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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 continue to generate scholarship that ranges from the traditional to the experimental, and from source studies of specific intertexts to general studies of translation and/or adaptation. The list of such scholarship is quite long: highlights include some far-reaching works on appropriation that are nevertheless directly relevant to Shakespeare, including Jean-Christophe Mayer’s edited collection Representing France and the French in Early Modern English Drama (2008), Deanne Williams’s The French Fetish From Chaucer to Shakespeare (2004), Jean-Marie Maguin and Michèle Willem’s edited collection French Essays on Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: “What Would France With Us?” (1995), or the work of, for instance, Ruth Morse, Stephen Orgel, and Karen Newman. (Even John Pemble’s less reliable Shakespeare Goes to Paris [2005] has found wide public audiences.) The thriving multilevel interest in Shakespeare and France itself rests against a considerable scholarship on French-English literary relations by Anne Lake Prescott, Helen Cooper, Ardis Butterfield, Hassan Melehy, and many others. The links between English and French literary systems—and at closer focus, between Shakespeare and France— have been tremendously generative across the Channel, media, and literary periods. These Channel crossings likewise rest against the truly vast scholarship stimulated by the “cultural turn” of the early 1990s in translation studies.

Thus, The French Origins of English Tragedy joins a particularly vibrant, active field. However, readers of Shakespeare Quarterly may be disappointed that while French Origins echoes general insights from the wider field—from Karlheinz Stierle’s “co-presence of cultures” to the idea of category challenge—the book cites almost nothing from the burgeoning corpora sketched above. It will not lead Anglophone Shakespeareans to the critical discussions they will most wish or need to read. This may be because French Origins is a prequel to “another [book] containing [End Page 120] more sustained explorations, French Reflections in the Shakespearean Tragic: Three Case Studies” (14n1), which appeared in early 2012. Very frequent references to that future book lead one to wish that these ninety-six pages of text had been combined with those case studies in one volume. One especially wishes this because despite a certain disconnection from its vibrant field, the general insights here are valuable and intriguing, and because Hillman’s specific readings are nuanced and persuasive.

Anne Coldiron  

Anne Coldiron, Professor of English and Affiliated Faculty in French, Florida State University, is the author of two books on early modern literary translation and essays on French-English literary relations, poetics, gender, and print culture that have appeared in such journals as Comparative Literature, Criticism, Chaucer Review, Spenser Studies, and the Yale Journal of Criticism.

Footnotes

1.  See, for example, Paula Sommers, “Gendered Readings of the Book of Judith: Guillaume de Bartas and Gabrielle de Coignard,” Romance Quarterly 2001 (48): 211–20.

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  • English drama -- Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500-1600 -- History and criticism
  • Hillman, Richard, -- 1949- -- French origins of English tragedy. -- 295927
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