Publication Date



early modern quest for Cathay, post-modern quest for Cathay, Renaissance English


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.