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Marianne Montgomery, Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages, 1590-1620 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012). ISBN 978-1-4094-2287-7, 162 pp. £54.00.

Reviewed by Nadia T. van Pelt

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[1] Europe’s Languages on England’s Stages is a compelling addition to the Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama series published by Ashgate. In an earlier publication from this series, Disguise on the Early Modern English Stage (2011), Peter Hyland focused on the visual distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’ in early English drama through the use of costumes, and argued that:

Disguise is of its essence metatheatrical and while of course not all plays had a particular interest in exploiting this potential as very many did, I argue that there must always have been a level of dual consciousness in the audience’s understanding of plays (Hyland, p. 15).

Marianne Montgomery’s study complements Hyland’s, as she identifies a self-aware theatricality in the early English plays that stage European languages. The book likens the use of foreign languages on stage to theatrical disguise by calling it ‘a kind of disguise through speech’ pointing to both ‘the flexibility of identity licensed by theatricality’ and the importance of ‘the sound of language to the experience of the playhouse audience’ (p. 6).

[2] Montgomery closely follows studies on the process of national self-identity in the early theatre including Steven Mullaney’s The Place of the Stage (1988); Andrew Hadfield’s Literature, Politics, and National Identity (1994); and Michael Neill’s Putting History to the Question: Power, Politics, and Society in English Renaissance Drama (2000). Furthermore her work is informed by a number of studies that have attended to issues of race, colonialism, and ‘the early modern construction of bodily and cultural identity’ (p. 15), such as Mary Floyd-Wilson’s English Ethnicity and Race in Early Modern Drama (2002) and Ania Loomba’s Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (2002). Finally, her methodology for studying sound effects on the early modern stage is notably influenced by Bruce Smith’s The Acoustic World of Early Modern England (1999) and Wes Folkerth’s The Sound of Shakespeare (2002). Uniting these multiple critical discourses about early modern drama, it is Montgomery’s objective to open a new line of thinking by suggesting that the use of European language in plays could make audible early English concern with national, civic and social identity, as well as English self-identification through drama. One of the book’s strongest features is its reluctance to accept the satirizing of foreign languages as their only raison d’être in English plays. Indeed, the study offers an excellent discussion of how the use of foreign languages in the playhouse defined communities, and forged ‘aural bonds between fictional strange speakers and the playgoers who hear, understand, and respond to their languages’ (p. 133). As such she offers an optimistic view of cosmopolitan exchanges of a social and commercial nature in early modern London.

[3] Montgomery’s book opens with an extensive methodology chapter, followed by four chapters which concern five European languages that featured on the commercial London stage between 1590 and 1620: Welsh, French, Dutch, Spanish and Latin. Each of these languages make perceptible a different set of cultural issues and each chapter shows, through a selection of individual plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, how these issues were explored and made audible on stage, as well as how they were ‘understood as part of a performance’ (p. 17).

[4] Foreign language featuring as a prop is the subject of the first chapter: ‘Mother Tongues’. This chapter considers the gendered representations of speakers of French and Welsh in Shakespeare’s second Tetralogy. Starting off with the question ‘to what extent … people [are] mastered if they still speak native languages’ (p. 21), Montgomery contrasts two female characters with respectively Welsh and French as their mother tongues, which offer ‘theatrically powerful alternatives to English’ (p. 18). The Welshwoman in Henry IV, Part 1 when speaking her native language on stage utters a stage language. Her language makes ‘Wales audible in the theater and performs Wales as distant from and resistant to the king’s England’ (p. 47). Katherine in Henry V speaks French in order to maintain her cultural identity and to avoid ‘becoming an English queen and an English mother’ (p. 47). Identified as the mother of the Tudor line, Katherine’s language problematically also becomes the Tudor mother-tongue. Montgomery convincingly argues that what the Welshwoman in Henry IV, Part 1 and Katherine in Henry V have in common, is that they ‘both speak in ways that complicate the history plays’ visions of English dynastic power and conquest’ (p. 47). Montgomery identifies the self-referential theatricality of language in Shakespeare’s Tetralogy, and the relationship between the King’s triumph over his foreign antagonists and the languages that they speak. Therefore, it is surprising that Montgomery omits any reference to James Calderwood’s Shakespeare’s Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (1979). This work was one of the pioneers of metatheatrical theory, and the first to draw a link between the metatheatrical potential of language in Shakespeare’s historical Tetralogy and the notion of rulership.

[5] Language as a disguise is the issue at the heart of Chapter 2, in which Montgomery studies Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan, Middleton’s No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s, and Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. This chapter argues that the Dutch language provides early English playwrights with a way of thinking about ‘commercial identity, identity based not on nation but on occupation’ (p. 49). Montgomery reflects that the ‘Dutch’ plays engage with the distinctions between persons of different social classes and geographical circumstance within England, as much as with the difference between English and foreignness emphasized in the plays. Furthermore, by staging issues of economic and social identity in the economic institution of the commercial theatre (p. 57), plays that use Dutch are self-referential about drama as a commodity.

[6] The last two chapters are concerned with the use of foreign languages on stage as a metatheatrical device. Chapter 3 focuses on Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Jonson’s The Alchemist. It observes that Spanish on the early English stage is only ever a stage language, made up of a combination of languages, and a convention of cultural identifiers. This convention made it possible for playgoers to understand the codes and signs used to ‘produce’ the stage Spaniard (p. 83), a type of role that became essentially metatheatrical (p. 94). Chapter 4 studies Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The chapter argues that making the sound of Latin available in the commercial playhouse was in itself a metatheatrical act that reflected on ‘problems of perception’, and on ‘what happens to language when it sounds beyond the text and thus is received by ears unprepared to interpret its cadences and capitalize on its potential’ (p. 127).

[7] Montgomery successfully dismisses the stereotype that foreign languages on the early English stage only served to provide stereotypes for mockery and easy laughter. Indeed, her positive view of the ways in which early English spectators were invited to identify with characters speaking a foreign tongue is refreshing and important. This book makes a welcome contribution to the field and is a must-read for anyone interested in the representation of cultural identity in early modern England, as well as students of and specialists in theatricality and performativity.

University of Southampton, June 2014