restricted access No Field Is an Island: Postcolonial and Transnational Approaches to Early Modern Drama
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No Field Is an Island:
Postcolonial and Transnational Approaches to Early Modern Drama

The turn to postcolonial approaches, inaugurated by Peter Hulme, Ania Loomba, and others in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has hugely invigorated the field of English Renaissance drama, giving us an increasingly complex picture of the role that the theater played as England, and later Great Britain, embarked on its commercial and imperial expansion. The interest in England’s relations with the lands and peoples that lay beyond its borders has led to a range of fascinating work on race, empire, and economics, among other topics.1

After a brief excursus to the New World, exemplified by the signal work of Peter Hulme and of Stephen Greenblatt on The Tempest, the field has focused on the representation of Mediterranean exchanges on the early modern stage.2 In particular, critics have explored how the theater managed the threat of religious difference and the seductiveness of the Muslim world.3 These studies have offered important correctives to the bald “application” of Said’s Orientalism to the early modern Mediterranean, focusing on the discrepancies between England’s lack of power in the period and its imaginative responses to that lack. The theater thus appears as a key space for compensatory fantasies, in which England functioned as the center of power and the cultural norm. Moreover, given its inherent performativity, the stage served to investigate the malleability of identity when faced with the possibility of conversion, the dreaded and yet enticing moment of [End Page 125] “turning Turk.” Conversely, the dramatic resistance to such enticements could serve to stage a core of Englishness around which to consolidate a national identity. The recent work of such critics as Benedict Robinson, Valerie Forman, Cyrus Mulready, and Jane Degenhardt profitably explores how dramatic form refracts the complexities of an expanding world, one in which England was often all too aware of its marginality.4 By introducing such neglected genres as the romance (in its larger, non-Shakespearean sense) and the tragicomedy into the discussion, these critics combine the study of form with a finely grained historicism.

The postcolonial paradigm has also served to interrogate the category of the nation as it is abundantly rehearsed on the early modern stage. The national is no longer a given: instead, critics have stressed the constructedness of both England and English, exploring the representation of the “archipelagic” elements that made up Great Britain, the often vexed development of the English language, and the effort required to distinguish England from both imperial models and rivals.5 The recuperation of England’s early experience of empire in Ireland, with all its attendant violence, has been particularly important in this regard, going well beyond English drama to offer new readings of Spenser and of Gaelic texts and culture.6

Yet despite these geographic and conceptual expansions, the field of early modern drama as a whole has remained strikingly monolingual, steadfastly focused on English texts. It may be that our national preoccupations endure precisely because the field has expanded so much in other dimensions: scholars who must master a variety of discourses, complex historical contexts, and a whole range of specialized knowledges in order to produce the historicist, cultural-studies work that is now standard in the field may find it challenging also to familiarize themselves with literature in other contemporary traditions. There is also, as Jonathan Burton and Walter Cohen have both pointed out, a reluctance on the part of critics to use translations when they do not have the linguistic skills to access texts in the original.7 The unfortunate result of this reticence is a continued focus on English-language texts, even when critics themselves recognize that the problems they are tackling would be better addressed by considering a wider corpus. We are always surprised anew by the cosmopolitanism of early modern texts and subjects, no matter how many [End Page 126] times we have encountered it; only a broader critical scope, similarly unfettered by national boundaries, can truly do it justice.

Yet national habits die hard. Scholars trained to consider literature as a national phenomenon or to study an English-language heritage are...