Alison V. Scott. Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature, 1580-1628. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2006. 304pp. ISBN 0 8386 4082 6.

James M. Palmer
Prairie View A&M University

James M. Palmer. "Review of Alison V. Scott, Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature, 1580-1628."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 18.1-6 <URL:>.

  1. Alison V. Scott notes very early in Selfish Gifts: The Politics of Exchange and English Courtly Literature, 1580-1628 that "boundaries between gifts, bribes, and sales give way" (39) in late Elizabethan and early Stuart England to such an extent that contemporary literature participates in on-going, complicated, even paradoxical, discussions of the problems associated with proper gift-giving. Given the "complex and political nature of giving" (231), Scott begins her study by raising the question "What is a gift?", and she paves an interpretive path through a range of (courtly) texts-especially, letters, poetry, plays, and masques-as an answer. Throughout, Scott demonstrates an informed engagement with texts on friendship, patronage, and giving that span nearly two thousand years, moving through classical, Renaissance, and modern authors as a means of contextualizing contemporary giving.

  2. Scott clearly demonstrates that courtly literature "shaped and was shaped" by such conditions as the emergence of a market economy, a decline in stable aristocratic patronage, and the growth of the literary marketplace (39), all of which were complicated by Elizabeth I's withholding of royal gifts and James I's extravagant giving. The book (some of which has been published in earlier stages as articles in Explorations in Renaissance Culture, Studies in Philology, AUMLA, and Parergon) progresses largely in a chronological way: first examining Elizabeth's giving (and the Essex rebellion) through the writings of Ralegh, Daniel, Jonson, and Sidney; then the nature of the poet's gift and the "conundrum of giving" (85), especially through a reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets; followed by a Jacobean focus. This last section is crafted especially well and is what I found to be the most valuable, offering, indeed, "fresh reading[s]" (42), to borrow Scott's own assessment.

  3. Surfacing in several chapters of the book is Jacques Derrida, who has "[f]amously…spoken of the inherent contradiction contained within the concept of gift exchange": a gift cannot both be given and exchanged (16). Focusing on the contradiction, Derrida has dismantled gift theorist Marcel Mauss's explanation of the social function of the gift in pre-capitalist societies, a dismantling Scott uses to illustrate the ways contemporary authors explored gift exchange in shifting Elizabethan and Jacobean environments. Given this shifting, Derrida can be useful. Utilizing such a range of texts and authors, especially the more recent ones such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nietzsche, however, is not always needed and is sometimes puzzling. For example, the lengthy explanation of Nietzsche's Zarathustra in chapter two on the nature of gifts in Shakespeare's Sonnets is an interruption, even if the rhetorical features of giving in Shakespeare and Nietzsche are "strikingly similar" (92). Looking back to Aristotle (especially at 88, 95-96), Cicero (especially at 20), and Seneca (at 110) worked better to contextualize friendship found in the Sonnets, given the era's indebtedness to these classical authors.

  4. Focusing on erotic (love) gifts in the first part of the book, Scott uncovers the strategies courtiers used to induce reward, noting the ways that seeking favor hinged on the rhetoric of erotic "service" and how this rhetoric clashed with the ideals of reciprocal exchange. In its focus on Shakespeare's Sonnets, this section argues, among other things, that Shakespeare was extraordinarily self-aware and that he negotiated quite well the complexities of bestowing praise or gifts on a lover or a patron, since these are compromised when the donor expects a reward (121).

  5. In the second part, Scott explains that a "new language of competitive giving developed in the early seventeenth century" and that as the market economy emerged, gift economy was celebrated as an honorable means of exchange, reward, and bonding. Authors frequently portrayed a "past utopian world of ideal gifts," however, to increase the possibilities that a gift might induce reward (41). Through a systematic reading of Donne's Somerset Epithalamion, as well as of Chapman, Campion, Bacon, and Jonson, the second part of the book focuses on the Earl of Somerset and then on the Duke of Buckingham. This part is argued with great authority, and one senses excitement and authorial confidence, especially as it moves through little read poems that reveal the political debate surrounding Buckingham's career. Scott's analysis demonstrates how centralizing authority in a singular subject like Buckingham could theoretically protect against the dispersal of power among wider nobility (191). This confidence surfaces earlier in this section as well. Examining the gifts for the Somerset wedding, Scott argues that Donne is detached from his gift in Epithalamion even as he maintains "the appearance of a gift of praise" (161). Donne, she argues, is cognizant of the implications that his gift might have for his own reputation and works to "distance himself from an assiduous endorsement of the marriage" (163).

  6. Overall, this is an intelligent book. Word choices at times reflect the paradoxes and complexities of the issues explored: "might," "could," and "perhaps" quilt a pattern of uncertainty at times, especially in the first part of the book (15, 19, 111, 230, etc.), but these are excusable. Scott's careful exploration of giving reveals the ways that contemporaries examined the political and social consequences of a shattered gift ideal. This book is a valuable contribution to our understanding of courtly literature and of an era of considerable social and economic change.


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