These four books - the tip of a sizeable iceberg - represent significant categories of textbook from pre-undergraduate introduction to advanced "state of the discipline" address. They have in common the central question of how we engage modern minds with early modern drama.
David Bevington's is aimed squarely at the youthful reader - don't start with Julius Caesar because there's "nary a love story to be seen". He insists that "reading is an act of involvement", and students are asked to imagine hard as they read. Bevington addresses the crucial double bind of teaching Shakespeare - dauntingly hard, yet over-familiar texts - and is at pains to assure us that all can "respond and contribute" to the mountain of interpretation, providing they approach even Hamlet without preconceptions. The book draws students through six of the more familiar plays in a readable narrative that introduces information about sources, generic form, verse and so on.
Sean McEvoy's book doesn't read as though penned by the sure hand of a professor emeritus, but has the whirlwind energy of a teacher with a mission. He is addressing the gap between "school" and "university" Shakespeare with, in this edition, a discussion of psychoanalysis, gender and performance studies in addition to the new historicism, which is clearly where his interest lies. It is informal; it anticipates standard questions; and there are tinted text boxes on historical context.
Part one addresses "why the plays were written in the way they were"; part two is concerned with genre. It is not dumbed down; McEvoy shows students how their skills can be applied to this confidence-sapping subject: "Today we are sophisticated readers of the visual image. The challenge in reading and watching early modern drama is to hear and feel the mental pictures created by the language with the same sort of sophistication." Students probably need a McEvoy, followed by a Bevington, followed by their Shakespeare module.
Maurice Hindle aims to tell students "how film adaptations of the plays communicate as film texts, rather than as plays on the page or for the stage". The book is more easily used by film than literature students: it's strong on technical terms but less convincing on how they might build into a language of analysis that could connect films to plays. The first part contrasts theatre and film in ways that suggest an author with little time for the former. The second part outlines the chronology of Shakespeare on film, the third and fourth focus on the various "genres" on film, part five on TV. The short chapters make this book most useful to dip into for information.
Terence Hawkes and Hugh Grady acknowledge a difficulty with their subject: "What is 'presentism'? It's easier to begin with what it's not." This proves true throughout as contributors contrast their critical practice more or less politely with parodic versions of historicism.
This takes many different forms. Michael Bristol argues for relevance to students by foregrounding personal responses to King Lear: "We're not really reading Shakespeare unless we're taking it personally."
Catherine Belsey historicises new historicism and Grady tackles Hamlet criticism, both finding chronologies of engagement with social and political change. Both are revealingly reflexive; more meaningful than attempts to repoliticise criticism through odd references to weapons of mass destruction.
Evelyn Gajowski on feminist practice and Ewan Fernie on action and performance offer readings from familiar critical perspectives that are "presentist in principle if not in name". John Drakakis on editing and presentism and Hawkes on modern histories of Timon are elegant and interesting. But only in Fernie's piece does one really get a sense of the challenge of working out how a concept might function in practice - something that feels new.
Students may feel relieved that their emotional engagements with texts will matter more in a presentist future, although they may not find much in the way of new readings to get their teeth into here. The very confident will find Kiernan Ryan's unpacking of the perils of that future thought-provoking.
This book reads like the yawn of a tired subject reaching out for change. It leaves many questions unanswered, but there is food for thought, even for unabashed "antiquarians" such as myself.
How to Read a Shakespeare Play. First Edition
Author - David Bevington
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 172
Price - £10.99 and £50.00
ISBN - 9781405113960 and 113953