- Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century
Since Michael Dobson's The Making of the National Poet (Oxford, 1992) broke ground almost twenty years ago, the field of eighteenth-centuryShakespeare studies has seen enormous growth. Capitalizing on the vigour of their subject, Peter Sabor and Paul Yachnin's collection, Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century, aims to track 'the backwards and forwards dialogic movement' of Shakespeare's plays alongside 'the various stagings, rewritings, literary interpretations, and textual studies' of the plays in the eighteenth century. Like most essay collections, this one is characteristically uneven in originality and scholarly acumen, but the more substantial essays in the volume do make individual important contributions to the 'huge range of conversation' about Shakespeare in the eighteenth century.
In their introduction, the editors argue 'against the one-way narrative of ideological appropriation and the consequent simplification of Shakespeare's plays as well as the simplification of literary history itself.' Divided into three sections in an attempt to unify the collection, the eleven essays are organized into 'Theorizing Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century and Beyond,' 'Eighteenth-Century Editors and Interpreters,' and 'Eighteenth-Century Adaptation and Reception,' though these topics at times work against the editors' aim of broadening the scope of eighteenth-century Shakespeare studies, and the individual essays often overlap among categories.
Most of the essays take the format of Shakespeare + eighteenth-century'x,' where 'x' ranges from science to sympathy to the middle class. Among the more original contributions are Jean Marsden's discussion of moral aesthetics and theories of sympathy, and Marcus Walsh's meticulous and clever analysis of George Steevens's annotations of Shakespeare, based on Steevens's library and his fellow commentators (Samuel Johnson, [End Page 421] Thomas Percy, Sir John Hawkins). Other essays of note include Michael Bristol's piece on the centrality of character criticism, and two essays on the use of Shakespeare by other writers: Frans De Bruyn on Edmund Burke's political writings and Marcie Frank on Ann Radcliffe's novels.More specific analyses of particular moments in eighteenth-centuryShakespeare include Paul Yachnin's essay on adaptations of Richard II by Tate (1680), Theobald (1719), and Goodhall (1772). Two contributors examine the intersection of science and Shakespeare: Gefen Bar-OnSantor looks at Hamlet and Isaac Newton, while Jenny Davidson discusses scientific theories of genealogy in relation to adaptations of The Winter's Tale. Among the less original essays are Fiona Ritchie's piece on the Shakespeare Ladies' Club, which for the most part repeats material already published in 2000 (sans citation), and Amanda Cockburn's discussion of ethical responses to Falstaff in the period. A comprehensive bibliography would have made this collection a more useful work on Shakespeare in the eighteenth century.
The essay that best makes the case for the stated agenda of the volume (a more complex view of literary history) is Nicholas Hudson's piece on the middle class, which traces the connection between Shakespeare and middle-class taste and education from the eighteenth century through the early twentieth, and usefully complements Andrew Murphy's Shakespeare for the People (Cambridge, 2008). Hudson focuses more on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rather than the eighteenth, and we learn more about Carlyle, Dowden, Swinburne, Shaw, and Arnold than about eighteenth-century figures. Nevertheless, Walsh makes a compelling argument for why the eighteenth century remains a crucial, fruitful, and vitally important period for Shakespeare studies and for literary history overall.
Katherine Scheil, Department of English, University of Minnesota