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Elizabethan FictionsEspionage, Counter-espionage, and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Narratives$

R. W. Maslen

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780198119913

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198119913.001.0001

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Fictions and their Commentaries before 1570

Fictions and their Commentaries before 1570

(p.68) 2 Fictions and their Commentaries before 1570
Elizabethan Fictions

R. W. Maslen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The second chapter considers the impact on Elizabethan fiction of the story-collections of William Painter, Geoffrey Fenton, and the little-known fabulists who worked alongside them. By the 1560s, the animal fable was a relatively domesticated genre: classical precedent and a long fabular tradition in English had effectively drawn its teeth. Continental prose fiction, on the other hand, was wild. Its early translators handled it as if it were an expensive and highly dangerous exotic beast which needed to be kept at bay with every editorial control at their disposal. The 1560s brought two major shipments: William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure, which appeared in two volumes in 1566 and 1567, and Geoffrey Fenton's menagerie of Franco–Italian romantic thrillers, the Tragicall Discourses of 1567.

Keywords:   William Painter, Geoffrey Fenton, animal fables, fabulists, The Palace of Pleasures, Tragicall Discourses

1. The Secret Meanings of Fables

The process of producing narrative fictions seems always to have filled Elizabethan writers with anxiety. Authors and commentators agreed that fictions should fulfil two functions—to entertain and to instruct—but the frequency with which title-pages earnestly promise that the ensuing text will be ‘both pleasant and profitable’ or just Very profitable to be known and read’ suggests that some commentators remained permanently sceptical about the profit that accrued to the reader from texts which claimed to be pleasant. During the first part of Elizabeth's reign writers of fiction worked to overcome this scepticism by producing plain narrative forms which stressed their own social utility. Among the most popular of these forms was the fable, a narrative which aimed to control its recipients’ interpretations by appending a critical commentary to the body of the text in the form of a ‘moral’: that is, an exposition of authorized readings of the text, designed to establish a notional simplicity of understanding between the author, as custodian of the ideology of the state, and the potentially wayward reader. Elizabethan responses to the complex fiction of the 1570s had their origins in the expectations raised by these apparently primitive literary models.

But the simplicity produced by the interaction between a fable and its commentary was decidedly notional. By the 1560s the various uses of the word ‘fable’ had come to encapsulate the duplicitous nature of fiction, and often enough the moral commentary only reinforced this duplicity.1 Depending on the respective ideological (p.69) positions of text and reader, a fable could be either a legitimate rhetorical device or a downright lie; and these two aspects proved difficult to disentangle. Stephen Hawes testifies to the usefulness of fiction in The Pastyme of Pleasure (1509): ‘For often under a fayre fayned fable | A trouth appereth gretely profitable’,2 while in The Arte or Crafte of Rhetoryke (1532) Leonard Cox complains that ‘it is the nature of poetes to fayne and lye’ (sig. B5V). These two views of poetic ‘feigning’ had coexisted for centuries. The antagonism between the two positions was not absolute. Poets could be praised for their pleasurable teachings and damned for their deceitfulness in the same text, as Richard Rainolde demonstrated in The Foundacion of Rhetorike. In one place Rainolde expatiates on the endless errors and ‘monsterous lies against God’ spawned by the fertility of the poetic imagination (sig. G); in another he celebrates the ‘godly counsaile’ concealed in the most fertile poetic text of all, Ovid's Metamorphoses (sig. A3). His definition of a fable epitomizes this moral ambivalence: it is‘a forged tale, containing in it by the colour of a lie, a matter of truthe’ (sig. A2V). Its nature as a ‘forgerie’ needs to be kept in check by the ‘truthe’ contained in the moral: ‘The morall is called that, out of the whiche some godlie precepte, or admonicion to vertue is given, to frame and instructe our maners…the fable was invented for the moralles sake’ (sigs. A2V—A4V). For Rainolde, the lies of fiction should be not merely regulated but dictated by their preconceived instructive purpose.

But many Elizabethan moral commentaries do not look as if they generated the fable they accompany. Instead they look like a selection of the cleverest or most topical readings of an infinitely pliant text. The fable's dual status as a lie—an act of treason against the verbal simplicity favoured by the state—and as a persuasive instrument of immeasurable value to the ruling classes, was complicated by what commentators saw as its unusual susceptibility to multiple readings. The English fabulists admiringly acknowleged the plurality of interpretations made available by their texts, while at the same time trying to restrict the reader's choice between readings by incorporating a number of safety devices into their narratives. The moral commentary was the most obvious of these devices, but the wittiest commentators showed an alarming tendency to recognize and collude (p.70) with the ambiguities generated by the texts they were supposed to elucidate.3

In The Governor, Elyot defines a fable as a fictional example, invented to supplement the factual examples supplied by history. For Elyot the fable's status as fiction is unimportant, since properly defined it is a tool used by responsible orators and pedagogues employed by the public weal, and so exists in the same relationship to the governor's memory as a ‘truthful’ history. In fact for Elyot the concept of ‘pure’ fiction hardly exists at all, since most of the best-known fictions are allegorical or even literal accounts of real historical events. To those who assert that ‘the histories of the Greeks and Romans be nothing but lies and feigning of poets’, he replies that ‘the most Catholic and renowned doctors of Christ's religion’ have endorsed their authenticity (230), and goes on to defend as harmless any odd ‘leasings’ that may have crept into such narratives. George Puttenham develops Elyot's point in The Arte of English Poesie. For Puttenham, the principal task of the poet is not to produce fables but to act as a scrupulous recorder of things ‘right as they be in deede’ (14); he distinguishes them from preachers, philosophers, and historians only by their use of metre and the inventiveness of their style. Like Elyot, Puttenham insists that most of the pagan fables are allegorical histories, and that anything improbable or obscene in these histories has nothing to do with the poets:

that Saturnus should geld his father Celius…and other such matters as are reported by them, it seemeth to be some wittie devise and fiction made for a purpose, or a very notable and impudent lye, which could not be reasonably suspected by the Poets, who were otherwise discreete and grave men, and teachers of wisedome to others. (22)

This implies that whenever poets do engage in producing fables, the ‘purpose’ of the text is of paramount importance in making it acceptable to the rulers they serve. But the passage also exposes the fact that the distinction between a ‘wittie devise and fiction’ and an ‘impudent lye’ is not so easy to make. Perhaps it is because of this difficulty that (p.71) Puttenham lends so little space in his treatise to the discussion of fiction; for him, tragedy, comedy, satire, and the rest seem to be almost exclusively preoccupied with the representation of historical ‘fact’. He inserts his most extended discussion of fiction into his chapter on history, where he surrounds it with qualifications designed to protect his poets from the charge of spreading lies:

These historical men…used not the matter so precisely to wish that al they wrote should be accounted true, for that was not needefull nor expedient to the purpose, namely to be used either for example or for pleasure…which made the learned and wittie men of those times to devise many historicall matters of no veritie at all, but with purpose to do good and no hurt, as using them for a maner of discipline and president of commendable life. (32, my emphasis)

It would appear that for Puttenham, fables were produced by serious ‘historical men’, custodians of authorized learning, for specific pedagogic and political purposes sanctioned by the state. Any deviation from this strictly limited fictive practice threatened to breed the ‘monstruous imaginations’ that jeopardize his project of raising poetry to the status of a disciplined and well-regulated ‘art’.

Puttenham's contemporaries tended to share his suspicion of fiction. One of the few genres that sixteenth-century commentators regularly treated as fiction—that is, as imaginative fabrication, as opposed to allegorical history—was the animal fable. In The Governor Elyot remarks: ‘I suppose no man thinketh that Aesop wrote gospels, yet who doubteth but that in his fables the fox, the hare, and the wolf, though they never spake, do teach many good wisdoms’ (231). But even the animal fable was carefully fenced in with cautions and instructions to prevent its misuse; after all, from Chaucer's Parlement of Foules to Skelton's Speke Parrot the animal fable had acted—and continued to act—as a versatile vehicle for political satire. In 1570 Thomas North published a translation of a collection of fables called The Morall Philosophie of Dont, attributed to the Indian philosopher Bidpai. North's preface warns that these stories about court politics in the world of the beasts must be studied with close attention if they are not to mislead their readers. According to North, animal fables constitute a universal alternative language which can help to overcome the divisions between verbal languages. Such fables enable information to be communicated freely between one culture and another by means of a sign-system composed of ‘things’—rather like (p.72) the bags full of objects used in conversation by the inhabitants of Swift's Lagado:

  • Of words and of examples is a sundrie sort of speache,
  • One self same thing to mindes of men in sundrie wise they teache,
  • Wordes teache but those that understande the language that they heare,
  • But things, to men of sundrie speache, examples make appeare.4

At the same time, North recognizes that this alternative sign-system is as vulnerable to unauthorized readings as any other language. The philosopher Bidpai interlaces his fables with one another in a pattern reminiscent of the intricate framework of Ovid's Metamorphoses: one tale interpenetrates another, stories unfold within stories, and North implies that readers who approach such a structure without due care will quickly find themselves lost in the labyrinths of ideological error. To prevent the proliferation of unauthorized readings he invests the work's structure with an almost mystical status, averring that it reproduces exactly the complex paths taken by the philosopher's mind in its meditations on political life. He prefaces the book with repeated injunctions to read the fables in the precise order in which they are printed: ‘the similitudes and comparisons doe (as they saye) holde hands one with the other, they are so linked togithers, one still depending of another: which if you sever, desirous to reade any tale or storie by it selfe, not comparing the Antecedent with the Sequele…you shall be farre from understandinge of the matters’ (5–6). Later North's warnings against misreading the text get more insistent: ‘To reade such a Booke (worthy Reader) thou must call thy wittes togither uniting them and thy understanding with the due order of the woorke’ (16–17). Those who fail to read attentively, he tells us, are like the blind man ‘that wanting his sight, taketh upon him to go over Mountaynes, Hilles, and Dales, through most daungerous and perillous wayes’ (17). Properly construed, Bidpai's language of ‘things’ provides an invaluable guide through the complexities of court politics. Misread, it spells disaster. North never specifies the kind of disaster a misreading of the political fable will invoke; but the metaphor of the blind man might have offered his sixteenth-century readers a clue. The ‘Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion’, added to the book of homilies after the Catholic rising of 1569, made use of a similar metaphor drawn from the (p.73) scriptures (Matt. 15:14) to describe the clandestine activities of the papist clergy in the households of northern England: ‘ignorant mass priests, as blind guides leading the blind, brought those seely blind subjects into the deep ditch of horrible rebellion’.5 On the basis of the passage from Matthew, blindness had become a familiar metaphor for the condition of opposing the state religion. But North's simile differs from the biblical one in that his blind men choose to wander into ‘daungerous and perillous waves’ of their own volition, and are therefore wholly responsible for the consequences. He was clearly eager to ensure that any appropriation of his text by enemies of the English state could never be attributed to negligence or shortsightedness on the part of the translator.

