Ambition and Privilege: The Social Tropes of Elizabethan Courtesy Theory

Frank Whigham
Frank Whigham situates Renaissance courtesy literature in the historical circumstances of its production and use at the Elizabethan court, where it functioned in several related but conflicting ways in struggles over social mobility and the justification of elite status. Whigham shows how courtesy both repressed and aided mobility and discusses the rhetorical arena where established and would-be courtiers strove to define themselves and one another. The chief means for such performative definition were the fundamental group stratifications of gentle and base and their corresponding vocabularies of praise and flattery and of blame and slander. These tools formed a strategic discourse that sought to safeguard a dominant class, but their use eventually undermined the discourse's original purposes. Whigham employs the social theory of Burke, Goffman, Foucault, and Bourdieu to insist on the permeation of everyday life by such patterns of domination and conflict and on the social constructions of individual identity. His view shifts courtesy from the contemplative to the active realm, from the margins to the center of Elizabethan culture.

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