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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and the Origins of English
  • Russ McDonald (bio)
Shakespeare and the Origins of English. By Neil Rhodes . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Pp. x + 260. $95.00 cloth.

Shakespeare and the Origins of English is a challenging and elusive book, one that defies an effort to provide a comprehensive statement of its goals and achievements. Its difficulty owes something to the equality of attention accorded the two units of the title, "Shakespeare" and "The Origins of English." Normally one would dominate the other, but in this book neither retains priority for long, and the bifocality is further complicated by ambiguity, in that both parts of the title are unstable. "Shakespeare" signifies both the historical playwright and the body of plays and poems he created, whereas "English" signifies, on the one hand, the vernacular tongue that came to be recognized in the sixteenth century as an appropriate instrument for literary expression, and, on the other, the academic discipline devoted to a body of writing in which Shakespeare's work became a principal exhibit. Roughly speaking, most chapters begin with the historical Shakespeare as he confronts the artistic possibilities of the vernacular; they then proceed to treat the utility of Shakespeare's work for the emerging field of literary study. Such multiplicity gives the work density and range, as continuities emerge among such disciplines as modern literary criticism, ancient rhetoric, contemporary media studies, humanist pedagogy, eighteenth-century elocution, early modern theater, and other forms of "communication."

Rhodes constructs a series of "analogies . . . between early modern and modern cultural practices" (1), using twentieth- and twenty-first-century nomenclature to designate sixteenth-century phenomena. This presentation of early modern practices in modern dress, he acknowledges, risks "a glib contemporaneity" (150). For example, among chapter titles and subtitles one finds "Hamlet's Media Studies," "Shakespeare's Computer," and "Did Shakespeare Study Creative Writing?"—phrases designed "both to invite further reflection on the nature of the practices themselves and also to offer new ways of thinking about their relationship to English as a subject" (2). But this reader, while happy to accept the invitation to reflect further, doesn't get very far: once the early modern commonplace has been called a "soundbite, or memorable fragment of discourse" or the classical rhetoricians designated "spin doctors" (22, 97), the imagination is not necessarily stimulated to forge new, productive connections between now and then. Addressing the question of Tudor schooling, Rhodes concludes that "Shakespeare could not have avoided studying creative writing, assuming that he went to school at all. The end of study was composition and performance. . . . Reading was for writing, criticism was directed towards verbal practice; this was the process impressed upon him" (84). This conclusion is unexceptionable, but it isn't necessary to meddle with nomenclature in order to arrive at it. [End Page 351]

Potential readers should not be put off by such easy collocations of the early modern and modern, however. The ideas denoted by these terms are compelling and important, and the easy analogies are informed by valuable research and impressive analysis. The chapter titled "Both Sides Now" begins by identifying a major strain in twentieth-century Shakespeare criticism, "the dramatic construction of moral ambiguity" (88), suggested first (if such primacy can be assigned at all) by William Empson in the 1920s and later promoted by such critics as A. P. Rossiter, Norman Rabkin, and Graham Bradshaw. It then helpfully traces the genealogy of such interpretation. Rhodes begins with the Hellenistic exercises known as progymnasmata, recorded by Aphthonius, translated into Latin, and delivered to the Elizabethan student by Richard Rainolde in The Foundation of Rhetoric (1563). Examining the early modern phase of this pedagogical tradition, he then treats such exercises as Latin controversiae and suasoriae, the Tudor practice of arguing in utramque partem, the connections between ancient declamation and early English drama, and the emergence of English blank verse. "We will obviously never know how Shakespeare's mind worked, but we can still reconstruct the ways in which his mind may have been trained to work" (98). Such an effort at historical reconstruction is sensible and sensibly developed, the discussion of the continuities between the ancient rhetoricians and their English successors...


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pp. 351-353
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