Wholly Given Over to Thee

Anne Barton

  • The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare by Helen Cooper
    Oxford, 560 pp, £65.00, June 2004, ISBN 0 19 924886 9

In George Peele’s Elizabethan play The Old Wives’ Tale, a character called Jack interrogates the ‘wandering knight’ Eumenides: ‘Are you not the man, sir (deny it if you can, sir) that came from a strange place in the land of Catita, where Jackanapes flies with his tail in his mouth, to seek out a lady as white as snow and as red as blood?’ Jack is dead. The character who speaks to Eumenides here, and asks to be taken into his service, is the grateful ghost of a poor man for whose burial Eumenides, although a stranger and mere passer-by, had earlier and charitably paid, exhausting his own slender finances in the process. Eumenides takes his name from classical Greece, where it was a euphemism for the Furies, those terrifying Erinyes optimistically renamed ‘the kindly ones’ at the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. (John Lyly had also bestowed it on a questing knight in his comedy Endimion a few years before Peele.) Like Shakespeare’s notorious sea-coast of Bohemia, Catita cannot be found on any map, nor can a winged Jackanapes improbably flying with its tail in its mouth be made to emerge from even the most fanciful bestiary. Delia, the rather starkly white and red lady abducted by a conjuror in dragon shape, and the object of Eumenides’ love-quest, is paralleled in the play by Venelia, driven mad by the same conjuror after he turned her youthful betrothed into a very old man: the keeper of a crossroads obliged to assume the shape of a white bear at night. There is also a ridiculous braggart warrior (Huanebango), and two maidens of different aspect and character, one fair and ill-natured, the other ugly and compassionate, who both visit a magic well in search of a husband. For good measure, Peele throws in a pair of genuinely nasty Furies, a clown, some melodious harvesters, and a strange talking head.

Helen Cooper mentions Peele’s play glancingly on two occasions, describing it as ‘a compendium of everyone’s favourite motifs from popular romance and folk tale’. That implies a generic distinction between the two forms. But romance, whether popular or courtly, has a way of entangling itself with folk or even fairy tale in ways that are not easy to sort out. Peele’s questing knight may primarily evoke the world of romance, but that is not his only habitat. Jack, and the maidens at the well, certainly suggest folk tale but without being confined to it. Delia, Venelia, the were-bear and the magician Sacrapant who persecutes them could be accommodated in any of the three realms, while Huanebango derives from Roman comedy. All these stories and characters sit together comfortably in Peele. Here, and not only with respect to this play, The English Romance in Time raises more questions than it can possibly answer. That is understandable. Cooper attempts to distinguish fairy tale from romance on the grounds that the former is driven by ‘magic’ whereas the latter subordinates it, giving its characters greater independence and control over their actions and destinies. But she skirts the interpenetration of romance and folk tale, even though it happens all the time, as it does with Spenser’s House of Busirane, when Britomart enters it in Book III of The Faerie Queene, and finds that she both is and is not in Bluebeard’s castle.

‘Romance’ is the most nebulous and ill-defined of literary genres, at moments seeming to embrace almost all non-realistic fiction, whether in prose or verse, narrative or dramatic form. It can even mesh with epic, as ‘the matter of Troy’ (especially in Homer’s Odyssey, arguably the archetypal romance) or the legends that gathered around Charlemagne and his peers amply attest. As her title and subtitle indicate, Cooper imposes certain limits on her investigation. The works she considers were all either written or ‘current’ in England between 1138 – the probable date of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain, not itself a romance but, as it turned out, a rich quarry for romance writers, including Malory – and the death of Shakespeare in 1616. Although she (rather surprisingly perhaps) admits some categories of religious writing, she restricts herself generally to works circulating between the 12th and the early 17th centuries in English or (during the earlier part of the period when, she points out, England and France formed a single cultural entity) in Anglo-Norman and French.

