Review of Shakespeare and Spenser: Attractive Opposites Ed. J. B. Lethbridge (Manchester University Press, 2008) by Joan Fitzpatrick (Loughborough University)

    This book is the first in a new series entitled 'The Manchester Spenser' published by Manchester University Press. The General Editor's Preface, by J. B. Lethbridge, also editor of the volume, describes it as "a monograph and text series devoted to historical and textual approaches to Edmund Spenser, his life, times, places, works and contemporaries" (p. vii). The is an apparently brave move by MUP since Spenser has suffered from a fall in favour during recent decades. There remains the distinct impression that Spenser is too remote, too conservative and, quite simply, too hard, at least for undergraduates. Karl Marx called Spenser "Elizabeth's arse-kissing poet" and this perception of Spenser as a party-man--along with Spenser's infamous call for the mass starvation of Catholics in his prose tract A View of the Present State of Ireland--has done nothing to enhance his reputation. Of course Marx was not quite right about the "arse-kissing" and critics have long celebrated Spenser's complexities, his nuances and ambiguities, at least in his poetry. Still, MUP are perhaps less brave in launching this series than might first appear since mention of Spenser's "contemporaries" allows them to fall back on Shakespeare and others if need be.

    Given Spenser's reputation, it is rather worrying that the editor of the series should appear so defensive about its aims. In the preface Lethbridge announces that the series is in "response to a perceptible approach to the limits of our ability to interpret texts in the absence of new knowledge about them" and "based on solid historical research" the series will publish "historically-based criticism, reference tools, historical, biographical and archaeological monographs" (p. vii). The website for the series goes further, saying it is a "response to a perceptible approach to the limits of theorising about texts in the absence of new knowledge about them in Spenser and Renaissance studies, and to some impatience with criticism overly directed by theoretical and political concerns . . . " ( This reviewer wonders in what sense historiography is ever free from "theoretical and political concerns" and alarm bells ring at the apparent desire to make it so.

    Alarm bells get louder during Lethbridge's lengthy introduction to the volume (it is far longer than any of the essays contained within it) where much is made of Shakespeare's debt to Spenser but little of the potential for influence going the other way. The reason for this, claims Lethbridge, is that "the relevant decade is not that between Spenser's birth and Shakespeare's, but that between the publication of The Shepheards Calendar and The Faerie Queene, between when Spenser published his ground-breaking, first major work, and when Shakespeare first began to write" (p. 2), which means he is interested in 1579-1590. No mention is made of the thirteen plays, not counting the lost Love's Labour's Won, and two narrative poems certainly or likely written and performed before 1596, which could well have influenced Spenser when writing Books 4-6 of The Faerie Queene, first published in 1596. Lethbridge is convinced the influence is "uni-directional"  (p. 4) but provides no clear evidence for this claim. More troubling still is Lethbridge's distinction between drama and poetry where he argues that Shakespeare's plays follow the "ordinary spoken rhythms of speech" in which there is "little room for slack writing, padding or digression and excursion" (p. 9). At no point in Lethbridge's introduction is Lukas Erne's argument about Shakespeare as a specifically literary dramatist mentioned (although one of the contributors, Patrick Cheney, is aware of it). Similarly, Lethbridge's insistence that "Shakespeare's poetry per se is not fundamentally allegorical, but dramatic" is rehearsed at length, even though a number of his contributors rightly challenge this claim. There is also a lengthy digression on Christopher Marlowe's borrowings from Spenser, which has little to do with the volume but which the acknowledgements suggest come from a seminar taught by Lethbridge and Tom Herron (who is also on the board of this series). Only a few pages are spent introducing the actual essays and there are no biographies of contributors. Oddly, the so-called 'Index' is a list of critics mentioned in the volume, which seems redundant since there is provided a list of Works Cited and a bibliography of books and papers on Spenser and Shakespeare.

    The chapters themselves are generally at odds with the editor's agenda and this is no bad thing. The volume opens with a fine essay by Judith Anderson entitled "Beyond Binarism: Eros/Death and Venus/Mars in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Spenser's Faerie Queene" in which she challenges the critical assumption that the works under consideration are distinct and pulling in opposite directions. As she notes, the idea that the only relationship possible between Shakespeare and Spenser was one of "mocking rivalry" (p. 59) is simplistic and unhistorical. She argues persuasively against the idea that rhetorical poetry and embodied drama are inimical and for imaginative affinity between the texts, for example both authors engaged with the issue of hermaphroditism.

