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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare's Late Style
  • Scott L. Newstok
Russ F. McDonald . Shakespeare's Late Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x + 260 pp. index. $85. ISBN: 0-521–82068-5.

In Shakespeare studies, the idea of lateness calls to mind the romances, and understandably invites speculation on generic categories. Although Russ McDonald [End Page 1044] writes judiciously about genre throughout his study, he approaches late Shakespeare through the neglected, perhaps ultimately elusive, notion of style. In so doing, he makes a lucid attempt to recuperate what has for some time been a problem for literary history. But for isolated articles, notes to editions of the plays (assiduously synthesized by McDonald, himself an experienced editor), and the exception of Patricia Parker (about whom more below), one would be hard pressed to cite a recent study of Shakespeare that proceeds along similar lines. (Gordon McMullan's forthcoming Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing promises to be akin to the more theoretical meditations of Adorno and Said.) McDonald explores this critical lacuna in his introductory chapter, and unapologetically invokes as distant precedents the scattered remarks of earlier figures such as Lamb, Coleridge, and Hazlitt. I would hazard that the closest analogue for such a sustained evaluation of an early modern author's style might be found in Christopher Ricks's Milton's Grand Style (1963), nearly a half century behind us. Moreover, determining stylistic traits in Milton is a different, I think more easily determinate, task than it is in Shakespeare: what in Milton (or Spenser, for that matter) might arguably be a product of deliberation, in Shakespeare more frequently seems a product of his stylistic fecundity.

For as admirably exhaustive as McDonald's volume strives to be — for him, somewhat in the agglomerative spirit of Puttenham, style entails everything from alliteration or punctuation to more general patterns of syntactical order and disorder — it occasionally results in a kind of exhaustion. Citing a passage from Henry VIII (1.1.168–93), McDonald upholds Buckingham's speech, without further examination, as a "showcase for the late Shakespearean style, displaying most of its hyperbatonic properties: intrusions, elliptical phrases, embedded clauses, loose connections among grammatical elements, regular enjambment, numerous light and weak endings, playfulness with caesurae, stops near the end of the line, all this amounting to a kind of jagged music, but music nonetheless" (138). To be fair, there are many other such passages likewise consisting of two dozen or so lines that McDonald does take care to unpack over a series of pages, detailing multiple stylistic properties in a manner both magisterial and eloquent (as "jagged music" here touches upon something quite genuine). Yet it's precisely the vaguely overlapping presence of so many coincidental effects that contributes to the opacity of much of the late verse, and that in turn frustrates the attempt to isolate any one trait within any single passage — a diffusion (which, to his credit, McDonald is at pains to capture) that can resist the intelligence, more than almost successfully. In short, I think McDonald pursues a daunting task. That said, there are few who would be as qualified to undertake it as he is, both in terms of scholarly acumen as well as sensitivity to reading verse, and the resulting study is gracefully pursued. The extent to which this style actually entails a late departure for Shakespeare we must take somewhat on McDonald's word: while chapter 1 does explore Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra as representing a pivotal moment circa 1607, it would require an additional volume (or more) to establish fully the "control group" from which Shakespeare was departing. [End Page 1045]

At one point, McDonald characterizes his book as an "illustrated taxonomy" (32). While I am convinced that it was wise not to organize it more schematically, as a kind of quasi-reference work — in the tradition of Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery (1935) or Sister Miriam Joseph's Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (1947) — at times I still wondered whether the expectations of a monograph led me to anticipate more of an argument than McDonald usually seems willing to deliver. He readily admits a hesitancy along these lines...


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