Eric S. Mallin. Inscribing the Time: Shakespeare and the End of Elizabethan England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. 276 pp.
Tony Dawson
University of British Columbia

Dawson, Tony. "Review of Inscribing the Time: Shakespeare and the End of Elizabethan England." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 7.1-9 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_daw1.html>.

  1. Here is a sophisticated, historically and theoretically informed, cleverly written, and highly intelligent book--but one that at the same time is strangely disappointing. As I read it, I was bothered by a sense that a certain brilliance of scholarship and style had gone to waste. The book might even be said to occupy a symbolic place at the dead-end of new historicist analysis, where the problem of historical evidence which has plagued new historicism since the beginning finally seems to undo the whole enterprise. It is not as though Eric Mallin is not aware of the dangers. He devotes an introductory chapter to a reasoned discussion of some of the problems that have beset the movement, and defends topicality as a way of combating the tendency to construct large generalizations from skimpy anecdotal evidence. Along the way he makes concessions to several of the critiques that have periodically been launched against new historicism: against the tendency to totalize, he espouses haphazardness and multiplicity; conscious of the accusations of determinism, he tries to allow for autonomy; and perhaps a bit embarrassed by various feminist critiques, he readily adopts their perspective. He is aware too of new historicist waywardness with chronological and geographical speculation, such as evidence from France doing service in England or from 1615 being adduced to explain texts from 1595. His response to this problem, topicality, is a version of micro-history, now a popular strategy whereby immediate contexts can be invoked to explain particular aspects of texts-in-history.

  2. On the question of how history affects texts, perhaps the key new historicist crux, Mallin develops a kind of open-ended determinism. He takes the metaphor of inscription in the title quite literally. Writers write, but what they write is not under their control; it is "infiltrated," poisoned, infected, by history even down to its textual materiality: the "culture inscribes, lodges itself in texts" and the texts can do little besides "write out the meanings of this occupancy" (16). Authorial agency, invoked here and there, is nevertheless finally banished; there is authorial choice but it is everywhere subject to cultural infection. At the same time, the temptation of indeterminacy, the post-structuralist understanding of language and discourse that has always threatened to undermine new historicism, is a central presence: Mallin insists on the primacy of the undecidable. This insistence sits uneasily with the pervasive emphasis on historical allegory that the book as a whole promotes.

  3. But there is one frequently heard criticism of new historicism that he never mentions--its obsession with royalty and the upper aristocracy. And there is good reason for this omission, since the whole book is devoted to arguing that the three plays he considers, Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night, are culturally coded dramatizations of the vicissitudes of Elizabeth, James I and the Earl of Essex, in various relations to the problems (of marriage, succession, faction, or plague) that beset them in the first years of the seventeenth century. Shakespeare, willy nilly, was apparently incapable of writing about anything else. In this kind of reading, Essex turns up as both Hector and Achilles, as well as (briefly) Hamlet, where he is "granted... a wished-for prerogative he never quite attained: the chance to pronounce and thereby apparently control the succession" (143). Olivia, on the strength of her being the "most powerful woman in Illyria" and her abhorrence of yellow, is deemed to be Queen Elizabeth. Mallin, to his credit, acknowledges that this connection "has a certain amount of strain built in," but then he instantly withdraws the qualification: "but this is the strain of every representation of the queen near the end of her reign" (178). James is both Hamlet and Fortinbras (this comes dangerously close to absurdity: "Hamlet naming Fortinbras [as successor] is a translated version of James naming James" [151]). Put thus baldly, the topical criticism does indeed read like parody, a danger that Mallin alludes to following the identification of James just quoted; he suggests that the literary text can avoid such parody, but at times I'm afraid, the critical text cannot.

  4. One is led to wonder about the motivation as much as the evidence behind the kinds of claims this book makes. Historical allegory, despite the work of Leah Marcus, has for good reason gone out of fashion, and heroic attempts to resurrect it seem quixotic. One of the marks of Mallin's misplaced chivalry is his reliance on thorough-going allegorists such as Lilian Winstanley and Leslie Hotson. But at the same time, he is impressively au courant with all kinds of current scholarship and theory, and when he discusses the texts without reference to what at times seem like hobbyhorses, he is astute and perceptive. I am troubled by the spectacle of a thoughtful and engaging mind, expressing itself in elegant, even witty language, constructing theories which seem Laputan in their misplaced ingenuity.

  5. The basic problem, as I said, is one of evidence. Despite the marshaling of impressive documentation, there are really no grounds for many of the assertions Mallin makes. On Troilus and Cressida, he bases his argument on the prevalence of factionalism in Elizabeth's court, and claims that Essex himself is "part of the cultural pen and ink, the material conditions of conceptual possibility for Troilus and Cressida." In other words, the play could not have been written without Essex, his factions and his "motivational complexity." Achilles is "pulled back to the battle, even as Devereux was inexorably drawn to court" (33). This is a fair example of the mode of argumentation: first an allegorical connection between historical figure and text is posited, then it is bolstered by a tenuous analogy, and then the whole is read as a two-way inscription of text by cultural figure and vice versa: "Essex inscribed as much as he is inscribed." That "emulous faction" was a feature of life at Elizabeth's court as much as it is a feature of life among the Greeks at Troy is certainly true. But this proves little. Such faction is as visible in Renaissance Italian city states and modern university departments, and indeed anywhere else where politics reign. The evidence lacks specificity, for all the careful topical references introduced.

