- Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide
Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide is aimed at the undergraduate Shakespeare classroom, probably in English rather than performance or film studies. It is fat and long with material, produced by a stellar group of scholars and teachers. In addition to the usual information about Shakespeare's biography, the theatre, his society, and his audience included in introductions to Collected Works, the first section offers essays on the conventions of playwriting, changing attitudes towards religion, and ideas of order in early modern England. [End Page 203] The second section has chapters on each of the major groupings, called "genres" here, of Shakespeare's work, including all the dramatic forms and non-dramatic poetry. Each of these essays offers a reading of a single play in light of the survey of the genre which precedes it. The next section introduces twelve critical approaches, again offering a set of sample readings. The last section is concerned with "Shakespeare's Afterlife," and it contains essays on modern theatre, film, translation, and commemoration, among other topics.
Few fields in contemporary English studies enjoy the quality and variety of scholarship that Shakespeare studies does. The authors here are among the best-known, and for good reason: their work is exemplary in all facets, from the precision and intelligence of their research to the eloquence and clarity of their exposition. All modern approaches to literary and cultural studies are represented here; no special interests dominate; younger and mature scholars share space in the volume. If one were looking for a summation of the present state of knowledge and interpretation of Shakespeare and his work, written for the undergraduate audience, one need look no further. The editors have done a commendable job of keeping the tone and level of the volume steady, while permitting the distinctive interests and expertise of individual scholars to be heard. In short, this volume is the best of its kind presently available.
There are a couple of qualities of the volume, however, which will prevent its adoption in many courses. First, the size is prohibitive: it weighs in at three pounds and paired with the Norton Shakespeare (the cited collected works), the needle on my bathroom scale moves to seven pounds. It's too heavy to have students carry around from class to class with them and too long (744 pages) to get them to digest the material as supplements to the Shakespearean works they are studying. In an ideal world, I would like my students to know this book's contents, and I would like to be able to show them the richness, diversity, and excellence of our knowledge of and pleasure in Shakespeare's works which this volume so wonderfully represents. Contrary to popular belief, however, we English professors have more contact with the real world than we would really like to have, and I would have little success in insisting that my students bring this book to class, and not much more in requiring them to read enough of it to make the purchase worthwhile. And practically speaking, the structure of the courses I teach (twelve week courses, divided chronologically at the year 1601, which effectively creates a generic divide between histories and comedies on the one side, tragedies and romances on the other) means that only a selection of the material would be relevant to my students in any one course, and probably not enough to warrant the expense of the book. There is simply too much [End Page 204] material here for this Guide to be ordered for courses, although it will be a welcome addition to the resources available to students in the library.
Second, problems are inherent in the approach to the construction and transmission of knowledge this volume represents. Most of the content is delivered through telling, rather than showing, despite the prevalence of demonstrations. In Joan Thirsk's chapter on "Daily Life in Town and Country," for instance, we read that "most people in Shakespeare's day lived in the countryside, ever conscious of the changing...