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Victor Skretkowicz, European Erotic Romance: Philhellene Protestantism, Renaissance Translation and English Literary Politics
by Lauren Silberman

Skretkowicz, Victor. European Erotic Romance: Philhellene Protestantism, Renaissance Translation and English Literary Politics. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, The Manchester Spenser, 2010. 394 pp. ISBN 978-0719079702. $89.95 cloth.


European Erotic Romance is an encyclopedic study of Greek romance and its adventures in the hands of Renaissance translators and imitators.  Victor Skretkowicz considers the major Greek romances translated into European languages in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a number of literary works of the English Renaissance that manifest significant influence of Greco-Roman erotic romance and, in various ways, appropriate popular examples of the genre for a broad set of political purposes, largely, but not exclusively Protestant.

The first part of this study considers Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Achilles Tatius’s Leukippe and Kleitophon, and Heliodorus’s An Ethiopian Story in light of the intellectual currents of the Second Sophistic, during which these works were produced, and European editions and translations of these works.  These Renaissance editions and translations adapt and emphasize concerns of Second Sophistic writers about ecphrasis and characterization in order to focus on issues of linguistic and political nationalism.  The first important European translation of Daphnis and Chloe is the French translation by Jacques Amyot, published anonymously in 1559. The elaborate and elegant diction of Amyot’s French embellishes the original Greek in a strategy of appropriating Greek cultural antecents to enhance French royal glory.  English translations of Longus by Angel Day and George Thornley adapt the erotic romance to harmonize with contemporary politics.  Day idealizes the eroticism to flatter the Elizabethan court, and Thornley heightens it to reflect growing anti-Puritan libertinism in the seventeenth century.

Translators adjust and adapt the more sexually explicit and rhetorically complex Leukippe and Kleitophon for didactic purposes by idealizing the loyalty of the protagonists or in focusing on the political dimension of sexual tyranny.  Unlike the innocent Daphnis and Chloe, whose maturation is delicately chronicled in Longus’s romance, Leukippe and Kleitophon tells the story of lusty teenagers who run away together and face challenges to their faithfulness and chastity.  Leukippe, subjected to a variety of predatory men, stays true to her Kleitophon, and Kleitophon mostly stays true to Leukippe.  Skretkowicz surveys the major episodes of the romance and minutely compares and contrasts emphases, elisions, expansions, and rhetorical choices in translations of Leukippe and Kleitophon, as well as in borrowings from Achilles Tatius by Sir Phillip Sidney in his New Arcadia, as he relates these shifts in treatment to individual predilection and historical particulars.

An Ethiopian Story adds an explicitly political dimension to the general romance narrative pattern of deferring the recognition of characters’ identity in order to conclude with the restoration of characters to their rightful social position.  Skretkowicz argues that Heliodorus uses his romance plot to suggest a political allegory and to promote the re-hellenizing of Roman colonies through cultural restoration rather than open rebellion.  Accordingly, Renaissance editors and translators of Heliodorus highlight, expand, or diminish elements of the Greek romance to focus on their own religious, political, or moral concerns and to showcase particular characters as moral exemplars.  For example, numerous introductions to versions of Heliodorus signal the Ethiopian king Hydaspes, revealed as the true father of the seemingly Greek heroine, as a model consultative monarch. 

In the second part of his study, Skretkowicz devotes three chapters to English Renaissance texts that make extensive use of Greco-Roman romance to sustain particular political concerns.  The first and last of these chapters examine major works produced by the Sidney circle: Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and the Urania of Mary Sidney Wroth.  The middle chapter of this section considers Shakespeare plays that draw extensively on North’s Plutarch and two of Shakespeare’s late Romances, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  Skretkowicz examines The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia as a monarchomachist parable that indicts public and private tyranny as it weds the political thinking of the Languet circle to the narrative complexity championed by Heliodorus.  The five act structure of The Old Arcadia channels the dramatic qualities of An Ethiopian Story, and the dramatic opening scene of The New Arcadia directly imitates the beginning in medias res of the Greek romance.  Sidney imitates specific episodes of An Ethiopian Story while incorporating a political gloss of the episodes in his text.  The chapter on Mary Sidney Wroth’s Urania serves as a book-end to the analysis of the ArcadiasThe Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania presents an allegorical vision of a Protestant Europe united by the Sidney-Herbert families as a fantasy alternative to the contentious religious politics of early seventeenth-century Europe.  Allegorical negotiation of public and private become particularly pointed in Mary Sidney Wroth’s work: tyrannical kings and tyrannical fathers mutually reflect, as do good kings and good fathers.  Mary Sidney Wroth adapts the narrative complexity of Heliodorus to write herself into multiple avatars and to write her unhappy relationship to William Herbert into a network of characters whose names teasingly promise and withhold identification with contemporary figures.  This complex of pseudonymous figures allows Sidney Wroth to engage contemporary politics in great detail so that her version of erotic romance becomes masque-like in its range of covert allusion.  Similarly, the narrative complexity of The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania, which extends the Heliodoran model beyond formal limits to the point of resisting narrative coherence, signals the overarching political and didactic commitments of Mary Sidney Wroth’s work.

Skretkowicz’s treatment of Shakespeare is selective rather than comprehensive.  Noting that Shakespeare’s engagement with the tradition of Greek erotic romance continued over decades, Skretkowicz begins with an overview of the rhetorical resources available to Shakespeare through Thomas North’s translations of Amyot’s Plutarch.  Thus, for example, in Julius Caesar Shakespeare has available to himself rhetorical means to distinguish the Greek-inflected speech of philhellene Pompeyists from the Roman nationalist supporters of Julius Caesar.  While Protestant and Huguenot politics concern immediate precursors of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, written and translated by Garnier, Mary Sidney Herbert, and Fulke Greville, Shakespeare can distance his play from earlier politics by stylistically evoking the traditions of Greco-Roman erotic romance.  The Winter’s Tale owes much to Greene’s prose romance, Pandosto, but tones down the monarchomachism of the earlier work and shifts representations of resistance to the monarch to the female Paulina.  In Leontes’s speeches, Greene’s euphuism is replaced by a style royale that owes much to Amyot’s translations of Greek romance.  Similarly, Cymbeline marks the evolution of philhellene Protestant politics under James.

This book is a treasure trove, with the defects of its own virtues.  The book is arranged as commentary.  Skretkowicz treats major scenes of many of the works under discussion seriatum and traces literary sources, political and biographical allusions, and influences as is applicable to the discussion in hand.  He will carefully compare and contrast diction choices and expansions and elisions in versions of a given work and offer a breadth of commentary on those choices.  The cumulative effect is a rich and varied picture of European romance in general and English Renaissance romance in particular as it engages broad political currents and individual circumstances of its time, as well as of a lively and supple, largely Protestant tradition of opposing tyranny as it finds expression through that literary tradition.  The disadvantage of presenting such a wealth of material as essentially commentary is that the discussion tends to meander from one topic to another, rather than to cohere into a focused argument.  European Erotic Romance is probably most valuable as a reference work.  Before studying or teaching any of the works considered in this capacious book, anyone, advanced undergraduate, graduate student, or scholar, would be well advised to see what Skretkowicz has to say.

Lauren Silberman 

Baruch College, CUNY


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Cite as:

Lauren Silberman , "Victor Skretkowicz, European Erotic Romance: Philhellene Protestantism, Renaissance Translation and English Literary Politics," Spenser Review 43.1.7 (Spring-Summer 2013). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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