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Alex Davis, Imagining Inheritance from Chaucer to Shakespeare
by Ezra Horbury

Alex Davis. Imagining Inheritance from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2020. 297 pp. ISBN: 9780198851424. £63.00 hardback.


In Imagining Inheritance from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Alex Davis offers a sweeping and deft survey of ‘inheritance’ across poetry, drama, prose, and even paintings from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, extending to the genealogical endeavours of the noblewoman Anne Clifford. As the title suggests, inheritance is primarily treated in its literary contexts, and Davis’ concerns are not only with material inheritances but also with the spiritual, monarchical, and those of lineage. Inheritance here figures ‘as a mechanism of social reproduction’ and is explored across a variety of texts and contexts (1). Extensive in scope and often beautifully written, Imagining Inheritance from Chaucer to Shakespeare is a grand and thrilling work, adept at drawing unusual connections and pursuing submerged thematic threads through its subject matter. At times it may lose the trees for the forest in its dizzying romp across Renaissance literature and culture, but it will no doubt prove an important addition to our understanding of inheritance in literary contexts.

The book contains three parts, ‘Fictions of the Will’, ‘Natural Philosophy’, and ‘World Histories’, and is admirably balanced across its six chapters. Its first chapter addresses the ‘imagined temporalities’ involved in fictional wills across a selection of authors, while the second chapter turns ‘to the territorial commitments’ of The Tale of Gamelyn and those works it influenced (15-16). In Part Two, Chapter Three addresses the deposition of Richard II and its impact on John Lydgate’s Troy Book and Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes. Chapter Four approaches the biopolitics of lineage in three disparate subjects, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the ‘devisership’ of Anne Clifford. In the final part, Chapters Five and Six address the inheritances of the heaven and the earth: Mosaic law, primogeniture, and spiritual salvation in the case of the former; and the issue of trade and interest in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in the latter. As Davis summarises, the book ‘offers a genealogy of the patrimonial forms that stand behind the blur of change that constitutes the surface of contemporary life’ (18). Each chapter combines different genres and often different time periods, exploring a multitude of facets of inheritance; the end result offers massive conceptual scope, but also means that the reader searching for close historical or literary detail might be frustrated.

Spenser features most heavily in Chapter Four, with discussions of his work also present in Chapters Two and Five. In Chapter Four, on the biopolitics of lineage, Davis’ main focus is A View of the Present State of Ireland. Here, he analyses Spenser’s response to the failure of enforcing English law in Ireland over subsequent generations, where submission to a lord cannot be hereditarily encoded within the structures of Gaelic tanistry. Spenser, Davis argues, employs an ‘ethnographic understanding of Irish culture in order to hasten that culture’s reconstruction’ (143); to achieve this, the text ‘elaborates a thematics of holding’, but is at constant risk of failure against the structures of tanistry (143). He addresses also The Mutabilitie Cantos, which he identifies as part of ‘a poem that knows inheritance can never fully secure the kinds of metaphysical stability that it is being asked to guarantee’ (144). To do this, he argues, Spenser ‘redeploy[s] the language of succession in ways that subtly reconfigure its readers’ sense of what succession might have to offer to the constant subject’ (145). What follows is a rich and linguistically vivid exploration of The Faerie Queene’s biopolitics, its organic matter and logics of generation, advancing the position that inheritance is presented as an inherent good. Yet, as Davis observes, Night’s ambiguously virtuous maternity — to villains as well as Jove — troubles this essentialism. Furthermore, Mutabilitie, like Bolingbroke, positions herself as restorer, not usurper (and has a better claim to inheritance than Bolingbroke). Davis asks if this sudden challenge to Jove’s power might mean that ‘inheritance point[s] to the absence of distinction between persons’ (147). But Mutabilitie loses her claim to Nature’s judgement, grounded in the concept of First Estate, which, Davis argues, is ‘subliminally reinforced through a structure of allusive return’ (149). It proves a ‘philosophy of constancy’ wherein the ‘language of first estate is that its end can only be realized by admitting the possibility of dispossession’ (150). Like many treatments of inheritance in the book, Davis concludes on its vulnerability and ambiguity, whereby constant identities remain ‘open to loss’ (150). It is an interesting reading, chasing some of the trickier thematic logics of Spenser’s poem, and one that enforces the monograph’s characteristic commitment to emphasising change and uncertainty.

In Chapter Five, Davis treats the allegorical knightly quest and returns to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, focusing on Redcrosse and Una. His subject is the inheritance of Redcrosse, both in terms of blood and destiny. Here, Davis argues, ‘The everyman quest model is constantly at risk of being pressurized by the real-world connotations of the inheritance plot’ (217). These narratives are read against the context of Renaissance treatments of Jacob and Esau, wherein the inaccessible theology of Esau’s sold inheritance proves disturbing to Renaissance writers who must grapple with ‘the inscrutability of divine judgement’ (194). Davis reads Redcrosse’s quest as one wherein his struggles ultimately prove meaningless for the achievement of his destiny, raising the question of inheritance as something taken versus something given (a question I address more below). Davis also addresses here the ambivalence of blood: Christ’s blood, blood spilled, blood of lineage. In The Faerie Queene it is amity, Davis argues, rather than blood ties that emerges as the binding factor in the ‘utopia of community’ in the new Jerusalem (220). But even this is immediately revised by Spenser to return us to an emphasis on Redcrosse’s genealogy, resulting in another ‘disorientating counternarrative to Spenser’s attempts to map the outlines of a spiritually militant nation state’ (221). As these readings suggest, Davis’ takeaway is that Renaissance narratives of inheritance are mutable, self-revising, and frequently ambiguous. The forms such uncertainties take are complexly explored throughout the book, which imagines inheritance as a difficult, many-bodied phenomenon rarely constrained to a stable dynamic.

