- Echoing Texts: George Chapman's Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron
One would expect Chapman's linked pair of Byron plays, the Conspiracy and the Tragedy, to generate more interest than they have. Over the last century there [End Page 305] has been disagreement about such basic issues as whether to praise or damn Byron and King Henry. And beyond the debate about moral evaluation, there is much in the plays that ought to attract sociohistorical interest. The Tragedy draws explicit parallels between Byron's disobedience and the revolt of Essex. The censored (and apparently lost) scene from the Tragedy in which the Queen of France is supposed to have berated the king's mistress and boxed her ears caused a diplomatic scandal, and Chapman seems to have barely avoided arrest. It is reasonable to ask with Florby why this "explosive material has been so little discussed by literary scholars" (150)?
One answer is that we live in an era in which Chapman is disregarded; though recent studies may have offered engaged and intelligent readings, they do not seem to have taken hold, and Chapman is still often treated as simply a pedantic monarchist. Florby chooses to reinvigorate her subject by going back to the very issue which generated much of the modern animus against Chapman: his indebtedness to classical and contemporary Latin texts for specific passages. Translating is not plagiarism, despite what a distinguished scholar once angrily asserted; instead, Florby argues, the practice of translation sets up a tension between the original and the adaptation, which is in itself a source of meaning. Florby begins by invoking a concept of intertextuality free from authorial intention, an idea of signification in which a text is simply the anonymous focus agent for a vast web of antecedent texts. However, having offered this radically poststructural ideal, she soon retreats to a more traditional mode in which the term allusion operates. By teasing out these intertextual dynamics — allusions to French history, classical texts (Homer and Plutarch in particular), and Chapman's contemporary political situation — she helps the reader "participate in an evasive textual strategy of suppressed thoughts and sentiments which may surface only under specific, propitious circumstances" (18). The dynamic of the Conspiracy depends above all on "the dialogue between text and intertext." The "understander" — a term familiar to readers of Chapman and Jonson — recognizes that "the shadows beneath the surface are activated by the allusions to heroic but ill-fated acts" (79).
Her study can be understood as an appreciation of the density of the discourse in which Chapman was working and as an explanation of Chapman's difficult style itself. For Florby, to interpret a Chapman passage one must be familiar with the sources of the verse, and to interpret an action one must know how it matches with Grimeston's version. Though she concludes that the plays are "a defence of the liberties of the subject and a statement against absolutist positions" (156), she is less interested in deriving a single thematic meaning than in teasing out the plays' moment-by-moment interactions with their self-invoked classical models to bring out the extraordinary complexity of the plays' irony. "The genre calls for a dynamic interplay of perspectives, in which no one perspective should be privileged from the start" (159). The rich body of allusions Florby explores lends shading and contour to sensitive and important questions about power and authority.
The book falls into three movements, which do not so much advance a line of argument as blanket the plays. The first analyzes the Conspiracy, first as an [End Page 306] adaptation of Grimeston's Chronicle about recent French history, and then through the play's intertextual relation with Plutarch and Seneca. The second studies the Tragedy along similar lines with special attention to the Iliad. The final section relates the themes Forby has set in motion to contemporary issues as King James's absolutism, memories of...