Melancholy and the Early Modern University

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Anglin, Emily Elizabeth
Melancholy, universities, King James, Robert Burton, George Herbert, Hamlet, Shakespeare, Habermas, the public sphere
Critics have observed that in early Stuart England, the broad, socially significant concept of melancholy was recoded as a specifically medical phenomenon—a disease rather than a fashion. This recoding made melancholy seem less a social attitude than a private ailment. However, I argue that at the Stuart universities, this recoded melancholy became a covert expression of the disillusionment, disappointment, and frustration produced by pressures there—the overcrowding and competition which left many men “disappointed” in preferment, alongside James I’s unprecedented royal involvement in the universities. My argument has implications for Jürgen Habermas’s account of the emergence of the public sphere, which he claims did not occur until the eighteenth-century. I argue that although the university was increasingly subordinated to the crown’s authority, a lingering sense of autonomy persisted there, a residue of the medieval university’s relative autonomy from the crown; politicized by the encroaching Stuart presence, an alienated community at the university formed a kind of public in private from authority within that authority’s midst. The audience for the printed book, a sphere apart from court or university, represented a forum in which the publicity at the universities could be consolidated, especially in seemingly “private” literary forms such as the treatise on melancholy. I argue that Robert Burton’s exaggerated performance of melancholy in The Anatomy of Melancholy, which gains him license to say almost anything, resembles the performed melancholy that the student-prince Hamlet uses to frustrate his uncle’s attempts to surveil him. After tracing melancholy’s evolving literary function through Hamlet, I go on to discuss James’s interventions into the universities. I conclude by considering two printed (and widely circulated) books by university men: the aforementioned The Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton, an Oxford cleric, and The Temple by George Herbert, who left a career as Cambridge’s public orator to become a country parson. I examine how each of these books uses the affective pattern of courtly-scholarly disappointment—transumed by Burton as melancholy, and by Herbert as holy affliction—to develop an empathic form of publicity among its readership which is in tacit opposition to the Stuart court.
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