  6. A more serious problem of evidence arises in connection with the two central chapters on Hamlet, which take up just about half the book. The initial difficulty, one that plagues the whole argument, has to do with Mallin's choice of texts. He decides to rely on Q2, first published in 1604. Although he knows all about the many puzzles surrounding the relations between Q1, Q2, and F, he chooses simply to finesse them and adopt Q2 as the text to be discussed in relation to his twin themes of plague and royal succession. He treats it as though it were written in 1604, rather than published then; since it was probably written around 1600, and since Mallin wants its meanings to be readable in terms of the twin events of 1603 to which he draws our attention, the plague and the accession of James I, he is forced to ignore the question of the actual date of writing and initial performance. Instead he adopts the bold strategy of imagining the printed text as a product of its specific time, as though passages in it and not in Q1 (1603) somehow appeared through cultural infiltration, written as it were by the culture in response to cataclysmic events. One example is the fact that in Q2 (and F) Laertes speaks of the poison he has purchased and will use to anoint his sword, while in Q1 the idea comes from Claudius. Mallin's interpretation of this is revealing; he argues that the plague of 1603 has affected the later text, re-writing Laertes's character and indeed character in general: "after the onset of plague, character and interiority prove unstable, and subterfuge is a communicable ailment [i.e., caught from Claudius] .... This moment epitomizes a radical, inevitable invasion of history into Hamlet: pestilence infiltrates theater as a characterolgical device of communicated similarity" (71). This breathtaking claim begs several questions. 1603 was not the first major plague in London during Shakespeare's writing life; why should 1603 have had an effect on the writing of character, and not, say, 1592? Or, consider the word "inevitable" in the passage just quoted; the suggestion is that there is no other explanation for this deviation between texts. But of course there is; for example: Q1 mis-remembers a prior version, probably something like F, i.e. a slightly reduced, theatrical version of Q2. In other words, though there have been arguments to the contrary, the ms. behind Q2 almost assuredly existed before that behind Q1, and the deviations of the latter from the former can be explained either as problems of memory or as the result of players constructing a playable text on the basis of a partially remembered plot, one perhaps "infiltrated" by memories of the famous "ur-Hamlet." Hence Laertes's plot to anoint his sword was undoubtedly part of the text as written and performed around 1600. The thing is that Mallin knows this--as is clear from his footnotes; he simply chooses to ignore it. By his logic, though he specifically disavows this possibility, the differences noticeable in the 1623 Folio version should be attributable to royal events of 1622. It might be wiser to think of Shakespeare, rather than history, as responsible for the subtleties of metaphor and idea in Hamlet. Even if we were to accept the argument that Mallin makes, how could we explain the mechanism by which these new passages got into the printed text? Are we to imagine a busy acting company or writer inserting the passages for publication sometime in 1604?

  7. The ultimate problem is that the argument is circular. Mallin first of all assumes a theory of cultural inscription. He notes that there was a serious and worrying plague in 1603, and that there were connections between the presence of the plague and a certain uneasiness surrounding James's accession. He then surveys passages in the printed text of 1604 not in Q1 and notes that some few of them have something to do with poison, plague and contamination (not by any means all of them). He then deduces that their presence both proves the validity of his theory of cultural inscription and grounds his interpretation of the play. Similarly, in the following chapter, he assumes a connection between the events of Hamlet and the events of James's early life, including the murder of his father, and then uses it to interpret the play as proof of what he has earlier assumed. In both cases, what is first assumed is later "proven" on the basis of the assumption. The culture produces the text and the text is hence a sign of the cultural conditions that are inscribed in it. This is a hermeneutic circle that feels more than a little confining.

  8. In fact the whole argument is reversible, like a chevril glove. Rather than seeing the action and language of the play as a direct result of cultural writing, it could just as easily be argued that Shakespeare wanted to engage certain political and moral issues in Hamlet and adopted the language of plague as an appropriate and topical medium for their expression, as a salient metaphor that would be readily understood by his audience. Mallin's insistence on cultural inscription seems unduly arbitrary.

  9. The final question is why a smart critic like Mallin should have got himself into the hermeneutic jam he appears to be in here. I don't have an answer to that, but I do have a question about the purpose of such interpretation. The emphasis on undecidability raises the spectre of endless changeability of semantic counters, a result that tends to undermine the interpretive enterprise itself. One gets the feeling that units of potential "meaning," either historical events or elements in a text, can be made to mean anything one wants; the consequence is that they can end up meaning nothing. There is no brake to such interpretive ingenuity, just because there is no criterion of evidence that one can rely on. Thus the idea of history as adopted by such extreme new historicists as Mallin would seem the polar opposite of history as traditionally conceived by historians, because the demand for rigor in the marshaling of evidence has been abandoned.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)