- Shakespeare’s Troy: Drama, Politics and the Translation of Empire by Heather James
Cambridge, 283 pp, £37.50, December 1997, ISBN 0 521 59223 2
This is the 22nd volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. All the contributors are American, as are the General Editor, Stephen Orgel, and three out of five members of the editorial board. Orgel, a respected authority on the Jacobean court masque, is also interested in such historical curiosities as Renaissance cross-dressing and the like. Among his colleagues on the board are Jonathan Goldberg, author, among other adventurous works, of Sodometrics: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, Marjorie Garber, a celebrated, good-humoured and energetic advocate of bisexuality, and Jonathan Dollimore, an English critic who shares some of these interests. Volumes so far published in the series include Men in Women’s Clothing, Anxious Masculinity, Textual Intercourse and The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama. (‘Early Modern’ is often preferred to ‘Renaissance’, a term now condemned as ‘gendered’ and ‘élitist’.)
There is no reason why a group of like-minded American scholars should not enjoy treating 16th and 17th-century literature primarily as a source of information about Early Modern and Post-Modern sexual attitudes and practices, even when their concentration on such issues tends to provide a somewhat distorted view of both periods, and when it gives an impression of propaganda rather than of reasonably disinterested scholarship. On the whole Orgel writes better than his contributors, but his own book, Impersonations, is subtitled ‘The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England’, a phrase readily identifiable as belonging to a dialect devised to facilitate or protect clique communication. The intention of his book is to study the phenomenon of male actors in female parts, and to consider the position of women in the theatre of the time – all with a view to making us ‘rethink our own inadequate categories of gender, power and sexuality’. His ultimate purpose, like that of the authors whose books he has commissioned, is, then, to make us better people, straighten us out on certain matters which we habitually get seriously wrong. The method chosen to advance this good cause – as is commonly the case with evangelists – is to bombard us smugly with cant.
In its unashamed employment of a repellent professional jargon, as in other respects, this Cambridge series gives a fair reflection of the sort of study now practised and approved, indeed required, in the literature departments of many American universities. It isn’t all contemptible; underneath all the linguistic posturing and solemn silliness there is occasionally to be found a deposit of plain, old-fashioned, useful research that could have been written up in a plain, old-fashioned, useful way; but its modish presentation is characteristic of a peculiarly American, and not easily exportable, mode of scholarship. So it must be thought something of a curiosity that the enterprise as a whole – an attempt to transform the study of Renaissance literature by the application of a theory about history and a dominant interest in ‘gender, power and sexuality’ – should have been sponsored by a major British university press, without whose august endorsement these books might have travelled far less well.
[*] Cambridge, 268 pp., £35.7 August 1997. 0 5 21 59001 9.
Vol. 20 No. 3 · 5 February 1998
Reviewing Heather James’s book Shakespeare’s Troy, Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) refers to the author’s view of the purpose of The Tempest as aligning the ‘theatre with constitutional theory that derives royal authority from the people, who technically have the right to withdraw their consent and leave the prince stranded on a desert island’. No one, in the time of James I, would have known what in theory or in practice was meant by this right to withdraw their consent. No one believed then, or for more than a hundred years, that sovereignty was derived from the people. Charles I did not lose his head at the behest of ‘the people’.
Vol. 20 No. 4 · 19 February 1998
Evidently Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) found baffling the idea that in Titus Andronicus the entrance of Lavinia with her hands cut off and her tongue cut out is ‘Ovidian and Petrarchan in tone (the latter because the way her injuries are described is said to resemble the poetic blazon, or catalogue of female charms)’. Kermode’s ‘catalogue of charms’ is not an adequate description of the Petrarchan poetic blazon which creepily itemises female body parts in a way many critics have likened to an imaginative dissection. Fetishistic ideas about cutting women into pieces are often said to be relevant to the rape of Lavinia and to the description of Petrarch’s Laura, and if Kermode thinks they are not he might as well say so. It might reasonably be suggested that the appalling sight of the mutilated Lavinia in a performance of Titus Andronicus focuses attention on the relationship between rape and flattery (’the underside of male violence’, as Simon Shepherd put it). Before joining forces to gang-rape Lavinia, Chiron and Demetrius boastfully swear great love for her. If one thought that Shakespeare wished to cast doubt on certain kinds of proclamation of appreciation, then Marcus’ description of Lavinia’s disfigurement could be said ‘to scrutinise the art of Petrarchan representation’. For Kermode, ideas as simple as this have to be quoted ‘because paraphrase would lose the flavour of these extraordinary statements.’
Welford on Avon, Warwickshire
In 1647, Thomas Rainsborough asserted that ‘every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.’ Rainsborough was not a political theorist and, so far as we know, published nothing on the subject. But as the colonel of a crack infantry regiment, as well as the leading spokesman for the Levellers at the Putney Debates, he knew something about the practice of political change. John Griffith’s belief (Letters, 5 February) that no one until the 18th century knew about either the theory or the practice of consensual government or ‘believed … that sovereignty was derived from the people’ is plain wrong. Losing does not obliterate the sometimes prescient beliefs of the losers.
Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire
Vol. 20 No. 5 · 5 March 1998
Frank Kermode (LRB, 22 January) is entitled to his opinions about what constitutes a threat to his notion of common-sense literary history, his views of what he calls ‘reasonably disinterested scholarship’, his belief that questions of sexuality and gender are mere ‘curiosities’, and even his xenophobic generalisations about American scholars. But, in a sentence that appears one full column into his recent attack on the Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture, after he has already denounced an entire series of 22 books, its general editor and its editorial board, Kermode writes: ‘The most recent addition to the series … is reasonably typical of the rest, so far as I have seen them.’ Could I ask, in fairness to myself and to the other unnamed scholars whose work Kermode derides, that his ‘reviews’ be restricted to opinions (preferably substantiated) of books he has actually read?