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Nicholas Breton and the English Self

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Conny Loder

Nicholas Breton (1545/55-1626?) was one of the most prolific writers of the Early Modern period and left behind a vast œuvre that is, however, largely neglected today. Breton addresses instrumental questions of his time, especially those of man’s identity. This study concentrates on a selection of Breton’s political texts in which Breton contrasts the Self against the Other. These texts not only stigmatise the Other as the undesired, the unknown and the indecipherable, but also construct a patriotic and uniform English identity to be imitated by all Englishmen and Englishwomen: the English Self.

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3. Breton and human nature

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Read against the background of the debate on essentialism and anti-essentialism, the notion of “human nature” is problematic. Cultural Studies, for example, per- ceive human nature not as a given universal entity but as an entity dependent on time and culture. Cultural Studies, being anti-essentialist, argue further that identity is not “an entity” but “an emotionally charged description” of human beings. 136 According to Chris Barker, “truths, subjects or identities” must be viewed as being shaped by man’s surrounding. 137 Since identities “are discursive constructions that change their meanings according to time, place and usage,” 138 truths are not universals of nature but productions of culture in specific times and places. The speaking subject is dependent on the prior existence of discursive positions. Truth is not so much found as made and identities are discursive constructions. That is, truth and identity are not fixed objects but are regulated ways that we speak about the world or ourselves. Instead of the scientific certainty of structuralism, poststructu- ralism offers us irony—that is, an awareness of the contingent, constructed character of our beliefs and understandings that lack firm universal foundations. 139 Postmodernist criticism—including Cultural Materialism, New Historicism and Feminism—rejects the notion of an essential human nature: in the twentieth cen- tury, the focus shifts from nature to culture, in which nature is replaced by nur- ture. 140 This shift, according to Robin Headlam Wells, is one-sided and mainly attributed to a misreading of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things. Wells...

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