Andrew Hadfield. 1997. Spenser's Irish Experience: Wilde Fruite and Salvage Soyl. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 227 pp. ISBN 0-19-818345-3. £35.

Christopher Highley. 1997. Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 246 pp. 6 illus. ISBN 0-521-58199-0. £37.50/$59.95.

  1. As Christopher Highley remarks in the introduction to his book, there has until quite recently been a lack of analysis of the place of Ireland in the 'formation of emergent English notions of nationhood, empire and [ . . . ] self-understanding' (2). These two books speak to, and constitute part of, the recent rise in interest in early modern Ireland, a rise signalled only a few years ago by Brendan Bradshaw, Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley's 1993 edited collection, Representing Ireland: Literature and the Origins of Conflict, 1534-1660. Historians and literary scholars alike have evidently begun to find new ways of approaching the culture and history of the later sixteenth century via the study of Ireland in this period. As is the case with most of the best work produced in the field of early modern cultural history over the last fifteen years or so, a rewardingly interdisciplinary perspective characterises both of the books I address here. Hadfield's book has a specific focus on Spenser's works, whilst Highley juxtaposes an exploration of Spenser with one dealing with the Irish dimensions of Shakespeare's history plays. Both establish the 1580s-90s, the Elizabethan fin-de-siècle, as the moment of crisis for Anglo-Irish matters, political and cultural.

  2. Highley begins by foregrounding the quasi-revisionist orientation of his project. His intention is to address, on the one hand, the under-explored territory of late sixteenth-century Ireland, and on the other, to critique the dominant Elizabethan cultural 'anglo-centrism'. He stresses the importance of Ireland to an understanding of Elizabethan notions of Englishness, where Ireland can be seen to work as an unsettling counterpoint (or perhaps antithesis) to the 'imagined internal unification of England' (3). Laudable, too, is his insistence that to 'assimilate' Ireland to an argument about an emergent 'discourse of colonialism' in the early modern period verges on anachronism. It certainly elides the true complexity of the Irish and English experience at this moment, which, Highley claims, was more 'diverse' and 'eclectic' than a blanket notion such as colonialism might imply (7). By exploring Ireland in relation to Wales, Scotland and England, Highley produces a more detailed and carefully nuanced reading of the cultural tensions that dominated these encounters than some who have lumped together Ireland, the New World and the rest of Europe. His interest, it seems, is in margins: of geographical locations, of historical events, and of canonical texts.

  3. From the introduction onwards Highley is at pains to establish a sense which is as full and specific as possible of the historical contexts for the texts and writers he discusses; what is rather understated in his book, however, is the nature of the critical/theoretical apparatus within which his analysis sits. For instance, the phrase 'self-fashioning' is used frequently to describe a wide range of cultural forms, from governmental policy to Spenser's literary output, but Highley fights shy of declaring himself a new historicist, although new historicism is clearly at the very least a major influence on his work. Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning is cited twice in footnotes, but the concept itself is not tackled directly. Similarly, he refers to the process of 'local reading' with no explicit treatment of its theoretical antecedents or implication within recent critical trends. This is rather a missed opportunity for the book as a whole, because I think his detailed historical approach can present a refreshingly grounded alternative to some new historicists' opportunistic use of the anecdote.

