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A trial reading of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book Hines, Susan C.


The following study focuses on the allegorical import of the trial in Robert Browning's long poem, The Ring and the Book; borrowing from various theories in phenomenological and rhetorical criticism and from recent legal research in jury dynamics, it develops the idea that a reader's autonomous response to this particular text may be a deceptive illusion. Like jury members, Browning's audience is asked to determine the truth of a specific incident and to deliberate on the guilt or innocence of the monologists who appear before them. However, prone to the rhetoric of inconsequential hearsay, highly emotional testimony and persuasive legal exposition, readers are inclined to make the same errors of perception as jurors who tend to judge persons by their performances rather than by the evidence presented. In a discussion that moves from the rhetorical effects of Browning's legal metaphor to the philosophical ramifications of the authority by which literary and legal interpretations are canonized, this essay highlights the aesthetic and ethical similarities between the work of the poet, the lawmaker, and the reader. That agents involved in producing this story—the poet, the lawyers, and The Ring and the Book's many readers—must rationalize the facts of the case and piece together information so that the story-line is logical and coherent, is both a reconstructive and a recreative activity; for where the facts themselves provide few answers, where gaps appear in the text, the onus is on the interpreter to "fill out" the narrative. So, all judgment is, in effect, the result of a highly tenuous process which is hardly clear cut By emphasizing the burden of judgment in his poem, Browning succeeds at making his readers only too aware of their potential misjudgments. And, by forcing his audience into the position of a jury, he demonstrates how any trial may well be a mis-trial.

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