The upstart crow still soars

A Companion to Shakespeare's Works Volume One - A Companion to Shakespeare's Works Volume Two - A Companion to Shakespeare's Works Volume Three - A Companion to Shakespeare's Works Volume Four

May 26, 2006

Shakespeare, as Peter Holbrook reminds us in his engaging "Class X: Shakespeare, class and the comedies" (in volume three of this collection), was no academic. If his lack of university education made him an "upstart crow" to his rival - graduate - playwrights during his lifetime, the academic industry that now rests on Shakespeare's name indicates a reversal of fortune as extraordinary as any of the joyfully improbable endings of his comedies. Introducing his Blackwell Companion to Shakespeare (1999), David Scott Kastan notes that Shakespeare stands "at the still point of the ever-changing curriculum in both secondary schools and universities". It is a still point that generates a continuous storm of academic activity, however. In 2000, Blackwell supplemented Kastan's Companion with Dympna Callaghan's Feminist Companion to Shakespeare , and now a further four volumes of Companion have appeared. And, of course, in the meantime there have been numerous other guides and essay collections from other publishing houses.

Richard Dutton and Jean Howard's four volumes claim to offer a "uniquely comprehensive snapshot" of current Shakespeare criticism. It seems difficult to associate the instantaneous "snapshot" with four cumbersome volumes of painstaking scholarship. Furthermore, claims to comprehensiveness seem at odds with the portrayal of the volumes as a "complement" to Kastan's Companion . His single volume is primarily historicising and arranges its discussion of Shakespeare's works in sections including "Living", "Reading", "Writing", "Playing" and, vitally, "Printing". The volume as a whole presents Shakespeare's works as the creation of "Shakespeare and the 'element' he lived in" - performers, audiences, printers and readers with practices that can be historically described. There are no studies of individual plays and the apparatus does not mention genre.

By contrast, Dutton and Howard present their material in familiar generic groupings - a volume each on the Comedies, Histories and Tragedies , and a fourth volume covering The Poems, Problem Comedies, Late Plays .

The problem of titling the fourth volume is of course a familiar one, but it indicates a generic debate that, in these four volumes, turns out to be still surprisingly fruitful. The editors explain that their decision to organise the volumes along generic lines was made for "a mixture of intellectual and pragmatic reasons": pragmatically, Shakespeare wrote about the same number of tragedies and histories, conveniently implying critical essay collections of roughly uniform size; intellectually, his works are still often taught in generic groups of "tragedies", "histories" and "comedies", and a similar language of genre was current in Elizabeth and Jacobean England, for all that its designations are debatable.

Indeed, a debate as to the meaning of Renaissance generic designations concerns the first essay or two in each volume, and these essays are wonderfully instructive and challenging. Heading the Tragedy volume, Kastan's powerful essay on "Shakespeare and the idea of tragedy" begins by acknowledging the problems of genre, citing the Gnat in Through the Looking-Glass who asks "What's the use of them having names if they won't answer to them?" Kastan nonetheless asserts that every act of reading and writing "originates in a provisional idea of the text's genre", and then goes on to make his case for Shakespeare's unique tragic vision:

"Shakespeare accepts, then tests and finally extends (perhaps even explodes) the conventional understanding of tragedy, discovering its deepest logic precisely in the refusal of its offered consolations and exploring the necessary formal response to that understanding."

The essay is instructive as to Shakespeare's challenge both to Aristotle and to dramas of Christian consolation, and is balanced by Martin Coyle's essay on "Tragedies of Shakespeare's contemporaries", which follows it in the volume. Coyle contextualises the Bard's achievements with those of other pioneering Renaissance playwrights such as Thomas Kyd and Marlowe who "made Renaissance tragedy possible". The essay is a magisterial survey, elegantly summarising and usefully categorising Renaissance tragedies. Coyle's essay should be required reading for all undergraduates, broadening potentially Bardolatrous narrow horizons.

As Kastan's "Shakespeare and the idea of tragedy" indicates the overlap between tragedy and history, this overlap is addressed by Ivo Kamps in the essay that begins the Histories volume, "The writing of history in Shakespeare's England". This incisive study of Tudor and Stuart historiography provides vital but neglected background to Shakespeare's history plays and makes the interesting case that Renaissance playwrights plundered histories and chronicles not only for stories but also for historiographical approaches by which those stories could be discussed.

