Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland.
Chris Highley's compelling account of the impact of Ireland on English Renaissance culture from 1580 to 1603 raises questions of race, class, and gender that impinge upon other texts and contexts. Highley opens with an allusion to Sir Thomas Wilson, Keeper of the Records at Whitehall under James I, who fatuously remarked upon surveying the State Paper Office that England appeared to have had "more ado with Ireland than all the world beside" (1). History is repeating itself in the reign of a second Elizabeth, for there has been much ado about Ireland in recent work on the career of Edmund Spenser, with his activities as a planter overshadowing his accomplishments as a poet. Indeed, with regard to Spenser, Ireland has taken center stage to the extent that, from being a light industry and a local enterprise, it has become an international concern. The editor of Spenser Studies now receives more submissions on Spenser's Irish experiences than on any other single topic as critical attention shifts from court to colony. Stephen Greenblatt's provocative suggestion that The Faerie Queene as a whole, and not only Book V, is all about Ireland, has been taken to heart by Spenserians.
What Highley's book does is to bring Shakespeare firmly into the frame and the fray, and to deftly intercut an exploration of Spenser's implication in early modern Ireland with an investigation of the ways in which England's first colony figured in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The six chapters, three on Shakespeare, two on Spenser, and a bridging chapter on "the representation of England's borderlands," situate an emergent national literature within an elaborate matrix of colonial discourses, revealing hidden layers and levels.
The jewel in the crown of the Spenser section is the chapter on "the female reformation of Ireland" (110-133). Here, Highley conducts an impressive discussion of the gendering of colonial politics, and provides a sharp critique of models of masculinity. The claim that "sex and seduction were dangerous forces that imperilled English domination in Ireland" is borne out by the English obsession with the perceived risks implicit in intermarriage and fostering (103). Similarly, a searching analysis of "the gendering of colonialism in I Henry IV" points up the degree to which representations of women are intimately bound up with the language of nationalism and colonialism. Anxiety about hybridity lies at the heart of early English identity-formation, yet paradoxically it was precisely through the encounter with ostensibly alien cultures that Englishness and later Britishness - was constructed. Ireland played host to a parasitic English culture that simultaneously appropriated and rejected native forms.
The introduction, entitled "Elizabeth's other isle," sets out the key terms of the debate. One might ask what Elizabeth's first isle is, since England, despite John of Gaunt's speech in Richard II, was never an island unto itself. Overall, Highley's treatment of England, Wales, and Ireland is subtle and persuasive throughout, and his title does not do justice to his topic. This fascinating volume is less preoccupied with a crisis in Ireland than with a crucial period of identity formation in a problematic British context. As such, it will prove of interest to scholars of the new British history of the seventeenth century who have yet to take fully on board that formative period at the end of the sixteenth century which Highley treats with great economy, eloquence, and expertise. If the current ado about Ireland is not to be much labour lost then it is important that this innovative and ground-breaking work on the role of Ireland in the English Renaissance is related to a larger British milieu, and within a wider European and even global framework. Highley's forceful and focused intervention has set both the scene and the standard for future work.
WILLY MALEY University of Glasgow
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|
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