What was going on during the same period in Italy, Germany or Spain falls outside the scope of Cooper’s inquiry. More puzzling is the omission of certain classical Greek and Latin texts influential in the romance tradition with which she is concerned: not only the Odyssey, a story familiar in England, but Underdowne’s translation of the Hellenistic Aethiopica of Heliodorus, and Adlington’s of the Latin Golden Ass of Apuleius. Roman comedy, despite its Elizabethan popularity and its frequent insistence (as in the Rudens of Plautus) on that perpetual romance topos, the recognition and recovery of lost children, is also left out of the scenario. Apart from his second tetralogy of English histories, Troilus and Cressida, Measure For Measure, Macbeth and the later Roman plays, virtually all of Shakespeare nestles under her romance umbrella. Yet Beaumont’s parody romance play The Knight of the Burning Pestle is nowhere even alluded to, although Cooper does find room for Heywood’s consciously absurd romance The Four Prentises of London, with the Conquest of Jerusalem. It is a somewhat idiosyncratic selection.

Cooper’s knowledge is impressive. Her book is learned, scholarly and, in many ways, stimulating and provocative. The problem, however, has manifestly been one of structuring and ordering material so copious and diverse. Coherence being so difficult to achieve, Cooper has reached for a thematic solution. She relies throughout on the term ‘meme’, deployed by Richard Dawkins to mean the cultural equivalent of a gene: an idea or theme that mutates and changes in time and place while remaining fundamentally recognisable. From this follows the organisation of The English Romance in Time into eight chapters, succeeding a long and primarily historical general introduction. These chapters isolate in turn quest and pilgrimage, providence and the sea, magic that fails to work, fairy monarchs and mistresses, sexually desiring heroines, then (paired with the latter) women falsely accused, the question of restoring rightful heirs, and, finally, the matter of unhappy endings. Particular works from the enormous number on which Cooper draws tend to carry forward memes from a number of these different categories, which means that these works appear and rapidly disappear in different chapters. There is rarely time or space for her to linger over the qualities of these texts as wholes, rather than fragmented exemplars of one or more of the romance patterns under consideration. This, again, is understandable, but it results in a rather sporadic and jumpy narrative, often making the reader wish that distinctions of character and quality among the multitude of individual texts were not sacrificed quite so ruthlessly to the book’s overriding thematic organisation. It is also possible to query some of her allocations. Does Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’, for instance, really belong in the chapter entitled ‘Quest and Pilgrimage’? It is hard to see that Palamon and Arcite, whether in The Canterbury Tales or in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, embark on either. They suffer imprisonment in Athens as a result of misfortune in war, endure a further and cruelly divisive misfortune when both fall insanely in love with the same woman (who doesn’t especially want to marry either of them), and then find themselves obliged to take up arms against each other to resolve the situation. Where in all this is the ‘quest’ element – at least as we understand it in Chrétien de Troyes, in Malory, or in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

Cooper’s most interesting and successful chapters are probably ‘Desirable Desire: I Am Wholly Given Over to Thee’ and ‘Women on Trial’. The first takes off from Germaine Greer’s suggestion that the idea of the ‘pure but passionate’ woman was largely Shakespeare’s invention. Cooper finds such heroines everywhere in romance long before Shakespeare – not excluding the desire of some female mystics and saints for what can sound like a sexual union with Christ. One may feel that in stressing, whether in secular or religious writing, a chaste woman’s unabashed physical desire for the man on whom she has set her heart, Cooper sometimes misreads or at least misinterprets the texts before her. This happens with her insistence that Thaisa’s recognition of her husband at the end of Shakespeare’s Pericles is dependent on her ‘sexual instinct’, which will be ‘sufficient to identify the man she loves’:

O, let me look!
If he be none of mine, my sanctity
Will to my sense bend no licentious ear
But curb it spite of seeing.

It is difficult to make these lines, which Cooper quotes, bear her interpretation. Thaisa, now a priestess of Diana, proposes that she will be able to recognise her husband by sight, however altered he may have become during the long years of their separation. What she seems to be guarding against is any possibility that the sexual abstinence enforced on her in the temple may tempt her to accept and embark on a physical relationship with a man who is not Pericles. It requires the tangible token of a ring, as so often in New Comedy, to confirm his identity and allay her anxiety.