Translators of Ovid's more elusive and erotic fiction were as eager as North to guarantee that their texts participated in the communication of official doctrine. In his translation of the first four books of the Metamorphoses (1565), Arthur Golding anticipates the fears of North and Gosson about the delusions that could be spread by fictions not mediated by accredited servants of the state—especially when these fictions describe the exploits of pagan deities who ‘with whoordome, theft, or murder blotted bee’ (sig. *2).6 Like North, he enjoins the reader to ‘bringe with him a stayed head’ (sig. *3v) and to read the fables strictly in sequence. Two years later, when he published his version of all fifteen books, he prefaced his translation with bolder assertions of the work's legitimacy. He repeats Elyot's claim that fables are not fictions at all, but fact expressed in memorable form, and describes the Metamorphoses as an encyclopaedia of ancient learning: Ovid's ‘darke philosophie of turned shapes’ (sig. A2) expresses, not the violent and unpredictable changes that disrupt the world of sexual politics, but a methodical account of ancient history and science just waiting to be decoded by the enlightened scholar. Claims that Ovid was a serious moral philosopher had been widespread since before the time of the medieval Ovide moralisé, and surface repeatedly throughout the sixteenth century: William Baldwin's much-reprinted handbook A Treatise of Morall Phylosophie (1548) ranks Ovid alongside Plato and Aristotle as one of the deepest thinkers of ancient times, and (p.74) even Francis Bacon embarked on his own idiosyncratic search for occult knowledge in Ovid's pages, reading them as an allegorical key to lost scientific insights.7

But Bacon's investigation of Ovid's ‘darke philosophie’ exposes a problem that became central to later fiction: that of imposing limits on the possible readings of a text like the Metamorphoses, which could sustain such a plethora of meanings. On the one hand, Ovid's work concealed philosophical and scientific data so potent that it could be safely handled only by the most highly qualified scholars. On the other, its semantic richness invited all readers, no matter how inexperienced or unlearned, to test their own inventiveness by investing the text with new significance. The paradox finds itself disarmingly expressed in a little pamphlet by the young author T.H. (perhaps Thomas Howell) called A Fable of Ovid treting of Narcissus (1560). T.H. agrees with Golding that the structure of the Metamorphoses has been organized with almost architectural precision, so that any accurate reading of a single fable needs to take strict account of its context:

  • Hys tales doe joyne, in suche a godly wyse,
  • That one doth hange upon an others ende…
  • Thus Ovid bydes hys readers for to knowe
  • The thynges above as well as those belowe.
  • (sig. Bv)

But for all this structural precision, any one fable can elicit an astonishing range of morals, as T.H. shows when he lists possible interpretations of the fable of Narcissus. Echo, for instance, can be allegorized either as a woman who falls in love too easily, or as an unrequited lover, or as a shameless flatterer; T.H. shows no anxiety about the contradictions involved in accepting all three readings. In fact, despite his youth and ‘umbelnes’ (sig. Bv) he is eager to make his own contribution to this expository free-for-all, and is justifiably proud of the ingenuity with which he does so. He sees Echo as the archetypal schoolmaster, whose habit of repeating the ends of sentences mimics (p.75) the schoolmaster's task of reminding his pupils of the ‘ends’ of their words and actions:

  • As who shoulde saye we ought to regarde the cause
  • And ende of speche ofte spoke wyth lyttell, pause.
  • (Sig. C2V)

T.H.'s innovative moral involves a pun on ‘ends’ which does not work in the Latin, and his youthful exuberance seems almost to have betrayed him into a narcissistic pride in his own wit which places him in direct competition with the wit of Ovid. For the Elizabethan fabulists, reading fiction was clearly as creative and adventurous an exercise as that of writing it. The text seems capable of yielding any number of incompatible meanings, even the most ridiculous of which may be validated by the premiss that its author is an acknowledged canonical authority. In the Foundacion of Rhetorike Richard Rainolde articulates this sense of legitimate imaginative fertility when he praises Aesop as both a philosopher and a legislator: ‘his fables in effect contain the mightie volumes and bookes of all philosophers in morall preceptes, and the infinite monumentes of lawes stablished’ (sig. Bv). The sentence simultaneously celebrates the semantic richness of Aesop's texts and warns that they must only be read within the monumental framework of what the state considers lawful.

The fable in the sixteenth century, then, could be defined as a text that specialized in transmitting information in coded form. It was therefore inevitable that sixteenth-century authors should take advantage of the genre to probe potentially inflammatory political secrets as well as philosophical ones. In 1553 the publisher William Baldwin wrote a satire called Beware the Cat, one of a succession of texts that appropriated the animal fable for the purposes of Protestant polemic. But Mary I came to the throne before Baldwin's fable had got into print, and as a result Beware the Cat remained unpublished until 1570, when its ideological stance had been vindicated by the outbreak of government-sponsored anti-Catholic propaganda that followed the northern rebellion of 1569. Clearly Baldwin was well aware of the need for discretion when incorporating political and religious controversies into his publications; he received a salutary reminder of this in 1555, when the first edition of what was later to become A Mirror for Magistrates was suppressed by the Marian censors.8 Fables offered (p.76) various strategies for concealing the identity and political affiliations of the fabulist, but for the writer who was disaffected with the current administration the safest strategy was always silence.9

There is another sense in which the delay in the publication of Beware the Cat seems peculiarly appropriate. Baldwin's text is perhaps the subtlest of sixteenth-century animal fables, and it anticipates in a number of ways the experimental fictions of the 1570s.10 Like them it makes parodie use of devices borrowed from more conventional fictions in order to demonstrate their outdatedness, their irrelevance to the sophisticated world of post-Reformation politics. Like simpler fables it includes a commentary, in the form of a marginal gloss which is peppered with anti-Catholic sentiments and misogyny; and it ends with a sardonic moral. It opens with a debate about whether or not the fables of Aesop should be taken literally, which parodies contemporary claims for the historical authenticity of Classical fables, such as Golding made for the Metamorphoses. A little later it divulges the recipe for a magic potion that allows the drinker to understand the language of the beasts; and the inclusion of this recipe (whose principal ingredient is hedgehog) might be read as, among other things, a comic tribute to the fable's traditional function as a repository for ancient scientific and philosophical learning. But in Baldwin's fable the secrets to be gleaned from the conversation of animals are scarcely philosophical ones. Instead they are the kind of embarrassing domestic revelations which respectable households prefer to sweep under the carpet or leave to gather dust in cupboards. In fact Beware the Cat converts the function of fiction from the preservation and selective disclosure of timeless truths to the amassing of confidential information about the clandestine activities of seemingly responsible subjects of the state. In the process it converts the fabulist from the role of pedagogue to that of informer, and so makes its own contribution to the important shift in the status of fiction that took place in the 1560s and 1570s.

(p.77) Baldwin's fable also anticipates the fiction of the 1570s in its playful experimentation with the role of the narrator. The tale gets told by a number of competing voices, no one voice privileged above another, whose narratives are arranged in the manner of a Chinese box, story secreted within story, so that the process of reading resembles the opening of a succession of chests filled with confidential documents—a structural device used to brilliant effect by both Gascoigne and Lyly. The chief narrator, whose narrative is reported at second hand by an editor called G.B., is a garrulous priest called Streamer, and Streamer in his turn reports the narratives of three further storytellers: a servant, a man ‘which had been in Ireland’, and an eloquent cat. These interlocking narratives fulfil a quite different function from the ones which Golding and North ascribed to the tightly organized interwoven fables of Ovid and Bidpai. Where commentators argued that the structures of the Metamorphoses and the fables of Bidpai exactly reproduced the intricate workings of the philosopher's mind, it soon becomes clear that the complex structure of Beware the Cat merely enacts confusion. No narrator has final control over the narrative as a whole, and each of the stories it contains is incomplete: the servant and the man from Ireland have access to only a fragment of the stories they tell, and Streamer never hears the end of the tale told by the cat. Besides, as the fable unfolds it emerges that the multiple narrators in Beware the Cat represent only a tiny fraction of the millions of competing voices that deluge England daily, threatening to reduce it to the condition of a latter-day Babel. When the principal narrator, Streamer, swallows the potion that allows him to understand the language of the beasts, he finds himself suddenly sensitized to the deafening cacophony that surrounds him:

barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wawling of cats, rumbling of rats, gaggling of geese, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gaggling of ducks, singing of swans, ringing of pans, crowing of cocks, sewing of socks, cackling of hens, scrabbling of pens, peeping of mice, trulling of dice, curling of frogs, and toads in the bogs…with such a sort of commixed noises as would a-deaf anybody to have heard. (32)

The mingling of household tasks with the ‘commixed noises’ of the beasts suggests that underneath the orderly everyday activities of sixteenth-century London seethes a melting-pot of conflicting discourses, each perhaps accompanied by its own ideology and its own political agenda, over which no government can ever hope to exert (p.78) complete control. And the antagonism between these rival languages and ideologies could boil over at any moment in spontaneous acts of violence.

One of the miniature stories told in the course of Baldwin's fable provides an unusual illustration of the kind of violence that could flare up between rival subjects of the Tudor state. It is a story told by an English traveller about an unfortunate Irishman, who murders a person who turns out to have been the chief of the cats, and is murdered in his turn by a vengeful ‘kitling’. The Englishman tells the story as a humorous anecdote, but its implications are sobering. It details an outbreak of hostilities between representatives of two groups which were themselves fundamentally antagonistic to English government policies, the Irish and the Catholics (punningly contracted to ‘cats’ in Baldwin's fable).11 Both of these groups opposed the imposition of Tudor linguistic policies as fiercely as they did the Protestant religion. The Irish successfully resisted attempts to limit the use of the Irish language—Baldwin's Irishman speaks a few words of Gaelic to remind his readers of the fact—just as Catholics resisted the replacement of the Latin mass with Cranmer's English prayer-book.12 Resistance to the prayer-book had come to a head in England four years before Baldwin wrote Beware the Cat, when the so-called ‘Prayer-book Rebellion’ broke out in Cornwall (where yet another language, Cornish, seems still to have been widely spoken).13 For readers of Baldwin's text in the 1550s the issues raised by the clash of languages were very real ones, and the uniform imposition of English throughout the territories ruled by the Tudors was a problem which had an immediate bearing on the security and stability of the Tudor public (p.79) weal.14 Indeed, neither Baldwin's readers nor his fictional narrators could fail to have been intensely aware of the instability of the state in the reign of Edward VI. Much of the action of the fable takes place on the roof of the Aldgate, where the limbs of dismembered rebels—including, from 1549 to 1551, participants in the Prayer-book Rebellion—were displayed for the edification of the English public.15 The multiple voices in Beware the Cat might be seen, then, as the uneasy forms of expression best suited to a fundamentally fragmented society, and they set Baldwin's text radically at odds with the complacency of conventional fables, with their tacit assumption that their readers shared a common language, a common religion, and a common ideology.

Streamer's principal objective when he swallows his potion is to gain access to the language of the cats. His interest springs from the fact that Baldwin's cats possess the most highly organized and the most cunningly concealed of all the animal cultures. Besides their own language they have their own legal system, their own sexual mores and their own strictly maintained social hierarchy. Streamer first learns of this culture through stories of the chief of cats, Grimalkin, a sort of feline pontiff who wields the same power over other members of her species ‘as the Pope hath ere this over all Christendom, in whose cause all his clergy would not only scratch and bite, but kill and burn to powder’ (15). Cat culture occupies the spaces left vacant by human society: cats convene under cover of darkness, on the roofs of the city gates, in the holds of ships, in the furtive corners where adultery takes place, and in the private chambers where clandestine masses are celebrated. All this makes it easy to equate the feline underworld with the secret activities of Catholics under a Protestant administration; and for much of the fable the equation works well enough. But Baldwin never quite allows his readers to conflate the terms ‘cat’ and ‘Catholic’. His cats exhibit a number of characteristics which Protestant propagandists attributed to the Catholic clergy: they are sexually promiscuous, inordinately greedy (Grimalkin devours a whole cow) and given to meddling with magic. But they have other characteristics which set them apart from the church of Rome. They (p.80) keep their laws with rigour, abhor hypocrisy, and inform on the misdeeds of adulterers; and they regularly play rather savage practical jokes on their Catholic owners. In the course of the fable a cat scratches the face of a Catholic brothel-keeper, fouls the garments of a superstitious priest, and ends by literally catching its mistress's adulterous lover by the balls. Baldwin's cats are owned by Catholics and resemble Catholics, but they also disrupt the clandestine plots of Catholics. They are in fact the double agents of the animal kingdom, and as such they resist allegorical classification—in much the same way as the Italianate Englishman resists classification in Ascham's Scholemaster.

Baldwin's fable ends with a moral or ‘Exhortation’ which explains the titular injunction to ‘Beware the Cat’:

seeing [Streamer] hath in his oration proved that cats do understand us and mark our secret doings, and so declare them among themselves; that through help of the medicines by him described any man may, as he did, understand them; I would counsel all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, lest, to their shame, all the world at length do know thereof. (56)

Cats, in other words, are domestic spies who observe and report on the ‘secret doings’ of the households they have infiltrated. Like other informers they act as a partial check on the diversity of hidden plots and secret agendas which threaten to reduce the Tudor public weal to political and linguistic incoherence. One might conclude that this is also the mission that Baldwin assigns to contemporary fiction: to investigate and expose the ‘privy mischievous counsels’ hatched in the bedchambers and closets of the public weal, and so to take on the role of informer to the state.

