By Invitation

At first glance, the five words Roland Greene explores in his monograph seem unremarkable. As he observes, invention, language, resistance, blood, and world “do not carry obvious ideological marks but instead seem natural, neutral, and quotidian” in the writings of the period.[1] Yet Greene’s analysis reveals the words as “powerful carriers of often ambiguous and contradictory meanings” (7) and as “working terms” that bear the weight of shifting “worldviews” (14). To demonstrate how his five words enact such herculean labors, Greene matches each to a different conceit. The palimpsest, for example, helps him explain the semantic movements of invention across time. The pendent, “like keys on a ring or pearls on a string” (53), performs comparable work for the meaning of language; cartone for resistance; envelope for blood; and engine for world. This other set of five words is “drawn from objects that are either aesthetic while observing a public aspect or useful but with a certain beauty” (11). Greene abstracts these objects from “the material culture to which [they] belong” so that they can “encourage us to imagine the relations among semantic elements in three dimensions and in time: old and new, side by side, one over the other, and so on” (11). In his contribution to this Colloquy, Greene resists the appeal of the conceits as “material things as such,” but also newly formulates how material culture does interest him. These objects, he concedes, have “physical properties”; their “haptic nature” energizes their “explanatory power.” The conceits thus “permit us to imagine semantic change as experienced and felt.” Reading Greene, I find the phrase “like keys on a ring or pearls on a string” a vivid description of language precisely because I can imagine touching them.

Worthy though the five words are, Greene’s decision to pair them with five conceits appeals to me even more. I am also drawn to his articulation in this Colloquy of how the project of critical semantics might be elaborated: practitioners may “apply that kind of relation”—here the pendant to language—“to other terms of the period such as troth and truth.” But in investigating new words for critical semantics, mustn’t we also propose new conceits? How universally applicable—or translatable—is any one of the five? Could we extend the project without recourse to conceits at all? If we do require new conceits, must the materiality of the objects that inspires them also explain the semantic movement of the working term? In puzzling through such methodological questions, I decided to run an experiment: What, I wondered, if a sixth word were coincident with its own conceit? What word might satisfy so arbitrary, yet so strict a criterion? I propose graft as one such word. This experiment may yield fruit so long as we grant that graft can be both a noun and a verb (as Greene observes of “envelope”). Better still, we need to grant that uses of the noun and verb in early modern letters entail one another. Each graft marks a prior act of grafting. As a trace of this temporal relation, of past human action affecting present (and future) botanical object,[2] my title employs a hybridizing parenthesis.

Having settled on graft, a new question emerged for me: Where to begin, with working term or conceit? I first opted for the former, but quickly found myself tailing the latter. I turned for aid to Rebecca Bushnell’s Green Desire, a book that has profoundly informed my research. In it, Bushnell explores knowledge about grafting procedures in early modern English gardening manuals and agricultural books. She traces the knowledge they made available down to classical antecedents and especially to European books of secrets. Recipes in such books – my favorite of which is Giambattista Della Porta’s, in which “every Tree may be mutually incorporated into each other”[3] through grafting – “celebrate[],” in Bushnell’s formulation, “the infinite variety of nature and human taste for change.”[4] In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Malcolm articulates a grotesquely negative counterpart to Della Porta’s grafted tree. About himself, he says, “It is myself I mean, in whom I know / All the particulars of vice so grafted / That, when they shall be opened, black Macbeth / Will seem as pure as snow.”[5] Malcom tells lies here, to test Macduff’s resolve in backing him against Macbeth’s tyranny. A rhetorical question posed by a disguised shepherd in Sir Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia illuminates Malcolm’s true behavior: “What man grafts in a tree dissimulation?”[6] Only temporarily or imaginatively, it seems, does Malcolm: he soon confesses that his budding vices have been a ruse. (Perhaps no man could so graft a tree in early modern England, since graft in this language tradition hasn’t yet acquired its associations with dishonesty [see OED, “graft,” definitions 5 and 9]). On Sidney’s question, I pause to recognize the speed with which I have moved from material culture to figuration and, in the excerpt from The Old Arcadia, maybe back again, or at least somewhere between the two.

