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The Poetics of Piracy: Emulating Spain in English Literature by Barbara Fuchs (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 566-568 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0053

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Reading this book is like the academic equivalent of watching a cat fight, or perhaps RAW professional wrestling on the television Monday nights. Barbara Fuchs takes on no less a heavyweight than Stephen Greenblatt and wins. Personally, I’m cheering her on.

Normally, I would not leap immediately to the last chapter while reviewing a scholarly book. But this volume turns enough received assumptions on their end that somehow, that strategy seems appropriate in this case. So let’s start at the end.

In the bold final chapter of her book—which is the closest thing this slender tome has to a conclusion—Professor Fuchs unmasks Greenblatt’s Cardenio Project as an intellectually dishonest, opportunistic piece of showmanship with no other real purpose or effect than to further the career of its founder. The sheer fraud factor here is palpable: how could Professor Greenblatt market as derived from Shakespeare a plot which he clearly borrowed from Cervantes? And why would references made to Miguel de Cervantes in the propaganda for his project, purportedly designed to acknowledge some degree of indebtedness, instead send the reader on a wild goose chase by allusion to the wrong part of Cervantes’s lengthy two-volume novel? The reader can only conclude that there is a shocking amount of confusion here, or else some (perhaps deliberate) obfuscation. Either way, one has to ask: what in the world is going on?

At this point perhaps a little background is in order. Cardenio is not merely tangential to the book being reviewed here; in fact, two out of five chapters deal with this “lost” Shakespeare play allegedly based upon Spanish source material. Stephen Greenblatt’s Cardenio Project was an effort first, to collaborate with a living playwright (as Shakespeare was thought to have done with John Fletcher?) to produce a modern-day recreation of this “lost” work, and then, to commission additional plays from playwrights all over the world whose productions would be funded if they conformed to certain predetermined specifications. Think the dramatic equivalent of that child’s game of telephone.

As with so many of Greenblatt’s projects, there’s a germ of genius in it, really. The idea that we should study textual transmission by replicating the circumstances under which Renaissance collaboration occurred sounds, at the outset, incredibly fresh and innovative. But even Renaissance authors often made at least some token effort to give credit where credit was due. The problem is that Greenblatt claims to recreate Shakespeare, except he really recreates Cervantes, whom he barely mentions, and when he does, he does not even manage to cite the right source for his borrowings. His new play is based upon the interpolated tale “El curioso impertinente,” which does not form a part of the Cardenio episode at all. One wonders: did he bother to reread Don Quijote before sallying forth on this bold adventure?

Curiosity, even of the pertinent sort, hardens to consternation once the realization dawns that this ill-conceived journey was not his maiden voyage into Spanish-language material. No less opportunistic, perhaps, was his decision to capitalize upon the Columbus quincentennial in 1992 with a book titled Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (1991). When asked about some of the primary sources he used for that study, including early chronicles and accounts penned by conquistadores, this Shakespeare professor responded honestly that his Spanish was a little wobbly. Not that this stopped him…one can only admire his audacity before becoming perturbed at the question of how far we dare trust his conclusions.

Now all of this chicanery suits Barbara Fuchs and her purposes in The Poetics of Piracy to a T. Her real objective in this book, as in her earlier Exotic Nation (which I also reviewed for this journal), is to lay bare the subtle biases and anti-Hispanic prejudice of scholars like Greenblatt who are writing today. Their “occlusion” of Spanish source material, she argues, actually replicates an inherited Renaissance dynamic by which England pillaged Spain’s literary riches in the same way that Francis Drake pillaged her treasure ships. This is a violent new account of literary history, albeit a convincing one. Her method bears within...

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