Monica Matei-Chesnoiu, Re-imagining Western European Geography in English Renaissance Drama

Monica Matei-Chesnoiu, Re-imagining Western European Geography in English Renaissance Drama (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 220 pp. £56 Hb, EPUB, PDF. ISBN 978-0-230-36630-5.

Literary geography, or the study of connections between literary and geographic texts, has profited from extensive scholarly inquiry in the past decade. In line with this ‘spatial turn’ in research, scholars of early modern drama have concluded that dramatic texts written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrate a consistent concern with the shifts in understanding about the individual’s place within a geographically charted world. In Re-imagining Western European Geography in English Renaissance Drama, Monica Matei-Chesnoiu builds on the work of Andrew Hadfield, whose 1998 book Literature, Travel, and Colonial Writing in the English Renaissance, 1545-1625 analysed the influences of travel writing on contemporary debates about political constitution and individual liberty. Matei-Chesnoiu seeks to examine the ways in which the ‘protean world of the theatre’ (168) inherited, manipulated and reinterpreted representations of Western European nations found in geographic texts. Matei-Chesnoiu provides a comparative survey of the geographic and dramatic representations of France, Germany, the Low Countries, Denmark and Spain, although she focuses rather more on the ethnographic traits of these countries’ inhabitants than their environmental features. A persuasive feature of Matei-Chesnoiu’s argument is the way in which she emphasises that dramatic authors used the tension between the foreign and familiar presented by early modern geographic narratives about western European nations, contiguous to some degree with English culture, in order to explore the limits of the nation and the individual.

In the introduction and first chapter of her book, Matei-Chesnoiu suggests that translations of classical and contemporary European geographic narratives were preoccupied by, on the one hand, the legitimisation of expansionism, but on the other, a broad humanist approach towards ‘human partnership and achievement’ (38). The second chapter asserts that collectively, geographic texts presented a stable and balanced vision of France, partly as a result of their shared reliance upon classical source material. This collective ethnographic knowledge is destabilised on the early modern stage sincephrases, gestures or behaviours associated with the French in geographic texts are revealed to be applicable to people from all nations. For example, when Bottom refers to his wish to disguise himself with a ‘French-crown-colour beard’ in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his words might allude to the ethnographic stereotype of syphilis as ‘the French disease’, but his playacting points to the constructed nature of such stereotypes.

In her subsequent chapters, Matei-Chesnoiu extends her argument that early modern drama presented and deconstructed the ethnographic terms and concepts which were propagated in geographical narratives. She demonstrates that ethnographic traits are exposed on the early modern stage as constructed performances, trivial alongside more universal human traits which exist outside borders and inside cosmopolitan spaces such as the brothel, marketplace and inn. In Chapter Three, Matei-Chesnoiu identifies the fact that in both Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Fletcher and Massinger’s The Fair Maid at the Inn, characters are described as exceeding Paracelsus in alchemical skill. The characters are measured against the commonplace association in geographic texts between the Germanic peoples and magical ability. However, Jonson’s Subtle and Fletcher and Massinger’s Forobosco differ from (the Swiss) Paracelsus, in that they are characters who depend upon skills of trickery which are theatrical rather than alchemical.Ethnographic markers of identity are undermined on the stage by performances which overwrite topographical boundaries.

In her fourth chapter, on the Low Countries and Denmark, Matei-Chesnoiu sharpens her argument by demonstrating how shared commercial interests between the Dutch and English resulted in Antwerp being constructed as a ‘second London’. Matei-Chesnoiu argues that the translation of geographical texts was seen as an opportunity to frame moral criticism of the home country through a seemingly objective narrative. This vehicle for moral scrutiny was inherited by dramatists who saw didactic value in contrasting the familiar and the foreign. In The Glasse of Government (1575), George Gascoigne preaches morality to Londoners by staging the consequences of their depravity in Antwerp, a city which geographic narratives had established as a focal point for transnational encounters. Matei-Chesnoiu suggests, compellingly, that increased geographical mobility in Western Europe led to certain cities becoming vividly realised dramatic analogues of one another.

The book concludes with a reinterpretation of anti-Spanish sentiment in the early modern period. Matei-Chesnoiu demonstrates that geographical narratives about Spain were similar to those about other Western European countries in that they maintained an objective balance. Anti-Spanish sentiment in such works, she argues, was counterbalanced by the admiration that the English held for Spanish aptitude at sea. The book as a whole provides a number of convincing readings of Ben Jonson’s plays, and Matei-Chesnoiu points out that his city comedies defy the exploitation of xenophobic sentiment to be found in geographic and dramatic works of the period in their presentation of characters preoccupied by the general human condition rather than nationally-defined markers of identity.

As a whole, this book equips the student reader with a number of helpful summaries and bibliographies of geographic texts and city plays. However, the ambition of the project means that there is not space for each of the examples to be analysed in depth. The book prompts further questions about the specific historical and literary conditions which led to the fascinating connections between geography and drama in the early modern period. A study of the reading demographic of geographic narratives, for instance, would provide valuable context. Matei-Chesnoiu offers a number of telling analyses of the ways in which dramatic texts rearticulated assumptions about nations and peoples from geographic texts as theatrical devices. These resonant examples mean that this book is an important contribution to discussions about the ways in which the early modern dramatic character was shaped by shifting geographic perspectives.

Emily Derbyshire, University of Bristol