- The Shakespeare Handbooks Macbeth: A Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life, and: The Shakespeare Handbooks The Merchant of Venice: A Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life, and: The Shakespeare Handbooks As You Like It: A Guide to the Text and its Theatrical Life
The Shakespeare Handbooks series consists of four published books, with eleven more listed as forthcoming and still others planned. The books are ambitious, attempting to fill a unique niche by combining textual criticism, critical history, performance history, and, most important, scene-by-scene commentary on each play's performative possibilities. Each book contains six main chapters, though the authors title and order the sections as they see fit. Each of the three books contains "Key Productions and Performances," "The Play on Screen," "Critical Assessments," and "Commentary," the last of which makes up close to half of each book's text. The other two chapters pertain to textual history and early performances, and to sources and cultural contexts. The various sections complement each other well, with the Commentary serving as highlight and centerpiece of each volume. Overall, the books constitute excellent new resources for readers interested in performance criticism and in production possibilities.
In his volume on Macbeth, John Russell Brown (who is also General Editor for The Shakespeare Handbooks series) first deals with textual and early performance issues, briefly weighing in on probable dates of first performances and then comparing the Folio with two modern editions to point out difficulties with verse lines and punctuation. Brown places his Commentary section second, and continues emphasizing textual issues throughout the Commentary, pointing out variations in versification and discussing how these lines might be spoken onstage. In the Commentary, Brown also occasionally engages in what to my mind amounts to fruitless speculation about Shakespeare's original intent, as when he questions whether Shakespeare did "intend to show Duncan to be a weak king, dependent on others (as in his source, Holinshed's Chronicles)" (14). This is certainly a valid textual issue, but one that might be better raised in, [End Page 125] for example, the section on "The Text and Early Performances" or "The Play's Sources and Cultural Context."
Brown's Commentary section succeeds most when he directly explores theatrical possibilities (gestures, movement, blocking) rather than analyzing the more abstract thematic implications of language. At times, Brown falls into prescriptivism. A guide to the "theatrical life" of a play should suggest performance possibilities without closing off any reasonable ones, but Brown occasionally does just that. For example, regarding the second weird sisters scene (1.3), Brown states, "Even if their audience does not believe in supernatural divination and influence over events, the Witches in the play must act here as if they possessed this power" (16, emphasis added). While it is likely that the witches would be played this way, it is not imperative—they could, for instance, be played as a hallucination shared by Macbeth and Banquo, having no real power and thus leading to a less deterministic portrayal of Macbeth and his actions. Similarly, in discussing Lady Macbeth's response to the messenger in 1.5 ("Thou'rt mad to say it"), Brown writes, "Lady Macbeth must instinctively misinterpret the simple message, imagining that her husband is the king who comes that very night . . . there is no other reason why she should call the messenger 'mad'" (24–25, emphasis added). Again, while the performance reading is reasonable and helpful, one could wish it less peremptory. Regarding the same scene, Brown points out the tremendous challenges of Lady Macbeth's soliloquy, but...