulating times. I was already reading lots of social and economic history, trying to understand Nashe’s fascination with figures of scarcity and excess. I found the increasingly cultural, theoretical and material turn of literary studies in the 1990s liberating and illuminating, yet I didn’t want literary studies to become a mere branch of cultural history. At Queen Mary University of London I was lucky enough to work with Lisa Jardine, and was very influenced by her feminist critique of Renaissance humanism, but I was also a big fan of Terence Cave’s The Cornucopian Text (1979)I think in my work from that period -- Thomas Nashe in Context (1989), the article, ‘Reading for the Plot in Sixteenth Century England’ (Representations, 1993) and The Usurer’s Daughter (1994) – I tried to blend my pleasure in the figurative quality of literary language with a more sceptical analysis of the cultural work literature performs. I became interested in rhetoric and plot. I explored new ways of reading late sixteenth century prose narratives, discovering how they rework humanist and classical texts on husbandry and household governance,, on friendship, and on military strategy.

In the later 1990s I began to be intrigued by relations between legal thinking and fictional composition in sixteenth-century England. Reading the law reports of Edmund Plowden, I found that the legal fiction of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ was part of a broader contemporary interest in the hermeneutics of interpreting laws equitably. Equitable interpretation has, as many critics have shown, affinities with fiction. Around this time, I spent a brief but enjoyable time at the University of Hull, and was then appointed Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. At Berkeley I collaborated with Victoria Kahn to edit an interdisciplinary collection on Rhetoric and Law in Early Modern Europe (Yale, 2001). Some people speak of the rise of ‘law and literature’ in these years, but I prefer Bernadette Meyler’s idea of a triangulation of law, literature and history. As early modern social history has been invigorated by turning to legal records, so literary critics have come to recognise that kinship relations and the powerful emotions associated with love and family are very often legally structured – and nowhere more so than in early modern English drama, whether revenge tragedy or city comedy. And for those who think that legal approaches are anachronistically secularising, it’s worth pondering the extent to which theology itself draws on legal ways of thinking. In all religions in which the dead are judged, noted Jacques Le Goff, the afterlife is modelled on earthly justice.

While I was at Berkeley, I was given a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue a project on how forensic rhetoric – questions of proof and evidence – shaped aspects of the narrative form of English Renaissance drama. I found that the participatory nature of the English justice system meant that forensic forms of inquiry into fact and motive were popularly diffused in ways that resonate with the narrative and ideological forms of English drama, whether comedy, history or tragedy. This research – which critiqued the application to English drama of Foucault’s model of spectacular punishment– was published as ‘Rethinking the Spectacle of the Scaffold’ and ‘Forensic Aspects of Renaissance Mimesis’ (Representations, 2005 and 2006) and as a  monograph entitled, The Invention of Suspicion: Law and Mimesis in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (2007).

Circumstantial Shakespeare cover

At the University of St Andrews, to which I moved in 2004, I had the good fortune to work with Professor John Hudson, an expert on mediaeval Anglo-Norman law. Together we founded CMEMLL, the Centre for Mediaeval and Early Modern Law and Literature. Since 2011, CMEMLL has been a vigorous forum for interdisciplinary research, supporting, among many other things, work for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of English Law and Literature, 1500-1700.

My most recent book, Circumstantial Shakespeare (2015), was based on the Wells Shakespeare Lectures at Oxford in 2012. I looked at the way in which Shakespeare’s innovative creation of imagined offstage worlds and the inner lives of dramatic characters draws on legal rhetoric, specifically, the so-called ‘topics of circumstance’ which examine time and place in relation to questions of guilt and innocence. As well as my work on law and literature, I have kept up scholarly interests in women’s writing and in the history of sexuality as well as in the writings of Ben Jonson, on whose plays I have written articles for Representations and ELH and whose commonplace book, Discoveries, I edited for the Cambridge Complete Works of Ben Jonson (2012). And in this, my first year in post as Merton Professor, I am completing the final year of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship, which looks at Anglo-Scots literary and legal fictions of the two polities in the century leading up to Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

 Any profile of research, like this one, underplays the role of colleagues, students and teaching and administration in one’s intellectual life. I’ve learned so much from teaching students from all nationalities and backgrounds in institutions in three different countries. Students – both undergraduate and graduate – have,  with their energy and their scepticism, kept me interested in the important questions. Here at Oxford, I look forward to all the opportunities to engage, through CEMS and through the Faculty of English, with the full and dazzling range of colleagues’ and students’ research in the early modern period.