- Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes by Roland Greene
It would take far more than a few words to do justice to Roland Greene’s Five Words: Critical Semantics in the Age of Shakespeare and Cervantes given the broad scope of its subject. Five Words’s erudition and scope are indisputable as it draws on a vast store of sources ranging from Cicero to Philip Sidney, Antonio Viera to the Inca Garcilaso, not to mention Shakespeare and Cervantes. Greene explores five words (“invention,” “language,” “resistance,” “blood,” and “world”) based on the key role they play in the early modern period, dedicating a chapter to each. According to Greene, these terms “do not carry obvious ideological marks but instead seem natural, neutral, and quotidian. Invention, language, resistance, blood, and world are words that early modern people not only thought through but lived with” (5). In Five Words each of these terms becomes an actor in a turbulent period of change in the collective history of Europe and the Americas, a period in which the vested interests of colonialism radically change the literary landscape.
One of the most surprising aspects of Greene’s work consists of its departure from both past and current approaches to literature. The introduction makes clear that it is “not charting semantic developments as a linguist would, but trying to make tangible what is often abstract and obscure” (8). Greene further proposes such an approach as a model to follow, one that can be applied to terms other than the ones he explores in his own study. How this might be accomplished is not self-evident, as his discussion moves effortlessly from one text to another suggesting a fluid approach to his subject, one that is not bound by any strict methodology. Readers may not so much consider other terms as dwell on those that Greene himself chooses to examine. For example, how does a term such as “blood” figure in texts such as Cervantes’ La fuerza de la sangre (which he briefly mentions) or Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s El médico de su honra, works that exemplify the complex conflicts arising from questions of blood understood as both substance and metaphor during the early modern period? The suggestive power of focusing on a few, individual terms, is one of Five Words’s greatest strengths. [End Page 307]
Whether future studies beyond Greene’s own scholarship replicate such an approach remains to be seen; Five Words describes this approach as “oblique” and the questions Greene’s introduction raises are worthy of investigation. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine how to respond to them without historicizing them; to examine how people in Europe and the Americas in the early modern period conceived of their relationship to the past and present necessarily requires a contextual framework. In contrast, while Five Words engages the politics of the period, particularly the vested interests of transatlantic ventures, the singularity of language in literary discourses remains its primary focus. For example, Greene’s reading of the role the word “resistance” plays in both Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina and the Inca Garcilaso’s Comentario reales is both subtle and persuasive as he makes the argument that “resistance as word and concept is recognizable as modern. Like revolution, it becomes part of a vocabulary that imagines and emplots the political developments of the Enlightenment and the late colonial period” (78). Less persuasive is the claim that “little has been said about resistance as a historical and imaginative concept of the early modern period,” given the profound changes in Hispanist scholarship ever since Américo Castro published Historia de los heterodoxos españoles in 1956 and many others since (78). Still, Greene’s transformation of words as actors on the stage of early modern history and literature remains undiminished in his analysis.
Greene might have pursued his line of enquiry by permitting the “five words” to speak for themselves; rather, he buttresses his arguments with the parallel...