- Islam and Early Modern English Literature: The Politics of Romance from Spenser to Milton
A momentous change occurred in early modern Western Europe, beyond the well-studied history of the birth and development of nation-states: people began to [End Page 1391] see themselves as Europeans rather than Christians, as they had during the Middle Ages. This book tells and analyzes the fascinating story of this transformation. It participates in several important trends in recent work on early modern Europe: by studying the ways in which this transformation is linked to the representations of Islam, it contributes to the postcolonial revision of our understanding of the Renaissance. By focusing on the issue of identity beyond the nation (in this case the English nation), it participates in the timely work on transnational cultures. It is also linked to genre studies, by studying one of the most useful vernaculars through which these changes were expressed: romance, its tropes, plots, and characters.
Robinson had set for himself a very complex and ambitious task, and he has for the most part carried it through. The ramifications of the issue at hand are far-reaching and important, since Europe as an idea, a politics, an identity, comes to existence on the failure of one church and one empire. In one sense, one could say that Islam and its representation, and romance and its evolution, are only two possible angles through which to explore the transformation from Christendom to Europe, and the advent of modern secularity. But the study makes a very convincing case that they are privileged ones, especially the former.
The argument on romance feels more contrived, but it does bring its own rewards. Robinson looks at the genre only insofar as it concerns itself with the changing economy of difference between Islam and Christendom. The chivalric medieval romances were a fictional response to the failure of the crusades, taking imaginative possession of the border between Christendom and Islam, and representing the Saracen, the Turk, and the Moor as figures of this encounter —often assimilating them and their difference inside the Christian cultural space. Later, their reworked tropes and narratives help shape early modern identities on the scene of cross cultural encounters, while keeping trace of old images. New contacts and complicities, conflicts and displacements, are expressed through reworked romance plots and characters, new images of Islam and the Turk emerging at the intersection of series of discourses (of race, religion, sexuality, economics), and vital to this vast reimagining of identity.
Among the most insightful moments is the thorough analysis of Shakespeare's rewriting of exogamous romances in chapter 2, such as the way in which race in Othello disrupts romance, and thus the possibility of assimilating difference. The failure of romance appears as a marker of the demise of universal Christendom, and race as the concept that allows Europe to be thought as a political and cultural space distinct from Christendom.
Another very high point in the book is the discussion of theoretical interventions into changing forms of human belonging. The advent of international law in the work of Grotius, in particular, is testament to the secularization of thought, but also to a radical distinction between conduct of politics within Europe and outside Europe, a vital distinction in the shaping of the concept of Europe itself.
The last chapter examines anew, through Milton, the ways in which, by the [End Page 1392] eighteenth century, romance is made to seem alien. Being used as the vernacular to express anxieties about and new forms of dealing with the Islamic other, romance itself becomes a literary Other. When it will be reclaimed, it will be considered Eastern, archaic, foreign. This story is also, Robinson argues, that of the image of Islam in the seventeenth century, when the term is assigned everything that is rejected from Europe's new reimagining of itself. In short, this book is an ambitious study and a fascinating read, full...