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The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare.

The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare. By Helen Cooper. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004. xiii + 542 pp. 83 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 978-0-19-924886-5.

Romance is a genre that has disconcerted critics of all schools. Except in the hands of writers like Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, the language seems rarely complex, lyrical, or dramatic enough to invite an illuminating close analysis, and even in the exceptional writers the linguistic does not seem the level that truly matters. Helen Cooper takes on a difficult task in seeking to be faithful to a literary type that sprawls alarmingly over many centuries as well as in its deployment of its own conventions. She succeeds triumphantly in staying faithful to the powerful, populist roots of romance, while observing its subtle changes in adapting to new audiences. Cooper borrows from modern biology the term and the concept of the 'meme': 'an idea that behaves like a gene in its ability to replicate faithfully and abundantly, but also on occasion to adapt, and therefore survive in different forms and cultures' (p. 3). The meme itself is a unit marked by 'replication with fidelity, fecundity, and longevity', while the romance is seen as the 'memplex' or vehicle for memes.

The memes or basic organisms within romance, as Cooper sees them, are simple and limited in number: the solitary knight on a quest and pilgrimage as a 'journey of the soul' often requiring forgiveness; the rudderless ship on a sea that is providence; the marvellous and supernatural, often involving magic that turns out to be naturally explained ('Let wonder seem familiar', says Shakespeare); fairy monarchs and mistresses; desire, especially women's; injustice to women (think of Hermione), and 'restoring the rightful heir' by means of recognition. Each of these areas is illustrated fully and carefully by a writer who has clearly read everything and who is skilled at defining difference within similarity. The only phase in the stories that seems neglected is the pastoral interlude of contemplation in nature.

With an imaginative twist, Cooper in her last chapter turns back and retraces her steps, but this time seeing each motif as leading not to the expected happy-ever-after ending but to unhappy endings. Quests can move towards death rather than marriage, the high seas can be treacherous rather than providential, magic can be diabolic, and the course of desire and true love can go disastrously wrong. Romance can deconstruct itself as adeptly as it can fulfil its inner patterns of expectation, and here King Lear, at least and alone in Shakespeare's version, is romance taken to its limits, since nothing goes right. All that Nahum Tate did in his revision was to return the fable to its hallowed romance roots and its specific sources, after the shock to its system dealt by a perverse dramatist.

Throughout the book there are many delicate observations of particular narrative moments, such as the suggestion that Thaisa recognizes Pericles not by a mole or a trinket but by the revived sexual desire she feels for him--a moment when the mouldiest of romance memes can suddenly adapt and be adapted to carry a psychological message that can still carry moving human resonance. Shakespeare is not so much being original as explanatory: this, he suggests, has been all along the inner meaning of the mole or trinket. Somehow this dramatic moment explains in a self-sufficient way the fusing of the out-dated, the perennial, and the fresh, which explains why romance persisted and revived.

In its erudition, thoroughness, fidelity to its subject, and its lucidity, Helen Cooper's is the best book on romance that has yet been written, and it is hard to conceive a better.

R. S. White

University of Western Australia
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Author:White, R.S.
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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