Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain.
Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain insists that English Renaissance literature must be read within the context of the changing relationships between England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland as the four nations of the British Isles were brought together under one Crown. Asserting that "it is hard to resist the notion of Britain and the British context ... because the notion of Britain loomed so large in the horizons and imaginations of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers" (4), Andrew Hadfield's book brings together a collection of essays that aim to explore the different ways in which English writers came to terms with the impact that their new relationship with Scotland, Wales, and Ireland had upon their sense of Englishness. Hadfield singles out the drama of William Shakespeare and the poetry of Edmund Spenser for special consideration in his book, "both of whom were acutely aware of the British context of English literature" (9); but he also examines the writings of John Bale, Thomas Harriot, Michael Drayton, John Lyly, George Buchanan, Richard Beacon, and others. However, by choosing to focus on English writers, and by giving such prominence to Shakespeare and Spenser, the book is by its nature Anglocentric, not to mention inherently Protestant. Moreover, Hadfield examines only male writers; women's writing is entirely overlooked.
The introduction presents a general discussion of the nature of the changing relationships between the four nations of the British Isles from the Reformation to the reign of James VI and I, which usefully places the writers under discussion within their cultural and political contexts. Each of the essays collected in the book--all of which have been published in earlier forms as journal articles and essays in edited collections--explore different aspects of the connection between English writing and the four nations, or English writing and the idea of "Britain." However, it would have been helpful if Hadfield had used the introduction to offer summaries of each chapter, as well as to explore the interconnections between the essays and show how they fit together in the book, particularly in terms of his rationale for the book's structure, which is unclear as it stands.
Exploring different representations of the Irish in English writing, the first two chapters focus primarily on Anglo-Irish relations. The first chapter, "Crossing the Borders: Ireland and the Irish between England and America," engages in the debate on whether Ireland was a kingdom or a colony by exploring whether English writers depicted the Irish as more like their colonial subjects in the New World or like the English themselves. Noting the diversity of opinions among Irish historians, Hadfield makes the important point that "such a variety of opinion indicates a wide range of forms of representation, evidence that can be read in different ways rather than a uniform body of material that historians have simply read differently" (13). Surveying a range of English writings, Hadfield suggests that the Irish are represented as like both the Native Americans and the English. Ultimately he contends that the two discourses of state and colonial domination--Ireland as kingdom and colony--slide into each other, interacting and overlapping.
Chapter 2, "English Colonialism and National Identity in Early Modern Ireland," continues the examination of English representations of the Irish, but in this essay Hadfield highlights the particular ethnic and religious identities of the writers--whether Old or New English, Catholic or Protestant. Hadfield maintains that in their different depictions of the Irish, the Old and New English writers were essentially concerned with their own identities in relation to each other. He argues that both groups actually represented the native Irish in similar ways, each defining their own Englishness against the Irish and in opposition to each other. Returning to the question of Britain at the end of the essay, Hadfield insists that in most Old and New English writing, "Britain and Britishness did not feature as part of the political landscape. Britain, if acknowledged at all as a geo-political entity, was simply equated with England" (42). He thus persuasively argues that Englishness, not Britishness, was the central preoccupation of most English writers in Ireland. In these opening chapters, then, Hadfield provides a context for his later readings of Spenser, one poet writing in Ireland who was interested in "Britain."
The third chapter, "Malcolm in the Middle: James VI and I, George Buchanan and the Divine Right of Kings," switches the focus from Anglo-Irish to Anglo-Scottish relations. Hadfield asserts that with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne, the relationship between England and Scotland was shaped by the idea of a British union. Beginning by recounting one very enthusiastic representation of the prospect of the union of Britain, David Hume of Godscroft's De Unione Insulae Britannicae (1605), Hadfield uses Hume's idea of a British republic as a springboard for his discussion of the different conceptualizations of kingship in the writings of James and his old tutor, George Buchanan. The idea of Britain is thus subjugated to the debate over the role and status of a king and his obligations to his subjects. The chapter ends with an analysis of Macbeth's representation of tyrannical kingship; however, it is unclear how this chapter fits with the rest of the book, and a final speculative comment about Malcolm's resonance for James, which attempts to resituate the analysis in the context of James's succession to the English throne and the question of a British union, does not entirely convince.
Chapter 4, "'Bruited Abroad': John White and Thomas Harriot's Colonial Representations of Ancient Britain," attempts to situate the fraught issue of Stuart succession in the 1580s and 1590s in the context of English colonial expansion. In so doing, Hadfield reads anxieties over the projected British union by looking at contemporary representations of ancient Britain in English colonial propaganda. He examines the depictions of the Britons and the Picts in woodcuts appended to Thomas Harriot's A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, when it was reprinted in 1590 as part of Thomas De Bry's ongoing project America (1590-1634), against the portrayals of the New World natives (these images are helpfully reproduced in the chapter). Maintaining that the Native Americans are represented similarly to the Britons, who are distinguished from the Picts, Hadfield argues that the Picts, who are historically associated with the Scots, are portrayed as much less civilized than either the Britons or the New World natives. Hadfield concludes that the woodcuts "suggest a covert colonial critique of an undesirable political union by rehearsing historical national differences" (76). By situating Anglo-Scottish relations in a New World context, this chapter is an interesting counterpoint to the chapters that focus on the nature of Ireland's relationship with England.
