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Characters: Together with Poems, News, Edicts, and Paradoxes based on the Eleventh Edition of A Wife Now the Widow of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Thomas Overbury. Characters: Together with Poems, News, Edicts, and Paradoxes based on the Eleventh Edition of A Wife Now the Widow of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Ed. Donald Allen Beecher. Publications of the Barnabe Riche Society 15. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions Inc., 2002. 398 pp. append. illus. tbls. bibl. n.p. ISBN: 1-895537-65-7 (cl), 1-895537-56-8 (pbk).

The Barnabe Riche Society deserves commendation for underwriting such a handsome volume. For students unfamiliar with or too long neglectful of Sir Thomas Overbury's Characters, Donald Beecher's latest edition offers us all an opportunity to become (re-)acquainted with this rich Jacobean miscellany. Based on the eleventh edition of Overbury's His Wife. With Additions of New Characters, and many other Wittie Conceits never before Printed (London: 1622), Beecher's text offers a smorgasbord of literary tidbits and table scraps fallen from among the high, middle, and low of Jacobean English literati, including Cook, Dekker, Donne, Ford, Goodyer, Jonson, Roe, Rudyerd, Shelton, Strachey, Webster, and Wotton.

Charactery remains among the most distinctive of seventeenth-century English prose genres, in that it combines high classicism--tracing its progeny back to the Characteres ethici of Aristotle's pupil, Theophrastus--with contemporary comedy of manners. "There is value," Beecher writes, "in knowing the ways of the streets" (35), the sort of streetwise savvy that the age's "prison" literature and its exposes of "cony catchers" and con-men sought to impart; more important with respect to the Characters, "there is also rich entertainment simply in observing" (35) the city's inhabitants, among whom the Overburians "discovered a gallery of idiosyncratic social types, whereas their predecessors had discovered a theater of the venial and deadly sins" (35). Summarizing Cristina Malcomson (Heart-Work [1999] 30), Beecher notes that "charactery belongs to an historical moment between feudalism and individualism when the quiddities of personhood were classified according to the socially constructed desires that motivated them, whether toward openly mercantile or toward deviously ambitious ends,... [and] the most interesting are those whose outward traits are signs pointing to deceptive motives and concealed natures" (35-36). In this respect, the Overburians' collective descriptions "build up a dramatis personae of the city" (36).

Indeed, reading the Characters is like visiting the courtly venues and city streets of early London, all the while overhearing the latest dirt--especially against foreigners (a favorite butt of the Overburian miscellany). On such an imaginary journey, one's companion turns his stylized conversation ever toward social advancement, as much mistrusting as desiring the same; as one listens and responds, one expresses a thorough disdain for pretension and stylistic display (even as one yearns for the courtly rewards such display fleetingly promises). By thus exploring the complex interface between literary classicism and popular culture, Overbury's Characters remains a textbook of continuing importance for today's students of the English Renaissance.

In addition to its explorations of city life, the Characters offers so many exercises in sprezzatura and the "conceited," epigrammatic style associated with the "school" of Donne. From among any number of passages, Beecher himself selects the following, sententious conclusion as illustrative of the Overburian style of charactery: "to be brief with him, he is his own strength's enfeebler, his beauty's blemisher, his wit's blunder, his memory's decayer, and his appetite's abater--a toyish tobacconist" (49). For a further example, Beecher adds that "Pure Overbury may be heard in the description of the servingman": "his greatest felicity is to court the chambermaids in a corner, and his chiefest exercise to make his master's friend's dependants drunk; he fawneth upon them that his master fawns on;... and the best part of his rhetoric is 'aye forsooth,' and 'no forsooth'" (49).

Exceeding 150 pages, Beecher's introduction reads as a monograph on the Characters, offering extensive discussions of Overbury's life (with emphasis upon his reputed murder-by-poisoning and the subsequent court scandal), the generic influences upon charactery, the collection's publication history (particularly the ways that its editor, Lawrence Lisle, sought financially to exploit Overbury's life and writings), and the courtly, "conceited" style of Overburian contributors.

Much like a mirror reflecting its Overburian subject, Beecher's introduction and edition is not just intelligent, well-researched, and readable: above all, it is enjoyable. Beecher wears his scholarship lightly upon his shoulders: he lets his readers know what he knows, he lets us know where to find the knowledge, and then proceeds with his characterizations. Beecher's edition offers to replace W.J. Paylor's Overburyan Characters (London: Blackwell, 1936) as the most serviceable modern edition; indeed, Beecher's own will not be supplanted for many years to come.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Baumlin, James S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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