Nicholas Birns’ thoughtful and thought-provoking “‘To Aleppo gone’: From the North Sea to Syria in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Macbeth” argues that Macbeth betrays an indebtedness to the Man of Law’s Tale in its repetition of certain key dynamics from Chaucer’s text, in Birns’ words “chart[ing] specific through-lines that Chaucer and Shakespeare use analogously both to ramify the past and to make that past relevant to themselves and their original audiences” (364-65). His argument centers on his deployment of the concept of the plupast (the past’s conception of its own past–a term I had not before encountered but find enormously productive) and how the alterity it implies maps onto geographic and religious alterity. The recognition of temporal difference is, of course, a major topic in current debates over periodization and historiography; Birns’ argument that Chaucer and Shakespeare deployed homologous strategies to think through temporal difference argues for continuity between medieval and early modern epistemologies, adding its voice to the chorus challenging the idea of a sharp periodic break and to discussions of medieval temporality and historiography more broadly. I ask readers, what do you make of the arguments he puts forth? What are their ramifications? For I think Birns’ article also has consequences for studies of early modern genre theory. In his discussion of why we do not consider Macbeth a history play, he suggests “the archaic setting makes the play seem more like dramas of historical legend such as King Lear or Hamlet than later-set plays centering on characters who are also attested as potentates of the British Isles” (373). It has long been acknowledged that the history plays exclude other “historical” works because of their tight focus on English civil unrest. The concept of the plupast, though, perhaps begins to give us more of a terminology for describing how historical difference served as a generic marker in the minds of Heminges and Condell as well as Shakespeare (the Roman plays are in the Folio under tragedies, after all). How might we further deploy the concept of the plupast in a productive way for genre studies, and/or as a mode of interrogating early moderners’ relationship to the medieval (more contiguous?), the classical past, and historical rupture?
I am particularly intrigued by Birns’ account of what Shakespeare takes unaltered from Chaucer versus what he modifies. As Birns persuasively argues, Shakespeare mostly repeats Chaucer’s (often ahistorical) center-peripheral representation of geopolitical and religious relationships and power distribution. On the other hand, gender and family dynamics seem to be where Birns locates Shakespeare’s divergence from Chaucer; he notes that Shakespeare “inverts” or “expresses in parodic form” the core elements of Greek romance, which of course animate the Man of Law’s Tale (372). As I read, my mind kept coming back to Lady Macbeth, especially given that the Man of Law’s Tale involves not just one but two “hostile maternal presence[s]” of its own (379). Both of Chaucer’s malevolent mothers have children, and Donegild eventually becomes an ancestor of emperors; in contrast, Lady Macbeth is both malevolently maternal and famously lacking in children. Likely the elimination of Lady Macbeth’s children was a nod to James’ ancestry, but her absent offspring can also stand in for that which in Shakespeare is disjunctive, in Chaucer connective. In Chaucer, a pair of evil mothers break down the binary between west and east; in Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth seems to stand in for the difference between periphery and center that the text uneasily both depicts and tries to conquer (especially when contrasted with the beatific absent presence of Edward the Confessor). I have been thinking recently about Donaldson’s famous comment, that Chaucer’s Troilus was better suited for Shakespeare’s Cressida and vice versa, which leads me to wonder what elements of Chaucer’s works Shakespeare tends to regularly alter versus simply import. Could we think about why, or what such systematic changes would imply? Is it fair to say gender might be one of the ways in which Shakespeare regularly modifies Chaucer, and if for the purposes of discussion we assume it is, what do we do with this Shakespearean modus operandi? How can we interpret Shakespeare’s willingness to follow Chaucer’s geopolitical depictions, but not his family or monarchical dynamics, in at least Troilus and Macbeth? How else could we put Lady Macbeth into conversation with Chaucer’s ill-intentioned maternal figures?
Last, I am interested in what this article implies for, as Birns writes, “the growing conversation about links between Chaucer and Shakespeare” (364). We tend to imagine Shakespeare’s Chaucer periods as coming in three distinct bursts: 1594-96 (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and potentially Love’s Labour’s Lost), 1601-02 (Troilus and Cressida, Sir Thopas in Twelfth Night), and 1613 (Two Noble Kinsmen). But if Macbeth (1606) is also indebted, as Birns contends, it adds to a growing list of works not usually associated with Chaucer: not just Macbeth but also “The Phoenix and Turtle” (1601), as Patrick Cheney suggests in an essay in Shakespeare and the Middle Ages; Cymbeline (1609-10), as Deanne Williams in Literature Compass and Elizabeth Scala at this past summer’s NCS have argued; and, as Birns notes, King John (1594-96), Pericles (1607-8), and The Tempest (1611), citing recent studies that have argued for a Chaucerian genealogy in all three. This paints a very different picture for us, of a Shakespeare who was a more habitual reader of and responder to Chaucer than we usually imagine, and who seems to have regularly thumbed through his copy of the Speght Chaucer after purchasing it in 1598. With mounting evidence of a deeper relationship between the writers, how should we reorient our thoughts on Shakespeare’s relationship to Chaucer? Could a more sustained and regular engagement with Chaucer change our conversations about the literary Shakespeare and his responsiveness to the emerging English canon? Does it change our conception of Shakespeare’s working methods, or the arc of his career? How might it cause us to re-evaluate Chaucer’s afterlife or influence in the early modern period, or even what might be considered an influence or source?
As you can see, I found Birns’ article to be both engaging and intellectually generative. I hope you will share your own thoughts on the article in the comment section below!