Helen Ostovich, Mary V. Silcox, and Graham Roebuck (eds.), The Mysterious and the Foreign in Early Modern England. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2008. 318pp. ISBN 978 0 87413 954 9.

 David McInnis
University of Melbourne

David McInnis. "Review of Helen Ostovich, Mary V. Silcox, and Graham Roebuck (eds.), The Mysterious and the Foreign in Early Modern England.". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/mcciosto.htm>

  1. Structuring an edited collection on “the mysterious and the foreign” is surely a difficult task: essentially, what the project demands is the imposition of unity on a topic which is defined by diversity --- and thus inherently resistant to such neat coherence. The present volume edited by Ostovich, Silcox, and Roebuck is an eclectic collection of essays, divided very loosely into three categories: “The Foreign Journey,” “Profiting from the Mysterious,” and “The Domestication of the Mysterious and Foreign.” From the very outset, the introduction signals the great variety of subject matter deemed fit for study under this rubric, ranging from cosmographic details of foreign parts, to “stories of the unnatural, the mysterious, and the criminal” (11) and “[t]ales of horror” or quasi-science and medical mysteries (12) --- a dauntingly incommensurable mixture of topics, to be sure. The problem of focus is compounded by what the editors pointedly exclude --- “witches, ghosts, the supernatural, monsters, unusual natural phenomena, antiquities, even in some instances animals” (17) --- without fully clarifying the reasons why these related areas are mentioned but not addressed substantially (beyond claiming that they are “too broadly based to review here” (17) --- how so?).

  2. Perhaps the first point to make, then, concerns subject matter, and a clarification of expectations. A superficial glance at the title might lead readers to assume that the “mysteriously foreign” was the focus of the collection, whereas that second definite article (“The mysterious and the Foreign…”) in fact points to a more disjunctive understanding of the title: whilst some papers emphasize the mysterious, others emphasize the foreign, and the ostensibly inclusive conjunction ‘and’ can, at times, function as a separation device between “the mysterious” on one hand, and “the foreign” on the other, rather than uniting them. The common denominator is the “unfamiliar”, whether encountered domestically or abroad, and observation is made early on that “[a]ll the texts that the essays gathered here examine are driven by the relationship between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and the intellectual and emotional responses engendered by that relationship” (15). The editors’ refusal to define either of the titular key terms (15), whilst somewhat problematic, can nevertheless also be enabling in its openness; the more disconcerting ambiguity (to my mind) is the lack of commonality in the diverse approaches and subjects. My only real criticism of this edition is that it might have been better structured according to the ostensible aims of each chapter: whilst some papers use the mysterious as a “crutch” to aid a dramatic or poetic “leg” (Ostovich, Harris, Collington), others provide overviews or natural histories for their own sakes (Roebuck, Bell), and others still provide broader explications of attitudes to the unfamiliar which transcend any single literary medium (Malieckal, Franklin). As it stands, the current division of chapters is tentative and arbitrary at times, as for example when Buick’s chapter on how exiled Protestants “suffered a profound sense of alienation” upon returning to a post-Marian England (234) is placed in the “Domestication of the Mysterious and Foreign” section when his point is really the converse: the mystifying of the domestic, rather than the domestication of the mysterious. Similarly, Farnsworth’s chapter (discussed below) may have been better placed in this “Domestication” section, and Loveman’s chapter on the “discovery” of Moses’ tomb should probably fall under the “Profiting from the Mysterious” rubric, in that it examines Thomas Chaloner’s fabricated tale of the discovery of Moses’ tomb in the Levant and thus how Chaloner (fraudulently) exploits the mysterious for personal gain.

