Shakespeare’s Troy: Drama, Politics, and the Translation of by Heather James

By Heather James

Heather James argues that Shakespeare's use of Virgil, Ovid and different classical resources demonstrates the appropriation of classical authority within the pursuits of constructing a countrywide fable. She is going directly to distinguish Shakespeare's deployment of the myth--notably in Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, and The Tempest--from "official" Tudor and Stuart ideology, and to teach how Shakespeare participates within the greater cultural undertaking of discovering historic legitimacy for Britain as a realm announcing its prestige as an empire.

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Supremely suited to Elizabeth I's needs, Astraea helped cast the virgin queen as a judicious restorer of the Protestant golden age in England. The rich Elizabethan tradition, well known from the epic poetry of Spenser, the pastoral poetry of Mary, Countess of Pembroke, the lyrics of Sir John Davies, and masques such as Peele's Descensus Astraeae, supplied a welcome celebration of Elizabeth's authority after the religious and political upheavals of Mary's reign. Thomas Heywood offers a typical gloss on Astraea in his Life of Merlin, written in the Stuart reign: Astraea in whom is figured Justice (and here Queen Elizabeth personated) borrowing Ariadnes Crowne, which is one of the Celestiall constellations, who left the world in Saturnus Reigne, called the Golden Age, when the seven deadly sins began first to peep into the world, and clayme chiefe predominance on earth: who now at this restoration of true Religion, is said to discend from her place in the Zodiack, where she sate constell'd by the name of Virgo.

Its transmission through varied eras, nations, and vested interests radically affects the precious univocality of its authority and its singularly affirmative character in political commentary. While history deepens the tradition's authority, it also disperses it through nationalistic competition: European nations sprouted their lineal branch from the Trojans in response to the epic and chronicle accounts composed for rival nations. When the goal was imperium sine fine, the need to translate the legend into one's own idiom and culture was pressing indeed.

At this moment, Chaucer's poem comes to its inconclusive end: for the last time, Chaucer fails to tell the story of the Aeneid. Reading literary history, as this brief examination of Vergil's Fama and her legacy demonstrates, uncovers the Troy legend's self-marring history of ideological appropriation. The stakes are high, because it is the literary tradition invested with originary cultural authority, to which its distinctive examples and metaphors are expected to grant safe conduct through time.

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