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.

The most recent addition to the series, Heather James’s Shakespeare’s Troy, is reasonably typical of the rest, so far as I have seen them. Her main argument concerns the theme of the translation of empire (translatio imperii) and its accompanying translatio studii. This idea, which flourished in medieval Europe, especially in France, had a surprisingly long and complicated life. It was used to support the claim that one’s own nation had inherited Roman dominion and classical learning. It is what Bishop Berkeley had in mind much later when he wrote: ‘Westward the course of empire takes its way.’ Berkeley believed so firmly in the idea that he left his library to Yale and Harvard and his name to a great Californian university. And it is from California, the extreme limit of that westward movement, that Professor James looks eastward and considers the moment when the imperium was pausing briefly in London. She thinks the doctrine of the translatio was more important in the politics of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England than political historians seem to have recognised, and undertakes to demonstrate that Shakespeare repeatedly worried away at it, notably in Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline and The Tempest.

It appears that Shakespeare disapproved of Virgil, prophet of empire and sponsor of this great imperial translation, and regarded Ovid, who dissented on this as on other matters, as the patron of an anti-imperialist political opposition. Historically, one gathers, there is something to be said for the existence of an Ovidian opposition to Virgil in Augustan Rome, one poet for and the other against the state ideology. James’s point is that the conflict was transposed to Jacobean London and argued about, sometimes rather provocatively, in the theatre.

‘The larger issue the book confronts,’ says the blurb, very much in the author’s own mouth-full-of-marbles manner, ‘is the directly political one of the way in which Shakespeare’s textual appropriations participate in the larger cultural project of finding historical legitimation for a realm that was asserting its status as an empire.’ It will also ‘legitimate the cultural place of the theatre in late Elizabethan and early Stuart London’. On the first page it is argued that the entrance of Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, with ‘her hands cut off and her tongue cut out and ravished’, 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). So Lavinia’s entry is not Virgilian, as James thinks it would have been in the ordinary way, though it isn’t easy to say why. Achilles, in Troilus and Cressida, is said to be undergoing ‘a crisis of exemplarity, in which he is reduced to his constituent histories or redactions’, while Antony makes ‘a manful attempt to resist Virgil’s derisive portrait of his choices’. Prospero gives up Virgilian magic and resorts to the incantations of Ovid’s Medea, and this constitutes a severe criticism of the imperial pretensions of James I.

There is nothing very new about the idea that Shakespeare knew Ovid and used him extensively in Titus and elsewhere: that was argued in what was once a well-known book by Howard Baker (Introduction to Tragedy), but Baker wrote in 1939, in the dark backward and abysm of time, far too long ago to deserve Post-Modern mention. What is characteristic of the new approach is less the originality of its findings than the extraordinary confidence with which speculation is heaped on a slight basis of fact, or indeed on prior speculation. For instance, there is nothing new or indeed very interesting about the claim that Achilles represents or recalls the Earl of Essex. Much bolder is the claim that competing versions of the Troy legend are used to ‘chart and influence shifts in the power and legitimacy of different cultural spheres in England from the court to the Inns of Court, the universities, the city and its underground’. But this claim, being so much vaguer, is harder to substantiate or refute.

Shakespeare, it seems, is continually asking questions about the translations of empire; Cymbeline, for example, uses the idea to comment adversely on James’s absolutist aspirations. James’s politics are now a popular theme with literary historians, almost as if the close relation of Shakespeare’s company to the court (they were, after all, the King’s Men) had suddenly been revealed to scholars who, unlike their predecessors, understand how important it was. They somehow fail to ask the obvious question: whether the playwright was likely to be as acutely and manifestly critical of the King’s intentions as it suits them to believe. Instead, they move in, waving a banner with the device ‘gender, power, sexuality’, and demonstrate that in the political and cultural conflicts of his day the Bard was almost as militantly right-minded as they are. It is argued that the theatre, ‘as an alternative to the City (i.e. the mayor and aldermen bent on shutting down the theatres), pulpit (sympathetic to anti-theatrical sentiment), Parliament and court (equipped with the powers of patronage and censorship)’, could ‘traffic in the domains of social influence without being obliged to replicate any particular set of interests’. What does ‘alternative’ mean here? In what sense could the theatre be thought to offer an alternative to court patronage, sermons, angry aldermen? No wonder the sentence disappears into vagueness, without pausing to ask what it could possibly have started out to mean.

Shakespeare was condemned by Dr Johnson for enjoying quibbles, and his remarks could be read as suggesting that this revolt against authoritative language reflected a proneness to intellectual and social unreliability. But James understandably declines to think quibbles wicked; a quibble, she says, is an excellent thing because it ‘problematises the grounds for knowledge, its philosophical terrain is epistemology’. The quibble upsets hierarchy, and upsetting hierarchy seems now to be thought Shakespeare’s principal aim, at every level from the pun to the curious ways in which he uses the Troy legend. Understanding Aeneas to be less Virgil’s empire-builder than Ovid’s ‘cad’, he sometimes combined or ‘contaminated’ the two: Posthumus in Cymbeline is said, boldly but surely absurdly, to be a contamination of these two versions of Aeneas.

These and other such fanciful claims are proffered in language that is sometimes so strange that one wonders, presumptuously, if the author has properly understood them. Troilus’ remark in the Trojan debate – ‘What’s aught but as’ tis valued?’ – is here said to have been ‘seconded’ by Hector, though in the play Hector immediately argues against Troilus (‘But value dwells not in particular will’). Perhaps, in this new dialect, ‘seconded’ means ‘opposed’. One can believe such transformations occur in a language that is being forcibly altered to suit what is seen as a new form of knowledge. Hence we may be puzzled to hear of protagonists undergoing ‘textual breakdowns’ and ‘textual crises of identity’, often brought on by ‘transgressive semiotics’, a hazard normally, we are told, ‘gendered as female’.

