Heather James. Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics and the Translation of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. xii+237pp. ISBN 0 521 59223 2 Cloth.
Huw Griffiths
University of Dundee


Griffiths, Huw.  "Review of Shakespeare's Troy: Drama, Politics and the Translation of Empire." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.3 (January, 1999): 11.1-20 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-3/griffrev.html>.

  1. In his classic study of imitation in the renaissance, Thomas Greene wrote about imitatio as constituting the production of a new cultural identity in the renaissance, one that takes "the temporal, the contingent and the specific as given" (19) In her study of Shakespeare's uses and adaptations of the translatio imperii, James attempts to articulate just such an emergent sense of selfhood and cultural identity, an imitation that is responding to particular cultural moments.

  3. Unlike the swooning and alienated Petrarchists of Greene's study, though, James's Shakespeare robustly adapts the texts of the translatio studii in the context of the emergent commercial theatre. If Shakespeare, as a cultural icon, has been posthumously written into the translatio imperii as a British national poet, an Elizabethan Virgil, as a dramatist he was concerned to wrest control of the dominating myths of power from out of the hands of the authorising powers and to validate the theatre's own translations of empire. Anything they could do, the theatre could do better, and with a more radical edge.

  5. James is distancing herself from studies of renaissance imitation which deal with an undifferentiated 'past' and its single nervous offspring - a renaissance 'present,' cowering in the shadows of its predecessors. Instead, she seeks to describe a dynamic culture of appropriation, and of the use and misuse of radically demarcated and often antagonistic authorities. Instead of showing suitable veneration for the authority of his 'source' texts, Shakespeare is seen to juggle with his several appropriations, playing the exiled and malcontented Ovid off against the official imperiousness of Virgil, one model of the story of Dido and Aeneas brought into open disagreement with another. An introductory chapter plays around with Shakespeare's punning language, insisting that such slipperiness of meaning amounts to a questioning of authority. The punning character of the antic in the plays "riddles and puns to disrupt comfort in social order" (5). This questioning of linguistic authority broadens out into the full length study of Shakespeare's playful take on the political authorities of his ancient sources.

  7. James's study is then part of a general re-assessment of the purpose behind the identification of what in Shakespeare studies have traditionally been called 'source' texts. Instead of situating the Shakespearean play text as the transcendent culmination of centuries of cultural work, the plays are instead placed within wider cultural processes of imitation and adaptation. Neither is this limited to the dry and scholarly identification of intertextual allusion but intertextuality is rather placed within the necessarily pluralistic dynamics of the commercial theatre.

  9. As James puts it, "the theater can traffic in the discourses of the established domains of social influence without being obliged to replicate any particular set of interests" (33). The Shakespearean stage challenges the authoritative status of the orthodox pedagogical transmissions of ancient texts by boldly making its own interventions into the processes of appropriation. The play house sets itself up as an alternative cultural authority to the school room, the university or the council chamber. Beyond this, in taking the matter of Troy as its concern the stage is directly addressing the epistemological status of authority in western transmissions of culture. Aeneas' endlessly replayed journey west towards Hesperia and the founding of Rome is, of course, the primary myth of authority in the early modern period. To appropriate this narrative for your own use is, necessarily, to address questions of precedence and authority.

  11. The title of the book is misleading if you expect it to follow in the footsteps of Robert Miola's Shakespeare's Rome, or the recent collection of essays, Shakespeare's Italy, in that the scope of James's study extends beyond the specificities of geographical setting and immediate narrative sources. The book is not only concerned with Troilus and Cressida. Rather it is the translation of empire that is the focus and, like Aeneas himself, it journeys beyond Troy and on to Carthage and Rome, eventually to land in London (Troynovant).