But if the injunction to ‘Beware the Cat’ is intended to control the enemies of the state by reminding them that their actions are under constant scrutiny, it offers little evidence that the observers—the cats themselves—can be policed with equal efficiency. There is something unnervingly independent about Baldwin's feline informers. They are more naturalistic than the beasts that populate traditional animal fables: they rub up against their owners’ legs, play with beads, and mew like any ordinary tabby, and this contributes to the difficulty of assigning them any simple allegorical function. They are notoriously unreliable (‘Cats change their dwellings often’ states the marginal gloss, 52) and willing to sell their services to the highest bidder: the Exhortation (p.81) mentions ‘the Devil's cat (which cannot be tied up)’ (55). And the devastation wrought by one of Baldwin's cats on a man's genitals associates them with current male anxieties about the secret powers of women. Cats can be witches in disguise; they can creep into the beds of sleeping men and suck out their breath; and their culture seems to be at least intermittently matriarchal, since both Grimalkin and the feline narrator Mouse-slayer are female. Baldwin's cats, that is, defy all attempts to constrain them within bounds or categories. They stand for whatever subjects of the Tudor state cannot be controlled or commanded, and in sixteenth-century anti-feminist literature (to which Beware the Cat allies itself by means of the misogynist comments in its margins), women were the most uncontrollable subjects of all. The independence of cats—and perhaps by extension of women, of Catholics, of languages other than English within the Tudor demesnes, and of the written word—is reinforced by the unreliable and fragmentary nature of the information we get concerning them. Far from being a serious and systematic philosopher, G.B. (the editor of Streamer's narrative) seems credulous and naïve, and gathers material for his text from the most dubious of sources. He takes everything Streamer says at face value, and shows equal confidence in the tall tales of servants and travellers when recording the story of Grimalkin. His chief informant Streamer never reaches the end of his narrative, since the effects of his magic potion wear off before he learns the outcome of the story of Mouse-slayer. In this way Baldwin explodes the myth of the authority of text or author: neither the editor nor his narrators are fully in command of their subject-matter, and their readers can either give credence to or dismiss the claims of the text as they think fit. By this means Baldwin sets about changing the status of the fable. Where Elyot, Rainolde, North, and Golding define fable as a vehicle for the transmission of the ideology of the state, Baldwin presents it as a textual space in which threats to the stability of the state may be identified and exposed without any guarantee that they can be brought under state control.

It seems appropriate, then, that the title of Beware the Cat should take the form of a warning. The warning alerts Baldwin's readers to the presence of secret, unofficial discourses within the linguistic structures of the public weal: discourses which are used by unidentified enemy agents, and which operate alongside the official discourse privileged by the state. The language of cats is both inaccessible and accessible, both secret and a medium for the leaking of secrets. (p.82) Under normal circumstances no man can understand the feline tongue, but ‘any man’ (as the Exhortation points out) can acquire the knowledge which permitted Streamer to decipher it. The language of cats resembles the traditional fable in that it is a code for concealing and revealing information; but the information Baldwin's fable conceals and reveals is exclusive to nobody, and might be precisely the kind of sensitive material that the people to whom it relates wish to keep under wraps. In other words, the warning to ‘Beware the Cat’ could apply equally to the enemies or to the rulers of the public weal. For Baldwin, fiction is a political no man's land which survives and flourishes in English territory, a subtle infiltrator in the simple world of authorized texts, which masquerades as a respectable citizen but which might be serving anyone or no one. It was this secretive and ambivalent textual territory that English writers chose to explore in the fiction of the 1570s.

2. Painter's Disintegrating Palaces

By the 1560s the animal fable was a relatively domesticated genre: Classical precedent and a long fabular tradition in English had effectively drawn its teeth.16 Continental prose fiction, on the other hand, was wild. Its early translators handled it as if it were an expensive and highly dangerous exotic beast which needed to be kept at bay with every editorial control at their disposal. The 1560s brought two major shipments: William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure, which appeared in two volumes in 1566 and 1567, and Geoffrey Fenton's menagerie of Franco-Italian romantic thrillers, the Tragicall Discourses of 1567. If the animal fable could unleash the multiple readings which Baldwin and Rainolde practised on it, this new continental fiction set off a veritable stampede of interpretative dilemmas. Neither Painter nor Fenton knew quite how to deal with their material. They responded to its blend of complexity, variety, and strangeness with a mixture of excitement and suspicion, and tried to bring these conflicting responses under control by means of lengthy prefatory essays and elaborate glosses, which struggle vainly to fit the new fiction into the (p.83) procrustean bed of Elizabethan poetic theory. But their unruly imports resisted all attempts to simplify them, and the translators’ efforts to give them fabular morals inevitably degenerated into absurdities. These absurdities are worth investigating, because the sophisticated writers of the following decade chose to construct their own narratives out of the contradictions which emerged when English translators encountered Italian domestic fictions.

At the time Painter published the first volume of The Palace of Pleasure in 1566, the most popular story-collection in England was William Baldwin's A Mirror for Magistrates (first published in 1555 as A Memorial of suche Princes, as since the Tyme of King Richard the Seconde, have been Unfortunate in the Realme of England): a series of biographies of princes and nobility gathered out of chronicles and translated into verse. In it Baldwin and his fellow contributors treated the lives of the ruling classes as exemplary political texts of the kind Elyot recommended when he wrote in The Governor that ‘by example of governors men do rise or fall in virtue or vice’ (165). With clockwork regularity the princes in the Mirror rise and fall, driving home the message which the allegorical figure of Sorrow ‘brayed’ to Thomas Sackville in his celebrated Induction:

  • come I am, the drery destinie
  • And luckelesse lot for to bemone of those,
  • Whom fortune in this maze of miserie
  • Of wretched chaunce most wofull myrrours chose
  • That when thou seest how lightly they did lose
  • They pompe, theyr power, and that they thought most sure,
  • Thou mayest soone deeme no earthly joye may dure.17

The cyclical fortunes of great men impart an illusory stability to the very instability they illustrate. They reassure the ruling classes that reading the Mirror will help them to avoid the falls it describes, and remind them that any fall is part of a providential pattern whose shape can be traced throughout history. In addition the tragedies conform on the whole to the concept of ‘decorum’, the principle that there is an appropriate poetic genre for every political function, an appropriate style for every social class.18 Tragedy deals with princes (p.84) and great men, as the original title of the collection insists, and the ‘cases of Princes are sithens taken for the highest and greatest matters of all’,19 so that Baldwin's collection would seem to participate in the hierarchy of poetic genres which helped to reinforce the power-structures of sixteenth-century culture. But A Mirror for Magistrates also served as a salutary reminder for Elizabethan writers of the dangers involved in producing narratives—whether historical or fictional—that come under the scrutiny of a rigorous system of state censorship. The first edition was deemed by the Privy Council to cast aspersions on the Marian regime and was suppressed; the extent to which this affected later readings of the text may be gauged by the addition in 1563 of a tragedy about a minor poet, Collingbourne, who was ‘cruelly put to death for makyng of a ryme’—a little satirical jingle in the form of an animal fable, cocking a snook at Richard III and his closest allies. The tragedy was the work of Baldwin himself, who prefaced it with a discussion of the perils of making fiction which must have been close to his heart, as the author of a sophisticated satire in the form of an animal fable which had not yet got into print. The most frequently reprinted collection of stories in the reign of Elizabeth, then, was also perhaps the most widely available testament to the vulnerability of imprudent storytellers.20

Painter was intensely aware of this vulnerability. The two volumes or ‘tomes’ of The Palace of Pleasure are packed with passages of anxious self-justification designed to forestall the critiques of the ‘blaming tongues and unstayed heades’ he imagines to be combing his text for controversial material.21 His anxiety seems to have increased rather than subsided as time went by, since the second of the two tomes opens with a far more rigorous defence of his editorial policy than the first. The sources of this anxiety seem to have been twofold. In the first place he is eager to explain the pedagogic principles that underlie the diversity of the collection—a diversity which means that alongside exemplary instances of good conduct his histories contain ‘the uglye (p.85) shapes of insolencye and pride, the deforme figures of incontinencie and rape, the cruell aspectes of spoyle, breach of order, treason, ill lucke and overthrow of States and other persons’ (i. 5). In the second place, he seeks to gloss over the radical shift in emphasis which the new continental fiction brought with it—a shift from the exalted tragedies of princes and governors to the domestic tragedies that befall the nobility, the gentry, and the commonalty in the bosoms of their families. This was not an innovation—Tudor literature had its share of tales lamenting the fate of commoners and minor gentry22—but the sheer abundance of stories recounting the sudden falls suffered by private citizens in or near their homes was what marked out the collections of Painter and Fenton as forerunners of a new development in Elizabethan storytelling. The title of Fenton's Certaine Tragicall Discourses boldly advertises this development, and he states it plainly in his second story, where the lovers Livio and Camilla ‘albeit were neither princes nor governors of kingdoms, yet…encountered in one moment a change and sinister subversion’ which gives their story the structure of tragedy.23 Ascham found the shift in emphasis from prince to subject a ‘sinister subversion’ in itself; an ominous instance of the social flexibility that had reduced sixteenth-century Italy to a permanent state of war. Painter and Fenton derived much of their material from French versions of the Italian short stories of Matteo Bandello, Bishop of Agen; and Bandello might be described as Ascham's public enemy number one.24 His stories contain every element that could contribute in Ascham's eyes to the demolition of English cultural values: coded messages exchanged between lovers, secret encounters and undetected adulteries, plots hatched by clever and rebellious children to circumvent the orders of their parents, and murders whose perpetrators sometimes escape unscathed. And all this in the context not only of the traditional locations of political power, (p.86) the court or the battlefield, but also of the households of Europe, the bedchambers, the gardens, the doors, windows, thresholds, and even the chimneys of private houses. These narratives are full of domestic servants, physicians, confessors, and mistresses who have open access to the secrets of their superiors, and who use these secrets freely for their own ends. They suggest in fact that sophisticated power-games take place under the noses and behind the backs of professional politicians, over which the politicians themselves have little authority.

Above all, Fenton's collection is dominated by fierce and unpredictable women, women who boldly refuse to succumb to the ‘female’ virtues of obedience, chastity, and silence. Instead they follow their own inscrutable agendas, and are often wild: they take on the properties of beasts at will, drain their male lovers with their sexual energy, experiment with sorcery and murder, and practise cannibalism in the bedchamber. In Fenton's text even paragons of female virtue are capable of aggressive self-assertion, as a lustful abbot finds when his intended victim robs him of his sword: ‘Wherewith, she flourished here and there, bestowing her blows with such skill to the disadvantage of her enemy, that who had seen her desperate dealing with the sword would have judged that she had been traded in the only exercise of arms all the days of her life’ (282). And Painter's women are no easier to control than Fenton's. The 1566 volume of The Palace of Pleasure includes ten stories from Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron and recognizes women as a major component of its audience: the epistle to the reader dedicates the collection to a wide-ranging audience which includes ‘the Lady, Gentlewoman or other of the feminine kinde’ (i. 12). The 1567 volume of the Palace more subtly and strikingly acknowledges the prominence of women in contemporary fiction. It opens with an account ‘of divers stout, and adventurous women, called Amazones…bycause of dyvers Womens lives plentifull variety is offered in the sequele’ (ii. 159, 165). Painter might almost have been placing his book under the auspices of an alternative, matriarchal, government, where conventional power structures are reversed, as they are in Christine de Pizan's feminist treatise The Book of the City of Ladies (1404–5, translated into English in 1529).25 The bulk of the narratives in the 1567 volume derives from the stories of Bandello and of his French translator François de Belleforest, and the women in these stories are capable of reverting to their Amazonian heritage at any (p.87) time: Fenton describes the chaste swordswoman and her equally combative mother as ‘two imps derived of the blood of the ancient Amazons’ (282). The women in Italian fiction, in fact, help to emphasize the contingent nature not only of patriarchy but of all sixteenth-century hegemonies.

