A History of the Ugly

Rachel Eisendrath

History of Ugly event image

In medieval and Renaissance literature, ugliness often serves as an outward mark of a character’s internal depravity. Such a character is self-condemned, destroyed from within. But there are also cases of ugly characters who stand up for their ugliness, as though in protest against the moral code constructed by the larger society—or even by the text itself: It is not that their ugliness hides an internal beauty, but that they reject the standard itself of what constitutes beauty or ugliness, frolicking and reveling in the cool mud of what has been condemned as dirty or loathsome. In this talk, Eisendrath will focus on a few characters that fall into this category in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. By exploring what Jonson called “turdy-facy-nasty-paty-lousy-fartical” characters, Eisendrath will consider how the highly ambivalent aesthetic category of the ugly may serve as a paradoxical means by which a literary text critiques or even protests against itself.

Rachel Eisendrath is Assistant Professor of English and Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Barnard College.

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