Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England.
(Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture.) New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x + 210 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-59405-7.
Megan Matchinske. Writing, Gender and State in Early Modern England: Identity Formation and the Female Subject.
(Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture.) New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. xi + 247 pp. $59.95 ISBN: 0-521-62254-9.
Vivian Comensoli and Paul Stevens, eds. Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. xx + 244 pp. $65 (cl); $22.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8200436 (cl); 0-8020-7225-9 (pbk).
Two contributions to the Cambridge University Press Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture refine and challenge the historicist impulse. Jonathan Gil Harris considers the meanings and consequences of the language of "the body politic" in thinking about the organic political analogy common in Tudor and Stuart England. Megan Matchinske tracks how gendered identities weather a discursive shift from the Reformation to the civil war period. A powerful collection of essays edited by Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens, on the other hand, points to the limitations of historicism in a robust call for new theorizing of English Renaissance literary studies.
Foreign Bodies, reading a wide range of little-known literary and medical texts, and linking these through analogy to Shakespeare, Middleton, Dekker and others, acutely reads the metaphors by which early modern people lived and made meaning out of their world. According to Harris, new medical paradigms in the Renaissance figured disease as the consequence of external malignity, not of internal humoral imbalance. Analogous to Paracelsus' notions of protomicrobiological conception or disease as a malign, invading enemy, a toxic substance whose antidote could include homeopathic poison or purgatives, are discourses of social pathology which frame the "foreign bodies" that gave early modern writers focus for their political worries: Catholics, Jews, and witches. Looking to explain social problems inherent to the realm, writers posited instead that the threat was "outside" thus mystifying the relations of power. Dekker's Whore of Babylon (ca. 1606) offers Babylon as a grotesque inversion of Fairyland through whic h treason and loyalty are made indistinct because of uncertainty about the ways the body politic acquired disease as well as the appropriate cure. In another chapter, Harris beautifully reads the multiple and contradictory images of Jews in writers from Stubbes to Shakespeare and Marlowe, and thinks hard about the logic of assigning bodily locations for Jewish "penetration" and "infiltration" in a cluster of metaphors of anality. Harris makes sense of the contradictions without reducing them to a simple Jew-as-other hypothesis. Taking up the figure of the witch, and reading Dekker, Ford, and William Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton, the final chapter shows how the orifice of the mouth, and the fetishistic search for control over female speech, may be linked to problems in Reformation theology, where the witch-fears embody the Reforming rupture between carnal and spiritual. Critical to his reading of Renaissance materials, moreover, is a challenge to the "ferishization of social integration and cohesion that is the hallmark of functionalist organicism" (5) which Harris discerns in critics including Pierre Bourdieu and Stephen Greenblatt. His book powerfully theorizes the limitations of such an integrative model of the social as the body politic.
Megan Matchinske examines women's voices from the Renaissance and discovers ways in which early modern women claimed power over their speech in the public realm. Gender and the formation of the public sphere, Matchinske argues, are inseparable, even if the state wished to silence women and to keep them out of public affairs. Anne Askew's testimony, and the fetishized history of her martyrdom, is the subject of the first chapter, which argues that those who sought to claim Askew for a Reforming tradition silenced her critique of secular institutions. The Reformation storyline for Askew's life, penned by Bale, who intervened in editing and publishing Askew's account, Matchinske argues, has blinded critics and historians from seeing the real political work that Askew was doing. Closely explaining the court politics at the end of Henry VIII's reign, Matchinske subtly shows how the representation of Askew served high politicians in blocs at the center of power. Another chapter recovers the history of a middling w oman who converted to Catholicism and who was tried and executed for priest-harboring. There is good work here in thinking about how to read from silence, what it means to choose to withdraw a voice, and how the Catholic subject projects an alternative subjectivity to that of the Reformed martyr. Prison and silence may be spaces of freedom, the last resort of the disempowered. A third chapter sets the polemical tracts in the debate over women against Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Chastity, Matchinske argues, may "empower" women (104); but, as Measure for Measure gives evidence, chastity is also a problem for the state, since it takes out of circulation bodies needed for the smooth reproduction of the state and its population. The final chapter evaluates gender formation in Englishwomen's apocalyptic writing, drawing from English civil war materials to explain the forceful authority women found in the rhetoric of holy hatred and prophetic speech. The book's strengths are its close readings of the voices o f early modern women's opposition to the state, its value in recovering their attempts to find voices within restricted spaces.
