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Cultural Semiotics, Spenser, and the Captive Woman.

Cultural Semiotics, Spenser, and the Captive Woman. By LOUISE SCHLEINER. Cranbury, NJ: Lehigh University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses. 1995. 278 pp. 32.50 [pounds sterling].

In this somewhat unusual book Louise Schleiner undertakes to apply the methods of semiotic discourse analysis developed by A. J. Greimas to The Shepheardes Calender, and then to trace the workings of an 'ideologeme', as defined by Fredric Jameson, in texts by Sidney, Lyly, Spenser, Greene, Shakespeare, the Countess of Pembroke, and others. Her Greimassian method requires the production of a table of actants in the Calender, some algebraic formulae to express the nature of the base narrative programme, several lists of frequently occurring words, three inventories of semes and sememes, and at least fifteen diagrams of semiotic squares illustrating the contradictions and contrarieties within semantic categories. Using these materials Schleiner argues that the base narrative programme of the Calender should be seen in the following terms: the pastoral maker (Colin) takes control of a respected chaste female (Rosalind/Dido/Elizabeth I), thereby regaining his poetic competence. More particularly, because Schleiner is concerned with the politico-religious context within which the Calender was written as well as with semiotic analysis, she maintains that in 'November' Colin warns Elizabeth against the French marriage project by controlling her in a lead-wrapped coffin. This Spenserian narrative programme generated an ideologeme, or productive cultural fantasy, of the Captive Woman together with the necessary contradictory and contrary terms (the independent woman, the repelled woman, and the tolerated woman). It is Schleiner's case that this unit of antagonistic class discourses became central to many later Elizabethan texts, employed by Leicestrian writers with an emphasis on the capturing and releasing woman, but by 'squirearchist' writers with an emphasis on the repelled-and-then-tolerated woman.

Schleiner sensibly states that the Greimassian method is not to be regarded as scientific. Nevertheless the physical appearance of this book, with the tables, formulae, and diagrams mentioned above, as well as the highly technical and, frankly, rebarbative vocabulary used in the text, make an unmistakable claim to some degree of quasi-scientific status. Having invested hard work in her semiotic discourse analysis she understandably declares that it can offer 'more empirical procedures' and 'more convincing results' than might otherwise be obtained. Yet difficulties spring up on every side. If we focus on frequently occurring words we inevitably blank out the less frequently occurring words found in, for example, the ecclesiastical eclogues. Hence the narrative the critic abstracts from such lists refers only to the personal development of the love-sick Colin and not at all to the topical debates between Piers, Palinode, and the rest. Moreover, the case for a base narrative concerning a Captive Woman is built solely on Schleiner's opinion that the Dido of 'November' represents the Queen, and that the Queen is 'cancelled' or 'captured' by a prophetic image of her death. But this interpretation, although a fashionable one at the moment, relies on minimal evidence, and neglects the language of lines 113-22, which suggests that the deceased was young, playful, and socially dependent on Lobbin (that is, probably Ambrosia Sidney).

During the discussion of the part played by the ideologeme in later Elizabethan texts interesting social, political, and economic issues are explored. But once again the search for systematic categories is pressed further than the evidence will bear. To show that Leicestrian writers preferred the captive/releasing woman motif while squirearchist writers favoured the repelled woman would require dozens of examples on either side, but Schleiner soon finds herself having to force her materials. In The Faerie Queene, II, 'the bright escutcheon of the liberating maiden Queen Glory meets face to face her darksome counter-exemplum', Philotime, despite the fact that Guyon's shield is not mentioned in the Philotime episode. Equally, Pyrocles in his Zelmane mode is chosen as Schleiner's chief example of the 'releasing woman' in another Leicestrian text, although the example is problematic to say the least. Followers of Greimas will enjoy this book, but others may feel that the quasi-scientific discourse analysis offered here does not necessarily produce satisfying literary insights.

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Author:Hume, Anthea
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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