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The Political Unconscious of the Allusion: Shakespeare's Habits of Mind and the Cultural Politics of Reading Chaucer in Early Modern England.

EVERY ALLUSION HAS A POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS, an aspect that reveals how the author using the allusion unknowingly oriented herself or himself toward contemporary ideologies. This is because allusions generate more meaning than what can be contained in the text itself. They also reflect and reflect on the authors who create them, especially when placed in the context of broader reading habits. Central to allusive practice is authorial anticipation: authors anticipate that readers will understand that they are referring to another text and that this reference will enrich the meaning of their own work. However, it is unlikely that they anticipate that readers will situate the allusion in the context of the print culture of the author's time. This is what I will do with an allusion that Shakespeare makes to Chaucer's House of Fame in King Lear, demonstrating how the intertext acts as a window into the author's habits of mind.

Before continuing, I want to clarify my use of the phrase "political unconscious." (1) I take the term from Fredric Jameson, but use it very loosely. While Jameson sees literature as an allegory for the class struggle, I am not reading Shakespeare symptomatically to find a repressed history of the ideological underpinnings of early modern English culture. Still, I am engaging with the cultural politics of reading in early modern England. By analyzing a previously unnoted allusion in King Lear, I argue that Shakespeare unconsciously displays three things: an independent habit of mind, skepticism toward the literary canon, and a preference for subversive artistic practice.

Shakespeare alludes to The House of Fame near the end of King Lear when Lear waxes poetic about his future with Cordelia:
   We two alone will sing like birds i'th'cage;
   When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
   And ask of thee forgiveness. So we'll live,
   And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
   At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
   Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too--
   Who loses and who wins, who's in, who's out--
   And take upon's the mystery of things,
   As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,
   In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones
   That ebb and flow by th'moon.
      (5.3.9-17 (2)

The phrase "God's spies" echoes a rhyming phrase used in The House of Fame:
   ... For hyt
   Were impossible, to my wit,
   Though that Fame had alle the pies
   In al a realme, and alle the spies,
   How that yet she shulde here al this,
   Or they espie hyt.
      (2.701-6) (3)

In performance "God's spies" could be heard as "God's pies," or magpies. (4) Shakespeare transforms Chaucer's rhyme into a clever quibble, which is very likely intentional since the spies/magpies pun coheres thematically with the opening of Lear's speech where he forecasts that he and Cordelia "will sing like birds i'th'cage" and with other aspects of Chaucer's poem. (5)

Although this Shakespearean allusion to Chaucer's House of Fame appears to be intentional, it also accomplishes something Shakespeare could never have intended. It implicitly reflects on Shakespeare's refusal to be swayed by early modern editors and other hermeneutic powers-that-be who attempted to control the interpretation of Chaucer. According to T. W. Machan, Chaucer's reputation in early modern England presupposed "an interpretive framework dominated by ideology." (6) Centered on a mythography cultivated by the editors of Chaucer, this framework influenced how Chaucer was read in early modern England by encouraging readers to think of Chaucer as the father of English poetry, the English Homer, and a proto-Protestant (7) or proto-nationalist icon in the vernacular whose name lent credence to anyone who summoned it.

Editors portrayed Chaucer as a respectable and morally upright author, which placed relative values on his works. While his Canterbury Tales earned pride of place in the Chaucer canon, his House of Fame was quite literally marginalized: it was buried in the back of all sixteenth-century editions of Chaucer's Workes, was not mentioned in any prefatory material, and was given a terse, inaccurate commentary immediately preceding the poem itself. (8) This is all the more shocking because other poems in the Workes, such as The Canterbury Tales, received lavish and detailed treatment. Moreover, Chaucer was a rare English author whose works had an editorial apparatus usually reserved only for classical authors. (9) Why did Chaucer's editors seem to obscure The House of Fame?

The answer may rest in the nature of the poem itself, which is a farcical dream-vision in which a Chaucerian persona named Geffrey witnesses the inept and arbitrary inner workings of fame. He concludes that literary fame should be avoided because its tutelary deity, the goddess Fame, is corrupt and unfair, while the canon she oversees has no legitimate claim to historical or artistic truth. Thus, The House of Fame might have become an embarrassment for the editors creating a canonical Chaucer. They tried to push The House of Fame out of the Chaucerian canon because it satirized the very canon they were trying to establish.

Despite (or perhaps because of) efforts to keep The House of Fame off of readers' radar, Shakespeare did read that poem, as the allusion in Lear attests. That he read it means he was not led to it by the cultural politics of reading at the time, and certainly not by the editors who begrudgingly included it in the Chaucer canon. He thus was led there by his independent reading habits. The question now becomes, was Shakespeare alone in reading this poem? Some scattered references to Chaucer's The House of Fame crop up in the writing of Shakespeare's contemporaries; however, those allusions show little understanding of the poem's ambivalence and subversive qualities. (10) The non-Shakespearean references flatten out Chaucer's nuance and treat fame as a mirror of events as they happened, a herald of glory whose reliability need not be questioned. (11) In those allusions Fame functions as an organizing principle that establishes an orderly social, political, and historical hierarchy that praises only those who deserve it, and those people invariably (and conveniently) are the rich and powerful. However, the idea that Fame accurately orders the hierarchy of historical deeds by assigning renown to the virtuous does not appear in Chaucer's poem. The House of Fame actually suggests that poets distort the truth and that Fame undermines poetic and political hierarchies.