Both Painter and Fenton try to subdue these powerful women in their dedications by giving them a secure niche in the Elizabethan social structure. The word ‘palace’ in Painter's title suggests that his collection combines luxury and ornament with an official function, sanctioned by the ruling classes. He takes pains to identify his metaphorical palace with the building inhabited by England's queen, and dedicates his work to the Earl of Warwick, among other reasons because he is ‘daily resiant in a Palace of renowmed fame, guided by a Queene…garnished with great learning, passing vertues and rare qualities of the minde’ (i. 6). Fenton takes his efforts to invest his narratives with a respectable social status even further. He dedicates the Tragicall Discourses to a woman, Lady Mary Sidney (the mother of Sir Philip), and goes on to claim that all the good women in the collection serve only as illustrations of the qualities of his patron:

To whose virtues…I have chiefly respected to give due renown, by preferring a true portrait of your conversation and life in the virtues, gifts, and ornaments, of the noble Angelica, chaste Parolina, constant Julia, and renowned Carmosina…For if ever the Queen of Caria was meritorious for her magnanimity and bountiful disposition, the Queen of Sheba…was had in honour for her wisdom…or if the constant Lady Blandina…hath purchased a crown of eternity in keeping her faith and vow to God and the world…or, if any other, either of antiquity or familiar experience, of what degree and condition soever, have been noted of renown for the gift of nobility in any sort—your Ladyship may boldly challenge place with the best. (44–7)

Mary Sidney would seem to constitute a richly varied story collection in herself, encompassing all classes, all periods, and all forms of narrative. By associating his own printed collection with her living one Fenton makes his text an extension of its dedicatee, and frees his narratives from the stigma of being an unfamiliar literary mode in a foreign country. It is worth noting that the Elizabethan collection that most openly embraces the novel's subversion of authority, A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, has no formal dedication.26

(p.88) At the same time Painter and Fenton aim to give their translations literary respectability by associating them with a well-established genre, that of history. Both editors preface their collections with ponderous effusions in defence of history, which carefully gloss over the differences between Classical history and the continental novel.27 To emphasize the links between the two traditions Fenton peppers his narratives with Classical allusions, while Painter begins both volumes of the Palace with extracts from the works of Livy and Aulus Gellius. He seems to have chosen some of these extracts for their resemblance to Bandello's novels: stories of spies in the bed chamber (Candaules and Gyges), suicidal women (Panthea and Lucretia), and articulate whores (Lamia, Flora, and Lais). Some he chose to translate from versions by Bandello himself, as if to suggest that the wayward Italian had taken up the mantle of his Roman ancestors. And in the 1566 dedication he speaks of all his narratives, both continental and Classical, as if they were an integral part of the humanist curriculum: they are ‘proper and commendable Histories, which I may boldly so terme, because the Authors be commendable and well approved’ (i. 4). Like Chaucer, however, he omits to specify the source of all this commendation and approval.

Painter's view of the function of these ‘commendable Histories’ is very close to Elyot's. They are ‘probable examples’ which alternately attract their readers to actions which are sanctioned by the state and deter them from doing wrong:

as all histories be ful of lessons of vertue and vice, as Bookes, sacred and prophane, describe the lives of good and bad for example sake, to yelde meanes to the posterity, to ensue the one and eschue the other, so have I thought to intermingle amongest these Novels the several! sortes of either, that ech Sexe and Kinde may pike out like the Bee, of ech Floure, Honny, to store and furnishe with delightes their well disposed myndes. (ii. 301)

Exemplary narratives should be ‘well disposed’, highly organized so as to simplify the reader's task of organizing the mind where they are to be stowed. The 1567 dedication describes the study of history as part of a larger body of knowledge, ‘the immortall storehouse of all possessions’ (p.89) which is the liberal arts (ii. 150). Remove one element from this intellectual edifice and the whole structure will collapse: ‘To be short every science is so necessary, as the same taken away, reason is deprived and the Life of Man (of due order and government) defrauded’ (ii. 150). Painter's histories and novels are as necessary for the orderly operation of the Elizabethan state as an actual palace. In fact the palace metaphor implies that the book itself is as tightly organized as a work of architecture, and that each story has the same mathematically precise relation to its neighbours as the parts of a building. This sense of structural inviolability extends to the collection itself, where Painter develops the architectural metaphor from the title-page: the story of Horatius stands ‘as it were at the gate of this palace’ (i. 15), while the stories from Italy occupy the garden.28 From his theoretical commentary one gets the impression that Painter saw his collection as the literary equivalent of a House of Memory: one of the unchangeable mental edifices described by Thomas Wilson in his Arte of Rhetorique, where every architectural feature serves as a mnemonic.29

But alongside his efforts to authorize narratives in prose, Painter has a second agenda which threatens to disrupt the first: he delights in variety. Among his good and bad examples he scatters anecdotes which serve only to ‘exhilarate’ his readers’ minds: ‘pleasaunte discourses, merie talke, sportinge practises…deceitfull devises, and nipping taunt es’ that have nothing to do with service to the Elizabethan state (i. 5). He signals his craving for variety and the unease he feels about it in the endless apologies which punctuate his texts: apologies for his failure to include religious examples alongside secular ones, apologies for dealing with ‘unlawfull love’ (i. 5), apologies for describing (p.90) ’persons that bee vicious’, and for the unrestrained inclusiveness of his selection. To some readers, he admits, ‘it shal not peradventure seeme fit and convenient to mingle holy with prophane, (accordinge to the proverbe) to intermedle amongs pleasaunt histories, ernest epistles, amid amorous Novels, learned Letters’ (ii. 279), but he justifies the mixture with an appeal to the abundance of invention found in all good texts, whatever their function: ‘For amid the divine works of Philosophers and Oratours, amongs the pleasaunt paynes of auncient Poets, and the Novell writers of our time, merry verses so well as morall matters be mingled, wanton bankets so well as…effectuall declamations and persuasions pronounced’ (ii. 279). The passage is not so much a defence as a celebration. Instead of claiming that mixtures have a political or moral duty to perform, Painter simply invokes the entire store of his readings to illustrate the heterogeneous wealth of available texts. He sees no reason to restrict or police this wealth: in one novel he transforms the story of the Sibylline books into a lament for the literature lost at the dissolution of the monasteries, literature which had been preserved for centuries by the ‘idle Monkes’ Ascham held in such contempt.30

Painter regards the ‘pleasaunt store’ of his own ‘readings’ as a treasury to be raided at will (ii. 151). And in sorting through this treasury the texts that strike him as worth translating are the unconventional ones—the novel ones. He explains that he chose from the works of Livy narratives which struck him as ‘straung’ (i. 4), a term which has connotations of both ‘innovative’ and ‘foreign’; the word crops up repeatedly elsewhere in his collection. The story of the Amazons is ‘an Hystory rare and straunge to the unlearned’ (ii. 159), and the novels of Bandello are ‘so straunge and terrible as they be able to affright the stoutest’ (i. 364). The poets who wrote commendatory verses for Fenton's Tragicall Discourses were equally struck by their strangeness. Peter Beverley claims that they have a ‘stranger hue’ than conventional stories (52), while George Turberville describes them as ‘strange and tragical affairs’ (51); and Turberville later went on to translate some of Bandello's strange and tragical affairs for himself.31 Ascham was quite (p.91) right to accuse these translators of smuggling dangerous foreign material into the homes of their English readers, since the books themselves seem to revel in their strangeness, their foreignness to Elizabethan culture.

One of the ways in which Painter compensates for the doubtful moral status of his palace is by falsifying the social status of its inhabitants. In 1566 he describes them as ‘renowmed wights’ whose ‘princely partes and glorious gestes’ make them sound as impeccably aristocratic as the knights of chivalric romance (i. 14). The 1567 dedication gives a still more misleading account of their social class. It states that history—and, by implication, Painter's histories—’displaieth the counsels, advises, pollicies, actes, successe, and endes of Kinges, Princes and great men’ (ii. 150). From the description one might expect the collection to be another Mirror for Magistrates, almost exclusively preoccupied with the behaviour of the ruling classes, but in fact the stories tackle a wide diversity of occupations, from medicine to prostitution, from robbery to fishing—as Painter acknowledges elsewhere.32 And he arranges them in an order which sometimes suggests that he was more interested in setting up witty comparisons than in propping up the social hierarchy. The story of the Amazons is followed at once by an account of the collapse of male government, which describes ‘the great Alexander: and in what wise from vertue hee fell to vice’ (ii. 165). Later Painter engineers a still more cheeky juxtaposition when he swings abruptly from a series of philosophical letters by Plutarch to a set of mock-philosophical precepts on the art of sex, ascribed to ‘three arrant honest Women, which for lewdnesse wer famous’ (ii. 301). The excuse he gives for the transition is that it will ‘variate’ the diet of his readers (ii. 259), but Ascham, in The Scholemaster, may have seen it as yet further evidence that Painter dealt in ‘varietie of vanities, and chaunge of filthy lyving’ (229).

Painter's thirst for variety finds its most disturbing manifestation in the novels derived from the words of Bandello and the ‘sondrie kindes of cruelties’ they unfold (i. 364, my emphasis).33 At the centre of these (p.92) novels is an army of women who repulse all the efforts of a fragile patriarchy to keep them under control. In story after story these women attack and demolish traditional constructions of masculinity and femininity. Zilia condemns the Lord of Virle to three years of exercising the ‘female’ virtues of silence and obedience, while Barbara forces her suitors to practise the womanly art of spinning. Julietta assumes a ‘manly stomach’, and Violenta shows ‘greater courage than is wont to belong to her sex’. The Countess of Salisbury sets herself up in opposition to the King of England like an Amazon challenging a latter-day Alexander:

This worthie Prince (I say) who before that time like an Alexander, was able to conquere and gain whole kingdomes, and made all Fraunce to quake for feare, at whose approch the gates of every Citie did flie open,…whose helmet was made of manhods trampe, and mace well steeled with stoute attemptes, was by the weakest staye of dame Nature's frame, a woman (shaped with no visage sterne or uglie loke) affrighted and appalled, (i. 335)

At the same time women repeatedly violate the social hierarchy by marrying outside their station. Giletta takes up medicine so as to arrange a match for herself with Bertrand, who is her social superior; the Duchess of Malfi contracts a secret marriage with her servant, and the Countess of Salisbury marries the king. The most audacious of Bandello's female saboteurs is Violenta, a woman who has no social status at all. Because of her low birth she agrees to marry her aristocratic lover in secret, but he never publicly acknowledges the relationship, and eventually marries again. Violenta responds, as her name implies, by usurping the male prerogative of violence. With the help of her maid Giannica she transforms her bedchamber into a space where she can operate the barbarous machinery of sixteenth-century justice without recourse to official legislation. In this most private of spaces she dismembers her husband piece by piece, and from it she emerges to give herself up to the judicial system which had failed to act on her behalf. Beside its suggestion that exploited women can take the law into their own hands, Violenta's history provides an (p.93) unnerving instance of women banding together to keep secrets from men—even from the men who share their beds. She entices her husband into the house and has sex with him without offering a clue to her murderous intentions. Her partnership with Giannica is the savage counterpart of Giletta's partnership with Julia, when they conspire together to smuggle Giletta into her husband's bed. Bandello's heroines have none of the garrulousness ascribed to women by convention: they are highly efficient secret agents operating on their own behalf. Men have no access to women's agendas, and women know all the secrets of men. This is not to say that Bandello's world is an Amazonian utopia. At the end of most stories the mechanisms of patriarchy are inexorably reinstated. The Lord of Virle forces Zilia to become his mistress by threatening her with death; Violenta and the Countess of Celant are executed; Giletta and the Countess of Salisbury suffer a relapse into connubial obedience. But Bandello offers no guarantees that these mechanisms will not be thrown into confusion again whenever a new generation of Amazons chooses to challenge them.

