- Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds: National and Transnational Identities in the Elizabethan Age
Propelled by a renewed interest in histories of globalization, Shakespeare and Renaissance studies have undergone major transformations in recent years, both in scope and their theoretical foundation. Several new books put pressure on the boundaries and connections between English drama and European texts, particularly those of Italy, Spain and France. Examples include Richard Wilson's Shakespeare in French Theory: King of Shadows (2009), Eric J. Griffin's English Renaissance Drama and the Specter of Spain: Ethnopoetics and Empire (2009), Barbara Fuchs' Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain (2009), and Identity, Otherness, and Empire in Shakespeare's Rome, edited by Maria Del Sapio Garbero (2009). Adding a whole new dimension to this body of scholarly work is Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds. A persuasive, interdisciplinary study of the presence of Italy in the conception of English nationhood at the end of the sixteenth century, it interrogates the foreign as a portable category in case studies of marginalized individuals of English society, both historical and fictional, through the broader context of "European historical moments" (8). It provides a much-needed account of the connections between early modern English [End Page 475] drama and European contexts and establishes the centrality of the figure of the foreign in Shakespeare's imagination.
Coauthored by Carole Levin, a historian, and John Watkins, a literary critic, Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds is a successful model of collaborative research that opens a new vista on the formation of English identity in the decades preceding "England's expansion into the Atlantic" (10). It says something about the state of the humanistic fields that Levin and Watkins have to spend so much time on the issue of interdisciplinarity in the introduction and to return to the question in the afterword (e.g., they observe that "the more closely early modern literary and historical studies converge," the more scholars in each field insist on the distinctness of the two disciplines ). The book came about through the coauthors' many conversations that led them to approach Shakespeare's world simply as early modernists rather than as a literary critic or historian. The fruit of their collaboration demonstrates the profound impact of a new mode of scholarly inquiry that is "no longer answerable to the canons of institutional and disciplinary affiliation" (3). Though each of them is responsible for different chapters, the book as a whole tells a compelling story about how Shakespeare responds to religious dissidents, women, and the marginalized sectors of his society within the broader context of European history.
Shakespeare's Foreign Worlds opens with one of the most famous moments in Shakespeare, Portia's puzzling question in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice ("Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?"), to bring to the fore the historical experience of being an outcast and to hint at the merging of the coauthors' new, indistinguishable scholarly identities. Parsing historical texts and this tense moment in Shakespeare's plays, Levin and Watkins suggest that "Shakespeare's England comes about by reducing an almost infinite number of [heterogeneous] groups and individuals [Italians, religious dissenters, Jews, old women, and more] to the general category of the foreign," which is seen as both "an object of wonder and opprobrium," threatening and reinforcing the unified identity of Englishness (9). The court scene is treated at length in chapter 4, especially pages 135-37. As later chapters make clear, literature was an important force in "policing the boundaries between English and foreign identities" (13), which in turn establishes the fiction of national coherence that lies at the core of English identity. Subsequent chapters examine how Shakespeare transformed the notion of Englishness by revealing of its coherence and distinctiveness.
The book is divided into three parts (two chapters each), with each part focusing on one Shakespearean play: 1 Henry VI, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew. Each...