The rhetoric of rank in early modern drama from 1590 to 1642

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University of Alabama Libraries

My dissertation, “The Rhetoric of Rank in Early Modern Drama from 1590 to 1642,”argues that early modern dramatic works pull from rhetorical theory to shape social status in a period that underwent significant social transformations. Arguing that dramatists use early modern rhetorical manuals to respond to historically specific social tensions, I explore how dramatists use rhetorical figures to comment on social tensions between ranks, define the social role of emergent social roles, and define social values. While I explore the relationship between early modern drama and rhetorical manuals, I situate my analysis alongside the work of social historians to provide a historically situated account. I argue that rhetorical theory plays a central, though underexamined, role in the formation of those emergent social roles—like merchant or factor—and that dramatists dramatize the process of social (trans)formation through rhetorical figures. Furthermore, social formation itself is a process with often contradictory priorities and perspectives, and I show that dramatists use the semantic flexibility of rhetorical figures to support a range of attitudes that are sympathetic, tolerant, or even hostile towards social change, illustrating that social change is not the inevitable product of historical contexts but a process structured in part by rhetoric. My dissertation traces how rhetoric is used to cultivate civic values among ranks with competing interests, a process rife with social tensions that the drama lays bare.

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English literature