Catherine Nicholson

Catherine Nicholson's picture
Professor of English

Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 2008
M.Phil., Cambridge University, 2002
B.A., Williams College, 2000

My research focuses on the literature of the English Renaissance and its reception, in its own time and in the centuries that followed.  I’m particularly interested in—and enjoy teaching—texts that thwart or fail to satisfy the desires and expectations of readers past and present, texts whose oddity, unevenness, and (accidental or intentional) obscurity trouble our assumptions about literary value and readerly success.

My first book, Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in the English Renaissance (Penn Press, 2014), looks at the so-called “triumph of English” in the late sixteenth-century through the eyes of contemporary readers, writers, and critics—many of whom saw in the new vernacular literature not the dawning of national identity and linguistic community but the estrangement of English from itself.  My current book project, Spenser’s Reader: The Faerie Queene and the Indiscipline of Literary Criticism (under contract with Princeton UP), takes an expansive view of how reading does and doesn’t work over the four-hundred-year existence of a single poem.  In addition to examining a particularly fascinating and self-reflexive work of literature, Spenser’s Reader is an experiment in using reception history as a tool for critical innovation: inhabiting the perspectives of various historical readers of The Faerie Queene, whose methods and aims are often alien to my own, affords me a usefully oblique view of both the poem itself and the norms of modern literary criticism.  Selections from the book have appeared or are forthcoming in ELH, the Spenser Review, and MLQ.

Selected Publications

- “Looking at Epic Poetry Through 21st-Century Eyes,” The New York Times, July 2020

Reading and Not Reading “The Faerie Queene” (Princeton University Press, 2020).

- Uncommon Tongues: Eloquence and Eccentricity in Sixteenth-Century England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); awarded Yale’s Heyman Prize for Outstanding Publication by a Junior Faculty Member

- “‘Working Words’?: Marlowe and the Limits of Rhetoric,” Marlowe in Context, ed. Emily Bartels and Emma Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

- “Englishing Eloquence: Vernacular Rhetorics and Poetics,” The Oxford Handbook of Renaissance Prose, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Oxford University Press, 2013)

- “Commonplace Shakespeare: Value, Vulgarity, and the Poetics of Increase in Shake-speare’s Sonnets and Trolius and Cressida,” The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare’s Poetry and Poetics, ed. Jonathan Post (Oxford University Press, 2013)

- “Othello and the Geography of Persuasion,” English Literary Renaissance 40:1 (Winter 2010); awarded the 2010 prize for best article in ELR

- “Pastoral in Exile: Spenser and the Poetics of English Alienation,” Spenser Studies 23 (2008)


Undergraduate: Major English Poets; Early Modern Theaters of Strangeness; Ovid’s English Renaissance; Spenser; Minor English Poets; Shakespeare: Comedies and Romances.

Graduate: Spenser and the Sixteenth Century