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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.1 (2002) 43-62

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Spanish Lessons:
Spenser and the Irish Moriscos

Barbara Fuchs

The English apes and very zanies be
Of everything that they do hear or see.

--Michael Drayton 1

I. Model Empires

Early modern England's general disavowal--via the widely disseminated Black Legend of Spanish cruelty--of any resemblance between itself and Spain has led critics to overlook the many connections between the two nations as imperial actors. 2 Recent studies of Ireland's key role in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and culture have greatly contributed to our understanding of England's--and later of Great Britain's--colonial project, but have generally overlooked the larger European, and, indeed, transatlantic context. 3 Ireland functions as a key site for analyzing England's tortuous relationship to Spain as both model and rival: while the conquest of Francis Bacon's "second island of the ocean Atlantic" 4 provided more land for England in the period than any New World expedition, it remained a source of great anxiety, especially concerning Catholic rebellion and Spanish penetration. The ideological and military encounters over Ireland reveal the resemblances hidden beneath England's insistence on [End Page 43] the differences between itself and Spain as colonial powers. These problematic resemblances elucidate the discursive apparatus of the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, and, more generally, of England's multiple westward ventures. As I will argue here, the similarities that can only be acknowledged in the political realm once James makes peace with Spain surface during Elizabeth's reign in the peculiar genealogies and political allegories of Spenser's writings on Ireland.

Elsewhere, I have described how the rhetorical strategy of "colonial quotation" undergirds colonialist discourse: equating one colonial scenario with the last naturalizes expansion by bringing newly "discovered" lands and people under the conceptual domain of the already known and already digested. 5 Prior and ongoing colonial encounters may be assimilated by literally quoting "authorities" on non-European peoples, by referring to the colonists' previous experiences elsewhere, or by interpreting a new culture as another manifestation of a culture already othered. In analyzing England's rhetoric about Ireland, however, it becomes clear that the mechanics of colonial quotation can apply not only to the colonized, but also to the colonizer. Yet whereas there is little disadvantage for the European colonizer in suggesting that all "primitive" peoples are essentially equivalent, the suggestion of a similar equation between two European empires, each intent on colonial superiority, presents certain rhetorical challenges. How can England insist on its difference from Spain if it chooses to replicate its colonial methods, and negotiate its admiration of Spain's colonial successes with its loud denunciations of Spain's excesses? Can its own colonial exploits and colonized subjects in fact be distinguished from those of Spain? 6

The problem becomes especially interesting when one considers how sudden the turn is from a generalized admiration of Spanish empire in England during the reign of Mary Tudor and Philip II--that odd interlude when Spain and England were to a certain extent one and the same--to the generalized condemnation of Spain following the ascent of Elizabeth to the throne. 7 During the decades of war with Spain--declared or undeclared--English propaganda loudly proclaimed the difference between the two rivals. Yet even as relations between England and Spain soured, their colonial exploits and efforts to consolidate as nations remained intimately entwined, with competing claims often locating the two in a chiastic relationship of vulnerability and aggression. Thus, whereas England claimed its right to Ireland based on Pope Adrian IV's grant to Henry II in the Laudabiliter [End Page 44] bull, it nonetheless refused to countenance the 1493 bulls by which Pope Alexander VI had "given" Spain the New World. Paradoxically, although the Reformation complicated the English claim to Ireland via papal donation, it also afforded a conceptual space from which to argue that Spain's claim to the New World was fundamentally suspect, and did not apply to Protestants. 8 There are strange mirrorings...


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