  13. In terms of method, this results in a series of detailed and often virtuoso discussions of the five plays which James identifies as 'translations of empire' -- Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline and The Tempest. What this sequence also allows James to do is look at the development of the translation of empire over time, responding to different political and cultural situations. Each of the several translations of empire are underwritten by particular political concerns -- Titus by the crisis of authority attendant on the idea of a female sovereign, Troilus by the fall of Essex and the crisis in aristocratic chivalric culture, Antony by a response to the theatrical display of political power, Cymbeline by the beginnings of the constitutional struggles between the Stuart royal family and parliament, and The Tempest by the political theories and practices employed in English colonial expansion. Whilst none of these areas of concern are new to readings of the plays in question, they are given fresh impetus by being situated in relation to the renaissance translation of empire.

  15. A particularly fine example is the discussion of Cymbeline's central disturbing image --the headless body of Cloten being mourned over by Imogen who assumes it is Posthumus, her exiled husband. Building on an older essay by Patricia Parker, James identifies the Virgilian allusions present in this emblematic moment of the play. Posthumus is identified, via Imogen's mistake, with the dead Priam, decapitated on the shore of Troy and prospectively with Aeneas from the curse of the dying Dido. Rather than see this as merely echoing a Jacobean imperial project in which the Posthumus Aeneas is ultimately saved through the restorative forces of romance, James sees this image, and the further complexities of the troubled identification of Posthumus with Aeneas (after all, the body belongs to Cloten, the villain of the piece), as evidence of the precarious nature of Britain's imperial pretensions.

  17. "When Imogen confuses Cloten's headless body with Posthumus, Britain's fated emergence as a nation, backed by the combined authority of Troy and Augustan Rome, hangs in perilous suspension" (162). This is symptomatic of many of James's readings of the plays, in which there is no simple transmission of authority. Aeneas cannot arrive on the shores of Britain without being mediated by the complexities of his textual receptions and reproductions, from Ovid onwards. At any one time, a Shakespearean Aeneas can draw on any number of traditions, playing them off each other in what amounts to a relentless questioning of the nature of authority.

  19. The chapter on Cymbeline is perhaps particularly successful because of that play's notorious anachronisms. These James identifies as "mingle-mangle," a word she takes from John Lyly's prologue to Midas. This allows her to argue, more powerfully than elsewhere, that Shakespeare's characteristic playfulness when it comes to the choice of source material has a necessarily deleterious effect on political authority. "Through its unstable 'mingle mangle' of sources and historical periods,' she writes, "Cymbeline threatens to dissolve rather than ratify the emergent British nation along with its Jacobean political iconography" (152). It is a great pity that she does not follow up this strong argument with anything more than a perfunctory discussion of this play's situation in relation to King James VI and I's appropriation of the translatio imperii in the light of his union project . In her account James chooses, all too often, to focus on Rome more than on Britain/England, thus nullifying some of her argument around the contemporary relevances of these imitations.

  21. The chapter on Antony is, despite sharing some of these same pifalls, also particularly interesting. In this play, James sees the theatre as beginning to invent its own 'cultural space,' to imagine its options as it responds to the new theatrical contexts, that have emerged following the accession of James. "The play and its cultural moment suggest options for the theatre, positions for it to occupy: to be co-opted, to collude playfully, to rival or to oppose" (148). The theatricality of the characters, Antony and Cleopatra, a feature drawn attention to by critics many times, is seen by James as a model for the Shakespearean theatre as it co-opts authorities for its own uses. In this model, Alexandria becomes the playful arena of the playhouse, and the endpoint of Rome, venue for Octavius' projected triumph, mirrors the masque culture of the Jacobean court.

  23. Within the playfulness of Alexandrian 'theatre' Antony wrests control of his own inheritance within the translation of empire. Whilst ventriloquising his own emasculated status, Aeneas trapped and effeminised by a sensuous Dido, he attempts to rewrite and defy that story. For James, this conscious rewriting is part of the Shakespearean stage's iconoclasm in relation to its authorities. "The Antony I favor is iconoclastic and anachronistic: partly aware of his presence on the Jacobean stage and distinctly aware that literary history will deform and fragment him" (131).