Somewhat confounded by Sidney’s question, I consulted studies of graft’s range as figuration in early modern England. Since the release of Green Desire, scholars have elaborated Bushnell’s discussion of plant grafting in at least three literary contexts. Leah Knight, Jessica Rosenberg, Miriam Jacobson, and I have all explored examples in the first context,[7] which concerns the activation of the etymology shared by grafting and writing (graphein). In Shakespeare, Sidney, Marvell, and Wroth, characters use sharp instruments like a penknife (a handy tool in the kits of early modern gardeners) to carve their initials, their names, and even entire poems onto tree bark as a memorial, typically to love. These actions make apparent the conceptual and material links between the gardener’s craft and the poet’s art. Additionally, as Jenny C. Mann has shown, George Puttenham draws on grafting’s relation to writing to describe the rhetorical figure of parenthesis. In The Art of English Poesy, this figure is a sign of surplus: it is an “vnnecessary parcell of speach” that has been “peece[d] or graffe[d] in the middest of your tale” and can be extracted, effortlessly, “without any detriment to the rest.” But it can be a necessary surplus: as Mann also details, in Sidney’s hands in The New Arcadia, such “textual grafting” proves the “primary … compositional logic” in which romance episodes are inserted, parenthetically, into one another so as to “reverse the hierarchies of cause and effect, main plot and intervening episode, and what might also be termed classical source and Renaissance imitation.”[8] Plant grafting, too, aims to generate a necessary surplus (of fruit), but process and product do not change places with one another so much grow together, at the material spot on the tree called the graft.

Claire Duncan, Erin Ellerbeck, Jennifer Munroe, and Miranda Wilson have explored a second context that more directly addresses generation and growth in plant grafting. In different ways, each details how it articulates human reproductive sexuality.[9] In Ellerbeck’s analysis, for instance, John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi casts plant grafting as “a model for successful, symbiotic, heterosexual relationships.”[10] And yet, as Rebecca Bushnell has shown,[11] grafting can also be invoked to allege adultery, emblematized by the cuckold’s horns grafted onto the unwitting husband’s head. Nonetheless, as a symbol for illicit or at least non-marital sexuality, grafting is not consistently vilified in the period. On the contrary, as Ellerbeck and I have argued, in discussing adoption and queer erotics respectively,[12] grafting may in fact be mobilized to do an end-run around the imperatives of heterosexual reproduction. Shakespeare’s speaker famously pledges as much in Sonnet 15, when he announces to the beautiful young man that as “Time” “takes from you, I engraft you new” (ll. 13-14). Promising the preservation and regeneration of the man’s youth, the speaker here unites the gardener’s craft with the poet’s art. Might this be an example of dissimulation grafted into a figurative tree, into poetry itself?

As grafting does in Mann’s discussion of the parenthesis, it also proves in this second context to be capable of doing contradictory figurative work. It seems to invite to itself the ascription of contradictory or opposing signification: thought and afterthought, proper marital sexuality and extramarital (if still generative) sexuality. I suspect that this may be the case because the material practice of grafting secures together two different botanical entities – the parent (or stock) plant and the scion. The point of attaching the two is to make a more desired scion grow out of the hardier (and implicitly less valuable) stock plant and so to produce better or more fruit. The description of this material procedure that Polixenes affords in The Winter’s Tale is remarkably accurate: “You see, sweet maid, we marry / A gentler scion to the wildest stock / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By bud of nobler race” (4.4.92-95). In strictest terms, Polixenes does not misconstrue the material logic of plant grafting, in which the “gentler scion” generates more of itself on “a bark of baser kind.” But because his speech is so suffused with markers of race, human marital sexuality, and social class, he verges on imagining plant grafting as a scandalous admixture of stock tree and scion. Disguised at this play’s sheep-shearing, this Bohemian ruler would permit grafting in his orchard or garden, but, as the scene unfolds, he proves unwilling to allow his heir to “marry” a (presumed) shepherdess.

Such anxiety about social purity, reproduction, and race, which bubbles just under the surface of this passage from The Winter’s Tale, opens onto the third context in which scholars have explored the figurative range of graft. While it is true that a grafted tree will grow fruit of the scion, it is also the case that the sap of both scion and stock join with one another at the spot of the graft. In the terms that Polixenes establishes, the gentle and wild and the base and noble perforce touch and “marry” with one another in this very local place. According to Jean E. Feerick and Miranda Wilson, by such haptic logic, grafting can name in Shakespeare’s plays and poems the “civilizing process” (that’s Wilson’s formulation)[13] and the “mechanisms of conquest and expansion” (that’s Feerick’s).[14] The infusing of the stock’s “wildest” sap with the gentility of the scion can propagate a fantasy of how individuals or human populations may be bettered. Moreover, as Feerick has detailed elsewhere,[15] it matters profoundly in this third context that plant sap is routinely cast in the period as a humoral counterpart of human blood.

