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.

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