- Word and Self Estranged in English Texts, 1550-1660 ed. by Philippa Kelly and L. E. Semler
The topic of this anthology of essays is 'the break between selfhood and its means of expression' in the early modern period (p. 1). The approaches to this theme are diverse, to the point that some essays neither mention it, nor are obviously related to it, but the reader is left stimulated by new questions about the interplay between past and present and with a strong sense of the strangeness of early modern texts.
Among the essays which do clearly contribute to a treatment of the relations of word and sense, and of word and self is Susannah Macready's piece on the early modern debate over sign language for the deaf: do the deaf have language at all? Is sign language a language? Is it sufficiently a language to provide evidence of conversion? Then there is R. S. White's essay on Twelfth Night. It is a rich meditation on the importance of listening in dialogue, in life as well as in Shakespeare. Mental illness is another kind of estrangement of self and language. In her essay, Christine Couche collects the evidence that in presenting Lady Macbeth's emotions and attitudes Shakespeare is drawing on an understanding of what we now know as postnatal depression. In his essay, L. E. Semler presents a fascinating attempt to match the current appearance of the ruins of Persepolis with their depiction in the various editions of the travel book by Thomas Herbert. As it happens, the attempt largely fails, leaving us with all sorts of intriguing questions, and less confident than ever that we understand early modern texts at all. [End Page 261]
Lawrence Warner argues that the pre-Reformation story of the meeting and eventual marriage of Thomas Becket's parents is a source for the seduction of Desdemona through Othello's exotic stories. Clearly there are parallels between the two cross-faith and cross-cultural couples. Frustratingly, however, there is no actual reference to the Becket story in the play. Nevertheless, Warner's point that early modernists need to look beyond their immediate period is well taken.
Alison V. Scott suggests that Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra is a serpent-woman, related to the classical Dipsas, but a 'redeeming' version. Scott describes a fluid and variable collection of images and tropes. Its coherence through time is hard to demonstrate. Did Shakespeare's treatment have any consequences for the tradition, for instance, or is it just one more variation on the theme? Ronald Bedford provides an overview of uses of irony and of the terminology for irony from classical times. Useful distinctions are at play here: between the term irony and irony the event, and between the terminology available to writers in any one era and their practice. In the most abstract and methodologically reflexive essay in the collection, Bob Hodge urges early modernists to regard the boundaries between disciplines, regions, and periods as prompts to consider and experiment rather than as established and fixed entities. It is a stimulating and stylish essay.
Other essays are more distantly related to the topic. Jean E. Howard provides a cogent discussion of the 'social' and 'worldly' Shakespeare text which emerges in her classroom, a text which is remote from the traditional quest for an 'authentic' Shakespeare. I enjoyed Kirsten Tranter's argument that Psalm 137 is an important source for Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler. She makes good use of the link to emphasize the 'brooding, resentful and revenge-driven' aspect of Walton's piscatory idyll (p. 195). Julian Lamb's essay turns on the nice irony that Johnson's dictionary aimed to stabilize the language by excluding foreign loan words and the terminology of the trades and professions, which he felt were transitory, while seventeenth-century dictionaries focused on exactly these 'hard' words and implicitly adopted a Wittgensteinian definition of meaning as language in use.