Examine the concept of the foreign in Renaissance Literature. The representation of foreign characters and the use of foreign settings in Renaissance works such as Jonson’s ‘Volpone’ and Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’ show us many things abut the concept of the foreign in Renaissance literature, and how these views affected attitudes and beliefs relating to what was foreign and unfamiliar. We can also look at how these views, where used in such Renaissance works as tools of expression, highlight aspects of English culture as well as that of those in other countries.
The concept of the foreign in Renaissance England embodied not only spatial difference, but religious difference too. Religions such as Judaism only served to enforce a negative view of the foreign, and increase the impact of these negative beliefs, particularly when these religions were practised admist a predominantly Christian society. In ‘Volpone’, Jonson uses the foreign setting of Venice, creating the effect of distancing the evil actions of the play from the audience and from England and English ways of thinking and placing them in a foreign and exotic place, which is already viewed with a mixed reaction.
In ‘The Jew of Malta’, the effect is similar, the play is set in Malta, which acts as a neutral ground for the events of the play. Characterisation in Renaissance Literature commonly draws on stereotypes, in much popular drama and literature, stereotypes perform many fundamental functions. However when stereotypes become a way of highlighting difference, their use becomes ‘dangerous’ and it is partially through the use of stereotypes that Marlowe and Jonson highlight the concept of the foreign, and allow us an insight into how what was considered foreign and exotic was viewed and used in renaissance literature.
The use of stereotypes as an action in itself is also indicative of the Renaissance concept of the foreign, many people’s views were based upon such limited knowledge. ‘Volpone’ is based in Venice, and Jonson draws on the stereotypes of the Venetians commonly held at the time the play was performed. Venice was city that provoked divided opinions, a hugely contradictory place for Englishmen of this period. It was the wealthiest city in Europe and a place people respected, the heir of classical Rome in terms of music and literature, a civilisation of exotic culture, but it was also associated with immorality and decadence.
Venice was admired for its beauty and prosperity but it was also condemned for being materialist and extravagant, and its atheist view in spiritual matters. All these conflicting aspects of the city made Venice a contemporary setting for Jonson to use in ‘Volpone’ The contradictory reaction that Venice as a setting provokes is reflected by the characters in the subplot. These are the English travellers, Sir Politic would-be, who is admiring and imitative of the culture, and Sir Peregrine, who is suspicious and mistrustful of the unfamiliar culture he encounters.
The appearance of these characters provides a geographical bridge between the world of the audience and the unfamiliar and foreign world of Venice in the play. Sir Politic does not belong in Venice, he is an English tourist who aspires to the vices of the Italians but does not have the innate viciousness displayed in the characters in the main plot that allows them to carry out their villainy. Sir Politic serves to make things appear more domestic and familiar against the remote and exotic crimes of the main plot.
However, compared to the cunning of the main characters, Sir Politic appears foolish, reminding the English audience of their nation’s own follies. One of the major prejudices that was embodied in the Renaissance conception of the foreign was that of Italy’s reputation for advanced political thinking and its association with Machiavelli, the leading political theorist of the Renaissance. His views had an enormous impact, both thrilling and horrifying Sixteenth century Europe. He was seen as a villain, and his works were not published in England until sometime after they had been originally published.
Machiavellian ideas and concepts are central to the concepts and themes in both ‘Volpone’ and Marlowe’s ‘The Jew of Malta’. The introduction of Machiavellian ideas into these Renaissance works highlights the emotions that underlie the Renaissance conception of what was foreign, the conflicting fear and admiration for what was unfamiliar. Sir Politic tries to mimic the Italians in their reputation as Machiavellian statesman, trying to impress Peregrine by putting himself across as a politician who understands the ways of the state even though he does not have any real conception of the workings of politics.