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Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama. By Lloyd Edward Kermode. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xii + 202. $111.00 cloth, $35.00 paper.

In more than one respect, this study of the alien in Tudor and Elizabethan drama from the 1550s to roughly 1600 is a fascinating and useful complement to the now-familiar new historicist and postcolonial trope of otherness in a mostly later generation of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. To begin with, the earlier or [End Page 116] Tudor end of this dramatic corpus is so much less well known or regarded. Two of the five chapters (and much of an introductory chapter) are devoted to forgotten or marginal “London” plays, to use Kermode’s terms: the anonymous Wealth and Health (1557), Ulpian Fulwell’s Like Will To Like (1568), George Wapul’s The Tide Tarrieth No Man (1576), Robert Wilson’s Three Ladies of London (1583), and the collectively authored Sir Thomas More (of uncertain date). The first four of these are moralities.

The most riveting aspect of this book is the effort—one might think of it as “dialectical”—of these moralities to engage a process of rampant socioeconomic change within moral categories struggling hard to retain substantive meaning. What is the place of “conscience,” “Christianity,” and “hospitality” in a commercial environment characterized by usury? Is it possible for a Christian to profit while being a rentier? There is something heroic about plays (however aesthetically primitive) agonized by primal questions such as these, and certainly by comparison with the apparently more sophisticated plays discussed in the fourth and fifth chapters—Shakespeare’s second tetralogy and the later trio of “London” plays: William Haughton’s Englishmen For My Money (1598), Thomas Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), and John Marston’s Jack Drum’s Entertainment (1600–1601). The difference might be put as a difference between dialectic in the sense of an effort to seriously confront problems or think them through, and ideology in the sense of simply dressing up or mythologizing what cannot be got rid of (usury) simply because it works.

The problem or problems in question cohere around the figure of the European and/or Jewish “alien.” This figure differs from the “other” of structuralist and post-colonial studies in being seductively similar to the English beneath the danger they present. The alien might be a coreligionist, like the Dutch or Fleming immigrants of the 1550s onward, but also disconcertingly identified with economic malaise, whether in the form of usury or an upward pressure on rents to which the swollen alien population of London contributed. Kermode’s thesis is that the alien traverses two phases in this period, from the viral figure presented in the earlier drama to a figure that is symbiotic with Englishness in the later drama. Underlying this transformation is a mutation in the way “Englishness” is imagined. In a sense, Englishness only exists under pressure from the alien and from runaway social change. Its future lies in an accommodation with the alien not in some desperate rear-guard defensive action.

The first phase of the process is seen in the first four moralities, culminating in Wilson’s Three Ladies of London. In these, the figure of the alien is always objectionable, whether in the form of identifiable national types, such as the pathetically drunken Hance of Like Will To Like, or in allegorically mischievous figures such as Nichol Newfangle from the same play or Lady Lucre from The Three Ladies of London. That the alien can be represented by both types suggests that the force behind the alien image has less to do with alien peoples than with disconcerting economic change. Such change is as nastily apparent in native figures as it is in aliens. Drunks can be native, as well as Dutch (consider Tom Tosspot of Like Will To Like). Middlemen and fixers can be native, as well as Venetian or Jewish (consider [End Page 117] the profiteering Neighbourhood of The Tide Tarrieth or the slimy Peter Pleaseman of The Three Ladies of London). As Kermode puts it, “Recognition of friend and enemy, native and alien, becomes very difficult” (50). Virtues are brought to the point of collapse: Christianity is “‘deformed like a thing forlorne’” (56) in The Tide Tarrieth.In Three Ladies, Usury murders Hospitality, while Lady Conscience keeps a brothel for the enrichment of Lady Lucre.

Perhaps the major shift underlying the metamorphosis of the alien image in the drama over these decades is the growing acceptance of usury. When in Three Ladies, Usury “is branded with ‘A little x. standing in the midd’st of a great C’” (74), indicating both punishment and an allowance to charge interest to a limit of 10 percent, the image implies “a confirmation of the legitimacy of usury in London” (74). Kermode explains that usury ceases to be the enemy in the subsequent drama with which he is concerned. In Wilson’s own follow-up play, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1588–89), the enemy is no longer Usury or Lucre but Fraud.

The transition from demonizing the alien to absorbing him is seen in the final three London plays (the material of chapter 5). In William Haughton’s Englishmen for My Money, the usurer is Portuguese, rather than Jewish. He holds three Englishmen in debt, but redemption is at hand in the form of his three daughters— all born of an English mother—who have a convenient predilection for English suitors. If the stranger danger is sharply reduced in this play, so too is the moral danger posed by usury. Here, the struggle of the earlier drama passes into ideological wish-dream: the Englishmen profit from usury merely through marriage to the usurer’s daughters. Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday is similarly wishful, similarly faux nostalgic. In Simon Eyre, we witness both the return to an earlier stage of London legend and an energetic middleman and broker of the most modern type. In Eyre, the alien has become fully assimilated to Englishness, the mythic substratum of the alien figure all along.

An Englishness fortified by alien “‘excursion’” (19, passim) is the focus of Kermode’s fourth chapter. In the trope of the excursion, the successful English identities of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy—notably, Bolingbroke and Hal— become more dynamic and viable transformations of their earlier selves. This is meant to address the deeper concern of the London plays that are the subject of the other chapters, but I am not thoroughly convinced that it works and would have preferred determined pursuit of an issue lightly touched upon: the engagement of reformed Christianity with economic change. Luther’s “bound will” is possibly adverted in vice figures such as Ill Will of Wealth and Health and Courage Contagious of Tide Tarrieth. If so, then these moralities must appear yet more interesting. Again, I would have preferred some consideration of how the Tudor-Elizabethan process charted by Kermode connects with plays like The Merchant of Venice which, for all its ambiguousness, seems to be underwritten by the same wish-dream as Haughton’s play. These reservations aside, Aliens and Englishness is valuable and necessary for any attempt to understand the figure of the stranger or Other in early modern English drama. I have learned much from it. [End Page 118]

John Gillies  

John Gillies is Professor in Literature in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies, University of Essex. He is the author of Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (1994), coeditor of Performing Shakespeare in Japan (2001) and Playing the Globe: Genre and Geography in Early Modern Drama (1998), and author of numerous essays on Shakespeare and early modern literature and drama. He is currently working on two books, titled Complicity: A Genealogy and Poetics, 1640–2010, and Shakespeare and the Question of Complicity.

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  • English drama -- Early modern and Elizabethan, 1500-1600 -- History and criticism
  • Kermode, Lloyd Edward. -- Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan drama. -- 295928
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