Sarah Van der Laan

Sarah Van der Laan

Associate Professor, Comparative Literature


  • Ph.D., Renaissance Studies and English, Yale University, 2008
  • M.A., Intellectual and Cultural History, Queen Mary, University of London, 2002
  • M.A., Renaissance Studies, Queen Mary College, 2002
  • B.A., Renaissance Studies, Yale University, 2000

About Sarah Van der Laan

I write and teach about the European epic tradition and the culture of the European Renaissance. My work centers on a genre—epic, conceived expansively enough to include both romance and opera—and a concept: literary explorations of the value of human experience. My research and teaching arise from a set of core concerns: how does literature offer “tools for living,” in Kenneth Burke’s phrase: ethical reflections on and solutions for the difficulties of ordinary human experience? How can literature be understood as thought experiment, a testing ground for the psychological and social consequences of proposed solutions to religious, ethical, or personal dilemmas?

My first book, The Choice of Odysseus: Homeric Ethics in Renaissance Epic, argues that Renaissance readers turned to the Odyssey for a poetic ethics—tools for living developed in poetry—for belated, post-war, post-humanist societies. The book centers on readings of works by Francesco Petrarch, Angelo Poliziano, Lodovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, Edmund Spenser, Claudio Monteverdi, and John Milton, and situates their rewritings of Homer’s epic in the larger cultural history of the Odyssey in the Renaissance. I show that through rewritings of the Odyssey, epic poets and opera composers explore the value of human experience and enable Renaissance audiences to understand ordinary life, for both men and women, as quietly heroic in its own right.

My second book project examines the phenomenon of female characters and female writers who mobilize Ovidian lament to find their own voices, to assert their moral equality with (if not superiority to) the men who surround them, and to use the resources at their command to get what they want. Ranging across lyric and epic poetry, opera, and madrigal, I argue that Renaissance laments create a space for female characters and authors to explore female agency, female heroism, and authorship. I am also working on a related study of female knighthood in Renaissance epic, focusing on Ariosto and Spenser and examining the intersections of knighthood, gender, agency, personal choice and political power. A future book project, tentatively entitled Epic Confessions, explores the ways in which Renaissance epic became a space for cross-confessional dialogue, focusing on neo-Latin, French, Italian, and English poems. Other ongoing projects include essays on the intersections of music and literature and on the place of opera from Monteverdi to Mozart in the epic tradition.

My courses introduce students to the epic tradition from Homer to Milton; explore the ways that Renaissance rulers and their courts used literature, art, and architecture to fashion images and wield power; and examine the new ideas about the nature and value of the self, the ideal forms a community might take, and European encounters with the world beyond Europe that began in the Renaissance and continue to shape our world today. I also teach courses on adaptations and adaptation theory; on intertextuality (the conversations and arguments that texts create with their predecessors); and on metatheatre and metafiction: works that call attention to their own status as fictions, products of the human imagination, in order to expose the human imagination’s role in shaping the world beyond the stage or the page.