Reforming Contentment: Pastoral, Self, and World in English Renaissance Literature

Restricted (Penn State Only)
Zajac, Paul Joseph
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
May 04, 2015
Committee Members:
  • Patrick G Cheney, Dissertation Advisor
  • Garrett Sullivan Jr., Committee Chair
  • Laura Lunger Knoppers, Committee Member
  • Sherry Lynnette Roush, Special Member
  • English Reformation
  • Pastoral
  • Contentment
  • Affect
  • Passions
  • Self
  • Renaissance Literature
  • Sidney
  • Spenser
  • Shakespeare
  • Milton
This dissertation offers the first full-length study of Renaissance contentment, the emotional and ethical principle that became the gold standard of English Protestant psychology and a defining feature of English pastoral literature. Scholars have equated contentment with passivity, resignation, and stagnation. However, this dissertation excavates an early modern understanding of contentment as dynamic, protective, and productive. Derived from the Latin contentus, which means both contained and satisfied, contentment is an affective state that holds the individual together—a defense against fickle fortune and unruly passions. With roots in classical and medieval philosophy, contentment became newly significant because of the tremendous cultural changes wrought by the Reformation. Christian contentment became the lens through which to view the relationship between self and world more benignly than English Protestantism typically allowed. Through sermons, translations, and treatises, writers represented contentment as a means for the godly individual to endure and engage the outside world. These efforts to reform contentment in turn invited a response from playwrights, poets, and authors of prose romance. The dissertation argues that authors used pastoral to intervene in an extensive Reformation conversation about contentment that related the armature of the self to the architecture of society. Specifically, this dissertation shows that pastoral is the primary literary mode through which Renaissance authors engage contentment, resulting in strikingly different forms of the concept: Sidney’s eroticized yet ethical contentment; Spenser’s intertextual contentment; Shakespeare’s communal contentment; and Milton’s anti-imperialist contentment. The dissertation’s focus on the pastoral mode and analysis of early modern texts in light of recent affect theory contribute to ongoing studies of literature, religion, and positive affect in the English Renaissance. By attending to shifts in intellectual, religious, and literary culture, this dissertation charts the rise and fall of a principle of contentment deemed essential to English Renaissance society.