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The Custom of the Castle: From Malory to Macbeth.

Charles Stanley Ross, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xvii + 205 pp. $35. ISBN: 0-520-20430-1.

Charles Ross's comparative monograph focusses upon a topos from chivalric romance: a knight arrives at a castle whose proprietor observes rules of hospitality strikingly at odds with those to which such visitors elsewhere are accustomed. These encounters thus become occasions of contestation between old ways and new and between native and alien. While rooted in medieval tradition, this literary motif evolves into a serviceable means of staging the drama of differences between the emerging Renaissance culture and earlier forms and traditions that it seeks both to incorporate and supersede. Ross introduces this topos via consideration of a key example in Malory's Le Morte Darthur, the Weeping Castle, and relevant precedents in Chretien de Troyes; and he concludes by exploring its heuristic potential in both Hamlet and Macbeth. The heart of his book, however, centers upon the epic romances of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Spenser. This literary genre itself stands at the crossroads of cultural change: epic romance is a Renaissance hybrid of classical and medieval narrative forms.

Ross devotes his discussion of Boiardo and Ariosto to particular episodes in their poems: the story of the Castle Cruel in Orlando Innamorato and that of the Tower of Tristan in Orlando Furioso. But he contextualizes his literary analyses of these passages in interdisciplinary settings that add pertinent dimensions to his critical reflections. For example, he brings Clifford Geertz's anthropological sense of cultural relativity to bear upon Boiardo's moral imagination in an interesting effort to claim more far-reaching implications for the narrative poetry of this Italian humanist. Likewise, he situates his chosen episode from the Furioso in apposite historical and biographical contexts. In 1532 Ariosto added the Tower of Tristan, along with a handful of other episodes, to the third edition of his poem, which postdates not only the sack of Rome but also Ariosto's frustrating experience as an Estense administrator in the wild Garfagnana. Bradamante's accommodation of the arbitrary injustice she faces at the Tower of Tristan thus reflects the strategies of a seasoned campaigner whose expectations of fair play can nonetheless distinguish "castles in air" from the earthbound sort too often


Ross's discussion of The Faerie Queene centers upon book 6, the legend of courtesy. Because Spenser locates virtue "deepe within the mynd," Ross here expands upon the ambiguities of value characteristically expressed by conflicts due to the customs of particular castles. Thus, Spenserian allegory entails a crisis of representation where "vagueness" (Ross's term) becomes inevitable. Still, the exposition of Spenser's "nonspecific picture of courtesy" needn't be quite as confusing as Ross makes it in a brief excursus (95-96) that touches fleetingly upon Erasmus, Bacon, Montaigne, Derrida, Descartes, and Sidney. Ross here raises major issues about courtesy and custom, imitation, precept and example, and history and fable without shedding much light upon them in the process. Likewise, his usually clear and effective writing degenerates into such phrasing as "entrepreneurial enterprise" (97).

By the time Ross turns to Hamlet and Macbeth, he has developed telling perspectives from which to view matters of custom and the status of castles in a wide range of Shakespearean contexts that ultimately include the English history plays and even King Lear and Othello. His reading of Macbeth's final descent from Dunsinane into the field constitutes an especially challenging response to this figure's "tragic heroism." Ross has found useful angles from which to raise afresh issues that Hegel and A. C. Bradley long ago broached but by no means foreclosed. Indeed, throughout this book Ross provides sharply focussed discussions of particular passages that he skillfully expounds in contexts of often far-reaching significance.

LAWRENCE F. RHU University of South Carolina
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Rhu, Lawrence F.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Previous Article:Reason Diminished: Shakespeare and the Marvelous.
Next Article:Stage-Wrights: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and the Making of Theatrical Value.

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