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Reviewed by:
  • Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature, 1580–1628
  • Lorna G. Barrow
Scott, Alison V., Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature, 1580–1628, Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005; paperback; pp. 303; R.R.P. US$55.00; ISBN0838640826.

Alison Scott has written a most scholarly and interesting book on gift exchange and its relationship to the literature and politics of patronage in the late English Renaissance. This work is useful to researchers in a range of disciplines including anthropology and history, but it is of greatest use to scholars in English Literature of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. It is particularly helpful to those concentrating on Shakespearean themes but is by no means limited to the Bard's work: Ben Johnson, John Donne, Samuel Daniel and Philip Sydney are also discussed among others. The work covers a limited period of the late Elizabethan era, beginning in the decade of the 1580s, the time of the rise of Elizabeth's great favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. There is a much greater focus on Shakespeare's work in the early reign of James I who succeeded Elizabeth after her death in 1603. The book encompasses patronage and literature associated with the crown and covers ideas of royal gift exchange in association with royal favourites including, not only Essex, but also, Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset and George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. The book ends fittingly in 1628, the year of Buckingham's death.

This work, the outcome of Scott's PhD, has been rigorously researched. The book comprises six very densely written chapters, which are divided by several subheadings. The endnotes are comprehensive. The introduction is reasonably long at 43 pages. This is necessary as it sets out the complexities of gift-exchange theories in general, and more specifically, in relation to how they apply to the book's content. Scott takes into consideration works such as those of Marcel Mauss, Seneca, Marshall Sahlins, Jacques Derrida, Natalie Zemon Davis and Michel Montaigne. If one is unfamiliar with gift-exchange theory then it is absolutely essential to read the introduction carefully to get the most value out of this very well written book.

The six chapters, which include the introduction, are divided into two parts. Part I is allocated to 'Sexual Gifts' and contains two chapters: the first entitled 'Nonreciprocation and Female Rule: The Elizabethan Context', and the second, '"[A] mutual render, only for thee": "True" Gifts in Shakespeare's Sonnets'. Part II is dedicated to 'Political Gifts'. It comprises three chapters: 'Competitive Gifts and Strategic Exchange at the Jacobean Court', 'Gifts for [End Page 274] the Somerset Wedding', and '"Fortune's darling, king's content": The Duke of Buckingham as Gift Problem'. These are followed by a short epilogue that very succinctly concludes the book, drawing attention to the paradoxes associated with the giving and receiving of gifts in the English Renaissance royal courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

This is a book for serious scholars of Early Modern English Literature, anthropology, history and politics. It deserves to be in all university libraries.

Lorna G. Barrow
Department of History
The University of Sydney


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