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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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5. Breton and the Self

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The preceding chapters focus on Breton’s concept of man with respect to human nature, man’s reason and its frailty. Chapter 5 and the following chapters show how Breton replaces his essentialist approach to man and human nature by one that constructs man rather than describes him. On this basis, chapter 5 analyses how Breton addresses instrumental questions of his time, especially those of identity, the Self and nationality. Progress in technology, increase in knowledge about worldly matters and a religious turmoil offered Early Modern man not only possibilities by which he could perfect himself, but also a subversive capacity by which he could undermine a whole realm. Breton’s depiction of the English Self can be found foremost in his satirical texts, A Mad World my Mas- ters; Strange News out of Divers Countries; Choice, Chance and Change, or Conceits in Their Colours and the Pasquil series, a popular genre of that time. Drawing heavily on writers such as Nashe, Greene and Harvey, Breton joins an intellectual circle that ridicules people’s follies and habits. 470 At the same time Breton’s satires expose Early Modern England’s xenophobia, presenting the Other as a consequence of not only subversion but also folly. Together with the controversy over the Self, as is demonstrated in chapter 1, it is man’s identity that was increasingly debated post-Reformation. The Platon- ic concept of shadows and illusions plays a central role in this debate. When Breton joins this debate, he describes people who, lacking intellect, mistake themselves for something...

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