Saturday, March 7, 2009


Robert H. F. Carver, The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 545. ISBN 978-0-19-921786-1. $170.00.
Reviewed by Benjamin Todd Lee, Oberlin College (

In this book, based on 20 years of doctoral and post-doctoral research, Carver studies the Nachleben of Apuleius' novel from antiquity to the mid-17th century. Its eleven chapters (perhaps a fortuitous coincidence with the structure of the Golden Ass?) are organized chronologically: six contain surveys of historical periods ("Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages," "The High Middle Ages," "The Italian Renaissance," "The Age of Print," and "Apuleius in England [1566-1660])," while the other five present studies of works that are translations or that show extensive interaction with Apuleius' novel (Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, The Golden Asse of William Adlington, Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream).

Carver's work appeared at the same time as the study by Julia Gaisser, and fortunately for the field of Apuleian studies, the two works emphasize research in different periods.1 Gaisser is primarily concerned with the transmission and reception of Apuleius from antiquity through the first vernacular translations of the novel; Carver also treats the transmission of the novel, but deals more extensively with English literature of the 16th and 17th century. Thus Carver describes his opening chapters as "essays in relatively 'straight' literary history," while in the middle and late chapters he "deliberately 'thickened' the description, providing cultural contexts for the reception"(9).

While many surveys of Apuleian influence must be content to cite words or phrases from medieval and renaissance texts, Carver includes scores of complete passages in the original languages (followed by his own translations if the source is not in English). This assiduous reproduction and translation of primary texts will prove a great advantage to Apuleianists, who can now have access to a collation of references.2

The great strengths of Carver's book are the "case studies" of the English reception of the novel, where he has clearly gone farther than his scholarly predecessors in gathering and synthesizing these textual iuncturae. The sections on Spenser, Adlington, Sydney, and above all Shakespeare are particularly well-executed. I also found the treatment of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499, attributed by an acrostic in the text to a Francesco Colonna) to be highly informative, and Carver does a very good job exploring the use of both text and sub-texts from Apuleius in this elusive and dark allegorical fantasy. Carver's familiarity with Apuleius here adds to the work of Fumagalli, Pozzi, and Ciapponi.3

I do have one hermeneutic criticism of this study. The book suggests that there has been a progression from less to more sophisticated modes of "integrated responses" by the readership of the Golden Ass, which were achieved only in the Renaissance and the post-modern period. For example, at 448 Carver observes "we have to wait until the twentieth century to enjoy the kinds of integrated responses to the Golden Ass that we have seen (if only fitfully) during the Renaissance." Apuleianists will be familiar with Carver's brief article in the Kahane and Laird prologue volume, in which he concluded that, until Firenzuola's L'asino d'oro (Venice 1550), the Apuleian readership seemed to commit the authorial fallacy by equating Lucius with the author of the novel.4 For Carver this amounted to "the inability or refusal of past readers to reduce it to a mere literary device or persona" (174). The current book is occasionally configured as a substantiation of that claim.

It could be argued that this line of characterization in fact undermines the project of the book, in that the reader is encouraged to consider only a "fitful" portion of the readership to have been dynamic.5 This could shut down new readings of texts that have yet to be performed. I might have liked to see more hermeneutic alternatives left open here for the "middle" eras between late antiquity and the renaissance, hermeneutics such as those Carver utilized so effectively for his provocative reading of Shakespeare at page 445: "the subversive reading of the Golden Ass is not an invention of post-structuralism. Shakespeare was undermining the monolithic interpretations four centuries before John J. Winkler."

Despite this objection to one aspect of Carver's Rezeptionstheorie, I can assure the reader that this book is a thoughtful, substantial piece of well-documented research. Most importantly, The Protean Ass will play the role of bridge maker in the area of English receptions of Apuleius. Carver is to be congratulated for this volume, which cannot have been easy to produce, but which will certainly prove valuable to future scholars.


1. J. Gaisser, The Fortunes of Apuleius: A Study in Transmission and Reception (Princeton, 2007).

2. An odd decision was made to underline all abbreviations, even standard abbreviations such as "q;", which appears in Carver's text underlined as (que). This practice, combined with an italicized font, can make for difficult reading in lengthy passages. Carver explains this choice on page 10.

3. E. Fumagalli, "Francesco Colonna: lettore di Apuleio e il problema della datazione del Hypnerotomachia Polifili," Italia medioevale e umanistica 27 (1984), 233-66; G. Pozzi and L. Ciapponi (eds.), Hypnerotomachia Polifili (2 volumes; Padua, 1964).

4. "Quis ille? The Role of the Prologue in Apuleius' Nachleben," in A. Kahane and A. Laird (eds.), A Companion to the Prologue of Apuleius' Metamorphoses (Oxford, 2001), 163-174.

5. For the argument that such a preconception can vitiate a study of reception, see A. Grafton's review of E.J. Kenney's The Classical Text in JRS 67 (1977), 171-7.

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