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Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting.

By Richard Helgerson Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000

What do the following things have in common: Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, Dutch genre painting, Spanish Golden Age peasant drama, Moliere's Tartuffe?

On the surface one might say, Nothing. Or worse yet, one might heave up some argument, too flabby to be tested, about the rise of the bourgeoisie in Europe in the early modern period. The ways in which such arguments get made in literary studies too often have the vices of the lumpers without the virtues of the splitters, with results that are laughable to any serious economic or social historian.

Richard Helgerson's answer, however, is a sophisticated and useful variation on that fuzzy old argument. All of these phenomena, he argues, though they appear in four different countries over a period of more than a century, share a set of characters and a plot. The scene in each case is the bourgeois home. It is intruded upon by a sexual predator, usually an upper-class or military figure, associated one way or another with the state. The state itself--in the form of the monarch or agent thereof--then resolves the problems created by its own intrusion, and in the short run the aristocratically-dominated national order is affirmed. In the process, though, bourgeois domesticity has turned out to be much more interesting than soldiers, courtiers, or aristocrats. The effect of that representation is to create new genres--domestic comedy, peasant comedy, genre painting, and so forth--that are alternatives to the heroic genres of the past, and that are the vehicles of emergent classes and their values. These genres are "the affective base for a new revolutionary order" (4). In short, there is a straight path from the humiliation of Falstaff to the guillotining of Louis XVI.

Helgerson's argument for this thesis is good precisely to the extent that he weighs carefully the specificity of each of his four disparate cases. He is accurate about plots, careful about dates, well-read in social history, and properly skeptical about his own readings of images, even as he gradually nudges each of his four components in the direction of the central and overriding thesis. All this is done concisely, and in that easy, lucid prose that the many readers of Forms of Nationhood have come to value. There are no great flights of eloquence in Adulterous Alliances, and only the occasional slip into the old cant by which this or that is "called in question" or is said to mark a site for the contestation of values. (Did we really talk that way not so long ago?) But neither is there the blather, silliness, or turgidity that too often appears in academic monographs where sentences should be.

The book, then, is valuable less for its thesis (of course nonheroic cultural forms emerge as alternatives to heroic and aristocratic forms and coincide with a challenge for control of the state) than it is for the proof that a sensible argument can be mounted for this thesis. Adulterous Alliances is a model for us all in several specific ways:

* It is about different countries and centuries. (At a time when humanist disciplines have become ridiculously overspecialized and insular--and none more so, punningly and tautologically, than English literary studies--Helgerson ventures to give a readable account of a broad swath of culture. The book can and will be reading by many.)

* It is respectful of the differences among those countries, centuries, and art forms.

* It is respectful of the findings of specialists who know a lot about those countries, those centuries, and those art forms.

In the process, Helgerson gives us serious discussions of the terms crammed into his subtitle. "Home" becomes a word that can be mentioned in polite company, defined of course in terms of gender but also economically and spatially. The "state"--or rather the four very different states of England, Holland, Spain, and France--comes under serious scrutiny precisely through this comparison, and emerges as an extremely fragile entity, blossoming somewhere between the (temporary) recession of the religion sphere, and the nascency of the economic sphere as a transnational category. "History" becomes narrowed as a term, reduced to an aristocratic and public category of representation, belonging to the state and separated from the home, until the new domestic representational forms lift their subject matter into contact with state and history. Most importantly, "early modern" becomes meaningful as a term precisely because Helgerson can connect up Shakespeare and Moliere. As shy as we are about deploying the long-honorific language of "renaissance," it makes little sense to talk about the sixteenth century as "early modern" unless there is some plausible connection to the recognizably modern, circa the French Revolution.

Most of all, Helgerson makes a serious try at describing a significant relationship between drama and painting. For the most part, the relationship is defined through similarity of content. Dutch genre painting, especially in the 1650s and 1560s, is filled with imagery of soldiers encountering fair maidens in domestic settings. Helgerson does a splendid job of reading these images in relation to midcentury political events, and if the allegory is a bit fierce at times, it is self-consciously so. The counterargument can be made that we need to let up a little on reading the paintings and look at them, let them show off their ostentatious visibility and their alluring domestic surfaces and cavities. But that counterargument will simply turn us back to Helgerson's central point about the investment in the domestic that these art forms coerce from us.

It is therefore necessary for Helgerson to argue for a second significant relationship between drama and painting, at the level of artistic mode. Aristotle distinguished between narrative and dramatic (and lyric, too, but that's not to the point here), and the distinction resonates through our understanding of the aristocratic poetic modes of epic and tragedy. In terms of bourgeois representational modes, it is useful to add "descriptive" to narrative and dramatic. It is an established argument in art history (made especially by Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing) that Italian Renaissance painting is narrative and text-centered, while Northern (especially Dutch) painting is by the seventeenth century more descriptive, and thus properly visually centered. Within this dichotomy, the dramatic operates as something of a middle voice, mediating the aristocratic intrusion on the bourgeois in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, just as it does in the vignettes and implied plots of paintings by de Hooch, Hoogstraten, or even Vermeer.

This modal analysis works well enough for Dutch genre painting, so long as it is bridled by Helgerson's good sense as an interpreter. It works splendidly with the works of the eighteenth-century French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, where of course Helgerson has the brilliant work of Michael Fried to draw on. (Indeed, Adulterous Alliances and Fried's Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot would make great back-to-back reading.) It is at a theoretical level still hard to say why it works, though, since it rests finally on analogy: reading painting is not reading text, visual drama is not verbal drama, and painted narrative is not poetic narrative in the sixteenth or the eighteenth centuries.

The question points to the monster lurking at the ledge of the broad terrain that Helgerson maps in this book. It is a masterful accomplishment of cultural studies, traversing its disparate territories without flattening or scorching them. The likenesses appear to the scholarly beholder, just as they do to the spectator at a domestic drama or the beholder of a genre painting. We are, in the end, scholarly aristocrats of a sort, intruding on these textual and painted spaces, and reducing them to the monarchy of interpretation. It may be fair to say that the arts of the upper and lower classes are aggressive or resistant. But the drama of bourgeois domestic art may lie precisely in its serene indifference to our arguments.

CLARK HULSE is Professor of English and Art History and Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His most recent book is Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, and Empire in the English Renaissance (edited with Peter Erickson, 2000).
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Author:Hulse, Clark
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:1365
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