Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603

By Ivic, Christopher | Early Modern Literary Studies, September 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603


Ivic, Christopher, Early Modern Literary Studies


John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). xiv+599pp. ISBN 978 0 1981 8384 6.

In choosing the title Archipelagic English, John Kerrigan invites his readers to think about early modern England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales as not simply geographically linked but also culturally and politically linked. These entities were also, but not always, bitterly divided. It is within this two-island, three-kingdom, four-nation framework that Kerrigan's lengthy book, with well over 100 pages of notes, seeks to reorient the study of English literature - mainly, but not exclusively, literature of the seventeenth century, which Kerrigan labels 'one of the most important periods of literary production and, connectedly, nation and state formation' (p. 2). While Kerrigan is not the first literary historian to explore literature written in English in this period within a wider British and Irish framework - books by David Baker, Andrew Hadfield, Willy Maley, Mark Netzloff, and Kate Chedgzoy come to mind - he goes about the business in a more comprehensive manner than any other critic to date: that is, he considers male and female authors; he examines writing from and on England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (not to mention work in Hiberno-English and Scots/Inglis as well as work translated from Welsh and Gaelic); and he expands his focus well beyond 1707, continuing on to Swiftand Scott and the varieties of Britishness that emerged leading up to and around 1802. Unlike any other critic heretofore, then, Kerrigan offers us a rich reexamination of anglophone literature of the early modern period from a less anglocentric perspective.

One of the strengths of this well-researched book is the way in which it connects authors, texts, and events within and across chapters. Kerrigan is attentive to political and cultural legacies, and his analyses gain force as he highlights the impact of authors and texts on later writers and readers. The chapter on Shakespeare's Macbeth - aptly titled 'Archipelagic Macbeth' - glances occasionally to the Caroline play The Valiant Scot (1637) so as to tease out the prophetic strains in Shakespeare's Jacobean 'Scottish' play. Thus, the centrepiece of this chapter is an early Jacobean play; however, the perspective broadens to incorporate Anglo-Scottish (actually, archipelagic) issues that dominated both James's and Charles's reigns. Connections are also made across chapters: this is true of individual authors (Marvell features in chapters 7 and 9) and of genres (for instance, chapters on the Earl of Orrery's dramatic works and on 'The Derry School of Drama'). The long, reflective epilogue that majestically concludes the book considers how eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers looked back at the signal period 1603-1707, a period that commenced with regal union, witnessed violent union, and resulted, eventually, in Anglo-Scottish political union. Kerrigan does well to consider some of the union literature that was produced in the wake of the 1707 Union; oddly, he says little or nothing about the plethora of print and manuscript tracts and treatises that were published in 1604 and 1605 (some of which were later republished). Attention to these early Jacobean writings on various aspects of union, including cultural union, would have enriched Kerrigan's focus on the fashioning and refashioning of cultural identities.

Although a strong sense of connectedness binds this book's various chapters, it would be unfair to say that Kerrigan tells a straightforward tale. Kerrigan, as he states in his Preface, selects thematically related 'texts or clusters of texts' and explores them within the context in which they were produced and received, and in doing so he rejects 'overarching historical narratives' (p. viii). Consider, for example, Kerrigan's chapter on Wales and Jacobean drama ('The Romans in Britain'), which covers a number of plays (William Rowley's A Shoo-maker a Gentleman, Shakespeare's Cymbeline, John Fletcher's Bonduca, and Robert Armin's The Valiant Welshman) that were written a few years into James's English reign. …

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