Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.21

Leah Whittington, Renaissance Suppliants: Poetry, Antiquity, Reconciliation.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xvii, 239.  ISBN 9780198754442.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Asa Olson, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (


In Renaissance Suppliants, Leah Whittington traces supplication through the works of Vergil, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton. She makes several claims about supplication as a form but argues primarily that its problems and paradoxes attract authors perennially. The book contributes generously to pre-existing scholarship regarding supplication, especially of Renaissance England. Whereas Frank Whigham and Annabel Patterson paint Renaissance England as a “supplicatory age” (10), Whittington repositions it transhistorically to reveal supplication’s recurrent appeal. First and foremost, Renaissance Suppliants takes a literary-critical approach; however, Whittington carefully incorporates scholarship by sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists as well. The final product should interest scholars of not only literature but also philosophy, sociology, and political science.

In the opening chapter, Whittington constructs a paradigm of supplication largely from Homeric epic and Greek drama. From these sources she demonstrates the asymmetrical relationship of its participants: one in desperation, the other in extreme power. Despite this power difference, supplicants retain what Whittington calls “powerful powerlessness” (18) — the ability to gain power by imposing constraints of religion or kinship. The asymmetry of these relationships, however, makes supplication unstable, and requests can always backfire on the supplicant. Whatever the result, supplication not only possesses aesthetic qualities but also conveys spectacle in the desperate humiliation of the supplicant. These qualities surface throughout the book, sometimes latently, often prominently, as conventions that captivate or provoke the authors of Whittington’s study.

This flexible paradigm allows Whittington to show the importance of these scenes over a millennium. Vergil, she argues, replaces the “supra-personal” nature of Homer’s supplication with “person-specific” ethical choice in the Aeneid (48). In particular, the narrator invites readers to sympathize with suppliants, so that he functions as a supplicant himself and the reader the respondent. This narrative entreaty becomes especially important following the death of Pallas, when the narrator and Aeneas assume opposing roles in supplication. In this rift, Vergil forces readers to relate to both pleader and respondent, and scenes such as Turnus’s supplication to Aeneas still puzzle readers today. In contrast, Petrarch uses supplication to create a character’s “interiority” (85). In her discussion of the Africa, Whittington shows how Petrarch joins martial and erotic supplication to establish Massinissa’s inner conflict. The spectacle of Sophonisba’s supplication turns the conquering Massinissa into her erotic supplicant, and Massinissa soon struggles to restrain his erotic pity. In the latter half of this chapter, Whittington argues that Petrarch uses supplication for a similar reason in his Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta. Although the speaker’s petition for pity usually provokes Laura’s refusal, Petrarch describes acts that can be read as Laura’s reciprocation. These descriptions embody the speaker’s self-deceit, and in them, the reader can glimpse his inner experience.

Whereas Whittington’s third chapter ventures briefly into lyric poetry, her fourth chapter moves entirely into drama. Whittington argues that in Richard II and Coriolanus, Shakespeare uses supplication to exert unexpected pressure on its participants. In the case of Richard II, Whittington demonstrates this effect with the Duchess of York, who supplicates Henry for her son Aumerle. The Duchess’s plaints conflate political and divine pardon, and Shakespeare prompts the audience to wonder: “[Henry] can pardon Aumerle’s treachery, but who will pardon him for deposing an anointed king?” (135). In the latter half of the chapter, Whittington appropriately turns to Coriolanus for its emblematic supplication scene. Throughout the play, Coriolanus fears supplication’s scripted nature for its association with plebeians and its threat to his autonomy. In the final scene, when Coriolanus’ own mother approaches him as a supplicant, this fear comes to the fore. Coriolanus submits to his mother, but, as Whittington shows, this supplication determines his fate.

In her final chapter, Whittington argues that Milton formulates supplication with a republican agenda. In seventeenth- century England, where ceremonial supplication and royalist politics overlapped, “refusal to kneel in church could slip insidiously into refusing to kneel before the king” (168). As Whittington describes, Milton himself attacks monarchy by deconstructing the rhetoric of supplication, which he sees as perpetuating structural inequalities. Thus, in Paradise Lost, Milton emphasizes the mutuality between suppliant and supplicatee. Although Satan cannot conceive of this reciprocity, which belies his potential for reconciliation, Adam and Eve use supplication to reconcile after the fall. Eve’s self-abasement before Adam achieves “perhaps the greatest degree of equality they have had as of yet in the poem,” when Adam subsequently refuses her offer and renounces his role of respondent (184). Ultimately, however, Whittington identifies the Son’s supplication as the key to reconciling Milton’s politics. “The union of God and man in the Son,” she writes, “points to the collapse of distinction between suppliant and supplicatee; as God, the Son hears petitions; as man, he makes them” (190). The Son, as mediator for Adam and Eve, collapses the hierarchical relationships of supplication and frees self-abasement from subservience.

Throughout the book, Whittington gives excellent close readings, especially in her chapters on Shakespeare and Milton. Although Whittington approaches supplication transhistorically, she carefully grounds her readings in both formalist and historicist methodology. Whittington does this best in her chapters on early modern England, which have the most original and tangible contexts of supplication. In her chapter on Milton, in particular, Satan’s rhetoric effectively recalls the voices of Milton’s contemporaries. Her approach is less effective in earlier chapters, however, which tend to leave the significance of the contexts implicit and tenuous. Whittington’s chapter on Vergil, for example, begins with a stimulating narrative regarding the changing role of supplication between republican and imperial Rome, but Vergil’s epic seems only a “powerful meditation” on this context (49).

Whittington also illuminates her arguments through intertexts, which she describes as “more like a web of loosely affiliated supplicatory episodes than a canon of generically related and mutually informing works” (13). She impressively handles a breadth of examples in her first chapter and weaves many of these, especially Homeric scenes, throughout the book. Whittington also moves carefully beyond a genre-oriented study so that she does not “bleach” her reception history (12). Although the political and historical themes of epic are her main concern, Whittington’s chapter about Shakespeare’s drama reveals the physical elements of supplication and expounds on similar themes; by comparison, however, her treatment of lyric poetry seems incomplete. Whittington rarely addresses lyric-erotic supplication when constructing her paradigm, and in her third chapter, she must briefly introduce a previously unmentioned context: Roman elegy. Better than other chapters, her section on Petrarch’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta demonstrates how supplication is “treated differently in different genres,” but this contrast betrays her prioritization of politics and theology elsewhere (13). In her epilogue, when Whittington previews supplication in eighteenth-century epistolary novels and states that “politics and theology recede into the background, while gender and emotion come to the fore” (194), one wonders how supplication in other genres might have elucidated this development.

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