Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Lisa Hopkins, Renaissance Drama on the Edge (Ashgate, 2014)

Lisa Hopkins, Renaissance Drama on the Edge (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014). ISBN 978-1-4094-3819-9, 191 pp + ii. £54.00.

Reviewed by Paul Frazer

9781409438199.JKT_template[1] One of the glittering trophies in Lisa Hopkins’ research wunderkammer is her 2005 Shakespeare on the Edge, a trail-blazing study of border-crossing in the tragedies and Henriad. 2014’s Renaissance Drama on the Edge develops and expands the remits of her earlier work’s methodological focus upon borders, boundaries and margins, to ‘push the idea of the edge to the very limits of what it will bear’ (p. 2). The idea proves robust, and Hopkins drives it beyond the canonical Shakespearean pale, into fringe territories of plays such as Coriolanus, All’s Well that Ends Well, Pericles and Cymbeline, and into ‘outer’ realms of Marlowe, Ford, Chettle, Greene and William Rowley (to name only a few of the many authors she considers). Traversing a panorama of plays, poems, and prose, Renaissance Drama on the Edge employs eight concept-driven chapters to expound literary edges relating to geological, bodily, political, material and spiritual points of contact and division.

[2] Central to Hopkins’ convictions is ‘the interface between geographical and spiritual edges’ which, she claims, carried a ‘profound imagined connection’ in the period between the earthly and divine (p. 1). Often this connection manifests in relation to staged political environs, such as in the opening chapter’s discussion of walls – those most ‘quintessentially liminal’ and ‘most visible of edges’ (p. 5). Here Hopkins leads us beyond the ‘strangely and subversively domesticated walls of Coriolanus’, where rigorous detective-work links the play compellingly to the contemporary political intrigues of Bess of Hardwick (and the ‘impenetrable’ boundaries of her homestead: Hardwick Hall in Nottinghamshire), to the ‘openly militarised and yet also ultimately psychological use of the idea of a wall’ in Tamburlaine I and II (p. 11). Where walled edges provide links to particular events and political scandal for Shakespeare, Marlowe’s interest in the boundaries often reveals ‘an unexpected adjacency with the psychological’ (p. 20), and frontiers that separate Protestant from Catholic, demonic from divine, Christian from Jew, and cities from the world become ‘sites of psychological vulnerability’ with ‘emasculating and endangering effect[s]’ (p. 24). Chapter Two shadows ways in which staged physical boundaries could demarcate the edges of spiritual terrain through a reading of the denominational connections of Saints Peter and Paul, respective paragons of traditionalist and reformist sensibilities. Here Hopkins’ discussion raises evidence from Henry V, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, and King John to place Shakespeare’s theological positions as determinedly and consistently neutral. Sex proves a very different, yet relevant and connected, focus in the following chapter. Hopkins finds literary cross-border relations in Marlowe (Hero and Leander, Edward II), Shakespeare (Cymbeline, Midsummer Night’s Dream), Ford (’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Perkin Warbeck), Greene (James the Fourth) and Milton (Comus), which variously animate the ‘profoundly destabilising and far-reaching effects’ of sexual unions which transcend territorial divides. Sex at the ‘liminal zone’ of the national boundary becomes ‘a breeding ground for inappropriate sexual relations’ (p. 65), where flash-point conflicts, risks and memories inflect border-places with unnatural and unsettling sexual and reproductive potentials.

[3] Where the book’s treatment of edges undoubtedly becomes most absorbing and original is in its exploration of French boundaries in its fourth and fifth chapters. For when Shakespeare situated his plays in France, he did so at its insistently mobile, changeable, and blurred borders. Hopkins firstly maps this interest in relation to the southern Navarre (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Roussillon (All’s Well that Ends Well) regions. These border-territories serve as spaces of ideological contestation, where the outermost parts of France intersect with and embody opposing geo-political theologies, revealing ‘a surprising adjacency not only with Spain, as might be expected, but, symbolically, with England’ (p. 84). Similarly, northern edges of Calais and the Ardennes signify, in plays like As You Like It, ‘a region characterised by profound changes to both territorial boundaries and to individual senses of national identities’ (p. 91). Such ‘points of crisis’ in language, religion, and culture come, in Shakespeare’s history plays, to function as dialectical reminders of England’s comparatively fixed coastal edges, providing a ‘powerful trope for personal ones [edges], so that to be English is to be bounded’ (p. 107). Traversing the shifting and nebulous silhouette of France in these plays becomes, in Hopkins’ insightful reading, a foil for discovering the firm and fixed nature of English identity.

[4] In the final section, Hopkins’ argument traces the uncertain edges of eschatology, exploring first ‘the idea that certain places on the map might offer points of access to another world’ (p. 3). For saints wander at the edges (and below the surface) of a wide range of early modern narratives, not least those of Hamlet and Cymbeline where Irish, Danish and British hagiographic legacies of Saints Patrick, Gertrude and Winifred articulate complex soteriological significances. Hopkins illustrates how further allusions to places of pilgrimage and subterranean caves, rifts and chasms also harboured vexing national and political resonances. Literal products of these ‘underworlds’ were the precious stones extracted from them, and the numerous and varying perceptions of how jewels connected to (and affected) human bodies forms the remarkable focus of Chapter Seven. Hopkins unearths figurations of jewels (and the mining of jewels) as metaphors for the outer (dermatological) edges of the body in a range of early modern texts. And in her final chapter, entitled ‘The Edge of the World’, Hopkins surveys how tragedies such as The Duchess of Malfi and King Lear concern themselves with the ethereal edges of religious ruins and high places like cliffs, around which sanctity and the numinous serve as important points of contact between the living and the dead.

[5] Coursing throughout this study is a crucial and canny awareness of the histories that undergird the many boundaries and limits transgressed by its disparate argumentative routes. In particular, Hopkins’ sensitivity to the Roman and Christian foundations lurking beneath her chosen borders – be they mapped or remembered, felt or imagined – highlights the layered complexity of how early modern subjects negotiated ‘limitation’ and ‘transition’ by looking backwards, often open to the lessons of former edges crossed, previous limits reached: ‘the image of the present was shadowed and troubled by that other picture of the past constantly flickering at its edge’ (p. 5). And in Renaissance Drama on the Edge Lisa Hopkins breaks important new ground in understanding how early modern dramatists collapsed the ‘national, personal, and the geographical’ (p. 107), offering another important gateway for literary students and scholars of this vexing period.

Northumbria University, July 2015

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