Kamps's connection of Shakespeare's practice with that of Marlowe, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and John Ford is picked up by Richard Helgerson in his essay "Shakespeare and contemporary dramatists of history", which argues that Shakespeare focuses his dramatic attention on kingship, while his contemporaries examine subjecthood. Applying this observation to theatrical history, Helgerson argues that "subjecthood" plays were all performed by Henslowe's companies for popular clientele, while Shakespeare's kingship plays were performed by the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, for more elite audiences: his conclusion is an exhortation to remember that Shakespeare's "was not, even in his own time, the only way or perhaps even the most politically attractive way of imagining the English past".

By enabling the reader to see Shakespeare's achievements as related to those of his contemporaries, the essays of Helgerson and Coyle prepare the way for John Jowett's consideration, in the fourth volume, of the Bard's collaborations. Exploring the "Varieties of collaboration in Shakespeare's problem plays and late plays", Jowett supplies a useful overview and critique of attribution studies, noting the contested ideological reasons for such studies, and emphasising the influence of print: "The uplifting of the playwright to the status of literary author in the early 17th century took place most obviously in printed books that set themselves apart from public theatre, and one of the ways they did so was promoting the figure of the dramatic author." Jowett's essay argues that acknowledgement of Shakespeare's collaborations need not diminish his status, but rather offers an attractive model of "sociability in the textual realm".

Each volume comprises an essay on each individual play - or on the narrative poems and sonnets that are, vitally, included - and an equivalent number of longer essays that take up larger critical problems relevant to the genre or a particular group of plays: issues of race, class, gender, homoerotics, cross-dressing, marriage, the individual and the state, kingship, friendship and so on.

Dutton and Howard note that they invited contributions with "a diversity of approaches" and state that the results "suggest that it would be premature to assume that we have reached a post-theoretical era". Although it is true, as the editors indicate, that a range of theoretical lines converge in these volumes, the reader's experience is predominantly influenced by the arrangement of material around genre. There is a consequent and very welcome sense of individual plays or small groups of plays as discrete objects of study, each demanding its own critical approaches. Rather than the text being squeezed into a theoretical mould, the theory is dictated by the text and enlivens its study.

It is striking that a series of volumes, arranged around concepts of genres, indicates the generic innovations of Shakespeare and other Renaissance playwrights, but at the same time has repeated recourse to the medieval. To give only two of many examples: in the fourth volume, Barbara Mowat's essay "'What's in a name? Tragicomedy, romance or late comedy"

argues that both terms, "romance" and "tragicomedy", should be retained to describe the late comedies, building its case on a comparison between the late comedies and medieval English drama. Francois Laroque's discussion of "Shakespeare's festive comedies" in the third volume describes a Shakespeare standing in defence of "old holiday pastimes" against reforming attacks on popular festivals: these pastimes offered "a world of phrases, images and symbols. In his festive, green-world comedies and later romances, he chose festivity and mirth rather than the city intrigue and comical satire advocated by his colleague and rival Ben Johnson".

The volumes thus reflect recent scholarly interest in Shakespeare as a playwright influenced by the medieval drama that preceded him, as well as as a Renaissance writer among other Renaissance writers, rediscovering and pushing the boundaries of the classical.

The complex and balanced portrait of the Bard that emerges is a result of superbly selected and arranged material. And in the process of creating this collective portrait, the various contributors to the Companion engagingly impart swaths of useful contextualising material - on medieval and Renaissance drama, on Elizabethan and Jacobean England, on political theory, theology and philosophy, and on Renaissance publication. The volumes are not primarily cribbing study aids, although their packaging as "companions" might superficially suggest otherwise. This Companion, informative and stimulating as it is, is for the universities of which its subject had no need.

Elisabeth Dutton is a research fellow of Worcester College, Oxford.

A Companion to Shakespeare's Works Volume One: The Tragedies. First Edition

Editor - Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 491
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 4051 3605 7

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