Shakespeare was not the only Renaissance reader to locate this forbidden fruit, but he responded to it in a unique manner, one that suggests that Shakespeare shared the Chaucerian sentiment that the literary canon is unreliable. That is what I argue is the unconscious aspect of the allusion: there is no evidence that Shakespeare intended for it to reveal his nonconformity. He was very likely unaware of and unconcerned with the editorial bias against the poem. He therefore did not know that this allusion could reveal his own subversive habits of mind.

That Shakespeare shared the dissident view of literary authority found in The House of Fame can be seen in the "God's spies" inter-text. This reference glances back to the moment in Chaucer's poem that identifies spies and gossips as the sources of Fame's literary authority--hardly trustworthy sources. Additionally, Lear describes himself and Cordelia as resembling actor-playwrights in the London commercial theater.

When Lear prognosticates that they will gossip about "court news" in a "walled prison," he locates himself and his daughter in a space that functionally and structurally evokes Shakespeare's metropolitan theater. That institution was notorious for peddling gossip about the Court to its audiences. Lear's "walled prison" structurally resembles the "walled" commercial theaters Shakespeare acted in, and this prison is a decidedly oral setting (sing, pray, tell, hear, and talk) immersed in rumor, the disparaged modality of actors. When Lear states that he and Cordelia will behave "As if ... God's spies," he does not say they will be "spies" but that they will mimic them: "As if" means to act in imitation of another. It is fitting that they will take on the role of spies, since spies also must be in disguise when on the job. In the lines, "When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness," Lear predicts that he and Cordelia will reenact their earlier reunion. Lear also populates his prison with a captive audience of cellmates, the "poor rogues," who will watch them "sing, and tell old tales" just as the spectators in Shakespeare's day watched the King's Men tell the "old tale" of Leir and his daughters.

Lear's imagined theater even highlights theatrical aspects of Chaucer's House of Rumor. This is a giant, wooden building below the House of Fame that supplies all the stories that Fame judges as worthy of either renown or oblivion. It also houses the spies and pies that gather these stories for the goddess Fame. Chaucer's narrator, who becomes disillusioned with fame and doubts the value of literary authority, prefers the life of the pies and spies in the House of Rumor over a life in the seemingly more respectable House of Fame. Similarly, Lear's lines speak to a desire on Shakespeare's part to revel in the world of the gossipy and unauthoritative commercial theater.

Shakespeare could not have anticipated that this allusion would someday countenance the claim that he evaded the confining interpretive framework that insisted that Chaucer should only be read as a productive member of the literary canon. I am not arguing that Shakespeare was unaware that an allusion to The House of Fame could be read as subversive. Alluding to that poem was in itself "rebellious and vagabond," to use Roger Chartier's phrase, and it appears even more so when situated in the context of early modern English print culture, since only Shakespeare's allusion highlights the subversive aspect of Chaucer's poem. (12) This allusion very likely expresses Shakespeare's habit of mind. Shakespeare was drawn to the more dissident elements of The House of Fame and identified the House of Rumor with the commercial theater. Granted, using the words of a fictional character to make claims about the author makes for shaky evidence. However, this allusion is to a poem written by Geoffrey Chaucer and narrated by "Geffrey," the most overtly Chaucerian of all Chaucer's personae. By alluding to Chaucer's most self-referential text, Shakespeare opens the possibility that this speech, which evokes the London commercial theater, also is self-referential for Shakespeare, who showed a latent sympathy with Chaucer's persona, and ultimately sought to expose the unreliability of literary authority. I hope that other scholars will begin to discuss how my argument can be applied to the interpretation of Shakespeare's works: for instance, can it contribute to our general understanding of Shakespeare as a cultural icon, and can it encourage other scholars to incorporate The House of Fame more centrally into Shakespeare studies?


(1.) Coined by Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982), the "political unconscious" has proved useful for many literary scholars, Marxist and otherwise.

(2.) King Lear, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Arden Shakespeare, 1997). All Lear quotations are taken from this edition.

(3.) House of Fame quotations come from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Caroline Spurgeon provides evidence that Shakespeare read The House of Fame (see Caroline Spurgeon, Five-Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 3 vols. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925], 1.131 and 3.45-6). Additionally, Chaucer's House of Fame is the only Chaucerian work to which Shakespeare alludes by title in all his plays and poetry.

