Much ado about Shakespeare

A Companion to Shakespeare - Shakespeare - A Shakespeare Reader - Shakespeare - The Comedies - Shakepseare 1609 - The Merry Wives of Windsor - King Henry VI, Part II
May 26, 2000

The experience of Shakespeare criticism for today's undergraduate is often at least a generation (if not a century) out of date. One learns to expect that 18-year-old A-levellers will have read Bradley, Wilson Knight, Dover Wilson, Tillyard and the rest of the Olympians, because this is what their teachers read at university. This is excellent preparation, of course, but it is always a delight to watch them discover the subsequent approaches and methods of the post-1960 era - the contributions of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, neo-historicism, Marxism, gender theory and, above all, of social and theatre history in infinite variety.

Some of the strictly text-based character criticism of yore is, for entirely sensible reasons, the standard schoolroom way into Shakespeare (and indeed, into the study of literature as a whole). And although the hazards of reading Elizabethan plays in isolation from, say, the conditions of their production can be overly insisted on - one has long since come to dread the politically correct, Identikit comedies essay whose every sentence contains some variant of the word "patriarchy" - there is also something melancholy about that isolation when we are so richly supplied with critical ideas and historical evidence that cannot but enhance even early Shakespearean encounters. The current rich crop of Shakespeare criticism and textbooks may serve to propel this newer, more overtly historicised Shakespeare firmly into the sixth form.

Two new installments in the third Arden series ( The Merry Wives of Windsor and King Henry VI, Part II ) provide enhancements of a very high order. Along with the recent Oxford and ongoing Cambridge Shakespeares, the Ardens give editors the opportunity to revisit, among other things, the prevailing conclusions of textual and bibliographical analysis, a historicising art sometimes too arcane to attract the attention of the non-scholarly. Giorgio Melchiori seizes this opportunity in his edition of The Wives by offering a clear and novel account of the confusing relation between the Quarto and the First Folio. It has long been suggested from internal evidence that the play was devised for a Garter installation ceremony of 1597; and the myth that Elizabeth herself requested a play about Falstaff in love has never been entirely resisted. But with the Falstaff elements of the play co-existing uneasily and often inconsistently with the young lovers' subplot, the Windsor Park fairies sequence, and references to the Order of the Garter with its several in-jokes in the apparently authoritative Folio version, and with the Quarto (1602) a far shorter (and apparently corrupt) version that omits the Garter business altogether, critical opinion has tended to see the Quarto as a typically "bad" one, from which the better, revised or reconstructed Folio version descends.

But Melchiori rejects in general the theory of bad Quartos, and in this case suggests instead that there were two separate plays, one a masque-like entertainment for the Garter ceremony that used the motif of thwarted young lovers and the Fairy Queen hoax in Windsor Park, the other a revived Falstaff vehicle in the mode of city comedy of humours with the merry wives hoax and the jealous husband motif; and that the Quarto presents a performance version of the latter, possibly adapted in some way, or memorially reconstructed. The Folio version, he argues, shows a sometimes careless or hurried conflation of these two quite separate plays, the Garter play aimed at a court audience, the Falstaff play at the common stage, with Shakespeare economically recycling old material for what is in effect a new play. This is a conclusion quite distinct from those of the previous Arden editor and the Oxford and Cambridge editors, and reminds us of how the variety of Shakespeare's professional purposes could shape his art.

Melchiori's lengthy and detailed examination of these problems leaves him relatively little space for a separate critical address to the play outside the thorough account of its performance history. Ronald Knowles's Henry VI gives a similarly limpid explanation of that play's equally problematical textual status; but Knowles reverses Melchiori's emphasis, with the critical reception and performance history of Shakespeare's first chronicle play, from the Augustans to the present, serving as an essential commentary on changing historiographical ideologies and on the development of our attitude to Shakespeare as the national poet. This is a clear increase on the previous Arden edition, which has only a slight encounter with critical history. Indeed, these new Ardens have made a welcome extension of the range afforded by the status of such an important scholarly edition by adding heft and apparatus to the introductory essays (Knowles's introduction to 2 Henry VI amounts, at 140 pages, to a book-length monograph; each play is accompanied by lavish appendices and an index); the new Ardens will be more user-friendly than ever before, while proving that state-of-the-art textual history and analysis can be as enthralling as the more obviously sexy accounts of players, patronage and politics.

With only about a third of the great Arden undertaking yet in print, Melchiori and Knowles are in the vanguard of 21st-century Shakespeare. Is it petulant to begrudge the appearance (after the abandonment of the elegant, instructive 18th-century engravings covering the second Arden series for the often laughable effusions of the Brotherhood of Ruralists) of cover-art now consisting of bland, soft-focus photographs, the red roses of 2 Henry VI having the anodyne appeal of a brand-logo on a package of pastel loo rolls? Was ever book containing such fair matter so vilely bound? What a pity it is that for works that "show, contain and nourish all the world" "the outward shows be least themselves".