‘The turning point from the imperial epic of Virgil to the counter-epic of Ovid,’ as we have already learned, ‘is Lavinia’s entrance after her rape.’ Rape is an important theme in Roman legend, and James wants it to be even more important than has usually been supposed, adding Dido to the list of raped women (an ur-date-rape, this, and another heavy blow at Virgil). The traditional blazon may be thought another form of rape, forcibly seizing female beauty and turning it into verses. The original blazon occurs in the Song of Songs, a poem subjected to endless commentary; but it is unlikely that anybody has thought to call it rape.

Lavinia’s rape, of course, is essential to ‘Shakespeare’s literary-political project ... his extreme image of Rome’s cultural disintegration and his calling card as an Elizabethan cultural critic’. The description of her disfigurement is said to ‘scrutinise the art of Petrarchan representation’, and she herself ‘becomes a palimpsest bearing the literary and ideological inscriptions of Virgil, Ovid, Petrarch and, finally, Shakespeare’. The arrows Titus shoots at Astraea are, in effect, aimed at Queen Elizabeth, often represented as Astraea, who is thus clearly associated with Tamora, ‘the whoring queen of the Goths’. I have to quote, because paraphrase would lose the flavour of these extraordinary statements. If you trouble to learn this way of writing it seems you need not even consider whether what you have it in mind to say is grossly improbable.

Achilles’ ‘crisis of exemplarity’, already mentioned, is worsened by the attentions of Ulysses, who treats him to a ‘discourse on the material basis of epistemology’ (he believes that you only have a good reputation if others perceive you as deserving it, and say so). ‘The play provisionally translates Achilles into a contamination of textual and sexual forms which threaten his characterological integrity.’ If only he knew which source Shakespeare was using for him Achilles might understand himself better; as it is, he is, like Lavinia, a mere palimpsest. Ulysses’ ‘toe-lining’ – line-toeing? – ‘speech on degree’, so absurdly misread by dead white males, was inserted as a matter of prudence, to keep Shakespeare out of trouble with the authorities. Once again he succeeded in avoiding interrogation, and so was able to carry on with his work of denying corrupt London, or Troynovant, the comforts of Virgilian imperialism, and correcting the King’s mistaken policies.

More historical fantasies follow. Antony ‘protects his heroic exemplarity by directly resisting the Aeneid’. More mysteriously, Cleopatra, who ‘makes hungry where most she satisfies’, is benefiting by a translation of Narcissus’ motto, inopem me copia fecit. As a Latinist, the author must know that these words mean something quite different, but it doesn’t matter: the point is that Cleopatra is harnessing ‘the energies of Petrarchan narcissism for her political advantage’. In Cymbeline, Posthumus’ ‘textual complications’ bar him from the throne, but his ‘asymmetrical relation to the dominant British power might suggest models of political agency that complement or counter royal power’. You could only say that sort of thing if you had a meaning all ready to insert into the play, and a way of talking so spuriously impressive that such remarks may, for a second or two, be taken seriously. I will spare allusion to the proof offered as to the purpose of The Tempest: ‘the play ... aligns 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.’

I noticed recently a remark by Nicolas Tredell in PN Review to the effect that ‘theory’ is ‘now far past its triumphalist phase’, and though this may be true it tends to obscure the fact that what has survived its decline is this kind of linguistic licentiousness. (It used to be called ‘ludic’, but is no longer meant to be playful or funny.) Yet the book that has provided these examples does have behind it some laborious historical research, ruined, as I see it, by the desperate, inkhorn newfangledness of its presentation. Some of the other volumes in the Cambridge series are duller and less fantastic, but most of them share the assumption that the lexicon of the clique is the right linguistic basis for literary (almost always assimilated with political) history. The assumption shows up in a shared passion for certain words, like the verb ‘to articulate’, as in the statement that the early editions of Donne, and Walton’s Life, ‘articulated his status as wit and divine’. Paradigms are frequently articulated, discourses appropriated, and so on.

Behind all this chatter there may, as I’ve suggested, be some quite conventional historiography; Seth Lerer’s Courtly Letter in the Age of Henry VIII, for instance, could well have been written long ago and in ordinary language, without the preening about ‘ocularity’ and ‘the thematics of looking’ and ‘epistolary voyeurism’, and without the opening manifesto: ‘it is [the] relationship between the major and the minor, so ensconced in modern literary histories, that I seek to dismantle.’[*] It is a fashionable intention; yet that relationship is certainly not dismantled here. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the source of what Lerer calls Henrician ‘Pandarism’, is frankly treated as a great and influential work, and in studying early 16th-century commonplace books, the ‘little quartos’ and so forth, he cannot avoid treating them as ‘minor’. This is work that might have been done under the sway of much more modest institutional requirements: what is new is the presumption, common to New Historicist work on the Renaissance period, that one is always looking for a ‘nexus of power, sexuality and inwardness’, and of course articulating and appropriating it as fancifully as possible.

Lerer’s is one of the more impressive of the volumes I’ve read. The point, of course, is not that these authors lack industry, and they certainly do not lack the desire to be épatant. There seems little reason why their books should not at least be enjoyable – until one asks what it means to force arguments into such affected and tedious language. We are frequently told that by studying what these critics say we will better understand the nexus of power and sexuality in our own society. This would presumably be a good thing; it might be thought that here we have something new that satisfies an old desire, that criticism should somehow do us good. But if it continues to be presented in this way, in the manner of a modern Holofernes, nobody except the committed brothers and sisters in the academies, their unlucky students and possibly some indulgent publisher, will pay it enough attention to enjoy the promised spiritual benefit.

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