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Rüdiger Ahrens, ed. The Construction of the Other in Early Modern Britain: Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis
by Meadhbh O’Halloran

Ahrens, Rüdiger, ed. The Construction of the Other in Early Modern Britain: Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis. Anglistische Forschungen. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag, 2013. viii + 228 pp. ISBN: 978-3825360832. $61.00 cloth.

Rüdiger Ahrens’s edited collection The Construction of the Other in Early Modern Britain: Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis is a focused study of various conceptions of the Early Modern “other” in literature. It offers a groundbreaking and necessary re-evaluation of this central concept in early modern Britain. The collection has developed out of two research projects based in Spain, examining representations of the religious “other” in the early modern period, and contains the work of early career researchers and established scholars. It is a valuable text for any scholar interested in identity formation in the period, its utility extending beyond the parameters of literature into broader cultural theory. The point is made in the introduction that literature is a prime source for investigating how concepts were understood in the period, and this collection can serve multiple fields.

The text seeks to re-evaluate England’s conception of the foreign and religious “other.” The Foreword presents a collection of “frontier” essays informed by “an eclectic theoretical approach deeply influenced by materialist criticism,” primarily New Historicism and Cultural Materialism (vii). The volume develops from this foundation but avoids rehashing old arguments, providing a thorough exploration of a significant motif in early modern English culture. Fifteen chapters are condensed into this slim volume, and while short, each chapter provides considerable depth of scholarship and demonstrates formidable subject knowledge. There are footnotes, but regrettably the book lacks an index, and would benefit from a holistic bibliography and contributor biographies.  These are minor issues however, and do not detract from the content.

The opening chapter by Jesus Lopez-Pelaez, “‘Menne of straunge borders’: Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis,” serves as a stimulating and informative introduction. Lopez-Pelaez considers the following chapters in detail, while making some necessary stipulations. This introductory chapter challenges notions which may be held by the reader, in stating that the “other” studied here is not a colonial other, as England had not yet established itself as a colonial power, the settlement in Virginia still a precarious experiment. Thus it considers England’s conception of nations that were equal (or vastly superior) in power to Elizabeth’s kingdom, for example the Ottoman empire. The “other” examined in this study is often revered as much as feared, an idea shared with the theory of Orientalism and “global renaissance” critics such as Daniel Vitkus, who considers the Mediterranean Turks to have been an imaginative stimulus rather than a source of revulsion.[1] This is an essential qualification, reflecting the book’s subtitle of “Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis.” The chapter makes further central definitions of “otherness,” those of racial and religious “others.” Lopez-Palaez explains that native-Americans were considered “not only culturally inferior, but racially too; their skin colour doomed them to evil otherness” (6), though this is somewhat of an over-simplification. The point is made that, as opposed to this notion of the native-American as culturally and racially inferior, the deviant figures of the Catholic and Muslim were seen as merely culturally “other”; not uncultured like the Indians, or inferior necessarily, but as having the “wrong culture”. Lopez-Peláez further qualifies the point that defining the “other” was a symbiotic phenomenon, considering that Mediterranean Muslims defined the English in exactly the same terms as the English defined Indians.

The main body of the collection offers detailed explorations of these figures and England’s literary interaction with them. While race and creed form the topic of most chapters, there are two chapters exploring the “other” gender, the female. The collection provides a survey of the concept of “the other” in many of its guises, and detailed accounts of the contemporary responses to each.  

The second chapter, “‘Self’ and ‘Other’: Thinking with Montaigne, Liiv, and Lotman,” by Juri Talvet, offers a theoretical framework for understanding the definition of the self in relation to the “other” in the period, and offers a theoretical underpinning for the subsequent studies.

As one can perhaps expect from a study of concepts in Early Modern English literature, the works of Shakespeare claim a central place in the collection. In chapter three, “The Critical Impact of Alterity and its Reflections in William Shakespeare’s Plays,” Rüdiger Ahrens discusses identity and self-awareness in Shakespeare’s Othello and The Merchant of Venice through the lens of later adaptations and contemporary critical theory. In chapter seven, “Shylock, Morocco, Othello: On Representing the Shakespearean Intertext,” John Drakakis considers the intertexual nature of Shakespeare’s most famous “other,” the Jew. Chapter nine, “Hungry Swine and Politic Worms: Humanist Identity and Animal tropes from Amleth to Hamlet,” again returns to Shakespeare. Zenón Luis-Martínez considers in this chapter the humanist conception of self in mimetic performance. The ongoing challenge of ascribing a fixed identity to the figure of Othello is analysed by Andrew Monnickendam in chapter ten: “Whose Othello?: Title Deeds and Property Rights in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and Rossini’s Opera.” The final chapter by Ali S. Zaidi, “The Monstrous King in Edward III,” looks at an “other” within English culture, the instability of the seemingly most secure marker of identity: monarchical authority.

