Appearing within a month of one another, these two major new edited collections from Oxford and Cambridge offer a significant contribution to the ongoing project of reorienting early modern drama away from approaches that begin and end with Shakespeare. While Shakespeare features prominently in both, he is dispersed throughout Hoenselaars’s volume, appearing in relation to his collaborative, competitive, and productive relationships with his contemporaries. In Betteridge and Walker’s magisterial volume, meanwhile, while three of thirty-eight chapters deal with Shakespearean dramas (and a further three with associated/disputed plays), Shakespeare only appears at the conclusion of chronological sections designed to position the late Tudor drama at the end of a continuous theatrical tradition stretching back to the pageant wagons with which the volume begins. While the methodologies on display here differ substantially, the shared intention is a rewriting of theatrical history and its easy divisions to take into account the broad sweep of developments and innovations.
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists differentiates itself from other potentially similar volumes in the series such as A.R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway’s Companion to English Renaissance Drama through its focus on individuals rather than on genre, history or theme. In this, perhaps paradoxically, the volume implicitly aligns itself with the ‘Return of the Author’ announced by Patrick Cheney in Shakespeare Studies 36 (2008), signaling the end of the long reign of Barthes’s 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author.’ As a result, this volume is simultaneously progressive and reactionary, framing its concern for the broader networks of early modern theatrical culture within an author-by-author structure that might recall much earlier surveys such as Terence Logan and Denzell Smith’s The Predecessors of Shakespeare (1973).
The limitations of this structure are immediately apparent. Greene, Peele, Lodge and Nashe are all squeezed into Arthur F. Kinney’s chapter on ‘John Lyly and the University Wits’, while Eastward Ho receives separate attention in Warren Chernaik’s chapter on Jonson, Matthew Steggle’s introduction to [End Page 563] John Marston and, most substantially, in Paul Franssen’s discussion of George Chapman. The author-centricity extends to the index: where studies prioritizing the fundamentally collaborative nature of drama would usually index plays by title, here they are carefully categorized under the name of their author(s), often resulting in multiple entries for the same play.
The prioritization of Shakespeare means that later dramatists within the period are excluded (James Shirley is an obvious absence, although John Ford is included), but perhaps more significantly there is scant attention to ‘minor’ dramatists: William Rowley, Samuel Rowley, Cyril Tourneur, Henry Chettle and George Wilkins are mentioned in passing or not at all (Pericles is listed in the chronology as simply “Shakespeare”, xix), and no attention is given to non-professional drama. While such a volume must necessarily delineate its boundaries, Hoenselaars’s summary introduction gives no rationale for the parameters drawn. The definite article following the initial introduction of “Shakespeare and a vast range of fellow dramatists” (xi) is something of a giveaway: “The essays in this collection introduce the playwrights and a number of their works” (xi), “the texts of the plays by Shakespeare’s colleagues have also become more widely available” (xiii) (my emphases). The “range” introduced here slips easily into a defined group that reinforces an accepted canon of Shakespeare’s contemporaries without ever holding that grouping up to scrutiny. As well as continuing to subordinate the contributions of those writers for whom fewer plays survive, the book’s structure also disappointingly ignores the wealth of anonymous or misattributed extant drama, with the notable exception of Arden of Faversham, which receives sustained attention as a case study in Elizabeth Schafer’s chapter on performance histories.
These criticisms do not, of course, undermine the excellent scholarship of an impressive range of contributors, but rather point to a missed...