Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Ick Verstaw You Niet": Performing Foreign Tongues on the Early Modern English Stage

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"Ick Verstaw You Niet": Performing Foreign Tongues on the Early Modern English Stage

Article excerpt

    Gentlemen, this play of Hieronimo in sundrie Languages, was thought
    Good to be set downe in English more largely, for the easier
    understanding to euery publicque Reader.
    --The Spanish tragedie ... (1592)

IN his Defense of Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney praises English, "our mother tongue," for its vitality in poetry and "in other arts." (1) He goes on to celebrate its malleability, "capable of any excellent exercising of it," and recasts charges of the language's impurity and its lack of formal grammar as virtues, concluding that it surpasses Latin in expressing "the conceits of the mind" and should in fact rank "equally with any other tongue in the world" (119). Sidney may have been trying to imagine his English into prominence; he was not alone in praising the language. As Carla Mazzio recalls, Richard Mulcaster had valorized English's ability to domesticate foreign terms to allow them to be made useful, and as Steven Mullaney notes, Richard Carew had reimagined the apparent shortcomings of English as a mark of its great potential. (2) And yet there were others who worried precisely about the debasing that could accompany this vernacular flexibility and capacity to encompass the barbarous. Spenser's participation in Sidney's project evinces just this anxious defensiveness in lamenting that they did not yet have "the kingdome" or mastery over "oure owne Language." (3) Nevertheless, Sidney persisted, defending his language's voracious ability to "tak[e] the best of both the other" and enrich itself (119). English playwrights might have agreed.

Despite the recognition that, for good or ill, the porous English language was likely to absorb exotic terms and grow larger and stronger, the English themselves were notoriously monolingual. (4) Portia's deriding of her English suitor Falconbridge, who "hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian ... alas who can converse with a dumb show?" embodies this stereotype. (5) The delicious irony of an (perhaps "the") English dramatist creating an Italian character in an Italian setting speaking an English to be understood by an English audience as Italian as she mocks the English for their lack of linguistic facility points to the issue here. For audiences who refused (or were imagined as unable) to genuinely learn a foreign language, could English dramatists in 1600 find a way to present another tongue without turning their stage into an incomprehensible Babel? That playwrights would try to represent linguistic difference--sometimes accurately, sometimes suggestively--demonstrates both the playwrights' and their audiences' appetite for foreignness. London was one of the most important trade centers in Europe; its immigrant population, while comparatively small, did create the likelihood that real Dutch, French, or Spanish might be heard (if not understood) in the public arena: markets, fairs, public houses, theaters. The foreign tongues that non-English characters speak on these stages had to be somewhat comprehensible to English audiences if a play's action was meant to be understood by the paying customers, and the fact that playgoers could make even rudimentary sense of dramatized foreigners would testify to England's significance as a cosmopolitan trade center. And while the English are traditionally derided for their lack of skill with other languages, these strange dialects were a mark of England's prominence in the mercantile arena of early modern Europe. Rehearsing exotic tongues, even if they were not entirely understood, signaled the emergence of England and cosmopolitan London on the metaphorical stage of European events. (6)

Despite anxieties about Englishmen's ability to learn foreign languages, and the fact that an audience of the middling sort was even less likely to have reached the sophistication of a linguist like Sidney, popular playwrights in Elizabethan London persisted in commodifying other languages and bringing them before a broad audience, often for the effect of "jest[ing] at strangers because they speak no English so well as we do" that Sidney had lamented (116). …

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