- Shakespeare and the French Borders of English by Michael Saenger
Welcome, “myriad-minded” readers, to the critical borderlands, where Michael Saenger proves an aptly provocative, lively guide. Shakespeare and the French Borders of English will not please those who prefer a neat argument that unfolds as if by outline, its evidence filling proportional spaces point by point. But if you seek new readings of familiar plays and a complex encounter with multiple lines of inquiry, and if you are open to frequent interpretive leaps around a more “myriad-minded Shakespeare” than Coleridge ever imagined, you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.
In the early chapters, Saenger seems to expect to be misunderstood, reminding us of his remit: to examine “the violent, fruitful and often dislocated experience of England’s complex relationship with France” (xiv). Saenger sees “early modern books of language acquisition” as a crucial context for English identity-formation, but “this is not a book about books of language acquisition, nor is it a book about the Anglo-French relationship” (3). (The latter denial proves untrue in the end.) The book is “not concerned with the borders of England as a nation, but rather with the borders of English as a language and as a means of identification” (3) and is “not intended to be a study of Shakespeare’s portrayal of France” (6). Furthermore, Saenger aims “not to argue that Shakespeare puts allegories of nations on stage” (6) and not “to reduce fictional and historical plays to visions of England and France” (6). Such heavy recusatio seeks to defang readers expecting a source-influence study, a linguistic study, or a thematic study. Unusual, evocative readings of Psalm 137 (xiii–xiv) and of Sidney’s Sonnet 41 from Astrophil and Stella (102) introduce the embodied, performed nationhoods treated in the book: “Long before England felt that it had a right to own the world, it needed to establish that it had a right to own itself. … The central claim of this book is that Shakespeare’s staging of self-ownership is deeply entangled in the Anglo-French encounter” (3).
In chapter 1, “The Place of French in England,” Saenger explores several key ideas: “Silence, sexuality and foreign speech are each sites where fundamental epistemic clashes can be felt” (44). Postcolonial theory is not very useful in understanding the French-English relation as it pertains to Shakespeare, but “to imagine the Anglo-French relationship is to invoke a set of political and ontological paradoxes that are immediately and profoundly relevant to early modern England” (23). One of the book’s best contributions emerges in the second chapter’s discussion of egoge (εγωγε) (51) and verfremdung (foreignization) (57). Although these concepts are quite familiar in translation studies, Saenger brings them, especially egoge, into useful application for Shakespeareans. Of egoge, he writes, “Often translated as ‘I, on the other hand,’ … [the word egoge] … captures something like an intensified, contrasted I … [it] is a lexical formation that claims identity in relation to another alternative: I am because I am not that I over there” (51). The entire book resonates with Saenger’s understanding of egoge, “a working model of the self held in opposition [End Page 150] to a semi-foreign other” (57). Verfremdung is perhaps best brought out in the chapter on All’s Well That Ends Well (125–46), but egoge offers a tool for observing, for instance, that “language acquisition books share with many of Shakespeare’s dramas an interest in defining the nation neither in patriotic isolation nor in cosmopolitan humility, but rather as a kind of self-consciously internationalized, competitively successful self” (51).
After three chapters setting the critical background, the book delves into particular plays. Chapter 3 reads Richard II in light of (for instance) John Eliot’s Orthoepia Gallica. The local readings are good, but the analysis does not address a central, literary-historical problem: how to locate relations among past texts on an interpretive continuum from intertext to analogue to source. In...