Trojan Wars: Genre and the Politics of Authorship in Late Medieval and Early Modern England
Doctor of Philosophy, The Pennsylvania State University, May (2007)
This dissertation examines the writing of Trojan War narratives by major English authors from the late fourteenth to the early seventeenth centuries with a focus on how these authors appropriate various literary genres in response to their particular social and political circumstances. My project challenges prevailing notions of the function of Troy as England’s foundational myth in both the political and literary cultures of the medieval and early modern periods. In the Middle Ages the English claimed to be descended from the Trojans who had survived the war and participated in the founding of Rome alongside Aeneas. Many modern critics argue that the conflation of the historical and the literary in this myth of national origin worked to forward the imperial agendas of English monarchs, and that these agendas found support in the medieval retellings of the Trojan War narrative. I argue that the political formulation of England’s national identity puts certain pressures how a writer can express his own authorial identity and that one form of identity constantly threatens to undermine the other. My work locates authorial politics – that is, authorial self-definition in response to both literary tradition and issues in English court culture – within the Trojan narratives of Chaucer, Lydgate, Caxton, and Shakespeare. This approach demonstrates how authorial identity is expressed textually through the negotiation of genre and competing narrative forms with respect to cultural context. For medieval and early modern English authors, the truth of the story is merely a surface concern as the author seeks to lay claim not to the Trojan legend but simply the right to tell it. Whereas the Arthurian legend seems to be available to writers who wish to invent new episodes or reformulate established narratives, the Troy story necessitates that an author justify his literary project by showing appropriate deference to the other poetic texts in the Trojan tradition. In so doing, the writer claims a right to author his own account of the legend. No other story in English literature requires such a claim, and it is for this reason that the Trojan War narrative functions as an important site for investigating English authorship. The dissertation’s title, Trojan Wars, is meant to remind the reader of the multitude of competing narratives that constitute the legend of the destruction of Troy. At the center of the legend lies neither a war nor a city but a conspicuous absence, and it is around this absence that Trojan Wars have been fought by poets and historians trying to claim authority over a disputed territory that was never really there in the first place. The medieval Troy story conflates the historical and the literary, and recent scholarship on Trojan texts tends to privilege the former over the latter. My dissertation will use the important observations made by recent critics concerning the historiographic importance of Troy in order to highlight its significance in the formation of an English literary tradition as defined by the idea of authorship and negotiated through genre. My thesis that is each author’s appropriation and idiosyncratic fashioning of various genres, particularly epic, romance and history, allows him to claim authority over the Trojan legend that he chooses to tell while simultaneously critiquing any royal or imperial agenda that seeks to do the same. The specific choices in genre, I argue, are inherently intertextual and entirely self-conscious, as each Trojan text functions as a response to the other works in circulation as well as the political concerns of the nation during the time of its writing. Through this approach, I identify the emergence of an English authorial identity that begins with Chaucer and trace its development through the Middle Ages and Renaissance in order to demonstrate how literary authority functions in relation to political authority.