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Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings (review)
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In a recent BBC documentary recounting the theft of Shakespeare’s First Folio, the art-thief, Raymond Scott, admits that when he first saw the book, he ‘wasn’t very impressed with it’; amid all of its fanfare and proclamations of uniqueness, it was ‘only a disbound copy of a book.’ For what is only a book, however, it is increasingly clear that Shakespeare’s legacy has ripples far beyond its immediate circles among Early Modernists, and Driver and Ray’s Shakespeare and the Middle Ages ably demonstrates that in time such ripples might quickly become waves. Documenting the importance of the Middle Ages to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, as well as the importance of Shakespeare’s plays to the modern reception of the medieval, the collection draws on a range of approaches from theology to musicology, from theater studies to gender studies, and invites insight from medievalists, Victorianists and Early Modernists alike. The resulting essays provide some fascinating suggestions and compelling arguments to support the central contention that ‘while Shakespeare is not history, he has shaped our reception of it’ (24).

On the surface, the book is intended solely to provide ‘an introduction to reading Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of the medieval works that inform them,’ and it ‘serves also as a guide to Shakespeare and medievalism in popular culture’ (8). Nevertheless, the various essays draw on a wide range of sources, both contemporary and more recent, to show how the repeated performance of his plays has provoked a return to the medieval tropes inherent in many of his plays (particular attention is paid to his Henry plays, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth) and film adaptations which paradoxically return us to the sources precisely by way of a deviation from the source text.

Although the main focus of the volume remains on the impact of Shakespeare on our modern conception of the medieval period, a number of the essays achieve this by innovative approaches to this most studied of playwrights, demonstrating that there is still more to be discovered despite the colossal bibliography already in existence on the subject. One particularly insightful essay, for example, written by Carl James Grindley, probes the frequently overlooked role played by peasants, and makes a strong argument against their traditional assimilation with the Chorus, which sets the stage neatly for further non-standard approaches to Shakespeare’s works. Kelly Jones, examining the lesser-studied Pericles, finds traces of Gower amid the medieval setting, just as Julia Ruth Briggs’s contribution locates the mark which Chaucer’s tales left on the bard, and Martha Driver’s own essay argues persuasively for a re-reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream through the lens of Middle English Romance. Such innovative approaches support the central theme well, and the extensive reading undertaken for each essay demonstrates a real commitment to the sort of thorough, considered interdisciplinary approach which is often lacking in such collections.

The essays are well organized, grouped into four sections (The Histories, The Tragedies, The Comedies and The Romances), which are self-consciously recognized as being no more than loose thematic groupings rather than a re-introduction of the traditional disciplinary boundaries which Driver and Ray expressly sought to avoid. Consequently, the collection only suffers from the increasingly common problem of unifying essays which adhere to different disciplinary conventions (how, for instance, can Linda Schubert’s essay on music be seamlessly matched to Catherine Loomis’ historical overview of Falstaff in America?), though the editors’ general introduction does offer a useful Ariadne thread to negotiate such tricky passages. On balance, however, the potential disjuncture is more than compensated by the breadth of scope which the multi-disciplinary backgrounds afford, and the editors’ introductions to each section deftly combine the disparate elements into as united a whole as is possible.

Overall, amid a slew of new and forthcoming collections which often seem to use a cross-disciplinary approach merely for the sake of diversity (and, one cynically wonders, a wider potential market for the work), Driver and Ray’s innovative reevaluation of Shakespeare’s relationship to the Middle Ages comes as a refreshing antidote. In the same way as their...