Unlettered culture: The idea of illiteracy in early modern writing

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Dympna Callaghan


Culture, Illiteracy, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Beaumont, Shakespeare, William, Spenser, Edmund, Marlowe, Christopher, Beaumont, Francis

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


Unlettered Culture: the Idea of Illiteracy in Early Modern Writing explores the paradoxical centrality of illiteracy in Renaissance drama and poetry. As enormous educational, religious, and technological advances made reading and writing available to the English at an unprecedented rate, literature became the prime venue for enacting a counter-narrative to this sweeping change. Drama and poetry were typically hybrid genres wrought from traditional oral and visual traditions. Imaginative works such as Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2 (1597), Marlowe's Dr. Faustus (1592), and Spenser's "Mother Hubberd's Tale" (1591) strikingly display the discord arising between literate and illiterate populations in the arenas of labor division, religion, education, and law. The constellation of literary works studied here demonstrate some of the negative emergent discourses defining illiteracy: violent, barbarous, and of lowly social position, those who could not read or write were becoming increasingly viewed as sinful and savage outsiders. Yet the hybrid nature of literature of the period allows more positive representations to emerge. Illiterate peoples did participate in the making of written culture in unexpected and important ways. Whether the making of the paper that literature was printed on, inspiring writers through traditional lively oral fictions, or simply maintaining enough presence in the playhouse to be written for, the material presence of the unlettered emerges when literary texts are allied with the complexities of history.


Surface provides description only. Full text is available to ProQuest subscribers. Ask your Librarian for assistance.