    In contrast, Robert L. Reid's essay, "Spenser and Shakespeare: Polarized Approaches to Psychology, Poetics, and Patronage" is focused on how Spenser and Shakespeare differ. He finds the former preoccupied with fixed identities and moral authorities and the latter fascinated by protean self-discovery. Moreover, each writer's perspective on self-love indicates their religious affiliations: Spenser repudiates self-love because it equals pride but for Shakespeare self-love is morally ambivalent and this echoes the view of Thomas Aquinas who thought self interest the basis of magnanimity. According to Reid, Spenser and Shakespeare's respective views of self-love were influenced by relations with their patrons, the earls of Southampton and Essex. Similarly noting the authors' differences, Patrick Cheney, in "Perdita, Pastrorella, and the Romance of Literary Form: Shakespeare's Counter-Spenserian Authorship" elaborates upon the debt Shakespeare owed to Book 6 of The Faerie Queene when creating the Perdita story in The Winter's Tale. Using Erne's valuable notion of Shakespeare as a literary dramatist, Cheney argues that various author-figures in the play, including Autolycus and Perdita, reveal a debt to, but also a critique of, Spenser's depiction of himself as a socially detached laureat via Colin Clout.

    Karen Nelson's excellent "Pastoral Forms and Religious Reform in Spenser and Shakespeare" reads As You like It and Book 6 of The Faerie Queene in the light of reform and counter-reform. She provides a useful survey of religious debates in the 1590s, specifically the use of pastoral literature for religious education and polemic. Where Catholic authors associated the figure of the hermit with the Church Fathers, critics of Catholics implicated the figure in cannibalistic savagery, an allusion to the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. All propagandists used "images of men out of control" (p. 150) and Spenser's Serena episode leads not only to anti-Catholic invective but also suggests the imprisonment and torture of Catholic priests. She notes that Shakespeare removes pro-Catholic elements found in his source by Thomas Lodge: blood for sustenance and armed insurrection are replaced with less overtly Catholic elements, although the play retains "pro-Catholic reverberations", not least a sympathy for the exiled. In another convincing piece, "Hamlet's Debt to Spenser's Mother Hubberds Tale: A Satire on Robert Cecil?", Rachel E. Hile argues that Shakespeare may have been influenced by Spenser's satire on Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil, where the former was compared to an ape and the latter a fox. These images also appear in the Folio Hamlet, printed after the death of Burghley and Cecil, which connects Claudius to the ape and Polonius to the fox. Hile wonders if Claudius was perhaps modeled on Cecil and Old Hamlet on Essex: in the comparison of Old Hamlet to Hyperion there are echoes of the sun imagery often used to describe Essex.

    A number of essays make small but valuable connections between Shakespeare and Spenser. In "The Equinoctial Boar: Venus and Adonis in Spenser's Garden, Shakespeare's Epyllion, and Richard III's England" Anne Lake Prescott traces links between the boar in Shakespeare's Garden of Adonis in Book three of The Faerie Queene, the mythological tradition concerning the boar in the period and Shakespeare's Richard III. Michael L. Hays in "What Means a Knight? Red Cross Knight and Edgar" argues that in his depiction of Red Cross, Spenser departs from chivalric convention and appears to be suggesting that "chivalry is ultimately inadequate" (p. 234). In King Lear, on the other hand, Edgar's behaves like a typical knight. Susan Oldrieve's essay "Fusion: Spenserian Metaphor and Sidnean Example in Shakespeare's King Lear" argues that Shakespeare's play is, like Book 2 of The Faerie Queene, a study of intemperance and she notes parallels between the Ruddymane episode and behaviours in the play. In the essay that closes the volume, "The Seven Deadly Sins and Shakespeare's Jacobean Tragedies", Ronald Horton suggests that a number of Shakespeare's plays are indebted to Spenser's procession of sins in Book 1 but that Shakespeare might have misread the serpentine order of Spenser's vices and explored them out of sequence. With Timon of Athens Shakespeare may have decided to complete the account but realized that gluttony and avarice were better suited to comedy and therefore moved on. Horton makes no mention of the play's co-authorship with Thomas Middleton and those essays dealing with King Lear make no reference to the quarto and Folio versions as distinct plays. Most of the authors in this volume would be more correctly termed Spenserians than Shakespeareans and this might explain these omissions and the tendency to promote Shakespeare's debt to Spenser.