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Across the Channel: French Origins and Reflections
by Kathryn Gucer

Hillman, Richard. French Origins of English Tragedy. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010. 111 pp. ISBN 978-0719082764. $76.00 cloth.

Hillman, Richard. French Reflections in the Shakespearean Tragic: Three Case Studies. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2012. 236 pp. ISBN 978-0719087172. $85.50 cloth. 


These two ambitious and learned studies contribute to a growing body of scholarship on Anglo-French connections in sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century English drama. Hillman breathes renewed life into multiple diverse early modern French texts, illuminating their resonances with mostly canonical English works. These French materials include drama by Pierre Matthieu and Robert Garnier, narrative poetry by Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, and historiography by François de Belleforest, as well as translations, diplomatic correspondence and political tracts, among many other rich sources. Hillman imaginatively reconstructs the acts of close-reading and appropriation by which, he claims, English playwrights absorbed these French sources into their plays. In works by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson, Hillman “detect[s] a bricolage or patching together of more than one ‘source,’ sometimes including English translations and their originals” (French origins, 8).  

Indeed bricolage is an apt description these two studies. Hillman weaves disparate French and English works into dense interconnected networks, arguing that English playwrights “privileged” (French origins, 7) these French materials—or “intertexts”—as they imagined and wrote their plays. Hillman readily admits that this intertextual method rests on the premise (not the proof) that the French texts he presents as sources were readily available in England and that the English authors he examines read and used these materials. The idea here is that these playwrights, their audiences, and their readers detected French and English texts echoing off of one another as they wrote, watched, and read these plays. Unfortunately, I found this premise unsatisfactory and was never fully able to suspend my disbelief in it, despite the striking resonances that emerge between English and French materials here. Nonetheless, there is much of value in Hillman’s deft juxtaposition of many now obscure materials and the rich readings that emerge from them.

Chapter One of French origins, which is also the Introduction, details the author’s intertextual approach, defining key terms and concepts that will be used throughout the two studies. This chapter also clarifies that French origins and French reflections form the last two-thirds of a trilogy begun with his previous study, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France (2002). In these latter two studies, Hillman turns from history plays to tragedy, a genre whose “relative novelty in England” (French origins, 5) made it a flexible medium for innovation. Chapter Two furnishes readers with a neat introductory case study in Hillman’s intertextual method. Hillman considers the influence of two French intertexts on Shakespeare’s Richard II in his play of that name, arguing that this interaction creates the uniquely English tragic hero, who is distinguished by psychological complexity. Richard II is compared to La Guisade, an earlier French play by Pierre Matthieu, supporter of the powerful ultra-Catholic League in France. Hillman concedes that Shakespeare’s play does not come with “a ready-made set of symbolic connections with the political events dramatized in La Guisade” (French origins, 21): the assassination Henri, Duc de Guise (the play’s hero and the founder of the League) by Henri III and the retaliatory murder of Henri III in the following year (1589). But the portrayal of Richard as a “Frenchified… hedonist” (French origins, 21), Hillman argues, suggests the interposition of a contemporary intertext: the anonymous English play Woodstock, which offered Shakespeare an image of Richard that resonated with Matthieu’s Henri III, as well as other formal elements that suggested how Shakespeare could channel La Guisade.

In Chapter Three, the mediating intertexts multiply and their inter-workings become more complex. Hillman argues that Senecan tragic machinery enters English neo-classical tragedy by way of French sources.  This French influence is visible in the “kitschy” (French origins, 32) and overblown personalities and situations in such plays as Kyd’s A Spanish Tragedy, Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris and Tamburlaine, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Jonson’s Sejanus.  This chapter focuses on the relation of these works to French nationalist plays, including Robert Garnier’s Porcie and François de Chantelouve’s La tragédie de feu Gaspard de Colligny, the latter an apology for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572).  Bricolage abounds here, as snippets of disparate French texts resonate with and against one another in unexpected ways. The main source for Sejanus is Claudian’s In Rufinam, but, Hillman claims, Jonson also read Claudian’s account in an English translation (by Thomas Hudson) of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’s La Judit. The playwright used this poetic rendition of the biblical Book of Judith, which describes the violent post-mortem mutilation of the tyrant Holofernes’ body by the Jewish people, to depict the similar fate of Sejanus. But Jonson also had a French theatrical precedent in Chantelouve’s character, Colligny, whom he uses to lay the image of a “fortune-worshipping Machiavel” (French origins, 56) on top of Holofernes’s overreaching ambition in Sejanus’s character. 

Further pursuing Du Bartas’s influence on English drama, Chapter Four traces the complex ways that La Judit furnished a much-mediated source for the male-female relations in English tragedy. Focusing on Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Othello, Hillman argues that the paradoxical figure of Judith, who is “supernally endowed with … masculine strength” (French origins, 65) constitutes a “jinx” upon the women in these plays, particularly Zenocrate and Desdemona. This doubleness curses the women and the men who love them. This chapter also offers readers the most extended analysis of an intertext that, Hillman claims, playwrights encountered in translation: Thomas Hudson’s English 1584 translation of Du Bartas’s poem. 

