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Marie-Alice Belle and Line Cottegnies, eds., Robert Garnier in Elizabethan England: Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius; Thomas Kyd’s Cornelia
by Guillaume Navaud

Robert Garnier in Elizabethan England. Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius ; Thomas Kyd’s Cornelia. Edited by Marie-Alice Belle and Line Cottegnies. MHRA Tudor & Stuart Translations, vol. 16. Cambridge: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2017. ix + 324 pp. ISBN: 978-1-781886-32-8 (hardback), £35. ISBN: 978-1-907322-67-9 (paperback), £20.

Marie-Alice Belle and Line Cottegnies provide a richly annotated edition of early English translations of two tragedies by the French playwright Robert Garnier, Marc Antoine and Cornélie, originally published in French in 1578 and 1574 respectively. The introduction opens new and valuable insights about literary translation (and more broadly transculturalism), the ideological and political debates informing Garnier’s tragedies and the effect of what we might call their ‘deterritorialization’ into Protestant insular circles, as well as their poetical and dramatic value – and specifically the somewhat vexed question of so-called ‘closet drama’.

Translations from French were thriving in England during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, even if they often remained unpublished and circulated only in manuscript. The learned circle revolving around Philip Sidney and his sister Mary Sidney Herbert, countess of Pembroke, was particularly active in this area. The source works were sometimes chosen for their ideological relevance, such as the treatise De la Vérité de la Religion Chrétienne (1581) by the leading Protestant, Philippe de Mornay.  The translation –  A Work concerning the Trueness of the Christian Religion (1587) – was begun by Philip Sidney and completed by Arthur Golding. Other choices were made primarily for literary reasons,  as when Spenser translated Du Bellay, though the first version of these poems in A Theatre for Worldlings (1569) participates in the Protestant polemic of its writer, Jan van der Noot.

These two considerations were combined in the volume published by Mary Sidney Herbert in 1592, containing her translation of Mornay’s Discours de la vie et de la mort (originally published in Geneva, 1576), followed by her English version of Garnier’s Marc Antoine. Mornay was in England as ambassador of Henri IV when the volume was published, and a personal friend of the Sidneys. They shared a common culture where ascetic aspirations combined Reformed spirituality with neo-stoicism. But why did Mary Sidney Herbert choose to pair this translation with Garnier’s Antonius (which she claims in the colophon to have completed in November 1590)? In their introduction, Marie-Alice Belle and Line Cottegnies consider several hypotheses. It has been suggested that such an effort was designed to illustrate the moralised view of drama advocated by Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesy (published posthumously in 1595) – and indeed Sidney seems to share the moral interpretation of Aristotle’s catharsis initiated by Catholic humanists in Renaissance Italy. Yet this hardly explains the pairing with Mornay’s Discourse. Belle and Cottegnies underline that this pairing creates a diptych: after the philosophical discourse upon death, follows a drama of death by passion; Antonius and Cleopatra therefore appear as counterparts to the wise man of Mornay’s treatise.

One could add that this association echoes the dialectics in Seneca’s works between philosophical and tragical writings: the former illustrate the life and death of the stoic wise man, while the later expose the ravages of passion in the life and death of anti-heroes, who nevertheless are not denied a certain grandeur in the midst of blindness and madness. Such thematic echoes are clear in the final chorus of the third act of Antonius: the moralising stance of the Chorus, which evokes the fear of death, serves to emphasise the excess that destroys Antonius and Cleopatra. Furthermore, Antony’s defeat at Actium constitutes the paradigmatic example of the way passion can interfere with and destroy a political career, since Antony fled not out of cowardice, but out of love for Cleopatra. Lucilius’s words about the damage passion causes to politics (143-45; III, l. 309-368) therefore anticipate later reflections on the same story by Saint-Réal (De l’usage de l’histoire, Discours sixième) or Pascal. All of this helps us to understand why a neo-stoic essay was associated with what the editors call ‘the first modern [English] tragedy of passion’ (49).

Mary Sidney Herbert’s translation opened the path for further adaptations of French tragedy. Samuel Daniel dedicated to the Countess his version of Jodelle’s Cleopâtre captive (1594), and Thomas Kyd followed in his footsteps when, in the same year, he published his translation of Garnier’s Cornélie – Kyd’s last dramatic work. The editors underline that Garnier explicitly designed these tragedies as reflections on civil war, and in particular the French Religious Wars; such a topic also enabled the Catholic playwright to question, for instance, ‘the validity of providential readings of history’ (17). The editors aptly show how such issues were also relevant to – yet politically and religiously recontextualised by – aristocratic English intellectuals towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth.

