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British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800.

David Armitage, ed. British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii + 326 pp. index. bibl. $90. ISBN: 978-0-521-87041-2.

In British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800, the title's three disciplines are represented in separate sections of four essays each, while the introductory materials and afterward are provided by noted historians and political theorists. This organization is significant and, in keeping with Stephen Zwicker's essay on ironies of context and text--notable, as he ably illustrates, in Dryden's taking on the issue of paternity in Absalom and Achitophel during James II's reign--it is ironic, given the book's argument, that the parity apparently aimed for came off with some unbalance. Kirstie McClure's essay "Reflections on Political Literature: History, Theory and the Printed Book," an intelligent analysis of the dynamism of reception and reinterpretation through the creative appropriation of texts over time, takes off from the premise that paratext and layout are part of "the political life of books" (238). And so it is here: the form partakes in, and reflects on, the argument. The contributors share an interest in the political vitality of the matter of Britain, but their different formations perforce equip them with differing points of view. The book's organization of the scholars' disciplinary allegiances into separate areas is an index of the far thornier issue of Britain, the geographical nomenclature that has archipelagic inclusiveness as its goal, but which also inculcates self-questioning. Britain's geographical span--and the transnational influence of Britishness--engages some touchy issues of imagined community.

Anglocentrism has generated myopic histories, but the wider-angled British lens is an optic of uncertain usefulness for many of this book's contributors. For one thing, England's hegemony is never far under the surface, even when--or perhaps particularly when--the identities and independent nation-state status of Ireland and Scotland are under the microscope (Wales is noticed far less in this book). In "Intersections Between Irish and British Political Thought," Ireland's separateness across the centuries emerges as Nicholas Canny shows why the term British both is and is not apt for Ireland, but Ireland's distinct identity is also constantly measured against the English. In "Contours of British Political Thought," on the other hand, Colin Kidd has no objections to seeing Scotland as part of Britain, but he insists on the long history of Scotland's sovereign status; sensitive to England's asymmetric relations with its less powerful neighbors "underpinned by the ... confusing conflation of 'England' and 'Britain'" (48), he demonstrates the falsity behind centuries of English claims to feudal rights over Scotland. John Morrill, in his descriptive overview "Thinking about the New British History," hopes that British studies will yield more than simply "enriched English history" (43). In a learned and thoughtful essay, "In Search of a British History of Political Thought," Tim Harris narrows his studies to the constitutionally critical period 1678-91 to examine "the Three-Kingdoms dimension." He announces at the beginning of his essay that the sense to be made of the "British" focus "will depend in part on the questions we intend to ask" (90); he concludes that the Britannic turn in seventeenth-century historiography has helped us "to see the things we have missed" (107), but he repeats his earlier caveat that the historical optic one can usefully adopt depends on the questions asked and urges that both the narrow and the larger histories need to be engaged at the same time.

Jean Howard and Andrew Hadfield keep their sights on the political rather than the British theme. In "Dramatic Traditions and Shakespeare's Political Thought" Howard examines the political implications of structure in the English history play, concentrating in particular on The First Part of the Contention. If Howard's concentration remains fixed on England, Hadfield moves beyond not just England but beyond Britain as well in his "Republicanism in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Britain," where he enlarges the boundaries both geographical and chronological of early modern republicanism in literature through reminders of its rootedness in classical Latin stories derived from ancient Rome.

The political theorists of the final section are concerned with the language(s) of political discourse. Duncan Ivison studies the connections between state formation and the language of rights, in particular the positioning of the individual within the notions of the law of nature and the law of nations; he calls attention to the paradoxes and contradictions the discourse of rights involved historically for aboriginal peoples, paradoxes that continue to be in evidence today "when conjoined to a justification of armed intervention or pre-emptive war" (207). In "Reading the Private in Margaret Cavendish," Joanne Wright examines power relations in early modern society much differently by turning specifically to an aristocratic woman's female optic on marriage relations to study the language of public and private. Richard Flathman's "Here and Now, There and Then, Always and Everywhere" is a lively essay that examines the different assumptions, expectations, and methodologies behind historical thinking and theorizing about the past's relation to the present, only to dismiss itself on the last page as a language game, in a final fictive explosion of tongue-in-cheek intellectual modesty.

J. G. A. Pocock, whose work is a constant point of reference for many of the contributors, asks at the book's beginning what it means to speak of "British political thought" and wonders whether Britishness is a community or a conversation (11). The essays that follow give voice to the discourse between patriotism and assimilation, exposing the both- and logic of the local and the larger: both fusion and separation within and between the countries it covers and within and between the disciplines that study their cultures. Quentin Skinner concludes that "no single set of hermeneutic principles" will ever be adequate for more than a fraction of the discourse, but that what is important is the dialogue (284). This collection of intelligently written essays presents an important instance of that dialogue.


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Author:Kreps, Barbara
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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