Of all Bandello's novels in The Palace of Pleasure, the story of Romeo and Julietta contains perhaps the highest concentration of elements that might feed Ascham's anti-Italian prejudices. It is perhaps no coincidence that this is also the novel of Bandello's most frequently translated, imitated, and cited in Elizabethan England.34 The story takes place in an Italian city riven by factions (‘as all Cities be there’, Ascham might have added, 236). Law and order have broken down: families ignore government injunctions to lay down their arms, children ignore the commands of their parents, love affairs are conducted in secret with the help of clandestine messages and illegal drugs, and illicit lovers are aided and abetted by a devious Catholic church which has access to all the secrets in the state. Those who seem to conform are secretly doing the opposite. Apparent obedience masks a plot, as when Julietta seems to concede to her father's demand that she marry Paris, and apparent crimes hide attempts to restore order, as when Romeo kills Thibault while trying to make peace during a riot, or when Friar Lawrence is caught with a crowbar in the vicinity of the lovers’ corpses. Under the pressure of these events communication (p.94) breaks down like other kinds of ideological apparatus. Every time the lovers meet they fall silent, as if to signal their exclusion from official discourse, and in the end it is a failure of communication—a misplaced letter—that leads to their deaths. The ‘amity’ which held Elyot's public weal together is altogether absent: Julietta tells Romeo that ‘all the lawes of Amity are deade and utterly extinguyshed’ (iii. 101), and the lovers can only plot to restore it by cunning (she hopes that ‘this newe aliaunce shall engender a perpetuall peace and Amity betweene his House and mine’, iii. 88). In fact in this novel all the covenants and agreements that go to make up Elyot's ‘simplicity’ have been broken. The situation is as complex as Ascham could have feared, and official legislation proves powerless to disentangle it.

Painter tried in vain to accommodate a narrative of this complexity within his simple definition of history. At the end of the 1567 dedication he added a list of morals designed to explain the ‘pith and substance’ of each story and so to allocate them an official function (ii. 154). In the course of this list he explains that ‘Iulietta and Rhomeo disclose the hartie affections of two incomparable lovers, what secret sleights of love, what danger either sort incurre which mary without the advise of Parentes’. But the moral is patently at odds with the narrative. The lovers’ danger stems not from their disobedience but from the feud which splits the Veronese state, and it is their clandestine affair that finally reconciles the warring factions. At the end of the story a monument is erected which commemorates the lovers’ deaths and confirms the culpability of their parents. Romeo and Julietta's disobedience of their parents is cancelled out by their parents’ disobedience of the Veronese law.

Arthur Brooke's earlier version of the story, The Tragicall History e of Romeus and Juliet (1562), demonstrates yet more effectively the inadequacy of simple readings of Italian fiction. Among the lessons Brooke draws from the story in his preface is a warning to beware of ‘superstitious friers’ and an invective against ‘auriculer confession (the kay of whoredome, and treason)’.35 But there is no hint of such a moral in the narrative itself: at the trial of Friar Lawrence the governor of Verona describes him as ‘that good barefooted fryre’ and commends him (p.95) for his service to the state.36 Intelligent readers could only have concluded that traditional, crudely moralistic ways of reading were unequal to the task of dealing with contemporary fiction. And at least two readers signalled their awareness of this inadequacy. In 1576 George Pettie constructed an entire story collection, A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, from the awkward relationship between the novel and the moral readings with which it had been encumbered by convention; contemporaries would have recognized and enjoyed his parody of Painter. And in the mid—1590s Shakespeare placed new demands on the sophisticated readings of his audience by creating a new Friar Lawrence, an ambiguous figure who inhabits a twilight zone between the night-time of the lovers and the daylight of Veronese public life.37 Shakespeare's Friar finds all moral distinctions labyrinthine in their complexity:

  • O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
  • In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities;
  • For nought so vile that on the earth doth live
  • But to the earth some special good doth give;
  • Nor ought so good but, strain’d from that fair use,
  • Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
  • Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
  • And vice sometime by action dignified.
  • (11. iii. 15–22)

Just as Ascham predicted in The Scholemaster, Bandello's novels had helped to effect a revolution in Elizabethan fiction which left its practitioners ‘baren of discretion to make trewe difference betwixt good and ill, betwixt troth, and vanitie’ (227). And Painter with his richly varied Palace of Pleasure was a reluctant agent of this revolution. In retrospect it seems hardly surprising that an advocate of simplicity like Ascham should have preferred to demolish his palace wholesale, as Spenser's Guyon pulls down the ‘pleasaunt bowres and Pallace brave’ which conceal the enchantress Acrasia, rather than pause to disentangle its constituent parts.38

(p.96) 3. Fenton's Monsters

In the course of their careers both Painter and Fenton seem to have involved themselves in shady dealings.39 In 1561 Painter was appointed clerk of the ordnance of the Tower of London, and so became a small component in the defensive machinery of the English state. But in public life as in his writing he was accused of betraying his trust: during the 1580s he was charged with conspiring to embezzle government funds by transferring gunpowder from Windsor to the Tower of London and then charging it to the accounts as if it were a fresh supply. The accusation may or may not have been well founded; Painter certainly confessed to some sort of misconduct. But there is no doubt at all that Geoffrey Fenton led what can be described as a devious double life. His practice of dedicating books to major public figures—among them William Cecil Lord Burghley, Sir Henry Sidney the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Queen Elizabeth herself—at last bore fruit in 1587, when he was made principal secretary of the Irish Council. But by that time he had already been employed in Ireland for several years. From 1580 until Elizabeth's death he acted as one of the queen's informers in Ireland, a government spy who was disliked and distrusted by his colleagues. In fact, the careers of Bandello's principal Elizabethan translators echo contemporary responses to the continental fiction they purveyed; Painter and Fenton claimed that their fictions were of immeasurable value to the state, while their critics condemned them as duplicitous, untrustworthy, offensive. Fenton's career suggests something more: that treachery to one person might be loyalty to another, and that duplicity might be given an official function, even rewarded with high office. It might also hold a clue to the reasons why the ambitious young men who imitated the Italian novel persisted in following such dubious foreign (p.97) models. A writer who knew how to report or even to duplicate the subterfuges of Catholic infiltrators might prove himself invaluable to the counter-espionage activities of the Elizabethan state.40

Fenton's later career as writer, informer, and politician suggests one way of reading the story collection with which he chose to launch his career as an author, Certaine Tragicall Discourses. After testing the waters of publication with these Italian domestic narratives he turned his attention to translating texts with a more direct bearing on Elizabethan foreign policy. A Discourse of the Civile Warres and Late Troubles in Fraunce (1570) deals with events which were of immediate topical interest to the Elizabethan government, the religious wars in France from 1568 to 1569; while The Historie of Guicciardin, Conteining the Wanes of Italie and Other Partes (1579) documents the contexts of Bandello's fictions by charting the troubles in Italy from 1492 to 1529. In each case Fenton used the art of translation as a means of conveying inside information about England's Catholic enemies into the public domain. Certaine Tragicall Discourses might be said to have served a similar purpose: Fenton's prefatory epistles and title-page make little distinction between Bandello's histories and the history of the civil wars in Italy and France, and his commentary treats Italian prose fiction as if it were a record of the hostile movements of an enemy nation, the natural precursor to his more explicitly political translations of the following decade.41 Through the medium of the ‘novel’ the collection exposes the workings of Catholic ideology in the households of Italy, France, and Spain, while the narrator poses as a prurient observer whose gaze penetrates the most intimate spaces of his subjects’ lives, and who cannot resist interrupting the stories at the most inapposite moments to remind his readers of the Protestant position on the events he records.42

But Fenton's text could also be read as presenting a serious challenge to Protestantism. If his later translations examine civil wars in (p.98) foreign states, his Tragicall Discourses enacts a civil war within its own confines, a war between the Catholicism of its protagonists and its aggressively Protestant commentary. Like Painter's interpolations in The Palace of Pleasure, Fenton's remarks—which elaborate on the comments of the French translator Belleforest—engage with the subjects of Italian fiction with the zeal of a Reformation army; but the heroes and heroines of Bandello's narratives prove as impervious to these attacks as they do to the crude moral values Fenton tries to foist on them.43 The sheer inventiveness of their misdemeanours and the exuberant flexibility of their rhetoric tie Fenton's ponderous logic in knots, and trick him into contradicting himself on issues where he tries to be most dogmatic. The triumph of Italian inventiveness over English dogma begins with the uneasy relationship between the dedicatory epistle and the body of Fenton's text. In the epistle Fenton erects an elaborate framework within which he proposes to contain and control the stories that follow, but when he turns to the stories themselves this framework rapidly falls apart, and the reader is left with the impression that the ideological position he adheres to has been irreparably damaged and is on the verge of collapse.

The dedication attempts to fit Bandello's texts into a traditional generic mould, and so replaces the term ‘novel’, which Painter uses throughout his collection, with the more familiar term ‘history’; but Fenton's history takes a more rigid form than Painter's. For Fenton, history is a comprehensive collection of representative instances drawn from all possible acts performed by humanity, a universal key to all past and future contingencies. He quotes Cicero as saying that it constitutes ‘an image or portrait of all things that have passed since the beginning of the world’, and claims that it also predicts all future (p.99) events ‘even until the last and extreme dissolution of the same’ (41).44 Individuals are merely elements in a repeated pattern, ripples on the surface of an essential human nature: ‘in this world the nature of man in all ages, although the single persons be changed, remaineth still one’ (43). The historiographer devotes his art to the task of reducing even ‘single persons’ to conformity, since Fenton claims that he is capable of removing the differences between generations, making a young man ‘old, not in years…but in experience and wisdom’ (41). In an austere variation on Richard Rainolde's breakdown of the fable into its component parts, he states his belief that individual narratives can be converted into the abstract terms of a universal moral system: ‘in every act’, he writes, ‘there be certain special principles and rules for the direction of such as search out their disposition’ (42), and, while philosophy teaches these rules directly, history figures forth ‘under certain forms and shapes of men and their doings past, all and every such diversity and change, which philosophy doth teach by way of precepts’. It complements the Scriptures by acting as every man's guide to the laws of the properly organized state, teaching its readers their precise position in the social hierarchy. From it, he tells us, magistrates learn how their predecessors used their power, private persons learn how to obey the magistrates, a citizen ‘what belongeth to his proper office’, and a woman how to perform her duty in the miniature commonwealth of marriage.

One might argue, in fact, that Fenton's version of history is dedicated to annihilating the vagaries of time. In this it falls into line with North's Dial of Princes and Gosson's Ephemerides of Phialo, which announce their project of controlling time in their titles. Certaine Tragicall Discourses aims to rescue young men from the vicissitudes of youth and to fix past and future events like insects in amber, so that even the most radical of changes, the tragic falls of the Mirror f or Magistrates, can be shown to have a fixed place among the immutable workings of Providence. Indeed, Fenton seems to consider some sort of fall to be an invariable element of most men's lives, not merely those of the aristocracy. Histories are ‘the only and true tables whereon are drawn in perfect colour the virtues and vices of every condition of man, bothe their flourishing time, whilst they embraced the first, and miserable fall when they grew in delight with the wickedness of the last’ (42). The characters he approves of are those who resist (p.100) such changes, the virgins who remain ‘assured and constant in vertue’ (45), the men who ‘became masters of them selves’ (46). To be virtuous for Fenton is a matter of preserving oneself from maturity to death in a state of statuesque spiritual immobility.

But the collection itself denies the providential predictability of history. Fenton's selections from among the novels of Bandello are sensational, journalistically preoccupied with exceptions to the rules, with monsters who live beyond the bounds of the acceptable, or paragons whose accomplishments can never be repeated. Fenton replaces the animal fable with a more disturbing genre, the monster story. Pandora is the ‘second Medea and execrable monster of our time’ (184), the widow of Cabrio is a ‘tyrannous monster’, the Countess of Celant is a ‘devouring monster’ (315), and the Albanian captain seems to have been ‘bred in the deserts of Africa, the common nurse of monsters’ (209). The stories transplant what was constructed as monstrous, strange, or foreign into the heart of the familiar: the murderous exploits of Pandora take place ‘not in the Anthropophagans, Scythia, or amongst Cannibals or Amazons, ancient murderers of their children, but in the heart and midst of Europe’ (157); and in the ninth tale the proem complains that the ‘wild nations’ of the south and east are more scrupulous in keeping order ‘than diverse countries in the heart and bowels of Christendom’ (367). Fenton's monsters manifest themselves not in the distant continents that were busily being plundered by European colonists, nor in the safe confines of the London lunatic asylum known as Bedlam, but in the households, the bedchambers, and even the inner organs of the European gentry.

