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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
"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.
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
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. Yale: Yale UP, 1982.
Kahn, Coppélia. Roman Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1996.
Marrapodi, Michele, A.J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Capuzzo and L. Falzon Santucci, eds. Shakespeare's Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1993.
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare's Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.