Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics.
Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain. By Andrew Hadfield. Early Modern Literature in History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2004. x + 220 pp. 52 [pounds sterling]; isbn: 978-0-333-99313-2.
In the preface to Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics, Andrew Hadfield aligns his work with New Historicist approaches to Shakespeare before recognizing that 'this seam of literary criticism is close to being exhausted' (p. vii). These two books give the opportunity for a reappraisal of current trends in Renaissance historicism. While Hadfield does not invariably follow New Historicist orthodoxy of revealing how Renaissance literature was 'implicated in the history of class oppression, misogyny, racism and other ideologies of exploitation' (p.vii), he reads literary texts from a firmly historicist perspective. The literary is seen through the lens of the historical; in Shakespeare and Politics, a wide range of plays are viewed as allegorical representations of contemporary events. As with the movement as a whole, there is much to recommend this approach as a corrective to hegemonic universalist and conservative readings of canonical literary texts. Yet, as Hadfield's caveat indicates, the question of how much analytical gold remains in this particular interpretative mine remains provocative.
Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain is a collection of essays centring on the theme of national identity between the 1540s and 1620s. Following on from the work of scholars like Richard Helgerson, Hadfield juxtaposes the literary writing of Shakespeare and Spenser with a broad range of non-literary and non-canonical texts; as he explains, 'we need to examine a wide number of printed books [...] if we truly wish to reconstruct the variety of Renaissance public culture' (p. 10). Public culture in this context covers a range of political and ideological crises, including the unsuccessful translation of Reformation Protestantism to Ireland, the Elizabethan plantation of Munster, the Stuart succession, and the anxieties about the creation of a British identity. Hadfield's focus on non-literary texts is a particular strength: he includes detailed accounts of Richard Beacon's Solon His Follie (1594) and William Herbert's Croftus Sive De Hibernia Liber (1591). He uses these works alongside Spenser's View of the Present State of Ireland to argue that there was an ideological shift in English humanism away from irenic Ciceronianism towards a more militant Tacitean stance as the position in Munster deteriorated through the 1580s and 90s: 'Advising the prince carefully and cautiously through coded language and well-chosen examples had to give way to a more urgent and dispassionate mode of analysis that would reach those who had the power to act decisively' (p. 104). As throughout the book, a lively sense of the contested quality of public policy and conceptions of nation emerges; there is no doubt about the value of this kind of historicism.
However, Hadfield's reading of literary texts is less sure-footed here. Although he makes a valiant attempt to disentangle the convoluted national and political resonances of Cymbeline, his reading of the text rests on the claim that Cymbeline must be a portrait of James. Cymbeline mirrors James chiefly because both monarchs are very lucky and because they use the same image 'that the king was like the head of the kingdom'. The problem with this reading is that it does not go far enough: while the image of king as head is 'spectacularly present in [...] the headless corpse of Cloten', there is no attempt to tally the frightening marriage of the political with the sexual and the psychological in this pivotal scene (p. 165). The essay on 'Spenser and the Stuart Succession' poses similar difficulties. Spenser's fictionalized account of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in Book V of The Faerie Queene caused deep offence to James. But Hadfield argues that Spenser continued his attack against the Stuarts in the Mutabilitie Cantos; in this reckoning, Cynthia is a portrait of Elizabeth and Mutabilitie is Mary: 'Mutabilitie, I would suggest, is a transformed version of Duessa [...] As such, she inherits the allegorical mantle of Mary' (p. 134). The hesitant wording indicates that this interpretation is conjectural. While Hadfield is probably right that Spenser viewed the Stuart succession with trepidation, the central issue that this essay poses is the old question of the extent to which it is plausible to allegorize The Faerie Queene in terms of contemporary events, or indeed which particular contemporary events any given episode might represent. In the case of the Mutabilitie Cantos, the difficulty of seeing the contention between Mutabilitie and the Gods in terms of 'the Tudors against the Stuarts' is that the text's central focus is on the philosophical and Ovidian questions of change and transformation (p. 134). Again, although Spenser may have had republican sympathies, Hadfield's reading of the poem does not go far enough to justify that claim.
Similar issues are present in Shakespeare and Renaissance Politics. The book aims to reinterrogate Shakespeare's politics through a sceptical and theoretically informed reevaluation of both the sources of his political thought and a select group of primary texts. To an extent, Hadfield is rewriting classic conservative texts like Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays, but with the influence of the greater attention these texts have received in recent years. From his re-reading of this material, Shakespeare emerges as a writer who flirts with republicanism during the last years of Elizabeth's reign as his work is preoccupied with issues of legitimacy. In contrast, the Jacobean Shakespeare is 'more focused on the question of how to govern than of who had the right to do so' (p. 228).
Once again, Hadfield's handling of contextual materials is admirable; his explanation of the complex Presbyterian politics of The Mirror for Magistrates deftly shows the difficulty of translating sixteenth-century politics into contemporary terms. Yet the readings of Shakespeare's plays and poems are less compelling. This is again partly to do with a fondness for largely unproblematized historical allegory--the murder of Hamlet senior is a version of the murder of Darnley; Menenius's aristocratic politics 'appear to represent those of James I' (pp. 87, 181). At a deeper level, however, the book is too frequently let down by errors of textual detail. Some of these are just mild slips: Lucio is not married to the bawd Mistress Overdone at the end of Measure for Measure, but to an unnamed prostitute he got pregnant (p. 193); it is the Quarto of Henry V and not the Folio that excludes the Choruses (p. 67). More pressingly, Hadfield's readings of the tragic denouements of plays like Hamlet and King Lear seem at odds with the complex tonalities of these texts, as though the reading of the text is being distorted to suit the broader claim that Shakespeare was sympathetic to republicanism. This is particularly apparent with the close of Titus Andronicus. For Hadfield, Titus is a brilliant essay in the struggle between the claims of primogeniture and those of the popular will. He claims that the ending of the play ushers in a more politically enlightened future under the sway of Titus's surviving son Lucius: 'While tyranny keeps everyone in the dark, more representative forms of government bring everything into light and let the citizens decide. Despite returning to Rome at the head of a foreign army, Lucius is shown to be a popular choice as ruler' (p. 128). This reading drastically underplays the brutality of the play's climax, in which Aaron is buried alive and Tamora's body exposed 'to beasts and birds of prey', as well as Lucius's role in this new Rome. Lucius's final speech underlines both the horror of Tamora's behaviour and implies that the cycle of violence the play has staged is far from over: 'Her life was beastly and devoid of pity, | And being dead, let birds on her take pity'. Through the poetic device of rime riche, Shakespeare stresses the pitilessness of the social context imagined by the play. It is precisely these textual imaginings that Hadfield's book misses.
Richard Danson Brown
The Open University
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|Title Annotation:||Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain|
|Author:||Brown, Richard Danson|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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