This terrifying and unconfined proximity of the monstrous might call to mind Puttenham's words about the disastrous effects of undisciplined fiction. If the imagination becomes disordered, Puttenham warned—if it begins to represent things to the mind ‘otherwise than they be in deede’, or to manufacture fictions—’then doth it breede Chimeres and monsters in mans imaginations, and not onely in his imaginations, but also in all his ordinarie actions and life which ensues’ (15). The Elizabethans associated the word ‘monster’ with the Latin monstrare, to show; in The Tempest, Trinculo's first instinct on encountering the monster Caliban is to parade him as a peep-show round the fairgrounds of England (11. ii. 30–7).45 Monsters were those who were (p.101) different, whether by reason of their shocking physical deformities or, less often, by reason of their excellence, and who were displayed to the public as striking instances of God's hand in human affairs. But Puttenham's ‘monstruous imaginations or conceits’ are less readily located and displayed than conventional wonders; they inhabit the dens and corners of the mind, and have an unnerving habit of breeding further monsters in the minds of their beholders. An Elizabethan reader perusing Fenton's volume, which displays monster after monster in a seemingly endless procession, might well have suspected as Ascham did that these foreign texts might not deter their readers from imitating their protagonists at all, but might instead transform them into monsters in their turn: maybe the ‘mervelous monster’ which is the Italianate Englishman (228). Most disturbingly of all, perhaps the metamorphosis did not need to take place, and the monstrous was already present in the Elizabethan subject, just waiting to be invoked.

What makes Fenton's protagonists monstrous is their susceptibility to extremes of passion. The most dramatic form this passion takes is rage, whether provoked by jealousy or resentment, and this rage dismantles the illusion of a rational plan behind the collection with an almost physical violence. In the fourth story an exemplary wife is cut to pieces by her jealous Albanian husband, after which:

beholding in her diverse undoubted arguments of death, he began the like war with himself, using the same means and ministers with his own hands, imbrued yet with the blood of his innocent wife; showing (notwithstanding this horrible part and act of despair) diverse and sundry signs of special gladness and pleasure in his face. (209)

The glee with which the husband perpetrates his sado-masochistic atrocities goes well beyond the requirements of instruction or even deterrence, and exposes instead an area of the mind where instruction cannot penetrate and where the disordered imagination reigns supreme. Shakespeare produced his own version of the fourth story in Othello, where he took Fenton's exploration of the savage recesses of the mind to their horrific conclusion.46 What makes Othello terrifying (p.102) is the ease with which lago sows Othello's imagination with monsters through the medium of elaborate fictions: the ‘green-eyed monster’ jealousy is only one of a plurality of hideous creatures that populate the play as a result of Iago's half-finished narratives. The tragedy is thronged with monsters, from the ‘monster in thy thought I Too hideous to be shown’ which Othello thinks he has detected in Iago's mind (in. iii. 107–8) to the ‘civil monster’ which is a cuckolded husband (iv. i. 62–4), from the ‘monstrous’ lie told by lago about Cassio talking in his sleep (in. iii. 427) to the ‘monstrous act’ that brings the play to a close (v. ii. 190). Othello might be read as Shakespeare's exploration of the insidious effect on the mind of fictions like Fenton's: their exposure of the ubiquity of the monstrous in the Western imagination, and of the ease with which the monster-stories recounted by travellers—the kind of stories popularized by the medieval travel-writer Sir John Mandeville, and which Othello tells Desdemona in the course of their courtship—might acquire a more sophisticated and insinuating form, and so become the dominant narratives in the history of Europe.

The most pervasive and uncontrollable passion treated by Fenton is the passion of desire. The epistle claims that the Tragicall Discourses touches on love only to teach its readers how to reject its anarchic influence. But all Fenton's stories without exception take love as their central topic, and the one certain conclusion they reach is that love always and everywhere resists the rigid moral controls imposed on it by the responsible historian. In fact, the stories have little to do with what the dedication claims to be the primary function of history, the inculcation of ‘outward policy’ in the children of the ruling classes (41). Instead (as one of the commendatory poems points out) Fenton's subject is the protean metamorphoses of the mind in circumstances when the ‘wit’ has been rendered most inadequate to its task of organizing the evidence of the senses—when the powers of the intellect have been usurped by sexual obsession, the ‘bane that comes by view’ (52). The very first story in the book dismisses the illusion that it will have anything to do with ‘outward policy’ when it proclaims that it describes not the ‘sumptuous buildings of princes’—the palaces which Painter used to suggest his collection's alluring blend of pleasurable excitement and political orthodoxy—but instead:

the marvellous effects of love; which…seems more strange than the curious construction and frame of any palace for necessity or pleasure, theatre, or (p.103) place of solace, builded by art or industry of man, or other stately court (what square, quadrant, or triangle form soever it contains), or other mystical work, yielding cause of wonder to the university of the earth. (59)

Painter reproduces the same passage in his own version of the narrative without commenting on its displacement of his palace metaphor.47 Set at the ‘gate’ of Fenton's collection it announces the tension between the architectural rigidity of his theory of history and the strangeness, the ‘marvellous effects’ and wonderful causes, which the novels disclose in the impenetrable microcosm of the mind.

Fenton may have chosen to open his collection with the story of Anselmo and Angelica because it describes an ideal love-affair to measure against the disastrous ones that dominate the collection. The story tells of a time when Anselmo's family, the Salimbini, was locked in a struggle to the death with the family of the Montanins, one of those aristocratic feuds which filled Bandello's Italy and which helped to substantiate Ascham's claim in The Scholemaster that Italian cities existed in a permanent state of civil war (226). In time the Montanin family finds itself reduced to a single household, and the head of the household, Charles Montanin, is imprisoned for debt and condemned to be executed under the terms of a ‘tyrannous statute’ (70). Meanwhile, Anselmo has fallen in love with Charles's sister Angelica, whose name denotes the perfect Neoplatonic association between her ‘right Angelike beautie’—as Bembo calls the outward manifestation of inward excellence in The Courtier (319)—and her virtue. Anselmo resolves to ‘expose immediately the fruits and effects of semblable virtue’ (81) by delivering Charles from his debt. In gratitude Charles offers Anselmo his sister in recompense, and the ensuing marriage unites both the lovers and their families, producing a hermaphroditic union which makes ‘of two bodies, erst and long disjoined, an equal will and entire mind’ (113).

Bandello knew both Castiglione and Bembo personally, and like Bembo's speech at the end of The Courtier this novel defines love as a semi-divine power which draws its possessor from an appreciation of transient physical beauty to a knowledge of transcendent spiritual truths. The story is a happier version of the tale of Romeo and Julietta, where the lovers’ virtue reunites a divided society without recourse to a tragic denouement. But for Fenton the heroism of Anselmo and Angelica is complicated by its context. Their actions, like those of (p.104) Titus and Gisippus, are designed to circumvent a law, and so set them in direct opposition to the laws of the state—even if the state is a corrupt one, an unjust commonwealth in an Italy which is the ‘only storehouse for partialities and civil factions’ (62). Moreover, the virtue Anselmo manifests in uniting the warring families is repeatedly stated to be unique: Anselmo himself calls it ‘a thing exceeding the common course and order of nature’ (79), and in this way marks it as benevolently monstrous. And, like all Fenton's versions of Bandello's novels, the story portrays the choice between good and evil as a difficult, perhaps an insoluble, conundrum. In a central episode the heroine Angelica finds herself confronted like Shakespeare's Isabella with a choice between two courses of action both of which are equally repugnant to her: she must either agree to surrender her body to Anselmo in return for her brother's release or else hold herself guilty of ingratitude; so that in her perplexity she longs to be the protagonist of a simpler story, such as the Classical tale of Virginia (99). For all its depiction of ideal characters who act as a foil for the confused or corrupted minds in the other novels, the first discourse retains its identity as one of Ascham's excessively subtle Italian narratives, refusing to indicate a plain path for its reader to follow, and concentrating instead on the strange, the excessive, the monstrous.

But the aspect of the first story which most seriously challenges Fenton's moral strategy is this: that the love which prompts Anselmo to reconcile the warring families is virtually indistinguishable from the passion which propels other characters in the collection to acts of horrific violence and despair. As love always does in the Tragicall Discourses, Anselmo ‘s passion subjects him to the most appalling extremes of physical distress, in this case the anguish reserved by Elizabethan law for the worst offenders, ‘the torment of the wheel’ (65). The story ends by dissociating love from the unflattering picture of it painted in the dedicatory episde, arguing that the emotion has been unfairly depicted in the past ‘in colours of rage, folly, and frenzy’, and that in a noble heart like Anselmo's it obeys the ‘laws of so necessary and ancient institution of nature’ (115). Yet Anselmo's reaction to love goes as far beyond institutional ‘laws’ by reason of its honourable intensity as Pandora's later ‘frenzy’ does by reason of its savagery. And the passions experienced by less exemplary lovers in Fenton's collection resist rules equally vigorously and are just as extreme. The proem to the first tale announces that Anselmo's love produces more remarkable effects than the most startling achievements of (p.105) human architecture, and elsewhere in the collection love continues to vanquish architectural restrictions. The third story describes Pandora's departure from convention as an exodus from the ‘palace of reason’ (185), and in the sixth story, where a lustful abbot finds himself attracted to a goldsmith's daughter, his fantasies again subject him to incomparable agonies and shatter both spatial and legal limitations as easily as Ascham's Italian fictions do: ‘the whole cloister or circuit of his abbey could scarcely comprehend the sundry imaginations of his brain’ (274). The abbot's passion and Anselmo's have everything in common, and Fenton's readers must ask themselves a puzzling question: how is it that two kinds of love which have identical symptoms can produce such contradictory results?

Elyot differentiated rational love from irrational desire by giving rational love another name, ‘amity’.48 It might be argued that the amity that brings the first story to its happy conclusion is only initiated by Anselmo's tormented passion for Angelica, and that the two kinds of love, while forming an alliance in this one instance, differ fundamentally. After all, the story concludes that only when desire takes root ‘in the noble heart’ does it become the ‘fountain…of all civil and good order’ (115). By good fortune Anselmo's passion finds an outlet in amity, but under other circumstances, in a less ‘noble’ heart like the abbot's, it might just as easily erupt in acts of murder, rape, or suicide. The trouble is that Fenton fails to draw a clear distinction between love's rational and irrational aspects. While the first story contends that it is unjust to portray love as a ‘frenzy’, the ninth, which relates the murderous adventures of the Lady of Cabrio, insists that ‘love is an undoubted rage and fury’ (369). In the second tale the lovers Livio and Camilla suffer death by coitus, and the Argument struggles in vain to moralize this embarrassing incident. To do so it must argue that the love they experience has nothing in common with Anselmo's regulated passion for Angelica. Accordingly the Argument agrees with the first story that ideal love is a ‘necessary means to reform the rudeness of our own nature’ (119), but goes on to warn that when it is undertaken ‘without advice or judgement’—a moralistic view of love cannot accept that it is ever involuntary—desire inflames the most unruly aspect of the mind, the imagination, and so prompts the lover to ‘throw himself headlong into the gulf of a (p.106) foolish and cunning phantasy’. But even within this one story Fenton betrays an inconsistent attitude to desire. The narrative that follows the Argument pays no attention to the existence of ‘reforming’ love, and declares instead that, far from having a legitimate origin in the divine or natural order, love is only ever a symptom of the plague of individualism, a narcissistic inflation of the self: it is a ‘humour of infection derived of the corrupt parts in ourselves’ (121), and later a ‘rage or humour of frantic folly, derived of ourselves’ (156). A later Argument reverses the definition of love advanced in the first story and the Argument to the second; in the twelfth it is simply a ‘passion of most dangerous and perverse corruption’ (471) which only leads to right action rarely and by chance. For Fenton, love alters its significance according to the evidence offered in each separate tragical story and in each separate incident in each story. The characters draw contradictory conclusions about it from the evidence of their own experiences, and commentators too can infer no universal truths about it from their histories, no coherent view of the function of desire in a well-run public weal, despite the fact that its symptoms remain consistent.

