The defining characteristic of the novel offered by Ian Watt is its realism. In a broad sense, the novel represents a shift in representation away from allusive generality into particularity. Watt suggests that this particularity is of a unique spatio-temporal type, tied deeply to a new sense of time. Citing John Locke’s contention that identity can only be defined in relation with memories of past thought and action, Watt draws a dividing line between the historical consciousness of Shakespeare and the early eighteenth century. His contention is that the world of ancient Greece and Rome, and that of the Plantagenets and Tudors, were so close that Shakespeare’s worldview was “a-historical.” This seems essentially incorrect. While the labeling of his plays, as “histories, comedies, and tragedies” is a textual phenomenon outside their first performances, historical consciousness was indeed a part of the English Renaissance.
Sir Philip Sydney, a prototypical aristocratic hero— soldier, statesmen, and poet— aligns himself with Aristotle’s Poetics by claiming that history is an “inferior form.” In his 1598 Apology for Poetry he denigrates the role of history as a moral teacher:
The historian scarcely giveth leisure to the moralist to say much, but that he, laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself (for the most part) upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay ; having much ado to accord differing writers and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goeth than his own wit runneth; curious for antiquities and novelties; a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk, denieth, in a great chafe, that any man for the teaching of virtue, and virtuous actions is comparable to him.
Histories composed across the seventeenth century are a peculiar blend of direct documentation and the sort of hearsay and reliance on previous histories that Sydney indicts. Poetic heroism is proposed as the antidote for unreliable history— “for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Placing poetry above the obscure teachings of philosophy, Sydney rests heroism at the center of moral instruction:
But if anything be already said in in the defense of sweet Poetry, all concurreth to the maintaining of the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry. For as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so do the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with the desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy.
The “true history” which surfaces mid-century, based on supposed first-hand accounts recombines the heroic consciousness of poetry with documented authority. The spatio-temporal shift noted by Watt does occur, not as a move from an “a-historical” perspective to a historical one, but through a redefinition of what constitutes authority and heroism. The shift begins close to the middle of the seventeenth century, as Descartes places experiential knowledge, and thus human testimony, closer to the center of authority, and Milton redefines the Christian hero in Paradise Lost.
Romantic epic — the staple of Sydney, Spenser, and most medieval quest-romance— was focused on combat. Milton’s muse, in the opening lines of Book IX, denigrates the traditional celebration of “fabl’d knights / In Battels feingn’d” instead privileging the Puritan values of patience and “Heroic Martyrdom.” The exhaustion of the romantic model of heroism, anticipated comically by Cervantes in Don Quixote (1615), is complete. Epic heroism had long been constituted historically through genealogy, first originating from gods, i.e., Heracles, and Gilgamesh— two thirds divine, one third human— and later becoming genealogies of evil, such as the monster Grendel in Beowulf, descended from Cain. Romance and epic were authorized with the historic authority of genealogy, but not with direct temporal experience or realism. Allegory was marked by an oblique sort of linguistic genealogy, signaled by a typological similarity of naming. These conventions eroded, creating new temporal and linguistic modes of authorizing texts, new particularities in naming, and redefinitions of heroic status in the complex atmosphere after the restoration.
Romance and chivalry were dead, but they would not die without a fight.