(4.) Frankie Rubinstein first observed the intricate wordplay in this phrase: "Shakespeare frequently achieved useful puns by exploiting alternative sounds of a phrase, and in 'God's spies', he intended us to hear, also, God's (s)pies or God's pies," as in magpies; "Speculating on Mysteries: Religion and Politics in King Lear," Renaissance Quarterly, 16, no. 2 (2002): 234-62, 236. Rubinstein, however, did not explore the relation that obtains between this pun and Chaucer's pies/ spies rhyme.

(5.) It remains difficult to argue for intentionality in Shakespearean allusions because, from the time of Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare has been perceived as a helpless quibbler; this pun, though, does show signs of forethought and deliberation. The speech opens with a prediction that Lear and Cordelia will be "birds i'th'cage"--the phrase "jail birds" described the incarcerated in Shakespeare's time. Magpies were commonly perceived as thieves, vermin, and roguish fowls in early modern England. They were also known for their garrulity, and Lear's putative prison will be awash in orality. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare returns to the same potent wordplay when Perdita exclaims, "the heaven sets spies upon us" (5.1.202). The spy/pie that has been set on Perdita turns out to be Autolycus, who was in Golding's Ovid--a favorite source for Shakespeare--"a son ... who proved a wily pie / And such as in theft and filching had no peer" (11.360-1). Other elements of Lear's speech evoke the architecture and location of Chaucer's House of Rumour, which is "shapen lyk a cage" (3.1985)--more precisely, a bird cage. Constructed out of "twigges, falwe, rede, / ... grene ... and ... white / Swiche as men to these cages thwite" (1936-8), this "cage" recalls contemporary designs of medieval English bird "cages," which were made of colored "twigges" (see Mary Braswell, "Architectural Portraiture in Chaucer's House of Fame," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 11, no. 1 [1981]: 101-112, 111). In Chaucer's poem the process of gathering narratives involves Fame's (s)pies bringing every story to the House of Rumour for storage, after which point the stories progress to the House of Fame where the goddess determines which will be permanently remembered and forgotten (in theory, at least). According to Robert Hanning, Fame's unique role as judge whose verdict is everlasting suggests "a parallel between her and Christ" (see Robert Hanning, "Chaucer's First Ovid: Metamorphosis and the Poetic Tradition in The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame," Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction, ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon [Rochester, MI: Solaris, 1986], 121-60, 151). Chaucer satirizes religious judgment by comparing it with Fame's obviously unjust and misguided judgments, and other scholars, such as John Gardner and Piero Boitani, have noted that Chaucer parodies Christian eschatological discourse in The House of Fame. Thus, Shakespeare's quibbling phrase "God's spies" recalls Chaucer's travesty of the work of God's spies, or figures of religious authority. Combined with the other echoes of Chaucer's poem, this connection to God in the source text intimates that the pun on s/pies is intentional.

(6.) Tim William Machan, "Speght's Works and the Invention of Chaucer," Text: Transactions of the Society for Textual Scholarship, vol. 8, eds. D. C. Greetham, W. Speed Hill, and Peter Shillingsburg (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 151.

(7.) Mike Rodman Jones notes that Chaucer "represented a native vernacular authority who could speak to the anticlerical--and sometimes specifically antipapal--agenda of early English Protestantism." See "Chaucer the Puritan," Chaucer and Fame: Reputation and Reception, eds. Isabel Davis and Catherine Nail (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015), 165-84, 167.

(8.) For a fuller treatment of this puzzling editorial pattern, see Carol A. E. Martin, "Authority and the Defense of Fiction: Renaissance Poetics and Chaucer's House of Fame," Refiguring Chaucer in the Renaissance, ed. Theresa Krier (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), 41-42.

(9.) Louise Bishop, "A Touch of Chaucer in The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings, ed. M. Driver and S. Ray (New York: McFarland, 2009), 232-44, 233. See also Kathleen Forni, The Chaucerian Apocrypha: A Counterfeit Canon (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 6-8.

(10.) For more on the oversimplification of The House of Fame in the English Renaissance, see Philip Hardie, Rumour and Renown: Fama in Western Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 585; and Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, "The Early Reception of The House of Fame," Chaucer and Fame: Reputation and Reception, eds. Isabel Davis and Catherine Nail (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2015), 87-102, 97.

(11.) Allusions are limited to heraldic and encomiastic texts written for the aristocracy. See George Peele, The Honour of the Garter Displaied (London: John Busby, 1593), B4V See also Ben Jonson's Masque of Queens, whose design Jonson claims was intended by Inigo Jones "to follow that noble description, made by Chaucer." See The Masque of Queens, presentation MS, JnB 685: (British Library 18.A.XLV), fol. 19. These two examples should not be taken as signs that The House of Fame was widely known. Compared to Chaucer's other works, it was virtually unknown.

(12.) Roger Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), viii.
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Author:Miele, Benjamin
Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Article Type:Essay
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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