As this overview suggests, there seems sufficient evidence to think of graft as both working term and conceit in the vein of Greene’s Five Words. Scholars of early modern England have detailed a rich range of meaning about work, plants, nature, art, magic, poetry, rhetoric, sex, marriage, queerness, rank, and race that the figure of grafting articulates and that the material practice of grafting energizes. Not coincidentally, my survey has also brought me right to the threshold of blood, which is, of course, one of Greene’s five words. For Greene, “Blood figures in … a conceptual envelope, in which a phenomenon known through direct experience moves within several intersecting planes of received knowledge.” Its “story … in the sixteenth century is about the slow remaking of a received conceptual envelope with religious, chivalric, and cosmological values into a new one with scientific, social, and racial ones” (9, 10). In the early modern English examples adduced here, we too see an emphasis on these latter “values” in graft, but for sap as much as for blood. Graft may also serve as a botanical gloss for the points at which “planes of received knowledge” intersect with one another, since, as working term and conceit, it supervises and imagines precisely such a touch.

To my surprise, Greene employs the language of (plant) grafting on two occasions in his chapter on blood in Five Words. Tellingly, in both instances, the context for its use is writing. In the first instance, Greene dubs the Earl of Surrey’s poem “Love that doeth raine and liue within my thought” an “adaptation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere 140 that is the graft from which English Petrarchism grows” (116). An act of grafting here generates an entire literary tradition: the poet’s art is the gardener’s craft. Such “textual grafting,” as Mann might call it, translates between European vernacular languages. In the second instance, Greene examines how a disguised Portia re-scripts Antonio’s bond to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice’s courtroom. In his analysis, “[s]he grafts Shylock’s literalism onto the question of blood’s nature, rendering Antonio’s ‘Christian blood’ an object – not the carrier of virtue or power, but property – that falls under the legal terms of the bond; the abstractions that envelop blood at many points in the play are dispelled in favor of a starkly materialist position, barely attenuated by the adjective ‘Christian’” (133). Graft is not Portia’s term, but Greene’s way of describing the “materialist” logic by which she corners Shylock. In these instances, Greene asks graft to do explanatory work for envelope.

While intrigued to find graft where it appears in Five Words, I am not surprised to see it travel with the language of writing. What we may presume to be Greene’s intuition that it is an apt figure for the point at which blood and writing intersect is, in fact, borne out in sixteenth-century letters. By way of closing, I offer as one example of this early modern habit of mind the way that Joachim Du Bellay describes how Roman writers imitated the Greeks. The Romans “imitate[ed],” Du Bellay explains, “the best Greek authors, transforming themselves into them, devouring them, and, having properly digested them, converting them into blood and nourishment [sang et nourriture]. Each, according to his own nature and the topic he wished to choose, took as his model the best author, diligently examined all of his rarest and most exquisite virtues, and grafted [grephes] them … and adapted them to their own language.”[16] In a way that I hope Greene would appreciate, our collective project in this Colloquy may well be an exercise in just such an imitative practice of grafting.

[1] Roland Greene, Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 5. Further citations will be noted parenthetically.

[2] Jessica Rosenberg’s forthcoming “Before and After Plants,” postmedieval 9.4 (2018) has inspired my thinking on grafting and touching.

[3] Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magick (London, 1658), 63.

[4] Rebecca Bushnell, Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 143.

[5] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.3.50-53, in The Norton Shakespeare: Later Plays and Poems, Vol. 3E, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016). All further references to Shakespeare are from this volume.

[6] Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia, ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 1999), 146.

[7] Vin Nardizzi and Miriam Jacobson, “The Secrets of Grafting in Wroth’s Urania,” in Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity, ed. Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 175-94; Leah Knight, Reading Green in Early Modern England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), 81-108; and Jessica Rosenberg, “The Point of the Couplet: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Tusser’s A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie,” ELH 83.1 (2016): 1-41.

