Penitential experience in Renaissance romance
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This dissertation analyzes English Renaissance representations of penitential experience: the emotions of guilt, shame, remorse, and regret, and the practices by which people respond to those emotions. I consider penitential episodes in Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590), Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590 and 1596), and William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611) alongside works of practical divinity that popularized Protestant penitential doctrines for lay readers, including sermons, treatises, and devotional handbooks. Penitence is traditionally understood as a means to an end: divine forgiveness, renewal as a better self, or reconciliation with those we have harmed. But my dissertation highlights episodes of frustrated, failed, and endless penitence, in which characters feel genuine remorse for their past wrongdoing and struggle to make amends for it but fear that their efforts can never be sufficient to reach the endpoints they seek. The romance texts in my study reveal the emotional strain and uncertainty wrought by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, which radically altered traditional approaches to penitence. Reformers redefined penitence not as satisfaction for the debt of sin, but as a radical self-transformation that only God could initiate. Historians have long recognized this shift as a crucial center of controversy in the period, but critics have only recently begun to consider how imaginative literature responded to it. I demonstrate that Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare confront the painful emotional consequences of Protestant doctrine and imagine alternative, more livable forms of penitence for secular life. They do so in part by staging penitential narratives in fictive pagan settings, where characters must confront their guilt without the aid of Christian ritual structures and consolations. Against the grain of a culture that valued divine salvation above all else and shifted responsibility for that salvation into the hands of an unknowable God, these authors restore attention to the practical and social dimensions of penitence as a lived experience within this world.