Davis’ work is broad and often deep, and even through its most capering analyses it remains grounded in rich and properly rewarding close reading. But both Davis’ grand frame and propensity for lateral analyses can prove a disadvantage, much as they allow Davis to make some truly stunning comparative readings. For example, this is a book not much concerned with theoretical treatments of inheritance, like gift theory, which is a shame given the aforementioned gauntlet Davis throws down regarding inheritance’s ambiguity as a taking or a giving. A similar concept is raised with Davis’ interesting reading of Piers Plowman, wherein Piers positions his settled debts as placing ‘the obligation […] on the other side from now on. Piers is owed’ (36). Theoretical approaches to gifts and debts are curiously absent from this book; Marcel Mauss or Jacques Derrida, or more historical works like Craig Muldrew’s The Economy of Obligation make no appearances. This may verge on charging the book for being something that it isn’t, but one questions how our understanding of inheritance might be weakened when removed from the dynamics of giving, owing, debt, and credit that govern broader social, familial, and economic structures of exchange. Davis is obviously concerned with these themes, and Davis’ decision to remain detached from such methodologies can be frustrating. While this might not prove an issue for every reader, and although ‘inheritance’ deliberately emerges in this book as a constantly shifting figure, the connections between its various manifestations might have been concretised if there was some theoretical grounding for its meaning. These are not heavy criticisms, as Davis treats more than enough in the monograph, but they are questions with which the reader might be left.

More of a concern are the oversights or disinterests in existing scholarship and even other relevant primary texts. Davis is certainly well-read, and the range of secondary material jumps dazzlingly from Marx to Freud to Halberstam. But at times this causes Davis to wash over the nitty gritty of a topic and thus miss certain scholarly advances, or the historical fabric of a particular issue. For example, on the Shakespearean front, substantial works on the themes of inheritance, such as Tom MacFaul’s two books, Problem Fathers in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (2012) and Poetry and Paternity in Renaissance England (2010), or Fred Tromly’s Fathers and Sons in Shakespeare: The Debt Never Promised (2010), make no appearance. Michelle Dowd’s The Dynamics of Inheritance on the Shakespearean Stage (2015) does merit a laudatory mention, but her work is never engaged; this is a shame, given that Dowd has written excellently and extensively on many of the themes and texts on which Davis focuses.

This skipping over is perhaps most severe an issue in the final chapter, which treats ‘Inheritance, Money, Modernity’. Here, Davis segues from a rigorous discussion of Marx and Aristotle’s Politics into a section on ‘Venetian Prodigals’ — yet he makes no mention of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in which the concept of prodigality is discussed at length, and which was a major influence on early modern prodigal son texts. Nor does Alan Young’s extensive treatment of prodigals in The English Prodigal Son Plays (1979), which does discuss the Nicomachean Ethics, make an appearance. This results in a chapter that discusses ‘money’ and youthful inheritance in The Merchant of Venice without much consideration for the ethical structures that governed the use of that money, or of the other plays that influenced Shakespeare’s prodigals. Davis concludes with a flippant comment that Bassanio is ‘insubstantial and unappealing’ and that this reveals the weakness of the new order (254); however, the point feels much less convincing when one accounts for the long tradition of the prodigal son archetype, Shakespeare’s manipulation of it, and the queer energies of the play (Bassanio is certainly not unappealing to Antonio). Davis clearly aims to take a wider survey than a microscopic examination of a single theme, but this can detract from the rigour of his arguments.

More positively, throughout there are many deeply rewarding readings of individual texts that display Davis’ literary close reading skills. Standouts include brilliant readings of Isabella Whitney’s poem ‘Wyll and Testament’, The Tale of Gamelyn, Macbeth, and The Faerie Queene. Davis’ reading of Macbeth is especially stimulating, and readdresses L. C. Knights’ insincere question of ‘how many children had Lady Macbeth?’ from a new perspective, arguing for the importance of ‘uncertainty about Lady Macbeth’s body as a vehicle of lineal reproduction’ to the play. As he writes, she ‘is rendered vivid through her extraction from the logic of lineal biopolitics’ (159-160). One might wish for more extensive study of any given text — in this instance, how does this new reading of the Macbeths’ lineage interact with the many other lineages in the play? — but each engagement is consistently illuminating.

Endlessly ambitious, wide-ranging, broad, and frequently brilliant despite its hazier qualities, Imagining Inheritance is a worthy study of its subject matter that forges valuable new connections between our understandings of Renaissance ‘inheritance’.


Ezra Horbury

University of York


  • Fountain Valley Tree Care 4 months, 1 week ago

    Each chapter combines different genres and often different time periods, exploring a multitude of facets of inheritance; the end result offers massive conceptual scope, but also means that the reader searching for close historical or literary detail might be frustrated.

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Cite as:

Ezra Horbury, "Alex Davis, Imagining Inheritance from Chaucer to Shakespeare," Spenser Review 52.1.9 (Winter 2022). Accessed April 17th, 2024.
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