Jean-Pierre Maquerlot and Michèle Willems, eds. Travel and Drama in Shakespeare’s Time. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 262 pp. ISBN 0-521-47500-7 Cloth.
Bernhard Klein
University of Dortmund

Klein, Bernhard. "Review of Travel and Drama in Shakespeare’s Time." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.2 (September, 1998): 20.1-3 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-2/rev_klei.html>.

  1. Despite Thomas Heywood’s worries in The Fair Maid of the West that "[o]ur stage so lamely can express a sea," tales of overseas travel were readily adapted for the theatre by contemporary playwrights. In Travel and Drama in Shakespeare’s Time fourteen essays offer fresh readings of a wide range of plays that take voyaging as their theme, mostly by placing them in new historical and literary contexts. Only a few essays, though, move away from a narrow thematic focus to analyse deeper structural links between travel and drama. In a notable exception, Peter Holland points to the journey motif employed by a critical idiom that analyses a character’s development in terms of a progress through the action of the play; he moves on to argue that travel plays emphasise the inherently dramatic form of journeys by being "centrally and structurally concerned with a relation between geography and recognition" (162). In an imaginative reading of Fletcher and Massinger’s The Sea Voyage, an early re-writing of The Tempest, Michael Hattaway equally foregrounds the issue of perception, claiming that what he chooses to term "geographic plays" (182) are not "reflections of other cultures, but reflections upon the culture inhabited by their audiences" (183, his italics). Thus, the dramatic encounters provoked by journeys to foreign lands demonstrate that "[w]hen we ‘see things’ in the theatre -- or in ‘new’ worlds -- what we are seeing are, as Hamlet reminds us, not actualities but allegories and the forms and pressures of the time" (188). The conceptual affinities between travel and drama, these essays argue, emerge through their mutual investment in mental processes of recognition and change; and the continuous cultural reflection on images of self and other is as evident on the pages of travel narratives as in the frequent use of the voyage motif on the early modern stage.

  2. It is one of the merits of the book that many of the essays deal with little read texts -- for instance, Brome’s The Antipodes, Day, Wilkins and Rowley’s The Travels of the Three English Brothers, Daborne’s A Christian Turn’d Turk, or Heywood’s Four Prentices of London -- but the collection as a whole only half-heartedly confronts the issue of a selective critical practice: a series of essays on The Tempest that hardly mention the voyage motif at all are included mainly on the strength of their dealing with Shakespeare. In the introduction, the editors defend their odd choice with a reference to those "lesser plays" against which "Shakespeare’s play unsurprisingly appears ... as much more sophisticated and ambivalent" (9). Given this traditional approach, it is equally unsurprising that fresh critical insights are hardly among the book’s strengths, as Maquerlot and Willems admit from the start: "[T]he contributors do not participate other than marginally in the current debate on the use and abuses of historical material. They do not propose to revolutionize critical thinking or break new theoretical ground" (11). Fortunately, this does not prove true for all essays. Looking at the varied literary material written in response to the Sherley brothers’ semi-official exploits in Persia, Tony Parr offers a stimulating analysis of the contemporary representation of intercultural contacts, or -- as he terms it -- "the culture of foreign relations" (20), understood in both their diplomatic and textual dimensions. Andrew Hadfield’s theoretically informed essay on Elizabethan perceptions of Ireland -- one of the best on the topic I’ve read -- draws on a vast range of textual evidence to argue for the presence of various contradictory rhetorical and cultural codes in official English discourse by which the Irish could be classified either as savage barbarians or as rebels against the monarch; he concludes that "analyses of sixteenth-century British history which accept a division of events and territories into the domestic and the exotic are seriously flawed" (48).

  3. Arguably, Hadfield’s essay does not really belong into a volume on travel and drama since it does not link the transfer of people and concepts across the Irish Sea to its representation on the stage (though it has to be said that Kenneth Muir’s comparison between Shakespeare and Lope de Vega is not even marginally related to the theme of the book). More relevantly, though, it points to significant gaps in the collection which only this and a few other essays manage to fill: there is little on the contemporary "politics" of travel -- neither on its links with state espionage, for instance, nor on the motif of transgression inherited from the ancient voyager myths; there is nothing, beyond references to travel narratives, on other extra-dramatic textual genres directly generated by the activity of travelling -- geographical descriptions, historical accounts, chorographies, journals, maps, etc.; and there is little on the actual journeys of historical figures such as the extravagant John Taylor or the widely travelled Fynes Moryson (who appears only in Hadfield’s essay as Mountjoy’s secretary in Ireland). Of course, the editors could claim that their project was to look at the theme of the voyage on the renaissance stage and not to compile a cultural history of travel, but I wonder whether the collection would not have benefited from an attempt at a broader inquiry into what travel actually was, what it meant, and why one engaged in it. Nevertheless, the fourteen individual essays cover a lot of interesting ground: Jonathan Bate sees the representation of Italy in English Renaissance literature as caught up in the tension between the dominant cultural traditions of Petrarch and Machiavelli; Brian Gibbons argues that "the dark end of the spectrum of Utopian writing" (143) -- epitomised much later by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness -- is already present on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage where "the narrative of a voyage to remote and foreign places can be a means to reflect attitudes and issues at home in Britain" (157); Lois Potter concentrates on factual and fictional pirates, Yves Peyré on the use of the Jason myth in renaissance literature, and Philip Edwards on the attribution of responsibility for disasters in contemporary voyage narratives. The range and variety of the individual topics make the collection an enjoyable and worthwhile read, even though I remain unconvinced by its internal structure.

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).