R E V I E W

Jean Remple, The Apotheosis of Venice in the Elizabethan Imagination, Tromsø-studier i litteratur, 4 (Tromsø, 1995). ISBN 82-90423-29-2.

Shakespeare's Italy has always held a great appeal for critics. Never was it more popular that it has proved over the last few years. In a short time, the topic of Shakespeare's Italian locations has given rise to a large number of studies ranging from essays to monographs worldwide, and the flow has by no means come to a stop. At the onset of the new wave of interest lies G.K. Hunter's seminal essay "English Folly and Italian Vice" (1960), which argued for a reading of the Elizabethan dramatists' Italy as a correlative to, or as a comment on the English situation with which contemporary audiences were familiar.[1] The Italian setting was an indirect and safe means of commenting on assumed English vices. Hunter's work lies behind Murray J. Levith's more recent Shakespeare's Italian Settings and Plays (1989), and, in a sense also behind David C. McPherson's Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice (1990), with its illuminating intertextual approach to the problem.[2] Broader modes of cultural exchange between England and Italy are discussed in J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring's collection of essays entitled Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance (1991), whereas Shakespeare's Italy (1993) explores the dramatic structure of Shakespeare's "Italian" plays and its connection to their specific location.[3] So much has been written on the topic of Shakespeare and Italy that Manfred Pfister, in his postscript to Shakespeare's Italy, was right to speak of the operation here of a law of diminishing returns. Expectations are high, therefore, when Jean Remple in his new Apotheosis of Venice in the Elizabethan Imagination (1995) states that he is concerned with four simple questions: "Is Venice a Myth? What are its metaphors? What generates these metaphors? What is the myth saying?"

Jean Remple's thesis is that around 1600, Europe witnessed the rise of the city-based consumer economy and that Venice, since it was one of the more successful examples of this trend, became the location of some 80 stage plays, including Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and Ben Jonson's Volpone. Like a number of his predecessors, Remple adopts the view that the urban plays in question used Protean, myth-laden Venice — the mutually reconciling poles of Venice-the-good as well as Venice-the-bad, as Claude Lévi-Strauss would have put it — as a means of reflecting on early-modern English society, and London in particular.

To illustrate his thesis, Remple distinguishes three central or archetypal principles inherent in the myth of Venice, principles which, embodied as metaphors, would serve to convey the location of Venice in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, as well as in Volpone. These three metaphors betray their indebtedness to the newly developing consumer economy that Venice represented, but at the same time they prove highly appropriate for a definition of human psychology, characterization and dramatic interaction. The metaphors by which, in Remple's view, the stage Venetians in Jonson and Shakespeare live, are those involving change, exchange and balance:

1. Change is the principle of urban growth from plant to marble. As process and development, it is the very sign of life itself. It uses metaphors of transformation.
2. Exchange is the principle of economic life. It is discontinuous and consists not of change but of transactions. It uses metaphors of substitution.
3. Balance is the principle of preservation. Without it change would turn into decay, and exchange into injustice. It uses metaphors of proportion.

(The Apotheosis of Venice, 25)

Remple's three categories are enticing, and with his metaphoric reading of both fictional and literary sources as well as political utterances, insightful intertextual connections are established. Still, on occasion, the author would seem to be stretching the reader's imagination somewhat far. Under the heading of exchange, for example, Remple intriguingly brings together Jane Jacobs' observation from Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) that early-modern "London took to copying, that is, replacing, some of its imports", and King James the First's warning that the English "had got up the Italian fashion", before writing of Othello's famous handkerchief (of Egyptian origin) as a foreign commodity that the Venetians in the play want to copy, a commodity that might therefore be interpreted as "an emblem of import-replacement in the modern city economy. One imitates, but one does not impoverish the original." However speculative, it sheds unexpected new light on the play.

