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Europe's Languages on England's Stages, 1590-1620 by Marianne Montgomery (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 138-141 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0014

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The variety of spoken languages other than English preserved in the early modern dramatic corpus poses a series of questions for the critic, few of which have straightforward answers. A stage direction such as "The Lady speakes in Welsh" in Shakespeare's 1 Henry IV gives no instruction for the precise words to be spoken, the duration of the speech, or its tone. It implies that accurate Welsh is to be spoken, but this accuracy is left to be determined by the speaker/reader/ auditor, as is the form—verse or prose. The direction itself can be read either as an instruction to a Welsh speaker to ad-lib appropriately, or as indicating the intended effect on an audience. The editor, meanwhile, is faced with the dilemma of presenting substantial speech acts without dialogue. How can the unscripted language maintain a presence in the printed text without being implicitly deprioritized alongside the English dialogue already substituting for and translating the Welsh?

Marianne Montgomery's new volume takes as its subject the multiple significations of foreign languages on the early modern London stage. Within a focused thirty-year period, Montgomery ambitiously attends to both the theatrical significance of spoken languages for early audiences, and the implications for an understanding of London's conception of the "foreign." Across chapters predominantly dealing with French, Dutch, Spanish, and Latin, she teases out the complexities of the meanings presented by the staging of these languages, which go far beyond markers of national identity.

Montgomery's thesis may be summed up thus: the instances of staged non-English languages "offer audiences a cosmopolitan engagement with the foreign that does not simply reinforce difference in audible terms but instead complicates distinctions between self and other as unknown languages are made comprehensible" (4). Thus, it is not the specific accuracy of the language used that is the priority, but the ways in which it is made sense of for/by the early modern audience. The process of decodification, in Montgomery's argument, is itself the point, drawing attention to the "ethics of exchange" (20) in an increasingly globalized world.

Rather than attempt systematically to cover all the implications of language as an exchange system, Montgomery uses each of the languages with a major early modern stage presence to tackle a different set of issues. She treats French and Welsh as gendered in Shakespeare's history plays, and makes an association between conquered female figures and subjugated nations/languages. Dutch, in a range of city comedies, signifies a language of commerce and mercantilism that places London at the center of European trade. Spanish is read as a racialized discourse that comes to stand as its own generic marker within a range of dramas. Finally, Latin signifies religious and authoritarian knowledge, its use in comedies particularly pointing to layers of social stratification that distinguish aspects of society from one another, while at the same time satirizing the artificial distinctions drawn.

Drawing on William Camden and John Speed's contemporary descriptions of Welsh invaders in France marrying native women and cutting out their tongues "lest their children should corrupt their language with their mothers' tongues" (21), Montgomery argues that the conquered female body poses a threat to the conqueror's linguistic victory, offering as examples Henry V's strategic linguistic interplay with Katherine and the presence of the Welshwoman in 1 Henry IV (whom Montgomery carefully avoids describing as either Glendower's daughter or Mortimer's wife) at the point of the contestation of land boundaries. In the latter case, it is the performance of Welshness that is the purpose (though Montgomery does not explore the possibility that the lack of content may indicate space left for a Welsh-speaking actor to insert meaningful lines), whereas in the French-speaking scenes a plurality of meanings is opened up for audiences whose fluency may vary. However, "[n]either can be fully taken as Other" (47), and Montgomery returns to this notion throughout including in a brief Afterword utilizing Brian Friel's Translations (1980) that deliberately inverts and "others" the language[s] of its audience.

The complexities of the integrated Other are teased out further in Montgomery's discussion of Dutch in city...

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