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Early Modern Drama and the Eastern European Elsewhere: Representations of Liminal Locality in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries.

Early Modern Drama and the Eastern European Elsewhere: Representations of Liminal Locality in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries

By Monica Matei-Chesnoiu

Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009

A widely reported survey of 18- to 24-year-olds conducted by the National Geographic Society in 2006 informed us that although 56 percent of young Americans could not locate India on a map, 60 percent could not find Iraq, and 70 percent could not even find New Jersey, 34 percent were able to pinpoint the small island group of the Marquesas in the Pacific Ocean because a recent season of the television show "Survivor" had been set there. Drama of all sorts is remarkably effective at putting places on our mental maps, although it creates associations for them that can become dangerously fixed. Monica Matei-Chesnoiu's recent scholarship has effectively put Romania on the map for Shakespeareans through her 2006 book, Shakespeare in the Romanian Cultural Memory, as well as three books on Shakespeare in Romania, first in the nineteenth century (2006), then from 1900 to 1950 (2007), and finally from 1950 to the present (2008). In her new book, Early Modern Drama and the Eastern European Elsewhere, she shifts her focus from Romanian reception of English plays to constructions of Eastern Europe among Shakespeare and his contemporaries. We learn from this study that the region appeared with some frequency in early modern dramatic texts, where it marked the periphery of safe civilization through its association with foreign peoples, barbaric practices, and dangerous seas.

Matei-Chesnoiu identifies the primary area under discussion as extending east and north from the Danube to the western coast of the Black Sea, marked especially by the Carpathian Mountains and to the south by the Balkan range (14). That geographic specificity is helpful, because the term "Eastern European" includes various countries depending on the source, some of which are also referred to as "Central European." The latter term appears in the title but not the text of chapter 4, which causes some confusion. The region that receives most attention in the book includes the countries now known as Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine, with a particular focus on Romania, but the concern is more with Eastern Europe "as a site of cultural exchange" and with "territories rather than countries and states of mind rather than exact national characteristics" (13). Classical writers such as Pliny, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Solinus had very different names for locations in and around this region: references to Dacia, for example, or to Scythia, Dalmatia, Pannonia, Thracia, and Illyria in early modern drama all derive from names in the ancient texts. Even Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, which was available in three English editions during Shakespeare's lifetime, used place names from Latin authors, which further displaced the locations from early moderns as well as from us. This book helps us relate contemporary places to the names we encounter in early modern drama while describing the means by which the region became an "elsewhere."

The book's first chapter, "Ancient Fables of Eccentric Lands: Histories and Roman Plays," shows how Shakespeare used classical references and myths associated with these places around the Black Sea "as potent generators of contrasting perspectives" (18) and as locations to triangulate with more familiar, Western venues. The classical accounts of the region were rarely based upon direct experience, but many of those books became a part of the education of Elizabethans and Jacobeans, including the "wonder books" that described places of "the marvelous, the unusual, and the unbelievable" (23). These accounts "formed the licentious fringe of a geography where extreme events could happen, where excessive winters impeded further exploration, and [where] the inland area was mostly left unexplored because of hard frosts and inaccessible country." The "wonders" were threatening because the territory was seen as barbarous, "enshrouded in terror, bloody deeds, and evisceration" (27). These associations provide what Matei-Chesnoiu calls "powerful emotional triggers" (41) that Shakespeare could use, for instance, when Othello characterizes his impulse for revenge as "Like the Pontic Sea," referring to the Black Sea known as "Pontus Euxinus" in Pliny (40), or when Lear threatens Cordelia with being so abandoned that she will have no better neighbors than "the barbarous Scythians," who were related to the bloodthirsty Goths (42). Like mentions of Hycanian tigers, the Amazons, the Cimmerians, and the wild Thracian Menades, these "fictional-historical creations" (55) incited curiosity and generated emotional responses with a remarkably compressed effect.