  4. In the same way, Highley provides an attempted justification for the centrality of Shakespeare's works to his analysis, but does so in a somewhat circumlocutory fashion. 'Present-day cultural politics', he argues, dictate that one should address Shakespeare because of that writer's status as a 'highly charged locus' of cultural meaning, especially in relation to questions of nationhood. This carefully political perspective sits rather uneasily, however, with his consequent assertion that Shakespeare offers the reader a 'remarkably sustained and provocative [ . . . ] analysis of Anglo-Irish affairs' (8). On the basis of certain arguably topical moments in some of Shakespeare's history plays, this statement seems informed more by residual bardolatry than by a conscious process of differentiation between works by various hands. Certainly, the implicit comparison with writers contemporary with Shakespeare is only actually realised in a fragmentary way: the Irish dimensions of the multi-authored 1599 Sir John Oldcastle, for example, are dismissed with a passing reference to the character MacChane, 'a stereotype of Irish ingratitude, duplicity and viciousness' (155). MacChane undeniably is this kind of stereotype, but Highley has elsewhere put forward the view that such ostensibly simplistic representations can be rewardingly scrutinised: 'even the most apparently reactionary and essentialist representations of Ireland and the Irish could create counter-meanings and even inspire radical insights' (12). It is unfortunate that his expressed confidence over non-canonical literary texts is not borne out in practice; this is a demerit in an otherwise cogent and interesting volume.

  5. Andrew Hadfield's Spenser's Irish Experience, as a total contrast, does not even mention Shakespeare. Spenser, of course, does have his place in the literary canon as the humanist poet par excellence, but the cultural investment in him pales in comparison with that directed at Shakespeare. What both Hadfield and Highley's books share, however, is an informed sense of the political and literary culture of the 1590s, to which Hadfield dedicates his first chapter. Hadfield produces a series of readings of late sixteenth-century Ireland, with Spenser's works as the centre around which his argument about national identity is organised. 'The history of Britain' is, as Hadfield claims, a complex one, and Spenser was writing at a moment of substantial fluidity in respect of notions of nation, empire, the native, and the fraught distinction between Englishness and Britishness (3). Hadfield appears to share Highley's view that apparently transparent categories like 'coloniser' and 'colonised' can sometimes be used to disguise more problematic relations: a trait also exhibited by early modern writers themselves, of course, in the interests of establishing a rhetorical distinction between the English and the Irish, for instance. As Hadfield states, in the works of Spenser, for one, 'paradoxes are cast aside in the face of imminent destruction, and old dualisms inexorably reaffirmed' (50).

  6. The centre of gravity of Hadfield's book differs from Highley's. The former is writing with the intention of establishing an entire Irish context within which one can read Spenser: not just the overtly 'political' Spenser of A View of the Present State of Ireland, but the erudite Elizabethan poet of The Faerie Queene, since it is Hadfield's contention that both these works are equally framed by the writer's Irish experiences. To that end, he establishes from the start a theoretical perspective derived from Said and Bhabha which foregrounds questions of colonialism and imperialism. Having fewer writers to tackle, Hadfield can concentrate to a greater extent on extended and authoritative accounts of A View, The Faerie Queene, and 'Two Cantos of Mutabilitie' which also address the critical history of those texts in a way sure to be invaluable to future readers.

  7. Lengthy citation from both texts is adduced to support his reading. With these he pursues a progressive and painstaking journey through Spenser's writings to illustrate their Irish dimensions. Indeed, such is the care Hadfield takes to comment in detail in Spenser's multivalent texts that it seems at times that his engagement with other critics is a sub-text, a separate discussion undertaken by means of numerous and very full references, to a reading almost formalist in its specificity. In the course of the concluding chapter of his discussion of The Faerie Queene, for instance, a crucial critical debate is merely signalled in a footnote as 'Spenser has had his defenders over the years' (147 n.7). I would have liked to have seen Hadfield's extremely well-informed account of Spenser do more explicit battle with those other scholars he mentions so tantalisingly in transitory footnotes. Although his conclusion that Spenser's encounter with Ireland problematised his work enormously and inhibited the production of a uniform or uncomplicated representation of either Ireland or England is highly persuasive, one might have wished for a little more fire in the belly of what can in the context of traditional and/or conservative accounts be construed a controversial argument.

  8. It is undeniable that the body of knowledge about early modern Ireland and its repercussions upon cultural production in the period will benefit greatly from the publication of both of these books. There is sufficient food for thought here to perpetuate discussions about nationalism, identity and the nature of historical and cultural crisis for some time to come.

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Contents © Copyright Tracey Hill 1998.
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