Albert H. Tricomi. Reading Tudor-Stuart Texts Through Cultural Historicism. Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1996. 201 pp. ISBN 0 8130 1435 2 Cloth.
Alison Findlay
Lancaster University

Findlay, Alison. "Review of Reading Tudor-Stuart Texts Through Cultural Historicism." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 14.1-4 <URL:

  1. In a critical environment dominated by an appetite for recovering the past, Reading Tudor-Stuart Texts Through Cultural Historicism offers a vigorous, valuable interrogation of our relationship to history and historiography. Tricomi combines first-rate theoretical debate and textual analysis to explore the practical application of his suggestions for a new direction in literary historicism. The book begins with an astute assessment of the problems facing historicist practices and proposes a modified critical methodology, "cultural historicism." Tricomi clearly outlines its reformist aims as, firstly, shifting away from totalizing readings of culture and from an unbalanced focus on the monarch and court as the synecdoche of all cultural artefacts. Secondly, cultural historicism must accommodate itself to the interactive use of both synchronic and diachronic readings of history. Finally, and most significantly, cultural historicism should seek to restore an emotional dimension to critical practice which will find ways of giving voice to the affectivity of texts. This first chapter is an important intervention in the theoretical debate, balancing criticisms with positive suggestions for ways forward.

  2. Tricomi seeks to move beyond abstract definitions which do not specify "how new historicism is to be practiced" (3), and undertakes to produce cultural historicist readings in the following chapters. Taking two broad themes of surveillance and the female sexual body, he addresses each of the theoretical issues he outlined with flair. In a powerful analysis of utopian writing, he shows that Foucault's model of surveillance characterized sixteenth-century thought, and that More's Utopia "turns out to be but a version of Bentham's panopticon" (29). The impossibility of escaping to a world outside power / knowledge, as evidenced in these texts, leads Tricomi to propose a different critical orientation, based on suggestions in Foucault's later work. Rather than treating power as something "always to be resisted," cultural historicists should examine "those expressions of power that are to be preferred over other, less productive ones" (41). A deliberately conversational tone allows Tricomi to debate these ideas with the reader rather than offering prescriptive models.

  3. Chapters 3 and 4 expand Tricomi's theses about the relationship between different types of historical "knowledge" on surveillance. The case for examining cultural artefacts as an integral part of history is argued through close analyses of Shakespeare's and Jonson's texts. Such writings reveal that processes of surveillance were internalized and reproduced as a "tortuous undercurrent in the tropological discourse" of literary texts (61), which therefore constitute vital evidence of the production of self-censorship and self-policing on the part of early modern English subjects. The dangers inherent in anecdotal histories are shown by comparing the partial evidence offered by the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, documents relating to the use of informers, and the representation of those figures in popular literature. Tricomi convincingly demonstrates that none of these can be taken in isolation from the others. His detailed discussions again offer specific strategies for developing our reading.

  4. The second part of the study, on the female sexual body, is not as full or as trenchant as the first, though there are some provocative ideas. Tricomi assesses the Shakespearean "problem play" genre as "a social category" (92), the creation of Victorian-Edwardian culture, and notes that the behaviour of women is always under particularly strict surveillance because the female sexual body is always "symbolically laden" as a trope for "the well-being of the entire society" (93). This is obvious enough in Hamlet, All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, although the different ways in which female characters negotiate their role as objects of scrutiny is not addressed. Tricomi's consideration of Jacobean texts as problem plays produces interesting discussions of Chapman's The Widow's Tears and Bussy D'Ambois and Marston's The Dutch Courtesan. The book ends with a persuasive reading of affectivity in The Duchess of Malfi and The Duchess of Suffolk. Since the latter play has been unduly reglected, especially by feminist scholars, it is good to see it discussed here. The reading of Webster's Duchess as "an all-giving nurturing mother and wife," whose death taps into "deep human concerns" about the loss of such unconditional love (142), usefully broadens the work of Janet Adelman (in Suffocating Mothers), to non-Shakespearian drama. Tricomi presents a strong case for paying attention to the emotional power of texts. Reading Tudor-Stuart Texts Through Cultural Historicism is thus an extremely impressive book. It integrates theory and practice with great success in order to offer a range of stimulating ways of breaking out of the deadlocks and indeterminacies in which new historicism finds itself.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(JD, LH, RGS, 29 January 1998)