Wiseman, Susan, Writing Metamorphosis in the English Renaissance 1550-1700.
In her previous two books, Susan Wiseman reshaped ideas about political contexts for civil war drama and for early modern women's writing. In her new book on metamorphosis, the political is merged with a broader social context, which enables her to explore how the world was conceptualised by a repeating knowledge base that is characterised by 'the imagining of transformation' (p. 1). The idea of metamorphosis explored in this book is far wider reaching than the literary tropes exemplified in Ovid's popular treatment, however influential Ovid may have been on Renaissance literature. Ovid is, rather, a paradigm for a broad social fascination with the process of change as a form of knowledge. Wiseman is concerned to use a methodology that allows her to re-historicise the concept of metamorphosis, avoiding a modern separation of early modern material into areas of knowledge separated by disciplines. Accordingly, Wiseman analyses 'the presence of metamorphosis in five kinds of writing which seem, in modernity, to be separate' (p. 13); these are: classical, sacred, physiological, oral-literate, and ethnographic.
The perfect example of how Wiseman's original methodology produces rich, contextualised analyses is the alignment of the canonical Midsummer Night's Dream and the virtually invisible Black Dog of Newgate in her first chapter. While Shakespeare's play has always been associated with ideas of transformation, in Wiseman's reading, this is part of a complex layering of human and bestial. Wiseman is able to explore transformation in A Midsummer Night's Dream in terms of a shift in the blurring of status boundaries in relation to culture. In her account of the mixed-genre Black Dog--part realistic prison pamphlet, part metaphor of prison as Hell--Wiseman explains that this text 'chooses to put before us both metamorphosis and doubt about metamorphosis as a mode' (p. 39). Wiseman links play and pamphlet as examples of how metamorphosis registers changed and the sense of social and political crisis in the 1590s. The emphasis on social consequences is even stronger in Wiseman's second chapter, which considers the relationship between baptism after the Reformation as contested transformation, and attitudes towards animals and their liminal presence in such ceremonies. Stories, true or otherwise, of animal baptism indicated the social tensions caused by the religious divisions of early modern England, and also, Wiseman argues, fluid relations between status barriers.
This fluidity is also present in the natural world, which, Wiseman argues, was represented for the early moderns as in a constant state of generation and transformation. This insight enables Wiseman to offer a much more subtle account of the relationship between the monstrous and the politics of The Tempest than previous critics of the play, who have a less nuanced view of Caliban and his place in the world. Wiseman s reading of The Tempest is in some ways reminiscent of classic new historicist, ethnographically inflected analyses of early modern literature. Where Wiseman differs from those earlier approaches is in the way she explores the 'non-literary' material as significant in its own right, rather than as props wheeled in to enhance the literary analysis; this book therefore offers a much richer account of early modern culture and society. When Wiseman turns to the figure of the wolf/ werewolf, she indicates just how significant this shifting borderline between human and non-human is for a true understanding of the political dimensions of social and religious thought in the seventeenth century. Accordingly, Wiseman's complex account of the liminal nature of the werewolf illuminates her reading of The Duchess of Malfi. Once again, metamorphosis has a political reverberation: 'The play uses Ferdinand as lycanthrope to suggest both the ambiguous power of wolfishness and its crucial association with rule' (p. 151).
Wiseman then considers stories of wild children, placing them in a proper early modern context, rather than in the pervasive Romantic perspective derived from Rousseau. The text that illustrates this complex situation is The Winter's Tale, where once again an iconic play is illuminated through an original, richly descriptive context.
Finally, Wiseman notes how her analysis of metamorphosis accounts for the way that the disciplinary divisions of modernity have to be set aside in order to understand the still fluid conceptions of knowledge and the world that prevailed through the seventeenth century. Such insights underline the fact that this is a book that will be of value to all scholars of early modern Britain, regardless of their disciplinary allegiances.
PAUL SALZMAN, La Trobe University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2015|
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