Sunday, August 16, 2015

Timothy Duffy: “Doppelgӓnger Dilemmas”

Timothy Duffy

Book Review

Marjorie Rubright, Doppelgänger Dilemmas: Anglo-Dutch Relations in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2014), 342 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4623-0

1> Critical and historical narratives of English national and cultural identity tend to focus on opposition and contamination. Sir Philip Sidney famously called France his “sweet enemy” and in so doing highlighted an intimacy with Europe founded on opposition. Marjorie Rubright’s Doppelgänger Dilemmas attempts to turn the tide a bit, to focus on likeness and proximity rather than on difference and alterity. This is a bold and needed move in the theorization and exploration of ethnic, national, and linguistic identity. Rubright’s work takes on an often-neglected topic: the profound influence of the Low Countries on English thought and culture and offers her readers a useful and illuminating (if not comprehensive) study.

2> The work as a whole, as the introduction makes clear, argues for the pervasiveness of a cultural and intellectual “double-vision,” a vision that “holds similitude and difference together within its scope,” as Rubright writes (3).  In the book that follows, the author attempts to maintain this double vision as means of illustrating the unique and interwoven identities that were created between and among the people of England and the Low Countries. The introduction provides useful and illuminating readings of the origin narratives of the English and Dutch people as well as a discussion of the origins of the word Dutch itself.

3> In a treatment of city comedy in the first chapter, John Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1605) serves as a launching point for an exploration of word play in the handling of the Dutch language as well as the massive Dutch immigrant population in London at the time. Arguing that the mocking depictions of Dutch characters in plays is not solely rooted in a fear of Dutch contamination, Rubright notes early on that “porosity, rather than the imperviousness, of geographic borders […] was everywhere evidenced in Londoner’s daily lives” (41).  Explorations of puns, a consideration of the Familists, and an exploration of Mistress Mulligrub that shows the links between ethnic identity, religion, and economics in Anglo-Dutch perceptions all help build a useful and necessary reading of Dutch-featuring city comedies for anyone interested in the representation of Dutch culture on stage.

4> The second chapter explores antiquarian arguments about the linked histories of the English and Dutch languages. As Dutch was often perceived as being a more fully preserved language than its hybrid English cousin, it was often perceived as being a sort of living distant ancestor, with the land itself implicated. As Rubright notes, “In tracing the route by which Verstegan [author of A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence] ties the English to the Saxons, we discover that the English language, England’s history, and its people are directly linked to the territory of the Netherlands” (73). It turns out that just at the moment that the English were asserting the importance of their Saxon roots, these same roots were reminding them of the Dutch land from which the Saxon’s emerged.

5> Some of the most interesting readings in the book come from the consideration of cartographic representations of England and the Low Countries in which one country is always poking into the corners of another country’s map. As the author wisely notes, this is not unique to these two countries but represents a graphic linkage between countries seen as important to one another’s networks of identity and exchange. The third chapter explores this proximity in drama in which English and Dutch are mixed together in a way that at once reveals the difference between the two languages and their likeness.

6> The sprawling fourth chapter “Dutch Impressions” is perhaps the least disciplined chapter but also the most thought provoking. The author has done impressive research into the use of black-letter type to represent the Dutch language and through an impressive, if not always entirely convincing, series of readings shows how though the black-letter type is often a marker of clear difference between English and Dutch words in polyglot word lists and dictionaries, their specific usage and layout (and the way English is represented in the absence of Dutch and the presence of black-letter type) can point to their likeness and proximity. Sentences in the vein of “typographic variation encourages close attention to the imprinting of Englishness and Otherness, in no small part because it exposes the fragility of the distinctions it imprints” (129) abound. To the generous reader interested in these sort of quasi-deconstructive moves, this reviewer included, this makes for very interesting reading. Some readers, though, may wish for a bit more evidence. However, a reading of one of the Anglophone world’s most-treasured expletives (and its importation into English out of Dutch on the stage) makes a convincing case and reveals the necessity and usefulness of Rubright’s approach.

7> Chapter Five considers the “built environment” of London, particularly the Royal Exchange, itself a copy of Antwerp’s Nieuwe Beurs. Referring to the Royal Exchange as “a material outgrowth of the shuttling of people, products, and capital between these two European cities,” the author offers a compelling reading of the space of London itself, and its immigrant population, as constantly reminding English audiences and citizens of their interconnectedness with Dutch culture and Dutch people. Observing that the modern London Eye was produced by the Dutch company Hollandia, the work notes that this ongoing architectural partnership, a cultural “palimpsest” in the chapter’s lexicon, highlights still the linked identities of these cultures.

8> Chapter Six, on Dryden’s Amboyna (1673), offers a reading of the character of Ysabinda and of the less-considered character Julia in the play. Though all of the chapters in this study are illuminating, this chapter’s work is particularly impressive and highlights that just as England and the Netherlands are taking their sense of familial competition to the world stage (where it will become a force for the brutalities of colonialism and slavery), their proximity and likeness is still preserved. The English and Dutch within the wider competition of the world are like each other even as they fight each other brutally. It as if their linked destiny is always more resilient than the particular politics in which they find themselves.

9> This work is a necessary and important addition to the study of England’s relationship with the continent. It belongs on every shelf alongside J.A. van Dorsten’s Radical Arts. There are some limitations, however. The title does not quite betray the outsized focus drama will receive. Jan van der Noot, for instance, one of the most famous London refugees from the Netherlands receives no mention and very little imaginative non-dramatic literature is referenced. Also, though some excellent readings of Dutch materials are offered, the archive is very much skewed to the English side of things which can keep our reading a bit more focused on the production of Dutch identity by the English and less on the Dutch understanding of “Dutchness” itself. These choices are understandable but they keep the work from being as comprehensive as the title might imply. Still, this is an excellent contribution to the scholarship of ethnic identity and perception and a much-needed and well-executed consideration of the great and underappreciated influence of Dutch immigrants and culture on the thinking and writing of the English Renaissance.

Timothy Duffy is Assistant Professor / Faculty Fellow of Comparative Literature at New York University. He writes on Renaissance literature and culture and the philosophy of space and spatiality. He is currently at work on a manuscript entitled The Renaissance Spatial Condition.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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