Princes - of Denmark and of Wales

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

November 1, 2002

Oxford and Cambridge both have a Companion to Shakespeare , but with different bloodlines. Cambridge's is a lineal descendant of Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison's A Companion to Shakespeare Studies (1934), a set of essays commissioned to cover certain aspects of Shakespeare. Oxford has no direct ancestor. It has never attempted a version of John F. Andrews's three-decker William Shakespeare: His World, His Work, His Influence (1985). The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare is best seen as a radical reworking of O. J. Campbell and Edward G. Quinn's A Shakespeare Encyclopaedia (1966), an excellent but out-of-date work that the Oxford Companion now supersedes.

The new Oxford Companion consists of short, informative articles arranged alphabetically. It is profusely and imaginatively illustrated. Not many will be familiar with the striking photograph of Prince Charles as Macbeth in a Gordonstoun production. The editors have at their disposal a mere 500,000 words, a limit that imposes severe choices. An editorial rigour and conciseness is everywhere apparent. The outcome can best be assessed under updatings, new territories and revision of traditional entries.

Stage history never ceases. The book brings the record of important stage and film productions up to recent times - Julie Taymor's film Titus (2000) is praised. Each play has a sketch of the cultural contexts for productions - of Hamlet , "the play's interest in an isolated, anxious, and possibly disordered consciousness has lent it ideally to the methods and concerns of modernism and postmodernism." One gets a quick but sound fix on what has happened to the play in performance. Actors are well treated, with Gielgud and Guinness given proper consideration.

Oxford is keen to open up new territories: there are entries for East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa. The "Arab world" is sympathetically treated. "Advertising" is worth its place, and we are reminded of Hamlet cigars. There was also a Lear who preferred his third daughter for the Coca-Cola she brought him. "Popular culture" appropriates a great deal of Shakespeare, and there is extensive if over-respectful recognition of Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet . Shakespeare in Love is given honourable mention. Generally, this book is excellent on Shakespeare's afterlife. The Tempest is seen in the light of post-colonialism, and "Trade, travel and colonialism" extends this approach. Translation gets its due. And there are entries on feminism, new historicism and cultural materialism.

I have more doubts about the revision of traditional entries. These are often subject to savage compression. "Inns of Court" gets a paltry seven lines. Considering that Shakespeare's company played a Candlemas Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple Hall (as did the Globe company this year), a photograph and extensive coverage of the staging was called for. Anthony Arlidge did it in his 2000 book. India, Germany, Jonson and Freud all did much better with Campbell and Quinn (though Oxford finds space for Jung). The dozen lines on "Stage directions", with no further reading cited, are entirely inadequate. In all cases, up-to-dateness trumps fullness.

The signposting is not perfect either. There is no entry for "Directors" (or "Producers"), and the reader has to cast around for Dennis Kennedy's authoritative treatment under "Twentieth-century Shakespearian production". For the preceding era, one turns to "Nineteenth-century Shakespearian production".

Much of Shakespeare's afterlife comes down to a cultural narrative. The editors explicitly set their faces against "chapter-length meditations on large topics", but one misses an entry akin, say, to Wilson Knight on "Symbolism". "Imagery" gets scant space. The editorial tone is reserved and cautious; nothing like the Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics , which aroused the pugilistic instincts of many readers.

There are also omissions. Of the entries that should fall within this book's canon, there is no mention of Helsingor or Kronborg Castle, save in a brief misspelt reference under "Elsinore". Kronborg is a massive stage direction for Hamlet , and Shakespeare got to know of it through his three colleagues (Kemp, Bryan and Pope) who had worked there in 1586. Denmark, here subsumed under "Scandinavia", holds an annual Hamlet Sommer festival that takes great advantage of the courtyard. A Kronborg photograph is a missed opportunity. Why do Hamlet without Elsinore? Festivals are largely overlooked, and the New Zealand entry fails to mention Stratford, Taranaki, with its biennial festival. The US fares no better. The entry "United States of America" makes no mention of the greatest token of America's regard, the profusion of Shakespeare summer festivals. "To say that Shakespeare is America's leading playwright hardly does the situation justice," said The Wall Street Journal in 1980. The count for 2001 in Shakespeare Newsletter lists more than 50: I reckon that number has grown by one a year for decades. For years, the festival at Stratford, Connecticut, was rated as at least the equal of Stratford, Ontario, certainly in the Houseman years. Ashland, Oregon, is perhaps the leading festival today: it is listed under "see USA", where it vanishes.

The work of Charles H. Shattuck, the leading historian of Shakespeare on the US stage, is ignored. An asterisked allusion to the Shakespeare Association of America leads nowhere. Of the great libraries, the Folger and Huntington are touched on but not the Newberry, or the theatre archives at Harvard and the Lincoln Center. The editorial policy on America needs serious review.

The limitations of the Companion are very largely those of its form, a necessary tension between brevity and range of entry. I have noted a handful of minor inaccuracies but the overall standard is high.

Ralph Berry's most recent book is Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies (1999).

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

Editor - Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells
ISBN - 0 19 811735 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 541

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