David Scott Kastan's compilation of 29 background essays in A Companion to Shakespeare is an admirable resource for students and scholars. In its very broad and varied categories ("Living", "Reading", "Writing", "Playing", "Printing") the contributors discuss early-modern London, theatrical culture and production, reading practices, politics and religion, rhetorical training and the state of the vernacular. Some of the essays stay very close to Shakespeare's works (such as Martin Dzelzainis on Shakespeare and political thought); others, equally interesting, have no overt connection with him at all (such as Peter Lake on English religious identities). The level of assumed knowledge is also varied: a few of the essays read like articles from specialist historical journals; many more assume basic understanding but not deep familiarity with their subjects, especially those concerned with material culture (print and playhouses, for example). Although aimed most obviously at a university audience, the book ought to find its way onto school library shelves, where it may attract the more able A-level candidate. On the whole well written and terse, the volume is beautifully free of the modish jargon so often associated with neo-historicist scholarship. Historical Shakespeare is displayed with much advantage.

Contextualisation, with performance history, theatrical production conditions and staging problems signalled for special emphasis, is the declared purpose of Kiernan Ryan's Shakespeare: Texts and Contexts and Richard Danson Brown and David Johnson's Shakespeare 1609: Cymbeline and the Sonnets and A Shakespeare Reader: Sources and Criticism . Designed as a three-volume series for the Open University's third-level course "Shakespeare: Text and Performance", Texts and Contexts (volume one) covers nine plays from all the genres, Shakespeare 1609 (volume two) selects what the editors describe as canonically "marginal" works from which to consider the canonically secure ones, and Sources and Criticism (volume three) offers selections from the major sources of the nine plays of the first volume, together with important Shakespearean critical essays of the 20th century.

Like the Kastan volume, these are also collaborative efforts. Texts and Contexts offers essays by different hands on each of the nine plays, with "intervals" on Shakespeare's theatre and on editing Shakespeare. Shakespeare 1609 introduces Cymbeline and the sonnets with an essay that Socratically invites the participation of student readers, and mingles argument with appended extracts from contemporary and modern sources and analyses. By selecting one or two of the extracts reprinted in Geoffrey Bullough's monumental Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare for each of the nine plays of the first volume, Sources and Criticism allows a less daunting approach to Shakespeare's sources. It is heartening to discover a course insisting - however limitedly - on some acquaintance with some of the source material, a "context" much neglected by undergraduates and some of their instructors. The second half of this volume delivers more than 25 significant 20th-century critical readings of these plays. Taken together, the trilogy attempts in some sense to "manage" the study of Shakespeare by breaking his work down into task-specific ideas and categories: What are the various genres into which Cymbeline might be slotted and what are the arguments for each? What are the rules of sonnet writing (read the attached Petrarch and discuss)? These are good questions that pitch the student into a wide range of ideas, approaches and contexts. The breadth of what is possible in a university-level Shakespeare/Renaissance literature course is the great merit of the trilogy, and many will be excited by its variety. It may also inspire and assist non-OU teachers inventing their own Shakespeare courses; and although the books might be somewhat less helpful for university students on less overtly standardised courses, there is so much material here that it is hard to imagine not getting a great deal from them.

R. P. Draper's Shakespeare: The Comedies also has a strongly managed, pedagogically determined aim and structure. Part of a series of books each based on a single author, Draper's book chooses the four great festive comedies ( A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night ), selects a number of thematically important ideas (illusion, dupes and clever fools, outsiders, man-women and so on), and introduces each theme with analyses of extracts from the plays. Methodologically traditional, the analyses repeatedly call our attention to linguistic device and tonal nuance, and to strands of imagery in the venerable and still useful manner of Caroline Spurgeon. Context is least apparent here: the concentration is on close thematic and poetic engagement, with only minor allusion to the conditions or traditions of Shakespearean creation. Dwelling almost wholly within the text, this well-organised and appealingly written book will be most useful to relative beginners in Shakespeare who need to be alerted to the texture and rhythm of language and event in the plays before they can move on to the important contingent areas of their production history, aesthetic tradition and social shaping.

Graham Holderness's Shakespeare: The Histories is not really a textbook, but an important discussion of Renaissance, and especially English, notions of history in the 1590s. Holderness reads the individual history plays not as tetralogies or as designed exercises in Tudor spin, but as meditations on the shape and process of history, on nostalgia, on heroism, historical and genetic linearity, and on the peculiar historical moment represented by an ageing, childless, female monarch. Holderness wonders about the contrast between the war-ridden, sometimes haplessly heroic history plays and an elaborately and decoratively militarised elite Elizabethan culture practising feats of arms in the tiltyard and fantasising about expeditions to the Lowlands or to Spain, which nevertheless lost only one of its number (Sidney) in battle. In an ideologically heroic society founded on an idea of male proficiency in arms, where and how can women (Margaret of Anjou, La Pucelle, Elizabeth herself) find purchase? Holderness deliberately disarranges our thinking by introducing the history plays with an essay on Hamlet , provokes us with his apparently disorderly procession through the histories in a pattern neither historical nor compositional. He places Shakespeare's histories within the context of plebeian irony rather than aristocratic ideology, and claims for the Elizabethan theatre the power to make, rather than merely to receive, a national history that is democratic, demotic, unauthorised and potentially disobedient.

Claire Preston is lecturer in English, University of Cambridge.

A Companion to Shakespeare: First Edition

Editor - David Scott Kastan
ISBN - 0 631 20665 5 and 21878 5
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £75.00 and £16.99
Pages - 523

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