After this general overview, the introduction devotes a section each to Mary Sidney Herbert’s and Kyd’s versions. Both successively describe the circumstances surrounding the writing and publication of each text, the characterisation of the protagonists (especially the two female heroes), the technical issues involved in the translation process and the political and ideological dimensions of each play. The discussion of the poetic qualities of the translations is particularly enlightening (see 36 ff and 54 ff): Mary Sidney Herbert and Kyd clearly intended to enrich English diction, prosody and lexicon through imitation of prestigious neo-classical continental models, following the principles adopted by the Pléiade in respect of classical and Italian models. A list of ‘Neologisms and first occurrences’ in the two plays, as is provided in all the works in the MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translation series, underlines this aspect of the translations.

The question of performance is also given due consideration. Although there is no evidence of productions of either play, the editors point out that this does not imply that they never enjoyed any kind of performance, and take this occasion to reconsider the status of so-called ‘closet drama’ (5, 7-8, 18, 24-29). Although Garnier’s plays were sometimes performed in France, one must nevertheless admit that the humanist drama he embodied departed widely from the current trends in the English public stage. Static and declamatory, much like Seneca’s tragedies, Garnier’s humanist theatre feels closer to the kind of drama being performed in European universities at this time than to public stage entertainments, even though it doesn’t lack pathos (Octavius weeps at the end of act IV when the Messenger narrates how half-dead Antonius has been trussed and carried up to the mausoleum), and some genuinely dramatic scenes (for instance those involving Cleopatra and her servants). Such scenes so clearly foreshadow Shakespeare’s treatment of the same story in Antony and Cleopatra that one could have wished for a less sketchy comparison than is drawn at the end of the introduction (83-84), even if the problem obviously reaches beyond the scope of this edition. As it stands, the editors present a thoughtful and well informed status quaestionis about all other dimensions of both plays, relying especially on recent studies by Anne Lake Prescott on Mary Sidney Herbert and Lukas Erne on Kyd. One could wish that the table of contents had allowed for a listing of the sub-sections of this rich introduction, since it would help the reader to navigate more easily in it.

The texts of the two plays are modernised in spelling and punctuation. The editors provide detailed annotation including sources (benefiting from Jean-Claude Ternaux’s critical editions of Garnier’s drama)[1], historical context, as well as textual, linguistic and literary comments which shed light on both writers’ decisions as translators and their departures from the French originals. It would have been useful to also include in these notes cross-references to the pages of the introduction that provide illuminating close readings (for instance, Cornelia II, 20 commented on 56, or the closing lines of Antonius commented on 34 and 40-41). Altogether with the appended glossary, this edition has been designed to be as friendly as possible to contemporary readers, including students – a highly commendable goal. Indeed, one cannot value enough the pleasure of discovering the poetic virtuosity that Kyd displays in his choruses, or the extraordinary quality of the final act of Antonius, where after bidding farewell to her children, Cleopatra dies upon the corpse of her lover and utters a memorable Liebestod. Mary Sidney Herbert turns Garnier’s physical imagery and expressionist diction into a marvellously lyrical elegy that alone would justify the reading of this volume:  

O neck, O arms, O hands, O breast where death
(O mischief!) comes to choke up vital breath!
A thousand kisses, thousand thousand more
Let you my mouth for honours farewell give,
That in this office weak my limbs may grow,
Fainting on you, and forth my soul may flow. (178; Antonius V, l. 203-208)[2]


Guillaume Navaud

Lycée Henri IV (Paris) / CRLC-OBVIL (Sorbonne Université)


[1] See Robert Garnier, Cornélie: Tragédie, edited by Jean-Claude Ternaux, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2002; and Robert Garnier, Marc Antoine, edited by Jean-Claude Ternaux, Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2010.

[2] I wish to warmly thank the Spenser Review editors, namely Richard Danson Brown and Jane Grogan, for their close proof-reading and stimulating comments which provided invaluable help to the reviewer.


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Cite as:

Guillaume Navaud, "Marie-Alice Belle and Line Cottegnies, eds., Robert Garnier in Elizabethan England: Mary Sidney Herbert’s Antonius; Thomas Kyd’s Cornelia ," Spenser Review 49.1.7 (Winter 2019). Accessed August 26th, 2019.
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