In his latest study, French reflections in the Shakespearean Tragic (2012), Hillman extends this intertextual method across two Shakespearean tragedies and one Shakespearean comedy with, in Hillman’s view, latent tragic elements: Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, and All’s Well That Ends Well.  In these chapters, Hillman jumps from one intertext to the next more easily and speculates more freely about the ways in which Shakespeare may have encountered these intertexts, a method which produces “more diffused” (French reflections, 1) readings than those in French origins

Chapter One (the Introduction) reasserts the core “premise” of Hillman’s method that “cross-Channel intertextual intervention may cause an apparently ‘self-sufficient’ textual cluster to signify in new ways” (French reflections, 1). In Chapter Two, these clusters produce new perspectives on three familiar views of Shakespeare’s troubled prince of Denmark: the philosophical, the political, and the psychological Hamlet. Shakespeare’s encounter with Montaigne brings about the philosophical Hamlet by disrupting the “‘grammar’ of the revenge play genre”—that is, the hero’s relentless pursuit “of his vindictive course in the face of concrete obstacles”(French reflections, 16). Montaigne’s skepticism scuttles this pattern by “framing Hamlet’s self-reorientation towards the vanity of heroic effort in the face of death” (French reflections, 18).  This “anamorphic” effect of combining disparate, sometimes dissonant, sources to produce a single character is a recurring theme throughout both studies. Pursuing the political Hamlet, Hillman argues that a constellation of disparate historical figures—including the medieval Danish prince Amleth and Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre (b.1518-d.1562)—in early modern histories by Louis Régnier de la Planche and François de Belleforest, furnished Shakespeare with the main models for the Hamlet who has “an anomalous position vis-à-vis the throne of Denmark” (French reflections, 22).  Finally, the psychological Hamlet emerges from Shakespeare’s encounter with a 1572 edition of a collection of histories by Belleforest. Hillman interestingly speculates on how the order of histories in this compilation by Parisian publisher Jean Hulpeau enabled Shakespeare to combine elements of Amleth and Antoine de Bourbon to produce an Oedipal “innocent victim of a family struggle involving a vengeful father” (French reflections, 57).

Chapter Three argues that French intertexts mediated Shakespeare’s encounter with Thomas North’s sixteenth-century translation of Plutarch’s Lives as the playwright imagined and wrote Antony and Cleopatra. The principal mediating texts here are French plays: Robert Garnier’s Marc Antoine, Étienne Jodelle’s Cléopâtra Captive¸ and Nicolas de Montreux’s Cléopâtre. Mary Sidney Herbert translated Garnier’s play as Antoninus and, in the last sections of this chapter, Hillman examines Herbert’s interests in this project. Hillman argues that her translation “flatten[s] and restrain[s]” the heroine’s impulsiveness and erotic passion in Garnier’s original. In this way, Herbert’s rendition of Cleopatra fits with her and the Pembroke Circle’s interest in a Stoic “nobly mourning heroine” in the 1620s. Returning to anamorphism, Hillman argues that Herbert’s work constitutes a “metatranslation” of Garnier’s “partially obscured original” (French reflections, 126).

Chapter Four culminates the study with an examination of the French intertexts of All’s Well That Ends Well . Though this play is “formally” a comedy (French reflections, 151), Hillmans argues that an examination of its French intertexts underscores how latent tragic elements in this late comedy foreshadow Shakespeare’s “sustained period of tragic composition” (French reflections, 150) in the first decade of the seventeenth century. Hillman opens the chapter by introducing his argument that the play’s tragic elements can be detected using the Lacanian concept of aphanisis—that is, an “experience” in which “a character’s ‘self’ is communicated to the audience through the signs of its own regression” (French reflections, 150). How this argument is connected to the subsequent discussion of the play’s multiple French intertexts—including Blaise de Montluc’s autobiographical Mémoires, Symphorien Champier’s La vie de Bayard, and Belleforest’s La pastorale amoureuse—is not always clear.  But at the end of the chapter Hillman returns to the idea that all is not well at the play’s conclusion, discussing the echoes of Marguerite de Navarre’s Mémoires in Helena’s revenge on the men in the play.

These two studies will undoubtedly go a long way toward illuminating “the circulation and co-presence of diverse” French and English “discourses within a common cultural space” (French origins, 2) spanning the Channel.  However, I was never convinced of Hillman’s strong claim that French texts furnished the privileged sources for Elizabethan drama. As the vagueness of “common cultural space” suggests, the precise connections between the English dramatists and these French sources here rest almost entirely on thematic and linguistic resonances in their texts. These resonances are too often remote in multiple senses of the word. Relatedly, Hillman’s claim that playwrights would have only needed a “rudimentary competence in French” (French reflections, 3) to read these challenging French materials is surely not tenable. Occasionally, Hillman interestingly speculates that these French sources may have reached playwrights through Huguenot contacts in the publishing industry (in Shakespeare’s case) and now lost manuscript translations of the original French sources. But, as indicated earlier, such precise links between French books and English writers (much less their audiences) remain underdeveloped and murky here. I found myself wondering if Hillman’s scholarship might have been better served by a subtler and more nuanced approach, one that embraced the speculative nature of the Anglo-French connections in these texts. It can also be a struggle to work through the author’s verbose and allusive style of writing, which presumes a fair amount of knowledge about historical events and details of the plays and does not always produce clarity. Nonetheless, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gained from Hillman’s deep particular research in French sources—work that will undoubtedly inspire future inquiry.


Kathryn Gucer
Independent Scholar



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