If the dedication stressed the importance of extracting universal ‘principles and rules’ from Bandello's novels, Fenton's stories themselves concentrate less on the universality of such laws than on the question of how laws of all kinds are endlessly reinterpreted as circumstances change. The Ferrarese who rapes Julia in the eighth story claims he is doing so for the most impeccable of motives, and explains that he has earned the right to possess her body by following the traditions of romance: ‘if long service with sincere loyalty may seem meritorious, you alone can judge my diligence and I accuse your cruelty’ (359). Julia replies by objecting to his appropriation of judicial terms for his own ends: ‘Neither deserve I of right the imputation of cruelty, and much less of unseemly rigour as you term it’ (360). A little later she insists that he has used the word ‘meritorious’ in a corrupt sense: ‘Neither can I answer you with other terms but commit you to the merit of your folly’ (360, my emphasis). The Ferrarese has enlisted the legal language of reward and punishment in support of his criminal actions, and other protagonists of Fenton's discourses are equally skilful at manipulating the jargon of universal ‘principles and rules’ to suit their current requirements. In the third story when Parthenope urges Pandora to commit adultery with him he uses the vocabulary that Anselmo used to describe Angelica: ‘measuring your heavenly shape, (p.107) with the outward show of singular courtesy that seems to occupy all your parts, I cannot resolve of any cruelty to consist in you’ (165)—the statement again parodies Bembo's Neoplatonic effusions. When Parthenope deserts her, Pandora in her turn sees the revenge she exacts as an enactment of the universal principle of justice: she claims that ‘his just chastisement should import a terror to all traitors that hereafter should seek to seduce any lady by sugared words’ (183). Each subject defines Fenton's ‘principles and rules’ differently, and this multiplicity of conflicting definitions frustrates all Fenton's efforts to endow Bandello's text with a simple moral structure. The Argument to the twelfth story succinctly expresses the confusion to which these constant frustrations give rise. The Argument ascribes the anarchy that threatens to demolish Fenton's architectonic view of history to the insidious operation of desire, and proceeds to offer yet another definition of that passion, couched once again in the contradictory terms we have come to expect:

I may boldly avouch that which we call affection to be a passion resembling in some respect the condition of true amity, and not much unlike, for the most part, the general evil which the Grecians call philauty, and we term by the title of love, or vain flattery of ourselves, chiefly when we see any so friendly to his desires, that, to satisfy the inordinate thirst or glut of his greedy appetite, he forgets both honour and honesty. (471)

The passage is remarkable for the timidity with which it ‘boldly avouches’ an opinion of love; it succeeds only in confirming its elusiveness. Words prove inadequate and contingent glosses on its metamorphic effects: it is ‘that which we call affection’, and its ‘title of love’ is a misleading euphemism for self-flattery. It can be defined only by what it resembles, and it resembles both ‘the condition of true amity’, the friendship that binds Elyot's public weal, and the Greek philautia, the narcissism Ascham detects in quick wits and Italianate Englishmen, and which in Ascham's treatise threatens to overwhelm all society's attempts to impose its regulations. Love is whatever people want it to be, and Fenton's constant redefinitions betray his uneasy sense that it may be held to represent every private transaction that cannot be policed.

Later in Fenton's argument we are told that love disseminates fictions throughout the state. It obscures the ‘true’ nature of things—the essential rules privileged in the dedication—under a fictive veil that reveals only ‘what images of virtue, courtesy, or bountiful (p.108) disposition soever our lovers do imagine in them whom they serve, dimming the eyes of the world with a mist of dissembled substance’ (472). The chief instrument of these deceptions is the lover's jargon, which yields up its sensuous derivation under scrutiny: ‘their meaning is sufficiently manifest in the sugared orations and discourses of eloquent style, which those amorous orators seem to prefer, when their minds (occupied wholly in the contemplation of their mistresses) do commit the praise of the perfection in their ladies to the filed forge of their fine tongue’ (472). Fenton's Tragicall Discourses, dominated as they are by the elusive condition of desire, by the ‘filed forge’ of the lovers’ stylistic mannerisms, and by the narcissism which isolates loving individuals from the rigid social structures which ought to contain them, doom themselves to an inevitable and perpetual subversion of their own ‘principles’.

The stories of Pandora and the Lady of Cabrio provide two of the most striking instances of this subversion. In both cases clever and independent women take over the spaces of domestic architecture and seize the reins of power with disconcerting ease; moreover, neither woman surfers the horrific punishments to which she would have been condemned by the Elizabethan legal system. The Lady of Cabrio transforms her house and grounds into a network of booby-traps designed to destroy its male inhabitants, and incites one of her husband's servants to murder him: ‘truly’, Fenton comments, ‘the domestical servant, in credit or trust with his master, and evil-given or affected towards his lord, is more to be feared than a whole army of enemies standing in battle array in the field’ (375). After his death the Lady usurps her husband's power and establishes a Machiavellian state in his household, where she draws up devious domestic ‘policies’ and where her son accuses her of abusing the ‘majesty royal’. The extent to which her policies succeed implies that there might be hundreds of such barbarous miniature kingdoms in the ‘heart and bowels of Christendom’, and that any family might be harbouring its own serial killer in its most carefully guarded inner chambers.

Pandora offers equally disturbing evidence of this possibility. Like the Lady of Cabrio she runs riot through her husband's household, sleeping with pages, corrupting servants, and converting her bedchamber into an operating theatre where she can abort the foetus of an unwanted child. In addition, she is the incarnation of Ascham's neuroses: all his prejudices against Italy could be confirmed by reading her story. From the first the narrative ascribes her conduct to her (p.109) nationality: she begins as an Italian imp’ (159) and ends by being ‘Ita-lianated with all subtleties’ (185), melting effortlessly into the background among her sophisticated Italian contemporaries. When her lover deserts her, leaving her pregnant, Pandora threatens to transform herself into one of Ascham's Italian enchantresses: ‘“Ah!” saith she, “why was not I traded in the magical sciences of the Colchian Medea or the Italian Circe…?”’ (176). But instead of subjecting others to a Circean metamorphosis she undergoes one herself, her anger converting her into a composite beast more dreadful by far than the Italianate Englishman: her conduct exceeds ‘the brutal cruelty of the wolf, tigress, or lioness’ (183), and she later becomes a ‘bitch-fox’, an ‘execrable monster’, and a ‘bitch of Hyrcania’ (184). The excesses to which her sense of justice leads her play havoc with Fenton's efforts to control his narrative. His account of the final stage of her transformation is an uneasy fusion of pietistic disapproval and fascinated voyeurism:

Truly, I know that virtuous ladies (sprinkled with the dew of pity) will not only tremble at the remembrance of the inordinate cruelty of this cursed mother, but also open the conduits of their compassions, weeping on the behalf of the torment wherein unnaturally she plunged the innocent imp which nature had formed of the substance of herself; who, converted from the shape of a woman into the disposition of a devil, raging without measure, that she could not be delivered, howled out at last with a horrible cry full of impiety and blasphemy in this sort: ‘seeing (saith she) that both God and the devil deny me their assistance, I will (in spite of their powers) rid me of thee, O cursed and execrable creature!’

Wherewith, possessed wholly with the spirit of fury, having her eyes sunk into her head, her stomach panting, and her face all full of black blood, by the vehemency of the conflict which she had endured, began to leap with all her force from the top of the coffer down to the ground…

Certainly, good ladies, my heart, abhorring no less the remembrance of this bitchfox, than my spirit troubled with trembling fear at the continuance of her cruelty, gives such impediment to my pen that it is scarce able to describe unto you the last act of her rage: wherein this limb of the infernal lake, not worthy any longer to bear the name of a woman, proceeding to the end of her enterprise, takes up her son with her bloody and murdering hands, whom, without all compassion and contrary to the order of a Christian, she beats with all her force against the walls, painting the posts and pavements in the chamber with the blood and brains of the innocent creature newborn. (182–4)

Despite his assertions that his penmanship has been inhibited by his outrage, Fenton amplifies the bloody details of the abortion with (p.110) ornate fluency over several pages, while punctuating his account with increasingly feeble gestures towards an ever more distant ‘norm’ of female behaviour. He sanctimoniously reminds his audience that Pandora is acting ‘without measure’ and ‘contrary to the order of a Christian’, and appeals to his trembling and tear-stained women readers as if to reassure himself of the uniqueness, the monstrosity, of Pandora's violence. But not all his readers need have concurred with his shrill condemnation of her actions. For one thing, Pandora's rage has its justification, as he himself admits in the proem to the ensuing discourse.49 She has been abandoned in pregnancy, and her violence (like Violenta's in The Palace of Pleasure) expresses the anger of a woman who has no access to the machinery of justice. And the end of the story suggests that Pandora may not be so monstrous—that it may not be so easy to make a pedagogic example or demonstration of her. We never learn whether she was punished for her illegal abortion, and she finally disappears without trace into the ‘company of other ladies’:

Whereof, going to bed, she caused certain baines to be provided; wherein washing herself, the next day (being hallowed and a feast of great solemnity) she was carried in a rich couch to visit the company of other ladies, amongst whom she was not worthy to keep place, being the shameful butcher of her own blood and wicked enemy to the life of man. (185)

In Fenton's misogynistic fantasies, the female ‘enemy to the life of man’ lurks in the heart and bowels of polite society, scrupulously observing the external formalities, and even participating in the education of the young—the murderous Lady of Cabrio ends her career as a respectable governess. Bandello's Amazons cannot easily be told apart from the traditional categories of wives, mistresses, and virgins: they are equally at home in palaces and in schoolrooms, and the patriarchal legal system cannot quite control them.

Fenton does not fail to supply instructions on the prevention of female rebellions like Pandora's. In the story of Luchino and Jani-quette he warns the mothers and tutors of young girls to keep them under control by means of savage corporal punishment: ‘For as the philosopher termeth them to be a kind of cattle more apt to decline than any other reasonable creature; so (saith he), if they get once the bit between their teeth, and crop of the herb of riotous will, it is (p.111) harder to reclaim them…than the wild haggard or rammish falcon by any cunning or devise of their keeper’ (408). He ends his collection with two stories that demonstrate the way wild women could be tamed by violence; both the story of Zilia and the story of Genivera end with their heroines being terrorized into submission. But several of Fenton's stories militate against the neatness of this closure. By avoiding punishment Pandora and the Lady of Cabrio escape from the moral framework of Fenton's text, and so provide graphic illustrations of the difficulty of containing the threats to order posed by sophisticated Italian operators. Even the simplest examples of female good conduct show the same tendency to excess, the same capacity to evade moral containment, as Pandora does. The virtuous woman in the sixth story takes up the Amazonian art of swordfighting, and Julia in the eighth is commended for her chastity but condemned for the act of suicide by which she preserves it. At the beginning of the third tale Fenton announces his intention to ‘treat upon tragical affairs, proceeding of unnatural lust, with lascivious disposition, the only master pock and chief fountain from whence distilleth all poisoned humours of infection, overflowing at length the channel of his quiet course with unruly waves of inordinate cruelty’ (158). Pandora and her sisters are the unleashers of this deluge, sweeping away the scheme proposed by Fenton for his Tragicall Discourses and bringing the threat of chaos to his creation. It is perhaps no accident that Ascham, who advocated the policing of texts like Fenton's, should have reserved the most violent of the anecdotes in The Schokmaster for his account of the education of a woman, Lady Jane Grey. Lady Jane's devotion to study—which is expressed in terms of her contempt for Italian fictions50—derives from a pedagogic programme which is as aggressive as Fenton could have wished: whenever she puts a foot wrong in the presence of her parents, she tells Elizabeth's approving tutor,

I am so sharplie taunted, so cruellie threatened, yea presentlie some tymes, with pinches, nippes, and bobbes, and other waies, which I will not name, for the honor I beare them, so without measure misordered, that I thinke my selfe in hell, till tyme cum, that I must go to M. Elmer, who teacheth me so jentlie, so pleasantlie, with soch faire allurementes to learning, that I thinke all the tyme nothing, whiles I am with him. (201–2)

(p.112) The passage offers a horrifying instance of the lengths to which some Tudor parents would go—to the extent of infringing the ‘measure’ and ‘order’ which they presumably meant to inculcate in their offspring—in order to suppress the ‘natural’ wildness of women. It is perhaps not the least of Ascham's objections to Italian fiction that it offers glimpses, here or there, of women who will not submit to such treatment, and who are willing and able to turn the tables of domestic violence on their self-appointed masters.

