Frank Kermode

  • 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.

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[*] Cambridge, 268 pp., £35.7 August 1997. 0 5 21 59001 9.