[8] Jenny C. Mann, Outlaw Rhetoric: Figuring Vernacular Eloquence in Shakespeare’s England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 97, 93, 102. See also her essay “Nevertheless,” which appeared in Avidly: The Los Angeles Review of Books on 8 February 2017 (

[9] Claire Duncan, “‘Nature’s Bastards’: Grafted Generation in Early Modern England,” Renaissance and Reformation 38.2 (2015): 121-48; Jennifer Munroe, “It’s All about the Gillyvors: Engendering Art and Nature in The Winter’s Tale,” in Ecocritical Shakespeare, ed. Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 139-54; Erin Ellerbeck, “‘A Bett’ring of Nature’: Grafting and Embryonic Development in The Duchess of Malfi,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, ed. Jean E. Feerick and Vin Nardizzi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 85-99; and Miranda Wilson, “Bastard Grafts, Crafted Fruits: Shakespeare’s Planted Families,” in The Indistinct Human in Renaissance Literature, 103-17.

[10] Ellerbeck, “‘A Bett’ring of Nature,’” 87.

[11] Bushnell, Green Desire, 148.

[12] Vin Nardizzi, “Shakespeare’s Penknife: Grafting and Seedless Generation in the Procreations Sonnets,” Renaissance and Reformation 32.1 (2009): 83-106, and Erin Ellerbeck, “Adoption and the Language of Horticulture in All’s Well That Ends Well,” Studies in English Literature 51.2 (2011): 305-26.

[13] Wilson, “Bastard Grafts, Crafted Fruit,” 109.

[14] Jean E. Feerick, “The Imperial Graft: Horticulture, Hybridity, and the Art of Mingling Races in Henry V and Cymbeline,” in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race, ed. Valerie Traub (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 214.

[15] Jean Feerick, “Botanical Shakespeares: The Racial Logic of Plant Life in Titus Andronicus,” South Central Review 26.1&2 (2009): 82-102.

[16] I quote Du Bellay’s La Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse from Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 64 (in French), 338 (in English). The English translation is Cave’s.

Join the colloquy

Critical Semantics: New Transnational Keywords

This Colloquy arises from a 2018 MLA Convention session I organized on behalf of the Forum on Comparative Renaissance and Early Modern Studies. The original call for papers read simply: "Extend and critique Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes, Roland Greene's 2013 reorientation of early modern studies. What does Greene miss?


Craft a 'lightning talk' using one new keyword." As session organizer, I received a bumper crop of submissions, each passionately advocating for its own concept. Several papers extended Five Words in surprising ways, but only a handful took the further step of directly engaging Greene’s innovative "critical semantics" as a practice or method. Four of those composed the panel in New York City, and Roland Greene agreed to offer each of them a formal response. The resulting conversation brought diverse approaches to bear on a single focused intent: the deployment of philological skill to capture the flow and entanglement of ideas across European cultures. Although rooted in early modern studies, each contribution was quickened by twenty-first-century urgency, mobilizing critical semantics as an archaeology of what Arjun Appadurai would call transnational ideoscapes (1996: 36-37). The four papers and Greene’s response yielded powerful questions that overflowed our conference timeslot, and as audience members—including many whose excellent proposals I had been unable to include—expressed their admiration for the format as well as the speakers, it became clear that publication was warranted. We thank ARCADE for hosting this Colloquy as the next step in our conversation.

Our topic is timely, because we live in an age of keywords. They structure our research, our publications, and our teaching. From EEBO to Google n-grams, the keyword search has become a modern equivalent of dipping a pen into ink, where, as the nursery rhyme goes, "some find the thoughts they want to think." Humanists have learned from, or perhaps bowed to, scientific ways of mapping knowledge by digitally analyzing the strength and pattern of meaningful terms, which engineers call "keyword co-occurrence networks." When we submit abstracts for conferences or journals or course catalogues, keywords must be provided; indeed, for this Colloquy’s original panel the MLA program required five keywords—why must it be five?—that were not Roland Greene’s words or the titles of our presentations. But keywords today are not confined to bureaucratic subtexts. On the contrary, they increasingly structure the titles of scholarly lectures, articles, and monographs. Literary titles, which used to trade in riddling questions or ambiguous genitives, now unspool as paratactic lists: consider the examples of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2005), and Caroline Levine’s Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). How starkly the listed terms differ from the neologisms of high theory! In fact, almost all the diction in these titles belongs to what Raymond Williams in 1976 called "a general vocabulary ranging from strong, difficult and persuasive words in everyday usage to words which, beginning in particular specialized contexts, have become quite common in descriptions of wider areas of thought and experience" (2014: xxvii). After all, the title of Keywords itself derives from a household object, no less important for being used every day.