In the fifth and sixth chapters, Hadfield returns once again to Anglo-Irish relations. The fifth chapter, "Translating the Reformation: John Bale's Voca-cyon," considers the connection between national and religious identity. Hadfield argues that Bale "conflates any possible distinction between England and Britain, making them one--virtuous, Protestant--nation" (83), and shows that Bale defined the Irish in religious rather than national terms in opposition to the English; thus, the Irish were Catholics while the English were Protestants. However, Hadfield points out that this in itself implies the instability of definitions, because of the possibility of conversion. Written in the hope that the Protestant Reformation would spread into Ireland, Hadfield suggests that Bale's work is optimistic about the possibility of the Irish being brought under English law. However, he ends by noting the irony of the fact that Bale's definitions were later appropriated to define the Irish as irredeemably Catholic, thus essentially different from the English and incapable of easy assimilation.
Chapter 6, "Cicero, Tacitus and the Reform of Ireland in the 1590s," continues this discussion by examining the writings of three Englishmen who had settled in the Munster Plantation. Analyzing William Herbert's Croftus Sive De Hibernia Liber, Richard Beacon's Solon His Follie, and Spenser's A View of the Present State of Ireland, Hadfield argues that the influence of Tacitus on representations of English policy in Ireland had replaced that of Cicero on writers earlier in the century. He asserts that the transition from Cicero-inspired politics to that of Tacitus marked the move from the application of policies of assimilation to that advocating the violent conquest of Ireland. Like the first two chapters of the book, then, chapters 5 and 6 rekindle the debate on whether Ireland is a kingdom or colony, once again showing that for Hadfield, Ireland's relationship with Britain can only be imagined on English terms.
The essays on Spenser and Shakespeare, which constitute the final four chapters of the book, are more thoroughly concerned with the idea of "Britain." The seventh chapter, "From English to British Literature: John Lyly's Euphues and the 1590 The Faerie Queene," charts the development from an insular Englishness in Lyly's text to a British consciousness in Spenser's text. Hadfield writes: "What Lyly's work takes as its object, an Englishness, is no more than a starting point for Spenser, who cannot read Englishness apart from a Britishness" (121). Hadfield supports this argument by considering the expansion from the Englishness of the Redcross Knight to the Britishness of Britomart and Arthur.
The eighth chapter, "Spenser and the Stuart Succession," reads The Faerie Queene in the context of Spenser's apparent hostility to James VI of Scotland's claims to the English throne. Hadfield insists that Duessa is not expelled entirely from the poem with her execution, but returns in an altered form as Mutabilitie. Accepting the allegorical depiction of Mary Queen of Scots as Duessa, Hadfield extends this representation to argue that Mary is also portrayed as Mutabilitie, and maintains that the threat that Mary poses to England extends to that presented by her son. For Hadfield, then, The Faerie Queene articulates an anxiety about the prospect of the English crown passing to a Scottish king.
In the ninth essay in his collection, "Spenser, Drayton and the Matter of Britain," Hadfield illuminates the influence of The Faerie Queene upon Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion, particularly in terms of their representation of the British project. By focusing on the similarities between Spenser's "Two Cantos of Mutabilitie" and the episode in the Fourth Song in Poly-Olbion (1612) concerning the dispute between Wales and England over the isle of Lundy, Hadfield contends that both writers acknowledge the difficulties of accommodating the disparate peoples of the four nations in a British union. This is one of the few moments in which Hadfield brings Wales into consideration in his interrogation of "Britain." While the marginalization of Wales in Hadfield's book might reflect the nature of English writing, particularly the assumption that Wales did not present a threat to English national identity, it is somewhat disappointing that this has the effect of obscuring one of the four nations.
Following on from the discussion of Spenser's attitude toward the idea of "Britain," the tenth and final essay, "Shakespeare's Ecumenical Britain," focuses on Shakespeare's attitude toward the accession of James VI and I. Reading Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, and Cymbeline against Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, Hadfield asserts that Shakespeare rewrites the history of Britain to engage with the issue of James's succession. In his analysis of King Lear, Hadfield observes the similarity between Lear and James to criticize or at least portray an anxiety over the actions of the king in the first few years of his reign. In his examination of Cymbeline, however, Hadfield suggests that Shakespeare is more positive in his portrayal of James (via his characterization of the eponymous hero), but he ultimately maintains that Shakespeare raises many questions about James's kingship, which can only be answered in the later years of the king's reign.
There is no conclusion to the book, which is a loss because it would have been an opportunity for Hadfield to discuss how the different interests of all ten chapters come together under the book's central theme of English literature and the "matter of Britain." Nevertheless, the essays included in this collection are individually interesting and important, and Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain is a significant contribution to the debate on English Renaissance literature and the New British History. Hopefully future scholarship will continue to supplement, complicate, and challenge Hadfield's research by juxtaposing English literature with Scots, Welsh, and Irish writing of the period, comparing Catholic conceptualizations of the relationship between the four nations of the British Isles with those of Protestant writers, not to mention exploring the relationship between women's writing and the British question.*
*For an important contribution to this debate, see, for example, David J. Baker and Willy Maley, eds., British Identities and English Renaissance Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). An earlier version of Hadfield"s "Bruited Abroad" is published in this collection.
Reviewer: NAOMI MCAREAVEY
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|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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