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Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction.

Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction takes as its aim the rethinking of how the Elizabethans conceived of prose narrative. In his introduction the author states that "the Elizabethans weren't sure what to do with prose. . . . There are many histories of this prose; mine is the study of a few terms that the Elizabethan and early Stuart prosers could not get off their minds" (p. 19). The terms that Barbour traces in an attempt to understand the literary conversation of the time are "deciphering," "discovering," and "stuffing," which he locates in the prose of Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Dekker. "They [the authors] respond to each other - Nashe to Greene, and Dekker to Nashe and Greene - and to the conventions of the very terms that provide our focus" (p. 13). Finally, Barbour proposes that Greene, Nashe, and Dekker were "searching for the identity, boundaries, and functions of prose at their present time; and in this pursuit they mediated some of their culture's ultimate concerns" (p. 14).

As a discussion that argues for Elizabethan prose being considered on its own terms, Barbour succeeds in demonstrating that a few specific tropes emerge as handles in an ongoing discourse concerning the use and abuse of prose. Greene begins the dialogues by setting forth the belief that essential truth "transcends its incarnation in the figures and topoi of its rhetorical fables" (17). Therefore, Barbour concludes that Greene's "deciphering" - which refers to the representational act of a narrator - commits him to a priori truth and narrative stability. In the latter part of his career, however, Greene became more interested in "notable discovery," the narrative that leads readers to revelation and deepened understanding. By contrast, Barbour concludes, Nashe's antipathy toward "deciphering" motivated him to prefer a different term - "stuff" - which accommodates his skepticism. This, Barbour explains, leads to "the extemporal invention or venting of a somatic prose that is elastic as well as material" (67). Thus, Nashe endorses a sense of prose in which the meaning is unstable and, Barbour argues, in its slipperiness can bear association with various forms of imagination (dreams) or treachery (74-75). For Nashe, prose is potentially dishonest, and style daimonic. Last of all, Thomas Dekker "challenges the belief in an inherently typical and remarkable event - that is, the 'notable'"(127). He is critical of both Greene and Nashe, distrustful of "discovery," a believer instead in the controlling schemes that seem, to him, embedded in narrative. "His prose not only picks up where Nashe left off; but it also employs the stuff of Nashe against the discoveries of Greene" (127). In the final few pages of the book Barbour tries to relate the theories of Elizabethan prose to the prose of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce (142ff.).

Despite the usefulness of some of the close analysis offered by Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction, the book falls short generally in terms of its execution. Perhaps it would have been better presented as a series of short articles or as a more comprehensive book, for too frequently the arguments lack sufficient explanation in a larger context, which the subject seems to demand. For instance, Barbour assumes that Elizabethan prose writers wrote with an eye to a more systematic sense of literary theory than scholars have formerly assumed; yet he fails to provide an adequate argument demonstrating why his reader should accept this assumption. Moreover, he provides little understanding of why he chose to concentrate on Greene, Nashe, and Dekker apart from the fact that they seem to share an interest in some of the same rhetoric. Also confusing is the perceived second class status of prose, as though Greene and Nashe thought of themselves as literary poor relations who, for their own professional and political purposes, spent their time attempting to vindicate prose. Little balance is provided by way of situating the subjects' prose in other professional areas, despite the fact that the amorphous term "career" is periodically used. The reader, for example, has no sense of the way that Dekker's dramatic career might have framed his work as a prose writer.

Perhaps Barbour has been too modest in his goals; but, at other times, naivete creeps into his entire scheme. To cite one recurring example, I would return to Barbour's claim that Greene, Nashe, and Dekker, in their prose-related interests, "mediated some of their culture's ultimate concerns" (14). This is a place in which Barbour (and others) might well be better off minding the boundaries of their own prose. Critics in general today are too eager to claim that any issue that is of importance to them somehow "mediated" the cultural concerns of their subjects. In their overstatement such claims become ludicrous. At best, defining the place of prose could only have been of concern to a fairly small group of writers. The uncertainty of the succession after the death of Queen Elizabeth, potential conflict with Spain or other European nations, the Irish wars, the new science - these were some of the "ultimate cultural concerns" to many citizens at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century. But certainly the place of prose was not. In this, and in other areas of the book, this reader would have been better served had Barbour given up the stance that his subject is intimately connected to ways in which prose writers attempted to control "narrative, reader, and society alike" (43). There is not enough documentation provided to substantiate the connection between Dekker, for example, and "social control"; and really, it seems perfectly possible to write an important book on Elizabethan prose without having finally to make such large (and largely unprovable) claims. In sum, Deciphering Elizabethan Fiction suggests a different way to conceive of the relationship between Greene, Nashe, and Dekker; but regrettably, it is not very convincing.

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Author:Cerasano, S.P.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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