For an object that is continually being declared obsolete, the physical key has proved astonishingly resilient. (Although smartphones can now unlock your house or car, Google has signaled the limits of virtuality by manufacturing a low-tech security key that physically authenticates users, supposedly reassuring them that their data is safe from hackers.) Yet the key’s stubborn materiality contrasts with the abstraction that some of Williams’s successors emphasize in their modern anthologies of keywords. A striking example is Keywords for Today, a 2018 volume produced by an Anglo-American scholarly collective and edited by Colin MacCabe and Holly Yanacek. This text variously updates, replaces or adds new entries to Williams’s collection of complex words. For our purposes, the additions and subtractions are telling: gone, for example, is the entry on materialism, while the very first entry explores a new keyword, which is abstract. In line with this remarkable substitution, some entries call attention to how twenty-first-century vocabulary shrinks from its material base, such as the evolution of market into the "hardened abstraction" of the market, with its tyrannical definite article (2018: 231). Other entries, however, seem blind to their own abstraction, as when image skims over the physical consequences of socially mediated aesthetics as distorted by technology. By contrast with Keywords for Today, Greene’s Five Words elaborates its critical semantics "by trying to make tangible what is often abstract and obscure" (2013: 8), offering literal analogues to its polysemous terms (the palimpsest for invention, the pendent for language, and so forth) in order to underscore the dynamic relay between the material and the discursive in early modern cultures.

Greene blazes two further pathways unfamiliar to modern literary taxonomists. The first is historical. By slowing the brisk diachronic sweep of keyword etymologies down to the Renaissance and Baroque, Greene tunes in to subtler rhythmic patterns, finding in the so-called "discovery of language in early modern Europe" not only new words but new relations between them: thus terms like tongue and language are described as "neither dependent on nor independent of one another," but instead "pendent" or reciprocally clarifying and energizing (53). Elsewhere, Greene catches terms in mid-transformation, charting how blood is redefined by the "literalism of the sixteenth century" and the "vitalism of the mid-seventeenth" (115). The other pathway is comparative. Williams long ago noted that "many of the most important keywords … either developed key meanings in languages other than English, or went through a complicated and interactive development in a number of major languages," but predicted that the necessary "comparative analysis" would require an "international collaborative enterprise" (2014: xxxi). The difficulty of such work is evident in the case of Keywords for Today, which explores only one term recognizably borrowed from beyond the Anglosphere—the Sanskrit karma, which is quite properly adduced to demonstrate "the danger of trying to limit English semantics to its traditional homelands" (2018: 207). Alert to such danger, in Five Words Greene has provided a single-authored study that boldly and succinctly takes up Williams’s internationalist challenge.

Or at least he has done so for the terms blood, invention, language, resistance, and world. "Many words," Greene writes, "are like these words," continuing: "I have envisioned extending this sort of project to every word on a given page by Rabelais, Sidney, or the Inca Garcilaso, distributing the terms to scholars with the injunction not only to explain their semantic changes over time but to set each discrete word in motion with the others" (2013: 14). Such is the gauntlet taken up by this ARCADE Colloquy. Each essay collected here is to double business bound: the authors have each chosen a single transcultural keyword from the early modern period, and they have set their keyword in motion with Five Words as well as cognate or "pendent" terms they find essential. The reader will observe that not all their words are nouns. Nor are their keywords all self-evidently "ordinary," and on occasion they explicitly put that descriptor under pressure. The contributors draw into the discussion features of early modern worlds that Five Words did not have the space to map, including visual culture (John Casey’s color), radical politics (Crystal Bartolovich’s common), the poetics of ecology (Vin Nardizzi’s grafting), and the philosophy of science (Debapriya Sarkar’s utopian). Far from some rote parataxis, however, these keywords allow the reader to adapt Greene’s tools for ever deeper exploration. On its publication, Five Words was lauded no less for its stylistic elegance than for its conceptual ambition. Bookended by that study and Greene’s generous response to the four initial essays, this Colloquy probes new interventions in literary studies and rewards the reader with unexpected results.


Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Greene, Roland. 2013. Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCabe, Colin and Holly Yanacek, eds. 2018. Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Raymond. (1976) 2014.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Join the Colloquy

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.