Remple's three categories — change, exchange and balance — are attractive to a degree, but they are also very broad. As a matter of fact, they are so broad that on occasion they would seem to have universal application, relevance which is not limited to Venice. In his discussion of modes of change in The Merchant of Venice, for example, Remple is prepared to consider the various ways in which Shakespeare's male or female characters "try to improve themselves by appearance or language" (30). Put in such general terms, a myriad of other plays of the period could yield conclusions similar to those Remple notes for The Merchant of Venice. As a mighty close reader, the author does not overlook the references to Ovid's Metamorphoses and Pythagoras in the three plays as instances of change or degradation from the human to the animal: Gratiano's insult levelled at Shylock during the court scene of The Merchant of Venice is famous, and no less remarkable is the long play-within-the-play on the theme of metempsychosis or the transmigration of the soul in Jonson's bestiary Volpone. But is all this typically Venetian? How does one explain Doctor Faustus's concern with metempsychosis when in Christopher Marlowe's tragedy he is about to make the final move from Wittenberg to Hell? And is not that famous Illyrian Malvolio in Twelfth Night confronted with the theory of Pythagoras and transmigration when visited by Feste in prison? If this particular notion of change may be encountered in the Venetian setting as easily as in others, are we not dealing with a commonplace rather than a myth that may be given a local habitation and a name?

If we may take issue with Remple's three categories for being so broad as to be all-inclusive, we may also, alternatively, deplore the very limited scope of this study. In order to prove his thesis, the author analyses three plays, and three canonical texts at that. Indeed, mention is repeatedly made of the huge number of other English Renaissance plays with Venice as their setting and of occasional references to the famous city elsewhere in the drama of the period, but no attempt is made to discuss any of these plays in detail, or even of surveying the available data for future research.

It is not only a proper reference to the multitude of Venice-based plays on the London stage that one finds lacking in this study. Disappointing also is the rather too brief attempt to relate the Venice plays discussed to the popular contemporary genre of city comedy, or citizen comedy, the typically English stage genre satirically presenting London entrepreneurs in the first throes of European capitalism. Remple acknowledges this genre, but does not relate its London focus to his thesis about Venice as an urban model, or as a prototype locus of trade and commerce. Is there, for example, a difference between the three Venice-based plays selected and studied by Remple, and such London-based comedies as William Houghton's Englishmen for My Money (the London counterpart to Shakespeare's Merchant), Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, Thomas Middleton's Anything for a Quiet Life and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, or John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan? If, as the author would have us believe, "there was a tendency for England and especially London to imitate Venice during the years around 1600", will it be possible to uphold such a conclusion following a comparison between the vast range of London and Venice-based plays whose themes and concerns are so very similar?

Remple's thesis is located at the intersection of structural anthropology, sociology, and literature. One of the hazards of any form of interdisciplinarity is the problem of synthesizing the theoretical debate in each of the fields, and it would seem that Remple's study of Venice in English Renaissance drama might have profited from a more sustained dialogue with the critics who preceded him in the various fields. With sometimes dogged persistence in his thesis, the author offers interesting, though occasionally also idiosyncratic, new readings. And although these are particularly welcome given his choice of three threadbare, canonical plays, the narrow base of this study continues to stress the need for much additional work before the fascinating myth of Venice in the early-modern history of ideas may be understood more fully.

 

TON HOENSELAARS

 

NOTES

 

1 G. K. Hunter, "English Folly and Italian Vice: The Moral Landscape of John Marston", in his Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, English Texts and Studies (Liverpool, 1978), 103-21.

2 Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare's Italian Settings and Plays (Houndmills and London, 1989); and David C. McPherson, Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice (Newark, London and Toronto, 1990).

3 Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance, edited by J. R. Mulryne and Margaret Shewring (London, 1991); and Shakespeare's Italy: Functions of Italian Locations in Renaissance Drama, edited by Michele Marrapodi, A. J. Hoenselaars, Marcello Capuzzi and L. Falzon Santucci (Manchester, 1993).

 

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