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‘The whole is an idle dream’: The early modern and post- modern quest for Cathay

‘The whole is an idle dream’: The early modern and post- modern quest for Cathay

Lee, Adele (2009) ‘The whole is an idle dream’: The early modern and post- modern quest for Cathay. Quidditas, 30. pp. 10-27. ISSN 0195-8453

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This article examines how the Renaissance English understood and responded to the land of Cathay. It argues that although Cathay is technically just another name for China it represented a separate conceptual realm in this period. In other words, Cathay must be considered as being, in many ways, a distinct discursive construct. Viewed as the ‘glittering prize’ of the East India Company, Cathay, which fuelled countless (doomed) attempts at discovery, possessed characteristics both Chinese and Tartar. Descriptions of it converged and diverged simultaneously with descriptions of China and Tartary. As well as being a culturally liminal entity, Cathay was also a temporally liminal construct as accounts of it often placed it in the past and the present, that is, as both continuing under the rule of Kublai Khan, its thirteenth-century Mongol ruler, and as self-governing.
Cathay’s cultural, spatial, and temporal liminality means that it constitutes, in effect, an ‘unreal(istic)’ space in the early modern imagination; it transcends the established limits of the actual, material world. As such, ‘Cathay’ evades representational containment, which explains why contemporary critics have been frustrated in their attempts at explaining Shakespeare’s incongruent uses of the term. This paper, however, fully acknowledges from the outset the impossibility of establishing a single definition of ‘Cathayans’ and proffers instead an interpretation of the term that allows for its elusiveness. Indeed, its elusiveness and almost nonsensicalness are its distinguishing features, features uniting Shakespeare’s seemingly disparate uses with deployments in the plays of William Davenant and Thomas Dekker.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: [1] Paper published as Allen D. Breck Award Winner (2009). The Breck Award recognizes the most distinguished paper given by a junior scholar at the annual conference. [2] The article Lee, Adele (2009) "The Whole is An Idle Dream": The Early Modern and Postmodern Quest for Cathay', Quidditas 30 : 10-27, is prefaced by a preamble and details of the Allen D. Breck Award on p.9. [3] Quidditas is the annual on-line journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, formerly known as the Journal of The Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association (JRMMRA). ISSN 0195–8453.
Uncontrolled Keywords: China, Cathay, encounters, England, representation, early modern
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0441 Literary History
P Language and Literature > PQ Romance literatures
Pre-2014 Departments: School of Humanities & Social Sciences
School of Humanities & Social Sciences > English Research Group
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Last Modified: 14 Oct 2016 09:10

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