From the Desk of Robert Darcy: A Look at Misanthropy in Renaissance Literature

Robert Darcy is a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of Misanthropoetics: Social Flight and Literary Form in Early Modern England (Nebraska, 2021).

My book talks about why Renaissance literature was interested in representing misanthropy in the figure of the lone hermit or bitter recluse. What’s surprising about this figure is that he goes from being sort of a stock character—from archetype, for example—to being a real, psychological representation of a human being in conflict with the world. And the reasons he undergoes this transformation in literature, the book suggests, has to do with pressures of social life on the individual person. So in a way, the misanthrope becomes an “every-person” figure in the sense that all people experience some conflict with the social world that forms them. Not just conflict like being pulled over by the police for speeding, but core conflict, of the sort that ends up defining a person as deeply solitary and out of step with everyone else.

But the more Renaissance authors experiment with representing this figure, the more they expose that the real problem has to do with inherent contradictions in society that are impossible to navigate. The individual gets pulled in multiple directions at once, but each direction is at fundamental odds with the others.

So, for example, a father is expected to control his family and his economic lineage through overseeing his daughter’s marriage. And to be able to do this, he must have a way to compel or coerce the daughter’s compliance. But in a new humanist society, where daughters are individuals with rights, coercion is no longer an acceptable option. The father’s tactic therefore shifts from coercion to a cultivation of affection in the daughter. The daughter’s obedience is secured by her love for the father. This might sound absurd on its face, but the nature of that love, if taken to its logical and emotional conclusion, is incestuous, and so the early modern father is being asked to cultivate a sense of incest obligation in his daughter in order to maintain economic control over his dynasty, even as incest is aggressively prohibited.

In my book, I consider that a recipe for misanthropy from a sensitive father who cannot abide the impossible conditions of conforming to cultural demands.

Almost unbelievably, portraits of just such a misanthrope appear fairly often in the drama and poetry of Renaissance England—in The Merchant of Venice and in Pericles, for example. And it doesn’t stop with just that particular formulation. We also see misanthropes generated when friendship and money become similarly embroiled. We see it when love is exposed as both carnal and metaphysical, with incompatible demands placed on it from either side. And we also see it when gender confronts power and authority, only to end up jeopardizing all stable notions of human origins.

In a sense, we start seeing misanthropes of a variety of types of conflict popping up all over the place, suggesting that misanthropy might be the secret center of experience. We all manage to conform superficially to the competing demands of culture, but the core of our experience as cultural citizens might point to unresolved conflicts that under certain extreme conditions would propel us to wish to flee and escape from unmanageable lives—unmanageable, that is, through no fault of our own, but because society makes that management practically impossible.

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