  3. The volume sits somewhat ambivalently between literary analysis and cultural studies: as with much recent historicist criticism, there is a slipperiness here between attention to cultural phenomena and literary criticism, and this slipperiness can be productive in opening up important epistemic categories in the discussion of novelty and alterity.  A case in point is Jane Farnsworth’s illuminating discussion of how George Turberville “seeks to make Russia comprehensible” by utilizing the conventions of Petrarchan poetry to address this mysterious northern land and transform “the strange into a recognizable literary shape” (76). This assimilation of novel data into conventional literary forms demonstrates a recurrent motif of early-modern travel writing --- and here of writing about the mysterious more generally --- whereby established traditions are inscribed with new meaning to engage novel cultural phenomena even whilst appropriating old literary strategies. Hence “[n]ot only does [Turberville’s] use of Petrarchism … render the strangeness of Russia comprehensible, but his use of Russian themes and details revitalizes that familiar tradition in return” (85). Especially in texts where accepted ontologies are unsettled by the mysterious or the foreign, the boundaries of literary and cultural studies are necessarily blurred.

  4. Amongst the highlights of this collection are the new perspectives on such plays as The Merchant of Venice and Othello. In the second essay on Jews in this volume (after Mathew Martin’s), Jonathan Gil Harris examines the Jew as “a special, problematic species of foreigner in early modern English literature” (124) and links Shylock’s account of the “parti-coloured” sheep of the Jacob and Laban story to Antonio’s declaration that he is a “tainted wether of the flock,” through consideration of the language of “pathological contamination and coloring that is highly redolent of the mercantilist discourse of usury” (133). In “Othello the Liar,” Philip D. Collington examines Othello’s honesty, instead of Desdemona’s or Iago’s, thus providing a fresh reading of the exotic tales that the general spins for Desdemona’s greedy ears, and arguing that rather than eliding his heritage to inscribe his self with the values of Venetian culture, Othello substitutes Venetian conceptions of African culture for his own so as to excel in the embodiment of Venetian expectations: “Venice does not need another Venetian. It needs an exotic “other” to entertain dinner guests and defend its borders, and Othello exaggerates his differences for their amusement and his own advancement” (190).

  5. In asking such questions as “are there significant differences in the way the court and the city employed exotic signifiers?”, Linda McJannet explores the kind of terrain that the reader might be forgiven for intuitively thinking was the subject matter of the entire volume.  McJannet demonstrates how city entertainments, informed by the exigencies of trade (rather than politics), were more likely than court entertainments to recognize the equality (or even superiority) of exotic Others relative to the English self.[1] Students of drama may similarly be engaged by Marianne Montgomery’s discussion of the stage-Dutch spoken in Dekker’s Shoemaker’s Holiday and how “[i]n this play, England is not deprived but enriched by foreign words and the Dutchman who speaks them” (149). Other studies are valuable, if relatively straightforward and descriptive: for example, Patricia Parker’s “Was Illyria as Mysterious and Foreign as We Think?” records “how much was published or known about Illyria in England prior to the play [Twelfth Night]” (209), and will probably become a staple reference in future introductions to that play. Of the natural histories of sassafras (Roebuck) and tobacco (Bell), the latter is a relatively standard account, but the former is quite enlightening (though overstated) in its examination of the flourishing sassafras trade in England and Ralegh’s linking of “the sassafras tree to the destiny of the nation and its nascent empire” (171).

  6. There is much to be admired in this collection, which it is tempting to regard as a kind of literary wunderkammer, proffering its varied and disparate wares for sampling by the curious reader. We second Elizabethans are no less curious about the mysterious and the foreign, and what this edited collection lacks in unity of purpose and thematic cohesion, it makes up for in diversity and interest. There is something for everyone here, and it is particularly pleasing to see a substantial number of contributions to early modern travel criticism which do not rest on the traditional pillars of colonialism and mercantilism alone in their discussion of alterity.


[1] The constraints of the editing/publishing process are presumably what prevented the short section on Persian characters  (253-54) from taking advantage of Ladan Niayesh’s excellent article in Shakespeare (also printed in 2008) on Persians in public playhouse entertainments (as opposed to the masques and pageants analyzed here). (Ladan Niayesh, “Shakespeare’s Persians,” Shakespeare 4.2 (2008): 137-147).



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