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Critics have often been drawn to metaphors of space and place to describe both families and the genre of romance, speaking of households, networks, and cycles. Recently Helen Cooper has persuasively adopted the idea of the meme, derived from genetics, to discuss the transformations of romance motifs in medieval and early modern England; as she observes: ‘The romance genre – any genre, indeed – is best thought of as a lineage or family of texts rather than a series of incarnations or clones of a single Platonic idea. A family changes over time as its individual members change, but equally, those individuals can be recognized through their “family resemblance”’. There are not enough surviving portraits to ascertain whether the Sidney family resembled one another physically, but the repetition of names across the generations certainly emphasised their relationships: Mary Wroth was named after her aunt, Mary Sidney Herbert, whose mother had also been a Mary; Philip’s brother Robert was named after his uncle, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; he named his own youngest son Robert, and one of his daughters was Philippa. These ties of kinship were paratextually re-created in the Sidneys’ own publications: Philip Sidney dedicated his romance to his sister, locating its composition within her household and describing her as his first reader in his preface; it was published, after his death, as The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. A generation later, Mary Wroth or her printer also located her romance firmly within kinship networks, using its title-page to announce it as The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania. Written by the right honorable the Lady Mary Wroath. Daughter to the right noble Robert Earle of Leicester. And neece to the ever famous, and renowned Sr. Phillips Sidney knight. And to ye most exele[n]t Lady Mary Countesse of Pembroke late deceased.
To observe that Troilus and Cressida is a play full of puns is hardly news: nearly two centuries ago, William Hazlitt described the whole play as ‘a kind of double entendre’, and at times it is a play which could well be summarized by that now passé bowdlerizing editorial shorthand, ‘with a bawdy quibble’. As Patricia Parker comments in the opening paragraph of Shakespeare from the Margins (1996), ‘Wordplay itself has frequently been reduced to the purely decorative “quibble”. . . [yet] both comic wordplay and what Kenneth Muir called the “uncomic pun” lead us to linkages operating not only within but between Shakespeare’s plays.’ Troilus and Cressida provides rich material for such an approach: its puns are dense and both uncomic and revoltingly (or even painfully) funny, and its quibbles are frequently not at all ‘quibbling’, but rather substantive, far-reaching and unsettling, a crucial part of the play’s thick verbal texture and unstable moral universe. They cannot be dismissed. Here I offer a close reading of one passage from the play, which pays attention not simply to quibbles, puns and other forms of linguistic play, but also to the material context of the passage, in terms of both performance issues and early modern material culture. We are getting better at attending to the material circumstances of performance, at considering what impact such awareness might have upon the more purely linguistically oriented close reading of texts, and, indeed, at breaking down the distinctions between ‘text’ and ‘performance’. But the degree of slippage between the categories of the verbal, the visual and the material in Troilus and Cressida can still take us by surprise by showing that there could be a pun on a thing, or a quibble that is in part material. Such fluidity and expansiveness of interpretation seem to have been second nature to Shakespeare and his audience.
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