There is also a significant representation of lesser-known plays, and this consideration of more peripheral material serves to further emphasize the points outlined in the chapters on Shakespearean drama. Assistant editor Primavera Cuder examines the work of Thomas Dekker in chapter five: “Spaniard or Moor, the Saucy Slave Shall Die: Early Modern English Attitudes towards the Stranger in Thomas Dekker’s Lust’s Dominion.” Cuder argues that the Spaniard and the Moor were depicted ambivalently in the drama, reflecting the impossibility of reconciling the “inevitable necessity for contact” with the willful “estrangement of the foreign other.”  Chapter six, “Catharsis of Alien, non-Protestant Elements in Robert Wilson’s The Three Lords and the Three Ladies of London,” [1]  by Cinta Zunino-Garrido and Eroulla Demetriou, introduces the religious aspect of the Spanish “other.” They argue that the play reflects the sense of security prevalent in England after the defeat of the Catholic Armada in 1588, but simultaneously presents a less than favorable view of contemporary London. Chapter eight takes a technical approach as Luciano Garíca examines the use of the term “moor” in a range of English plays. “The Moor in the English Dramatic Mirror II” is a continuation of an earlier study of the figure and function of the moor within drama.[2]

The volume also examines the “other” gender, the female, with two thought-provoking chapters offering broader considerations of feminism in the period.  Chapter four, “Useful Contexts: The Instrumentality of Foreigners in the Transmission of Transnational Feminist ideas in Some Plays by Delarivier Manley, Mary Prix and Catharine Trotter,” by Yolanda Caballero Aceituno, explores the foreign as represented by female dramatists. Aceituno illustrates that by locating their plays in “alien settings” (71) the three playwrights perpetuated “transnational” feminist ideas and contributed to the spread of Humanism to women. Chapter five, “Reconceiving Gender Alterity: Political Commentary in Women-Authored Plays (1669-1713),” by Pilar Cuder-Domínguez, considers how identity constructed in drama produced by women reflects the tension between conservative ideology and female authority, arguing that a focus on “sexual politics” has caused the “partisan politics” of the plays to be ignored (75). Both chapters open new avenues worthy of exploration in feminist studies.

Finally, there are two chapters offering a historical context for the concepts outlined. Chapter twelve, “Another brick in the Wall of the Turkish Black Legend: The Fall of Nicosia and Its Impact in English Literature,” by José Ruiz Mas, and chapter thirteen, “Imperial Moments: The Cromwellian Black Legend,” by Rafael Vélez, situate the literature in relation to contemporary events and the discourse surrounding them. Ruiz-Mas examines the influence of the Fall of Nicosia and the wars of Cyprus (1570-71) on contemporary literature, while Vélez explores the propagandistic construction of Spanish identity termed “the black legend,” which was re-used by Cromwell to justify a “holy war” against Spain (209).

In tandem with the broad range of texts, the collection provides a range of approaches and responses to the idea of the “other.” It is a suitable introductory text for those new to the concepts outlined but also provides enough in-depth analysis for those seeking more specialist study; it affords an understanding of the early modern “other” in both scope and depth.

Meadhbh O’Halloran
University College Cork

[1]See Vitkus, Daniel. Turning Turk: English Theatre and the Multicultural Mediterranean. New York: Palgrave, 2003.

[2]The initial study, titled “The Moor in the English Dramatic Mirror: The Term ‘Moor’ in the Primary Texts of Early Modern English Plays,” appears in Jesus Lopez-Paláez, ed., Strangers in Early Modern English Texts (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2011), 25-74.



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Meadhbh O’Halloran, "Rüdiger Ahrens, ed. The Construction of the Other in Early Modern Britain: Attraction, Rejection, Symbiosis," Spenser Review 44.2.38 (Fall 2014). Accessed July 23rd, 2024.
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