David J. Baker. Between Nations: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and the Question of Britain. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. ISBN 0 804 72992 2.
Andrew Murphy
University of St. Andrews

Murphy, Andrew. "Review of David J. Baker, Between Nations." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.2 (September, 2000): 9.1-6<URL:

  1. Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-fashioning is generally taken as a keystone text for the emergence of a revitalised historicist criticism from the early 1980s onward. His chapter on Spenser served to refocus attention on the English poet's prose text A View of the Present State of Ireland, drawing Ireland within the ambit of Greenblatt's exploration of early modern colonialist discourse. What for Greenblatt was pretty much a side alleyway became, for a generation of young critics heavily influenced by historicist models of analysis, something of a royal road and that road has been a touch overburdened with traffic over the past several years, as PhD theses have turned into books and essay collections have proliferated. This is, in a sense, no bad thing in itself, though it is increasingly hard to avoid the feeling that a certain narrow band of Renaissance texts are in danger of coming apart as a result of an analytical version of metal fatigue. Flann O'Brien once proposed a society for the protection of the rights of fictional characters. Surely Henry V's Captain Macmorris would have a case to bring to them, as the poor man has been repeatedly tormented by waves of young critics seeking to probe the mystery of his enigmatic question "what ish my nation?" Cruel and unusual treatment indeed.

  2. It is predictable then, I suppose, that Macmorris should be subject to interrogation once again in David Baker's Between Nations though, in fairness to Baker, it should be pointed out that, having appeared in 1997, his book was one of the first of the recent wave of studies to appear in this field. And in fairness, too, it should be noted that Baker's analysis of the four captains scene is one of the very best -- he genuinely brings new light to the subject and the 1992 English Literary Renaissance article which provides the foundation for his Henry V chapter has been much cited as a clear and intelligent piece of work. Where others have sought to explicate Macmorris's lines, to bring them to coherence, Baker argues, with great acuity, that the whole point of the speech is precisely that it resists, even refuses, coherence. As he notes: "his lines . . . stage a disintegration of sense and reference within which his own overdetermined identity is neither completely effaced nor altogether present" (39).

  3. Baker does not confine himself to Ireland in his Shakespeare chapter, but interestingly extends his analysis by using Fluellen as a point of entry into the text's broader Welsh context. He includes here an excellent discussion of John Penry's Humble Supplication (1587), in which Penry attempted to convince Elizabeth of the value of using the Welsh language as a vehicle for promoting Reformation ideology. Baker draws out the complexities of Penry's positioning with great subtlety, arguing that

    This churchman operated, perforce, as an intercessor in an intersector where one language was privileged, but two (at least) must be used, and he negotiated between and within these tongues, sometimes fluent, sometimes stammering, as the occasion required. 'I dare write,' he wrote as he was about to inscribe a Welsh profanity, 'that which I durst not vtter in words'. (49)

    Baker's work thus usefully complements Christopher Highley's Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland, which also includes some Welsh material within its field of focus.

  4. Baker's nuanced interweaving of Ireland and Wales within a greater British context is of a piece with the general thrust of Between Nations. Where many other scholars working in this area have tended to rely heavily on such early modern historians as D. B. Quinn, Nicholas Canny, Brendan Bradshaw, and, more recently, Hiram Morgan and Steven Ellis, Baker takes his historiographical bearings from J. G. A. Pocock and he is thus the first literary critic to attempt systematically to bring Pocock's 'British' (broadly defined) paradigms to bear in a literary critical arena in a sustained manner. Baker avoids the pitfalls that many historians (such as Canny and Keith Brown) have identified in 'British history' -- that it can all too often simply be English history rewritten in three kingdoms clothing -- by viewing Britain less as a stable object of analysis than as itself a problematic, "zone," as he puts it, "where nations were written between the lines and across them" (9). Within this context, Baker argues, Britain becomes "less a fixed and distinct domain than an ontological predicament, a knot of conundrums entangling the several peoples who in the early modern period were compelled to share that 'island group lying off the northwestern coasts of geographic Europe"' (8, quoting Pocock).

  5. Baker's Pocockian analysis is usefully employed in his chapter on Spenser. Here he concentrates almost exclusively on A View of the Present State of Ireland, mercifully sparing his readers yet another discussion of how this tract can be related to Book V of the Faerie Queene. Baker interestingly focuses on Spenser's conception of the law and the implications of the existence of two distinctive legal systems in Ireland -- English common law and Irish Brehon law. Here his work intersects usefully with that of Elizabeth Fowler. The final chapter of his book focuses on Andrew Marvell, with particular reference to his "Horation Ode Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland." Baker convincingly argues that the shifting ambiguity of Marvell's own political stance -- often taken as a sign of a certain self-serving political cynicism -- in fact marks the complex uncertainty of any seventeenth century attempts to forge a coherent 'Britain' from its constituent elements. "The 'Ode,'" he writes, "is a poem by an Englishman who glimpses the potential for more-than-Englishness that Cromwell's victories seem to imply, but who is keenly aware that more-than-Englishness is a condition fraught with its own complement of paradoxes" (135).

  6. Just as Baker extends his Shakespeare chapter to take in Wales, so he extends this chapter to discuss Scotland, by way of an analysis of Marvell's "The Loyal Scot." While this is useful (and complements Willy Maley's work), it is hard, finally, not to feel that, for a book dedicated to exploring a broadly-defined set of British connections, the compass needle of this volume tends to pull rather too insistently in the direction of Ireland and matters Anglo-Irish. A dialogue between Pocockian British history and Renaissance literature will indeed prove to be fruitful, but it needs to work to a broader and more inclusive canvas than Baker offers here (though, in fairness, it should be noted that he is co-editor of a forthcoming volume which takes up this very issue). Having said this, however, it should also be stressed that Between Nations is one of the very best of the many books to have been published on this topic in recent years.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2000-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).