Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama

By Forker, Charles R. | Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama


Forker, Charles R., Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England


Aliens and Englishness in Elizabethan Drama, by Lloyd Edward Kermode. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi + 202. $99.00.

We live in a world, especially in America, where a secure sense of national identity is constantly threatened by elements perceived as alien to a superior native heritage, political, economic, linguistic, or religious. Some fear universalizing health care as a socialist and therefore foreign program; others resent illegal immigrants as competing unfairly with native workers, as unwelcome intruders who, at the very least, should be required to learn English; still others are suspicious of persons who fall outside familiar patterns of JudeoChristian worship, perceiving them as potential terrorists. Popular anxiety about invasive foreignness emerges in bumper stickers that read "Buy American" or in the need to rename french-fried potatoes "freedom fries." Once the feared imports have become sufficiently assimilated, however, Americans tend to accept them as aspects of a traditional melting-pot diversity - a diversity fundamental to, and definitional of, the culture. Kermode considers such issues in Elizabethan England, proposing to analyze them as reflected in a range of plays dating from the 1550s to the close of the century. His organization is chronological. Two early chapters discuss allegorical plays: the anonymous Wealth and Health, FuI well' s Like Will to Like, Wapull's The Tide Tarrieth No Man, and Wilson's The Three Ladies of London with its sequel, The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London. Brief consideration of Sir Thomas More, in which Shakespeare had a hand, leads to a chapter on the bard's second tetralogy, which in turn is followed by a concluding analysis of three very different comedies from the 1590s - Haughton's Englishmen for My Money, Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday, and Marston's Jack Drum's Entertainment.

Although generically diverse, all these plays, in the author's view, contribute to an ongoing debate about the nature and quality of Anglo-foreign relations in the period. Kermode sees the English as initially vindicating their sense of superior national selfhood by contrasting it with foreignness, usually as manifested by residents or visitors from Holland or France, but also by cultures psychologically closer to home - the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. Continental residents are seen as contaminating English morals by taking advantage of Christian hospitality and by corrupting native generosity to make profit at all costs the dominant imperative. Jewishness additionally enters the mix since stereotypes of the usurer, the moneylender, and the dealer in foreign trade often influence dramatic characterization. Kermode' s principal argument, however, is that the sense of Englishness that progressively develops in these dramas moves quickly beyond a simple antithesis of the self versus "the other" by incorporating and eventually even celebrating the foreignness that it had begun by rejecting. As he writes, "The English are a people rife [ripe?] for alien confusion, resisting the alien but subject to absorbing the habits of others, afraid of foreignness but needing (to understand or contain) the foreign to bolster and inoculate the self against what they fear" (64). Thus the theater can function not merely as a mirror of national identity; it actually constructs that identity performatively by absorbing and selectively reshaping elements of the alien to project a heightened self-definition of Englishness. Paradoxically, the process of constant mutation over time becomes the only constant, a conclusion too predictable, one might think, to justify the laborious superstructure of theoretical excogitation erected to support it. This is not to gainsay the impressive amount of historical research on political and social background that informs Kermode' s discussion.

His summary of the relevant demographics is helpful, since burgeoning concentration of foreigners in urban centers (particularly London) was a significant factor. …

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