French Origins of English Tragedy by Richard Hillman (review)
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French Origins of English Tragedy. By Richard Hillman. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester University Press, 2010. Pp. x + 112. $80.00 cloth, $21.95 paper (issued 2012).

“The dynamic, imaginative engagement of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English dramatists and audiences with French texts and contexts” (1) is the subject of this slim volume. “Origins” in the title suggests that it is a source study, but that oversimplifies the complex relations Richard Hillman traces between English tragedy and French materials that include drama, prose, poetry, and history.

As the introduction explains, the book’s subject is “the circulation and co-presence of diverse discourses within a common cultural space” (2). The French materials Hillman explores are indeed diverse and important; more to the point, they are too little known to Shakespeare specialists and critics of the English Renaissance. The book’s first contribution is to educate and to raise awareness of the centrality of, for instance, Pierre Matthieu’s Guisiade, Gaspard de Coligny, Pierre du Rosier, Fronton du Duc, and the French Judith traditions (Du Bartas and beyond).

Three short chapters follow, but they do not treat only the usual suspects. Chapter 2, examining Richard II, La Guisiade, and the genre of the tragic hero, builds on Hillman’s previous work on Marlowe in Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Politics of France (2002) and elsewhere. Chapter 3 explores how French transformations of Senecan tragedy altered the “functional kitschiness” (33) of the mode in England. This learned chapter is full of new material and well worth its weight. A final chapter, “Staging the Judith Jinx: Heads or Tales?” is equally subtle and wide ranging, with new readings of (among others) Othello and Tamburlaine and provocative remarks on Measure for Measure. Hillman pursues the implications for English tragedy of the fact that even though “Shakespeare’s plays never actually mention the biblical Judith” (71),“the story of Judith constituted a particularly rich and contested symbolic field in late sixteenth-century religious and political discourse” (72). Missing from this chapter is a mention of work on La Judit by Paula Sommers, who compares the Judiths of Du Bartas and Gabrielle de Coignard (also not mentioned here).1 Robert Cummings’s “The Aestheticization of Tyrannicide: Du Bartas’s La Judit” is too recent to have been included, but readers should join Hillman’s insights to those in the 2010 collection Judith Triumphant: Judith Studies across the Disciplines. Overall, Hillman’s book demonstrates that the engagement with French cultural forms is much more richly rhizomic than simply imitative, allusive, or “source”-like.

Readers who appreciate Hillman’s usual puns will find many to enjoy. Others may not like to see serious matter played for a smirk. For example, Hillman treats [End Page 119] a central problem in literary history—the critical hindsight that creates, from a distance, the caricatured binaries of the literatures of England and France. A slighting pun terms this “the view of an aerial postcard (indeed it is decidedly post-carde-sian)” (7). Still, punning aside, Hillman’s introduction concisely explains how such binaries have contributed to English scholars’ lack of understanding of these crucial informing contexts. He illuminates disjunctions between real events in France and French historiographic and literary treatments of these events, explaining how these three contexts reshaped early modern English tragedy (particularly tragic protagonists). In places, Hillman establishes relations of analogy, anxiety, and something like oblique mirroring or mimetic relations between French history and English tragedy. He pushes at that inexplicable thing we all feel but find hard to discuss: some cultural trends catch on and spread across literary systems, while others do not; some concerns in one culture are reframed in another, for reasons even a meme theorist or a Malcolm Gladwell cannot prove. This sort of thing was especially important for literary cultures that were much more polyglot and internationally focused than we tend to register today, given our usually monoglot literary canons and curricula. Hillman sticks close to the early modern texts, theorizing less and illustrating more. He also poses effective challenges to materialist critics who have largely operated wearing Anglophone blinders.

Shakespeare’s many and various connections to France...