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Becoming Criminal

, 240 pages
April 2003
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Becoming Criminal

Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England

In this book Bryan Reynolds argues that early modern England experienced a sociocultural phenomenon, unprecedented in English history, which has been largely overlooked by historians and critics. Beginning in the 1520s, a distinct "criminal culture" of beggars, vagabonds, confidence tricksters, prostitutes, and gypsies emerged and flourished. This community defined itself through its criminal conduct and dissident thought and was, in turn,officially defined by and against the dominant conceptions of English cultural normality.

Examining plays, popular pamphlets, laws, poems, and scholarly work from the period, Reynolds demonstrates that this criminal culture, though diverse, was united by its own ideology, language, and aesthetic. Using his transversal theory, he shows how the enduring presence of this criminal culture markedly influenced the mainstream culture's aesthetic sensibilities, socioeconomic organization, and systems of belief. He maps the effects of the public theater's transformative force of transversality, such as through the criminality represented by Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Dekker, on both Elizabethan and Jacobean society and the scholarship devoted to it.

Bryan Reynolds is an associate professor of drama at the University of California, Irvine.

"A very useful introduction for those interested in the ways in which the Renaissance is frequently introduced to today's students... [Reynolds] is unusually attuned to the ways in which acts of speech depend upon their context and their assumed audience, and his analysis impressively focuses upon the cultural and literary importance of writing outside the canon. His book never fails to be interesting."

"[Bryan Reynolds] frames his cross-disciplinary inquiry with a concept of 'transversal theory,' which offers a spatially organized understanding of how subjects empower themselves through performance (social, criminal, or theatrical) and so not only defy official ideology but also transform the conditions of their own perception and experience... Especially valuable here is Reynolds's analysis of canting language as an 'official' language used by all members of a substantially unified criminal subculture that emerged in the 1520's, continued beyond the Puritan's rise to power in the early 1640's, and was commodified and fetishized by official culture."

"A valuable contribution both to the study of early modern criminality and to theorizing the period's social and political relations more broadly."

" Becoming Criminal's transversal theory performs a valuable service in reconceptualizing early modern English criminality and linking it to some of the period's most important institutions and discourses."

" Becoming Criminal is ambitious Althusserian analysis of the criminal subcultures of Renaissance England. For Reynolds—who was, as he tells us, initiated into a fascination with criminality when he was a high school student in Scarsdale—the rogue pamphlets, anti-theatrical tracts, and repressive legislation of the late sixteenth century are not the expression of paranoia in high places. Rather, they disclose the existence of a strange 'transversal power,' an alternative, oppositional culture whose values threatened the established order and whose visionary energies continue to haunt our own world."

"Reynolds has some very new and valuable reconceptualizations of the rogue pamphlets and criminal literature of the late Tudor—early Stuart period in England, and he has provided the best analysis I know of their language. He expands Félix Guattari's term 'transversal' to something far more suggestive, to point towards a conceptual and experiential expansion of boundaries. Becoming Criminal is a valuable and significant contribution to scholarship."

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