- Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature 1580-1628
Gifts, like lunches, do not come free or unencumbered. Alison Scott's Selfish Gifts starts from this premise, questioning, along with Derrida, whether something that is exchanged can ever be said to be given with no expectation of return. Her purposes are twofold: to investigate the political environment of the Elizabeth and early Stuart courts and the nature of patronage and gift giving therein, and to use key authors such as Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne to understand the problems of exchange and reward.
It is commonplace to stress the dependence of authors on patronage, and the tensions to which this gave rise. But rereading these writers in the light of gift theory adds new dimensions to our understanding. In the case of Shakespeare, Scott adopts two approaches. She integrates Timon of Athens, The Merchant of Venice, and, above all, King Lear into her general analysis of the proper gift, and of the destabilizing effects of giving not regulated by moral understanding. She also isolates the sonnets, treating them as a debate on integrity and truth-telling in giving, and on the dangers of squandered praise. Jonson is considered as an example of the harder-headed world of Jacobean patronage, in which gifts and commodities coexist in competitive giving. Pleasing many patrons threatened to destroy the spirit of the gift, but Scott shows how deft Jonson was in doing exactly this both in poetry and masque, marketing his cultural largess to each benefactor in turn. He was at once the giver of honorable gifts, and the seller of his talents to the highest bidder(s), showing a flexibility that allowed even the printed text to display itself as a present to those worthy to be called patrons. Jonson is shown as revelling in the moral complexities of the system of literary gift exchange. Not so Donne, who is shown in a state of moral embarrassment offering a highly ambiguous gift of praise to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and royal favorite of James I, on his marriage to the divorced Frances Howard. Donne's gift of the Epithalamion to this corrupt couple is an unattractive mixture of apparent [End Page 1300] compliment and veiled criticism, laden with internal contradiction. Scott suggests that in trying to utilize his offering as part of a patronage plea, and indeed stressing its material purpose, Donne encoded within it a deliberate rejection of the "insipid game he played." There certainly seems little here of the active engagement that led her other writers to agonize upon gifts and obligations, or to turn to Seneca's De Beneficiis as a standard against which to judge literary offerings.
Scott recognizes how important Seneca's moral essays were in this period, and she makes a number of illuminating points on the acceptance or rejection of particular Senecan sententiae in contemporary writing. She is less comfortable in applying modern theories of the gift to early modern culture. Mauss, Bourdieu, Hutson, and others are invoked in a fragmented way, when they appear to support a particular literary articulation of giving. Here and elsewhere the presentation of secondary material does not always make for easy reading, or advance the argument based upon texts and historical evidence with sufficient clarity. The history of the court into which the literary analysis is woven, on the other hand, is broadly convincing. There is a sea change in the nature of patronage and giving between the reigns of Elizabeth and James. While Scott underestimates the complexity of gift exchange in the 1590s, she shows convincingly that the shift from female to male rule, and from parsimony to largess, constructed fundamentally different behavior in courtiers and poets. The last chapter of the text brings these shifts sharply into focus with the rise of Buckingham, whose monopoly of the gift system violated sovereign power itself. "Serpents," to quote George Wither, "in their Royall bosoms feed." Gifts wrongly offered can poison both giver and recipient...