Discontinuities, a volume that speaks with a distinctly Canadian inflection, offers in composite a most compelling and subtle analysis of current modes of Renaissance studies. The title itself as well as the afterward to the volume by Marta Straznicky, emphasizes the pluralism of approaches offered, but taken together, the volume is a sustained call for the revival of theory. This is theory, focused always on texts, but supplying a needed foundation for contemporary critical practice. Elizabeth Hanson's brilliant essay asks what it means, and what we're missing when we make "Shakespeare" stand for a cultural whole. Far-reaching in its implications, Hanson's essay powerfully demonstrates how examining other writers -- her case is Merchant of Venice compared to Eastward Ho! -- points up the ideological work done by Shakespeare's texts, and thus she denaturalizes Shakespeare so as to give a fuller portrait of Renaissance English literature in its place. A compelling, and beautifully argued essay by Tracey Sedin ger invites historicist critics to rethink their hostility to psychoanalysis, suggesting that a rejection of psychoanalysis is akin to a rejection of theory. Sedinger shrewdly observes that historicism, in its drive to serve up a critique of essences, offers no epistemological ground upon which to base its normative claims; thus she challenges Judith Butler's critique of the universal and Steven Knapp and Walter Berm Michaels' neopragmatism. This is just the kind of tough-minded thinking that historicist critics need now, and Sedinger's elegant engagement with poststructuralist theory redefines psychoanalytic criticism in the process. Sylvia Brown offers a challenge to recent feminist scholarship's taking up of post-structuralist positions, showing through subtle reading of the genre of mother's legacies how concepts of agency through which women could find voices and shape their critical legacies are short-circuited by the contemporary deconstructive critique of the subject.
Other essays show how using theory does not detract from history, but enhances it. Writing on Anne Clifford, Katherine Osler Acheson posits the category of the modern against the "early modern," insightfully marking the troping structures of knowledge by which modernity works through metonymy rather than through metaphor. Linda Woodbridge asks an almost taboo, but important question: has social history been "good" for women's literature? As she looks at the ways that discourses of social reality seem to ground women's literary history, Woodbridge finds that they are not "neutral" ground on which to rest, but rather deeply marked by contests which are hermeneutic and ethical. A turn back to the literary, she argues, will lead to greater insights about women's intentions. Karen Newman's retrieval of Timon of Athens in light of a homoerotic economy challenges the "cultural capital" of Shakespeare by reveling in its problematic status within the canon. Nate Johnson explores textual cruxes in Donne's poem "The Co mparison" to show how even textual editing, like other kinds of interpretation, depends upon exclusions that derive from the cultural unconscious, and he uses the Krisrevan concept of the abject to reveal that notions of textual error or an "ideal" text are subject to inherent failures. Susan Zimmerman also takes up psychoanalysis to explore the ways horror possessed the stage in such dramatic productions as Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy and Webster's Duchess of Malfi. The final essays take on professional politics and academic blindnesses in the Anglo-American academies. Barry Taylor exposes that the fabled dichotomy between American new historicism and British cultural materialism is a fiction. There are, rather than a "true" politics (British cultural materialism) and a "false" politics (American professionalism), instead two types of political criticism: the British fabrication of an alleged schism between American and English Marxist traditions, he argues, is a means of British disavowal of internal divisions. Sharon O'Dair pushes beyond class and towards a Weberian paradigm of status to analyze early modern social relations, working from Timon of Athens. O'Dair explores how the anticapitalist impulse in contemporary criticism actually mystifies an antipopulist animus of the status group identity of the professorate. This is a volume that should be read by all scholars working within the paradigms of historicist literary scholarship, since it offers profound critique and theorization often missing in those thick descriptions of current historicist work on Renaissance topics.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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