Thaisa’s acknowledgment that her ‘sense’ might well be ‘licentious’ and have to be curbed also raises a question about Cooper’s overall insistence that (contrary to the belief of C.S. Lewis) romance heroines – and heroes too, for that matter – are chaste, their desires immovably fixed on the person they love. Within marriage, accusations of a woman’s adultery, Cooper insists, are almost invariably false, at least in the English tradition. (On the continent, attitudes were somewhat different.) The obvious exception here, she concedes, is Guinevere in Malory, to which one could certainly add Tristram’s Iseult. One may feel, however, that these are not so much exceptions that prove the rule as indications that the rule itself, as Cooper wants to define it, is less pervasive than she thinks. She is right, of course, to include Imogen, in Cymbeline, among the romance heroines falsely accused. But I would like to have seen her tackle that notorious stumbling block in the play, Imogen’s ‘rosy’ modesty which, according to her husband, Posthumus, meant that ‘me of my lawful pleasure she restrained,/ And prayed me oft forbearance’, and how this somewhat embarrassing sexual reluctance can be made to accord with the idea of the ‘pure but passionate’ romance heroine Imogen would otherwise seem to exemplify.

The English Romance in Time, although it deals extensively with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, is sometimes not very alert to the probabilities of contemporary staging. An endnote to the chapter on ‘Unhappy Endings’ asserts, for instance, that in the final scene of All’s Well That Ends Well, the ‘stage presence’ of an actual baby fathered on Helena by Bertram ‘is not ruled out’. But it is ruled out, and doubly so, by Diana’s lines, ‘Dead though she be, she feels her young one kick./ So there’s my riddle: one that’s dead is quick,’ with their unequivocal emphasis on the unborn child stirring in the womb of a ‘quick’ (pregnant) woman, and additionally by the theatrical uncertainties attendant on an infant in Helena’s arms, whether an unconvincingly inert simulacrum or, even more perilous, a squalling and potentially uncontrollable live contributor to the scene.

The issue of live bears on the Jacobean stage raises questions of a different kind. In her introduction, ‘Enter, pursued with a bear,’ Cooper proposes as the ‘emblem’ for her book the property bear-suit stripped, she believes, from one of the unhappy animals baited and eventually killed for sport in the Bankside Bear Gardens. This item, growing older and more tattered, but always recognisable, though used over the years in many very different plays, is for her an over-arching meme, a tangible symbol of all the rest. It is true (although she does not explicitly refer to it) that a ‘beares skyne’ appears on Henslowe’s list of the properties possessed by the lord admiral’s men in 1598. It is partnered there, according to the same diary entry, by one ‘lyone skin’ and by Phaeton’s ‘lymes’ and Argus’ ‘heade’. The last two stage properties were clearly man-made, but the rest? Lion skins were not in great request on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage. Heracles might occasionally sport his Nemean trophy in the theatre, but it is difficult to believe that Peter Quince and his assemblage of very amateur actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream plausibly procured the real thing for Snug the joiner in the part of Lion. Bears were more plentiful in plays, especially for a few years after 1609 when, as we now know thanks to an article by Teresa Grant in the TLS in June 2002, two polar bear cubs were brought back from Cherie Island (just south of Greenland) by explorers and presented to King James, who delivered them into the keeping of Henslowe in Paris Garden on the Bankside. Grant’s argument was extended by Barbara Ravelhofer, writing in the spring 2002 issue of English Literary Renaissance.

Both argued persuasively that the sudden availability of these animals – still too young to have grown savage and unreliable but large enough to be visually arresting on stage – might help to explain the otherwise inexplicable and enormously popular revival in 1610 of that creaking old romance Mucedorus, with its original part for one white bear augmented, not to mention the two white bears introduced into Jonson’s masque of Oberon in 1611, and Shakespeare’s famous ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ in The Winter’s Tale that same year. After that, having matured and become untrustworthy, the white bears would have ceased to tread the boards, although they seem to have survived in the menagerie until, in their old age, they were ignominiously shot under Cromwell.

Cooper mentions the Ravelhofer article in the briefest of end notes, and then only to dismiss it as ‘tenuous’, without explaining why. Grant’s makes no appearance at all. Both, however, given Cooper’s own introduction, surely merited some attention, even if she chose in the end to reject the possibilities they raise. Meanwhile, one is left to speculate whether the bear in Valentine and Orson, a lost romance play of whose story Cooper makes much, might have manifested itself on stage as a living presence had it been performed between 1610 and 1613. Would George Peele have allowed us to see the aged keeper of the crossroads in his nocturnal shape as the white bear of England’s wood had he been writing his play then? Unanswerable questions, but tantalising all the same. It would, however, be wrong to complain too much about what Cooper fails to address, given how much her book does provide in the way of stimulus and information. She has ranged widely over an extensive and difficult terrain, and one must be grateful for the extensive and spirited nature of her explorations.