- French Origins of English Tragedy
The longstanding historiographic tendency to trace developments in early modern European theatre history along nationalist lines—reinforced in the chapter divisions of so many theatre history textbooks and anthologies of theatre theory—comes under productive scrutiny in Richard Hillman’s stimulating new book, French Origins of English Tragedy. For many historians of early modern English drama, notions of discursive demarcations of English versus French tragedy derive in their clearest form from Restoration-era works of criticism (consider the dramaturgical binaries articulated in John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesie for a widely known and emblematic example). Hillman, however, concerns himself with the roughly one hundred years between the mid-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, with particular attention paid to the late 1500s and early 1600s, achieving provocative results. He notes that the stability of our present notions of national literatures (dramatic and otherwise) is not only retrospectively imposed, but also that processes for defining French or English tragedy qua Frenchness, qua Englishness, qua tragedy, were already “uneasily underway” during that earlier period (2). With tragic theory as his through-line, he reminds readers that while the generic idea of tragedy was held in high esteem on both sides of the English Channel during the latter half of the sixteenth century, what the term actually meant was much more loosely defined in England than in France because it had been “terra incognita for English dramatists prior to the 1560s” (5). From there, he notes English dramaturgy’s “openness to virtually any and all things theatrically exploitable” during the period under examination and suggests “that France served as a privileged major supplier of such commodities” (7).
Hillman’s greatest accomplishment in the book comes in setting up the epistemological groundwork for thoroughly internationalizing the sense of [End Page 239] English dramaturgical consciousness during the Elizabethan age. His working assumption, “that if a text had been printed, whenever and wherever, it might have been accessible to any literate person for reading” (2), initially seems to run the risk of ignoring the seemingly self-evident difficulties of transmission and reception inherent in transnational, translinguistic manuscript distribution. However, Hillman’s thought-provoking point is that the habitual scholarly response that such difficulties automatically curtailed meaningful textual exchanges has prevented theatre historians from actually testing the possibilities of thinking otherwise. In other words, maybe Elizabethan playwrights had more access to French writings than scholars have cared to recognize.
Hillman spends the bulk of the book piling up examples of interchanges among dramatic imaginations that perhaps did occur, suggesting French connections for plays such as Richard II, The Spanish Tragedy, Doctor Faustus, Julius Caesar, Othello and Tamburlaine, among others. I echo Hillman’s own judicious use of the word “perhaps” because his method generally depends on strongly argued possibility rather than documented certainty, which is necessarily the case when imagining, for example, the sorts of French works Marlowe or Shakespeare might actually have read (Marlowe’s competence in French being doubtless, Shakespeare’s obviously somewhat more speculative). He notes that naming the book French Origins of English Tragedy as opposed to The French Origins of English Tragedy was a deliberate rhetorical gesture and that his ultimate aim is simply to supplement a more diverse picture of English tragedy’s influences, not to claim English tragedy for France. He judiciously confines his individual case studies—structured around the tropes of the self-destructive tragic protagonist, the Machiavellian villain, and encounters between the warrior-hero and the femme fatale—within the workable project of bringing to scholarly attention a surprisingly large body of French works, ranging from plays to political tracts, known or strongly suspected to have been available to English readers. One of the great pleasures of the book comes from the generous number of well-translated quotations from a plethora of intriguing French works. However, while the truly impressive number of lesser-known (at least to English-speaking scholars) French texts cited in this slim volume certainly adds persuasiveness to Hillman’s arguments, I found...