Fenton's collection, then, replaces the apparent simplicity of the animal fable or exemplary history with the savagery, the subtlety, and the moral ambiguity of the monster-story. Opening the Tragicall Discourses, Elizabethan readers found themselves investigating not the moral and philosophical secrets enshrined in the traditional fable but the monstrous secrets that lurk behind the ornate façades of aristocratic buildings throughout Europe: the capacity for aggressive self-assertion that conceals itself beneath the obsequious mask of the wife, the mistress, or the household servant; the ferocious sexual drives which periodically overwhelm the human mind and body, which resist the imposition of rules and restraints of any kind, and which can commandeer at will the limitless resources of the intellect. Far from elucidating the universal principles that govern every aspect of a Christian society, as printed texts were supposed to do, these stories shed a baleful light on the areas of sexual and domestic conflict where ‘measure’ and ‘order’ hold no sway—the areas which philosophers, pedagogues, politicians, and official historiographers would rather leave unexplored, shrouded in the secrecy of silence. Fenton's monsters are yet more cunning and more bafflingly camouflaged than Baldwin's cats, and resist with still fiercer tenacity the efforts of their author to contain them within the bounds of conventional structures of narrative and interpretation. Like a descendant of the mythical king Minos of Crete, Fenton endeavours to enclose his hideous progeny within the strict architectural limits of a pedagogic system, but in the process he finds that his narratives themselves have become an elaborate trap which allures its youthful readers into seeking out the very dangers it is designed to eliminate. In the conclusion to the thirteenth tale, Fenton expresses the pious hope that his cornucopia of repellent examples will contribute to the education of its youthful readers, ‘lest, in remaining still in the labyrinth of sensuality, they serve not hereafter as a fable and stage play to the posterity of the multitude’ (560). The ‘labyrinth of sensuality’ suggests a vastly more complex (p.113) architectural edifice than that of a palace—an edifice that both contains and draws attention to the mistakes that the palace would like to hide. And the youthful writers of the following decade chose to linger in and to extend the labyrinth Fenton had unwittingly constructed, and to adopt the labyrinth as the presiding metaphor for their own outrageous fictions.


(1) Fables of Power.’Censorship and the 1587 “Holinshed's” Chronicles’, in Paul Hyland and Neil Sammuells (eds.), Writing and Censorship in Britain (London: Routledge, 1992), 23–35

(2) The Works of Stephen Hawes,Frank J. Spang (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975), sig. C5V

(3) Rainolde himself provides a fascinating example of the way a fable's commentary could get out of hand. In his example of ‘An Oracion by a fable’ (Foundacion of Rhetorike, sig. A4 Vff.), his detailed explication of a political fable delivered by Demosthenes is considerably longer than the narrative it explicates, and includes two further political fables, each of which presumably merits equally careful analysis. For two instances of what seems to be a carefully cultivated ambiguity in political fables, see Patterson, ‘Censorship and the 1587 “Holinshed's” Chronicles’.

(4) The Morall Philosophie of Doni, 9; all references are taken from The Earliest English Version of the Fables of Bidpai, ed. J. Jacobs (London: David Nutt, 1888).

(5) Certain Sermons or Homilies, 637

(6) Golding published his first translation of Ovid in 1565 as The Fyrst Fower Bookes of P. Ovidius Nasos Worke, intitled Metamorphosis. His complete translation appeared in 1567 as The xv. Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis.

(7) The Wisedome of the Ancients.Treatise of Morall PhylosophieThe Sayings of the Wise; or, Food for Thought. A Book of Moral Wisdome, Gathered from the Ancient Philosophers (London: privately printed, 1907)

(8) For an account of the complicated publication history of the Mirror for Magistrates, see Campbell's edition, introduction, pp. 3–60.

(9) 'spenser's Shepheardes Calender and Protestant Pastoral Satire’, in Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (ed.), Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 386

(10) For an excellent discussion of Beware the Cat and the rest of Baldwin's output, see John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982), 358–406. See also Edward T. Bonahue, ‘“I Know the Place and the Persons”: The Play of Textual Frames in Baldwin's Beware the Caf, Studies in Philology, 91 (1994), 283–300; and Beware the Cat: The First English Novel, ed. William Ringler, Jr., and Michael Flachmann (San Marino, Ca.: Huntington Library, 1988), introduction. All references to Baldwin's fable are taken from this edition.

(11) The Mirror for Magistrates, ed. Lily B. Campbell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), 357:

(12) Attacks on the Irish language were given legal expression in the statutes of Kilkenny of 1366 (see Irish Historical Documents 1172–1922, ed. T. C. Curtis and R. B. McDowell (London: Methuen, 1943), 52–9). Alan Bliss points out that after the Reformation ‘the Irish language became a symbol of the catholic religion’: T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F.J. Byrne (eds.), A New History of Ireland, 9 vols., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), iii. 546.

(13) P. Berresford Ellis examines the evidence for the extent to which Cornish was still spoken in the 16th cent, in The Cornish Language and its Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974),ch. 3.

(14) Gillian Brennan, ‘Patriotism, Language and Power: English Translations of the Bible, 1520–1580’, History Workshop Journal, 27 (1989), 18–36.

(15) Beware the Cat, 59.

(16) Though not altogether so. Animal fables continued to act as a voice for the dispossessed and the disaffected for many more centuries, as Annabel Patterson points out in Fables of Power. See also her fascinating discussion of censorship and the fable in ‘Censorship and the 1587 “Holinshed's” Chronicles’.

(17) Mirror for Magistrates, 302.

(18) Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ch. 23: ‘What it is that generally makes our speach well pleasing and commendable, and of that which the Latines call Decorum.’

(19) Ibid. 26.

(20) Mirror for Magistrates,A Mirror for Magistrates,Hadfield, Literature, Politics and National Identity, ch. 3.

(21) The Palace of Pleasure, i. 10.

(22) The largest collection of such tales could be found in John Foxe's mammoth work of Protestant martyrology, the Actes and Monuments of 1563, which contains the carefully documented histories of martyrs of every social rank. It might be argued that Fenton's Italian tragedies—with the claims for authenticity mounted in the dedicatory epistle—constituted a dangerous foreign counterpart to this mighty collection.

(23) Bandello: Tragical Tales, ed. Hugh Harris, introd. Robert Langton Douglas (London: Routledge 1924), 145.Certaine Tragicall Discourses

(24) For an account of Bandello and his French translators Belleforest and Boaistuau, see Rene Pruvost, Matteo Bandello and Elizabethan Fiction (Paris: H. Champion, 1937). See also Robert J. Clements and Joseph Gibaldi, Anatomy of the Novella: The European Tale Collection from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Cervantes (New York: New York University Press, 1977).

(25) By Brian Ansley. It was translated again by Earl Jeffrey Richards (London: Pan, 1983).

(26) Lorna Hutson, Thomas Nashe in Context (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 69.

(27) Tragicall DiscoursesRobert Langton Douglas to Fenton, Bandello: Tragical Tales, 18 and 33–5.

(28) A somewhat duplicitous garden, as it is described in the conclusion of the second tome: ‘Every sort and sexe that warfare in the fielde of humayne life, may see here the savourous fruict (to outwarde lyking) that fansied the sensuall taste of Adam's Wyfe. They see also what griefs sutch fading fruicts produce unto posterity: what likewise the lusty growth and spring of vertue's plant, and what delicates it brauncheth to those that carefully keepe the slips thereof, within the Orchard of their mindes’ (iii. 431).

(29) The Arte of Rhetoriquea5v.(The Morall Philosophie of Dont,Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1969).

(30) Ascham, Works, 231.

(31) In his Tragical Tales of 1576.

(32) ‘[T]he contentes of these Novels from degre of highest Emperour, from state of great est Quene and Lady, to the homelye Cuntry peasant and rudest vilage girle, may conduce profite for instruction, and pleasure for delight’ (ii. 157). It is interesting that this frank state ment of the diversity of classes encompassed by his novels implicitly addresses his women readers.

(33) Painter makes no distinction between the novels he translates from the French of Bel- leforest and those he translated directly from Bandello's Novelle. In the first volume of the Palace of Pleasure he alludes to all seven of his translations from Bandello and Belleforest as ‘these tragicall Novelles and dolorous Histories of Bandello’ (i. 364), and in the dedication to the second volume he mentions his translations from Boccaccio, Bandello, Ser Giovanni, Fiorentino, and other Italian and French authors, without mentioning Belleforest by name. Given that my concern is with Elizabethan perceptions of Italian texts rather than with the Italian texts themselves or with their French adaptations, I have chosen to follow Painter's practice, referring to his translations of Belleforest's novels as if they were Bandello's.

(34) Pettie alludes to it twice (A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, ed. Herbert Hartman (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), 34 and 125);The Rocke of Regard

(35) William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, The New Cambridge Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 213–14.Romeo and Juliet

(36) Romeo and Juliet, 246.

(37) Friar Lawrence's twilight existence is suggested by the lines which introduce him (whether one takes the lines to belong in the previous scene or not): ‘The grey-ey’d morn smiles on the frowning night, I Check’ring the eastern clouds with streaks of light, I And fleckled darkness like a drunkard reels I From forth day's path and Titan's fiery wheels’ (II. iii. 1–4).

(38) The Faerie Queene, ed. A.C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1980), II. xii. 83.The Faerie QueenePalace of Pleasure,Golden Asse,Aethio-pian historie…GenusSpeciesschoole-mistres of life, looking glasse of manners, or Image of trueth?’ Markets of Bawdrie,

(39) For an account of Painter's career, see Renee Pigeon, ‘William Painter’, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, 2nd ser. cxxxvi. 259–63. For an account of Fenton's career see the introduction to The French Bandello: A Selection. The original Texts of Four of Belleforest's Histoires Tragiques Translated by Geoffrey Fenton and William Painter, Anno 1567, ed. Frank S. Hook (Columbia, Oh.: University of Missouri Press, 1948).

(40) A point that is made by Lorna Hutson in The Usurer's Daughter, where she describes a humanist education as the perfect training for ‘a textualized intelligence service’, (105). The Usurer's Daughter also contains the best recent account of Fenton's fiction: see pp. 129–51.

(41) The title-page describes the collection as ‘No less profitable than pleasant, and of like necessity to all degrees that take pleasure in antiquities or foreign reports’ (39).

(42) His version of the story of the Sieur de Virle, for instance, introduces diatribes against Jeanne La Pucelle and St. Denis which have no equivalent in Belleforest's original. The myth of La Pucelle, he opines, ‘seems as true as that which they are ashamed to put in a chronicle of credit touching their Saint Denis; whom they affirm was executed at Paris, and came from thence with his head in his hand, which he buried in the abbey’ (460).

(43) Fenton acknowledges in his dedicatory epistle that he has translated his narratives from the French: ‘I have bestowed some of my vain hours, whilst I was in the other sides the Sea, in forcing certain Tragical Discourses out of their French terms into our English phrase’ (44). In his commendatory verses to the volume Sir John Conway represents the process of translation as an act of violence against a devious Frenchman: ‘He, labouring with effect, hath, by his learned pain, I Enforced a Frenchman tell his tale in English language plain’ (49). George Turberville's commendatory verses refer to the translation from ‘French to English phrase’ as if it entailed the liberation of the stories of ‘Bandel’ from an obscurity which has been maliciously contrived, perhaps by Bandello's French adapters, in order to conceal his texts from ‘simple common sense’: ‘The French to English phrase, his mother language he, I The dark to light, the shade to sun, hath brought, as you may see…And what, before he took his painful quill to write, I Did lurk unknown, is plainly now to be discerned in sight.’ Fenton's readers, then, like Painter's, seem to have associated his narratives with the name of Bandello rather than Belleforest. It is therefore as versions of Bandello's texts that I discuss them.

(44) Cicero, De Oratore, 2. 9. 36.

(45) Chris Baldick discusses the history of the word ‘monster’ in In Frankenstein's Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), ch. 2; See also Kathryn M. Brammall, ‘Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality, and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 27 (1996), 3–21, for a suggestion that the monstrous was of particular topical interest during the 1560s and 1570s.

(46) OthelloPaul N. Siegel, ‘A New Source for Othello?’, PMLA 75 (Sept. 1960), 480.

(47) The Palace of Pleasure, iii. 288.

(48) See The Governor, book. 2, ch. 11: ‘The true definition of amity and between what persons it happeneth’.

(49) ‘[A] certain jealousy sprung of an unjust mislike (as she thought) is ready to cover the fault of Pandora’, (187).

(50) Ascham finds her ‘readinge Phaedon Platonis in Greeke, and that with as moch delite, as som jentleman wold read a merie tale in Bocase’ (201).