- Shell Games: Studies in Scams, Frauds, and Deceits (1300-1650), and: Rogues and Early Modern English Culture
Although rogues are known for their shell games, these two books — apparently on the same topic — are really quite different. Both are anthologies of contemporary criticism and both claim to be interdisciplinary, but Rogues and Early Modern English Culture concentrates on the popular sixteenth-century English rogue or cony-catching texts, while Shell Games examines problems of social interaction and adaptation, especially in areas that relate to contemporary injustice and conflict. Moreover, Shell Games is not about one culture: its topics are wide ranging and include discussion of several distinct cultures over a period of three centuries. As a result, it is less successful as a unified text, but its articles — despite some reservation — are interesting and provocative. Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, however, is an important book, one that cleverly situates itself within an ongoing critical history that consistently questions how we read early modern English rogue texts. Needless to say, like any contemporary critical text, no ultimate strategy is ever offered, but the self-referential critical commentary is fascinating. Editors of future critical anthologies would do well to read this text.
At its core, Shell Games is an anthology of social and/or narrative history. We are shown a series of social problems (or obstacles), and then learn what people did to overcome them. That is a promising strategy for culture criticism, but Richard Raiswell's introduction includes a complex discussion of biblical and theological truth telling, leading this reader (at least) to wonder whether questions of religion and morality were not the original impetus of the collection. Be that as it may, the articles fall into two broad categories, those based on "real" documents (letters and court records that substantiate anecdotal narratives), and others based on literary texts. By itself, this admixture is no problem, but because the focus is deception (and/or) truthfulness, too frequently the deceivers seem vindicated, or perhaps [End Page 725] more in the spirit of the book, on occasion, people acted deceitfully in order to achieve a higher good or maintain their roles within their own contested cultures. This may allow us some interesting reading, but I kept wondering whether or not the conclusions drawn might not be compromised by our own values when questions of deceit and truthfulness frame the critical perspective, or whether or not the specific deceptions described might not be more limited than the editors would admit. Regardless, we do learn a lot, not about religious truth telling, but how Renaissance people adjusted to phenomena like gender discrimination and censorship, or, more specifically, how alchemists were able to function in a business climate that, like our own, demanded results, or how ambassadors to the Italian court lied in order to maintain their own positions. Those are interesting subjects and I enjoyed the articles, but I was more comfortable when Shell Games turned its attention away from documented evidence of social deceit to the admittedly untrue writing and literature. Here I found fertile ground in Sarah Knight's discussion of academic liars in Jacobean satire, Michael Long's description of surreptitious printing as a crime in Renaissance England, and, of particular note, Michael Cichon's anthropological reading of Shakespeare's most problematic play, Titus Andronicus. Also worthy of mention is Johannes C. Wolfart's essay on the role of narrative, even in the manner in which we study archives, and the gendered metaphors often employed to describe that practice. This was the one essay in Shell Games that was self-reflective enough to bring narrative and history together.
There is much to recommend Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, but among its best features are the obvious strength of...