All the trees in the forest of Arden, the wood near Athens, Windsor Park, and Birnham Wood felled and mulched would come nowhere near supplying the paper for the 20th-century's Shakespearean critical output.
An unscientific search on Amazon.com produces 39,870 works currently available, mostly serious, primary editions and secondary titles. Among them - somewhat disconcertingly - is a whole genre of guides with names such as Shakespeare Made Easy, No Fear Shakespeare, Shakespeare for Dummies (and its sibling, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Shakespeare ), Shakespeare 101 and the self-indicting The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless Guide . The discomfort of understanding Shakespeare, it seems, has the Bard's self-help aisle doing a roaring business among the timid.
Blackwell's new tripartite set of Shakespeare critical guides, by contrast, may not be for the faint of heart - there is no concession to the uninitiated - but they are clearly designed to make friendly that enormous and daunting edifice of Shakespearean criticism. Each of the three volumes - on tragedies, comedies and histories respectively - is a conspectus of the past 100 years of criticism, and coincidentally they mark the centenary of A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), the book that serves as great-grandparent to the modern academic Shakespeare industry. That Bradley is nowadays read almost for antiquarian interest is a useful indicator of how exotically literary studies have developed, especially since the 1960s.
Although, despite the sea-change that has swept modern criticism into a new world, Shakespearean Tragedy still impresses with some remarkable insights, it feels far closer to Mary Cowden Clarke's The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines (1850) than to even the inter and postwar ancestors of the new criticism, new historicism and gender theory on display in these new volumes.
The nature of this development is charted in the critical essays themselves and in the extremely helpful historical and generic overviews by Emma Smith that frame them. The bewildering array of (apparently) 40,000 approaches to the plays, of editorial strategies and fashions in performance that are often an insuperable barrier, especially to the intermediate student, will make these volumes particularly attractive to undergraduates wanting to get some idea of how to become serious and rigorous, indeed, how to do things with Shakespeare.
Each volume anthologises important journal articles and chapters in books under more or less consistent topical headings: genre, language, gender and sexuality, history and politics, and performance - each illustrated by a pair of essays, usually based on one or two plays. The tragedy volume, with its special Bradleian inheritance, extends this list to include "character". Some of the many highlights are Frank Kermode on Antony and Cleopatra , Katharine Eisaman Maus on Love's Labour's Lost and the quirkily brilliant Stanley Cavell on Coriolanus .
Although specialists will be familiar with much of the material, all of which is reprinted from other sources, everyone who teaches Shakespeare will know that the selection of essays from so vast a pool is one that could with justice be made quite differently but equally well by other editors. The virtue of this selection is the way in which it attempts to honour Edward Dowden's exhortation, "Let us not attenuate Shakespere [ sic ] to a theory", offering critical interventions that second and support the editorial essays.
The three Shakespearean genres are presented by way of the development of critical thinking about them since 1590 in Smith's introductions. These three essays necessarily cover some of the same ground, but each is shaped as needed to enhance its subject. Thus, although all three are concerned with, among other things, textual and editorial history, the tragedies volume breaks away to give special emphasis to the history of Bradley's influence on our understanding of these plays, and the histories volume considers the late Victorian and Edwardian admiration for the "pristine vitality" of Shakespeare's patriotism.
In addition to these synoptic historiographies, Smith provides briefer, more focused digests of ideas about each of the thematic categories, together with generous bibliographies. Altogether, either as the source of critical thinking or as reference guides and bibliographies, these volumes will prove convenient and interesting as authoritatively conducted tours of their domains. They will work well not only with David Scott Kastan's A Companion to Shakespeare (1999), which attends to Shakespeare's historical and social milieu, but also with Brian Vickers' magisterial and now-venerable Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage (1974-81) and Michael Taylor's more recent Shakespeare Criticism in the Twentieth Century (2001).
Such exercises in selection always leave casualties. The (no-doubt commercial) decision to divide the plays into their traditional but not always felicitous generic categories relegates some plays, notably the so-called romances or "late plays", to a limbo of the also mentioned; and such peculiar and formally uncooperative works as Troilus and Cressida and some of the early comedies are likewise hardly present except in marginal allusions. There is no reason, of course, to include an essay or a substantial part-essay for every play (and maybe it would prove impossible). Nevertheless, it is mildly dispiriting to find so important a play as The Tempest denied an essay merely because the play does not fit into the contested category of comedy. It is very much to be hoped that a fourth volume is in the offing.
Claire Preston is a fellow of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
Shakespeare's Comedies. First edition
Editor - Emma Smith
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 310
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 631 22011 9 and 22012 7