  25. There may be a problem with agency here. Sometimes James is not entirely clear about to whom exactly she is ascribing these playful appropriations. This results in the occasional confused statement such as, "urgently and ventriloquistically, the historical Antony speaks through the fictional Antony and the actor onstage" (131). Is it Shakespeare, the actor, the character Antony or "the historical Antony" that facilitates the imitation? Who is doing what to whom?

  27. Perhaps, though, it is in the nature of imitatio to disperse agency in this way and characters such as Ulysses and Thersistes in Troilus and Tamora and Aaron in Titus Andronicus are shown to be adept readers of their own classical inscription. "Ulysses and Thersites outperform Nestor, Agamemnon, and Ajax as interpreters and Tamora and Aaron are skilled in reading political significances in imperial Roman icons, texts or performances, while Tamora's sons are failures" (118). Such characters as these, as well as Innogen, Antony, Cleopatra and Prospero are shown to be as adept as Shakespeare himself in rewriting their authorities. As such they function, in James's text, as models for the playwright's own approach, as well as being themselves embodiments of that process of adaptation and appropriation.

  29. These are just two instances of the wealth of evidence that James assembles to illustrate her contention that the Shakespearean stage was actively engaged in the appropriation, use and misuse of cultural authority, both to legitimise itself and to intervene in the wider cultural debates that were focused on these processes of imitation. On the whole, this provides for some engaging readings of these texts.

  31. However, one problem with James's methodology is not one of theory, but of practice. She is undoubtedly right in saying that the joint approaches of traditional 'source studies' and cultural studies are required to respond to the complexities of the early modern theatre's interventions in these processes of textual adaptation and the production of authority. However, all too often James separates these areas off from each other in her argument, as regimentally as the areas of liberty from the city proper in a cultural geography of early modern London.

  33. The fine and detailed discussions of the textual borrowings and conflicts in the plays form the central part of each different chapter. The discussion of how this might be a response to a particular political situation is, in each case, hived off to a rather perfunctory section at the end of the given chapter.

  35. One cannot help but feel she is not making good on her claims that these texts are live "political metaphors rather than dead ones" (6). The politics would surely be on the interface between these two contexts, and between these two different interpretative models which she calls "strange bedfellows" (6). In her claims for the novelty of using traditional 'source' material in a more cultural history kind of reading of the plays, she is more than a little disingenuous in that there have recently been some excellent examples of a new integration between source studies and the more politically aware work developed under and after the new historicism. I am thinking particularly of Coppélia Kahn's Roman Shakespeare, part of the new Routledge series of feminist readings of Shakespeare plays. Where that book doesn't employ the same depth of learning as that of James, it does fully activate that knowledge in relation to the political concerns of both the plays themselves and the interpretation. It doesn't just stop there. The whole tenor of new historicism has invited us consistently to pay attention to the interfaces between text and culture, authority and adaptation.

  37. To take the example of the chapter on Cymbeline again, James gives us thirty four pages of detailed, stylish and complex discussion of the precise moments of appropriation in the text. This is followed by only three pages on why this might make it a specifically "Jacobean Cymbeline." It might have profited James's argument to have more fully integrated the two strands.

  39. This pattern is repeated for all the plays and, as a result, one is less inclined, at the end, to believe in the political motivations of these translations of empire than one was at the beginning. That is not to say she is wrong, but that her own rather formulaic method does not live up to the dynamic claims that she makes for the plays. A little more Shakespearean 'mingle mangle' and a lot less authority would not have gone amiss. For a book that begins with a fine discussion of the subversive potential of linguistic play, and of the quibble, her own text too often resists the possibilities of an interplay between language and history. This though is my own small quibble with a book that provides some excellent new readings of these fascinating texts and which signals the importance of paying attention to the notion of the translatio imperii, as we read early modern texts in their cultural contexts.

Works Cited

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

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).