Joseph Khoury Interview


Professor at StFX now editor of Tudor and Stuart Book Series

Joseph Khoury was interviewed by Yanik Gallie on September 19, 2018. Khoury is editor of the Tudor and Stuart Book Series at The Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies (CRRS). The CRRS is a part of Victoria University at the University of Toronto and is governed, under the leadership of its Director, by faculty committees linked to each other in the Centre’s activities: library collections, academic programs, early modern programs, and scholarly publications.

Joseph Khoury is Associate Professor of English at St Francis Xavier University. He studied Political Philosophy and Comparative Literature and specializes in Machiavelli, Marlowe, and Shakespeare. Joseph also teaches, and has published on, the Arabic Novel. His critical edition of Barnabe Riche’s The Adventures of Brusanus, Prince of Hungaria (1592), a political romance used as a source by Shakespeare in several of his plays, has garnered highly favourable reviews. He is currently working on a monograph on Machiavelli and his influence on Shakespeare. Joseph has published articles on Machiavelli, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Aimé Césaire, and William Thomas (tutor to Edward VI). Joseph is involved in theatre and in 2015 served as Juror for the Governor-General’s Literary Prize (English Non-Fiction). Joseph received the Outstanding Teaching Award in 2016.


YG: Why is the preservation of history and culture important today?

JK: I think it’s always important to preserve history and culture. We often discover that some of the stuff that was preserved has been suppressed and that’s not good. If you want to learn the truth about something, you have to make sure it’s available. Some of these books may not have been suppressed, but certainly they had their use at the time; Sometimes they are just forgotten. There may not have been many of them printed. Some were only printed in manuscript for example, that would have circulated widely. We know that a lot of books, poems, literature of different kinds like political tracts or biographies, were only circulated in manuscript. Some of them have never been printed, ever. If one could show that a manuscript was important, how it was important and how influential it was, therefore, now it’s time to print it so that today’s scholars have access. To be a part of that process is exciting.

Just to give you an example of an important book that circulated only in manuscript is George Cavendish’s The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. That manuscript was circulated widely, but I think it’s first printing was over a hundred years later and that’s important because it gave us a lot of insight about the relationship between Cardinal Wolsey and Henry.  Obviously, it circulated enough back in the day that Shakespeare used it in his co-author play Henry VIII. Making sure that some of those documents are available to us today is significant. Students certainly can stand to benefit from it because they are on the verge of making discoveries, if their professors bring these into the classroom and that’s always exciting. 

YG: Have you worked directly with those manuscripts?

JK: I have worked with some manuscripts. Obviously, I wouldn’t be the only one. I would rely on the scholars to make the case that a particular book should be published. I already have several inquiries. One from England, another from the US, and a third from Canada. Each of them has to make their case. Some books I have heard of before, others I haven’t.

One in particular, and I can’t specify right now because it’s still in progress, is an interesting work written by a woman. It’s a sixteenth century text that has never been made available before. It gives us historical perspective on some important events. That would be really, really exciting, if we can make the project happen. Especially for the scholarship today that makes sure all the voices are brought to the floor.

YG: When a manuscript goes to print, I imagine there are discrepancies in the text between the original and reproduction. How do you honor the original text?

JK: We want to make sure the books are readable which means that we modernize the spelling and grammar very conservatively. We don’t want to change the tone or the ideas that are presented. Modernize the spelling to be consistent because they did not have consistent spelling, grammar or punctuation in those days. If you play with the text too much, you destroy the meaning and the tone. Tone is very important. Meaning also happens through tone and we don’t want to destroy that, but we want the text to be readable. 

That’s always difficult to weigh. Sometimes, I’m not sure about this word or this sentence.  You take your best shot, but then you note it by saying this is the original. You try to keep those at a minimum, but sometimes you have no choice. We have lost words whose meaning is not the same anymore. A lot of words have a changed meaning now, some of them mean the opposite as they used to. A lot of those words would be glossed. We have to do that, because you don’t want to misunderstand the text because the meaning has changed. We don’t want to get in the way of the reading, but at the same time we make sure that a modern reader understands. Natural language changes daily and we must accept that, but at the same time be aware of it. 

YG: Can you describe your comparatist philosophy?

JK: I firmly believe that we know ourselves only through comparison. That’s Hegelian, of course. I think it’s correct. In other words, if we don’t try to understand ourselves by comparing to other people, then we would never truly understand ourselves or the other people. The same goes with literature.

In literature, the idea of a national literature is a modern concept. It was actually born in the 19 century. Before that, we would study all literature including Greek, Roman, French and German. It’s only in the 19 century and made worst in the 20 century in North America largely with unilingualism which I think is a sad case. Most of the world is at least bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual. I think reading and understanding literatures of other cultures helps us to understand ourselves and the other. In a way, we’re going back to the Renaissance when this was the norm. All the educated people in the Renaissance read Italian, Latin, I mean queen Elizabeth was fluent in all the languages of the realm and in addition, she knew Greek, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Basically, she knew 10 languages. Trying to work with different languages of various cultures is really important. It builds healthier relationships and more understanding. Comparative literature allows us to understand ourselves by comparing cultures. Other cultures have something to teach us. I think it’s the nature of humanity. It’s only in the 19 century that universities started to focus on national literature. I’ve never accepted that. I’m proud to be a comparatist and that’s how I teach as well. My work has always focused on comparative literature and philosophy. I look at how ideas travel to other cultures or when they come to our home culture, how are they adopted? I’ve always found that interesting because it tells us a lot about ourselves and how we see others. 

This work as editor does the same thing. A lot of writers in the Tudor and Stuart ages, they borrowed a lot of ideas. Some of them translated other works into English, but they made so many changes that they produce, not only a new work, but also a new way of looking at the original work. Why did they choose to alter? Why not? It tells us about how we look at ourselves and others. Sometimes they had a love-hate relationship with language. They adored Italy, but they also hated Italy. They adored Italy’s literature and philosophy, and then hated its religion, in England especially after the break from Rome. They also fancied its fashion, yet they mock it at the same time. They’re doing it better, but we don’t want to admit that they’re doing it better than us. Again, they give us new perspectives to think about. We forget that almost a third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in Italy. The setting says something. That’s one of many examples. It’s interesting that the earliest sonnets were actually translations of Petrarch’s sonnets. Yeah, they’re new poems, they’re not just translations. The interpretations were so beautiful that they are their own poems in their own right. The comparative element is exciting, but that was the natural thing for the Renaissance. Today, we think we are doing something new that they have already been doing. For me, it’s my natural home. I’ve always been a comparatist and I find it interesting.