Chapter 1 is especially good at introducing the ancient texts and showing how effectively the negative characterizations of Eastern Europe were appropriated for the drama. Following chapter 2's brief discussion of stage maps in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, chapter 3 surveys early modern descriptions of the region. Chapter 4 examines references to its spaces in a range of early modern playtexts, and chapter 5 considers representations of its geography in the drama. These chapters range widely among early modern plays and contemporary criticism, showing a great deal of reading and research both in primary and secondary material, although they are not argument-driven and sometimes feel repetitive. Early modern atlases are put to especially good use. Each text also contributes to the larger canvas being created, and there are engaging observations along the way. When Trapdoor in The Roaring Girl says he fought in Hungary at the siege of Belgrade, he lists those who served with him as "many Hungarians, Moldavians, Vallachians, and Transylvanians, with some Sclavonians." This list of mercenaries spices up the narrative by evoking exotic places, but the boast becomes all the more specious when we learn that, given the play's contemporary setting in 1611, "Trapdoor must have been a centenarian to have been at the siege in 1522" (123). Petruccio's remark in The Taming of the Shrew that he would not be moved by Katherine "were she as rough / As are the swelling Adriatic seas" draws on notions of that sea as especially tempestuous and threatening (113). Mitylene in Pericles was located on the island of Lesbos, which was under Turkish domination when the play was written, and it was known to be surrounded by pirates (99). MateiChesnoiu's deep knowledge of the region enables her to makes connections that more often escape the rest of us.

The approach in chapter 6, "Romances and Theatrical Geography," permits a more extended discussion of Shakespeare's first four late romances in relation to topographical descriptions and place-names. A "poor Transylvanian" in Pericles' brothel scene, who died from having sex with one of the Bawd's prostitutes, is mentioned alongside a Spaniard and a Frenchman, creating a "cosmopolitan society ... in a loose democracy of the body, Eastern 'barbarians' and 'civilized' Western Europeans, all confounded in a mixture of interracial sexual liaisons" (167). In Winter's Tale, Matei-Chesnoiu sees a triangle inscribed in the play's symbolic iconography when Hermione's Russian origin is added to Leontes' Sicilia and Polixenes' Bohemia, enabling the play to map out a vivid world like "the common cartes d figures" in city atlases depicting "local inhabitants in their native costumes on the margins of the perspective maps of their cities" (185). Locations do become quite graphic in this play, and Hermione's origin is rarely addressed in considerations of the play's triangulation of desire. The discussion of Cymbeline observes how the Roman names of many of the British characters (Posthumus, Guiderius, Arviragus, Cornelius) emphasize their long-term affiliations with their colonizer (190). Cymbeline's decision to rebel against the Romans is motivated in part by the precedent of the revolt by the Pannonians and Dalmatians against Roman rule in 34 BC, so once again an Eastern European location disrupts the binary of Britain and Rome (192). The Tempest also triangulates Naples and Milan with the voyage of Claribel to Tunis in Barbary (Mauritania), creating a cluster of actual places in a play whose island location remains "vague and erratic" (192).

The liminality of this region also disrupts the pervasive early modern opposition between Christians and Turks through the addition of inhabitants of Eastern Europe, who often resisted the Turks' attempts to invade them. An English broadside of 1597 informed Elizabethans that a prince of Transylvania "hath overthrown fifteen thousand Turks and Tartars" and that the three provinces of what is now modern Romania--Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia--participated in the resistance (76). Although many early moderns incorrectly assumed that the residents of this region were non-Christian, especially when they were under Turkish occupation, Matei-Chesnoiu points out that the majority of those in the region were "striving to preserve their religious and national identity under the Ottoman economic pressure" and the exposure to Islam (91). (In the small Transylvanian town where my own father was born, Boian in what was then Hungary and is now the Romanian province of Sibiu, high fortifications around the fifteenth-century church still mark attempts to withstand Ottoman invasions, and the larger landscape is dotted with similarly fortified churches.) This book's "elsewhere" becomes a more knowable location through an informative handling of the region in relation to the texts of early modern drama, and the satisfying sense of recognition it produces may be analogous to the experience of travel or fiction or dramatic representation.

Yet the book also takes us well beyond those satisfactions. Twelfth Night's Illyria is not simply, as many of us were first taught, an illusory land that Shakespeare created, but a territory along the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea that George Sandys traveled to in 1610, afterwards describing its "sea tempestuous and unfaithfull, at an instant incensed with sudden gusts" (98). Although the publication of Sandys's travel book in 1615 makes it too late to apply directly to Shakespeare's comedy, the threat of such storms was probably more generally known. The best feature of this book is that it reports this information not only to locate Illyria, but to convey its larger import for early moderns. "These places existed in the Jacobeans' minds as lands devoid of specific localizations, more like shade images projected on a lighted wall, whose contours are very clear but whose defining elements are hidden. From this perspective, it is so easy to suppose that a bush is a bear, or to ascribe certain characteristics to a country with a strange name" (99). Matei-Chesnoiu's assured handling of these places as they appear in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries often reminds us, without complaint, of their associations with indefinition, mystery, and threat, which is a genuine achievement for someone who knows the locations so much better than those who are her subject or we who are her audience.
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Author:Wayne, Valerie
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
Words:1751
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