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  • Shakespeare's Webs: Networks of Meaning in Renaissance Drama
  • Bridget Gellert Lyons
Arthur F. Kinney . Shakespeare's Webs: Networks of Meaning in Renaissance Drama. New York: Routledge, 2004. 168 pp. index. illus. $95 (cl), $28.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-415-97102-0 (cl), 0-415-97103-9 (pbk).

The theoretical grounding for Professor Kinney's ambitious new book is modern cognitive science. This seems an appropriate avenue for the study of Renaissance drama, since it shares an important assumption with Renaissance psychology: both postulate the interdependence of mind and body. Obviously today's cognitive studies, tracing perception and meaning-making to neurons and synapses, would have been incomprehensible in earlier times and, frankly, they are not easy for the nonspecialist to grasp now. But Professor Kinney does not belabor [End Page 1318] his theoretical underpinnings beyond his introduction and a short return at the end of the book. His main point, a highly accessible one, is that material objects that may seem ordinary to us had particular histories, physical attributes, and uses in their own time, and that they are therefore intimately connected to certain patterns of meaning in plays.

Professor Kinney's focal objects — mirrors, clocks, books, and maps — are often present in the plays as stage props, but they are also embedded in their language. Though he offers several dramatic examples in each case, each chapter focuses especially on one or two key scenes. The chapter on mirrors concentrates mostly on Richard II, especially the climactic scene where Richard asks for a mirror during his abdication, smashes it, and finds wholly different, cataclysmic meanings in the event than the more practical Bolingbroke does. In the Renaissance, the multivalent and often contradictory meanings of mirrors — accuracy, vanity, distortion — were related to the varieties of mirrors available, from convex steel plaques to the newer and expensive ground-glass looking-glasses that only the wealthy could afford. In fact, Professor Kinney shows that it was the "steel glass" that was reputed to be the more honest reflector, even if the looking-glass gave the more accurate resemblance. There is, therefore, a coded meaning in the exchange between the present and future king: when Richard's request for a mirror becomes Bolingbroke's agreement to get a looking-glass, presumably Richard's interpretations have a kind of truth even if Bolingbroke's refer more accurately to physical reality.

The meanings of the other objects Professor Kinney considers were also related to their various forms, the occasions when they were used, and the economic status of the users. In each of his explorations he refers to wide-ranging contextual materials including literary and historical sources, paintings, and emblem books. Though clocks were ubiquitous in Shakespeare's period, more natural measures of time — the sun, the seasons — still represented a more common framework for many, and the references to orbs and hourglasses were never as purely metaphorical as they now seem. Spatial representation and geography gain resonance from the many examples of Renaissance cartography, ranging from national and global maps to detailed representations of cites and country estates, as well as from evidence of the popularity of map reading. The plays offer abundant evidence of Shakespeare's involvement, from the staged maps in Lear and 1 Henry IV, to the embodiment of all parts of the British Isles in the person of Henry V, the banishment of the French ladies from the courtiers' domain in Love's Labor's Lost, and the global reach of The Tempest.

Perhaps the least successful chapter is the one on books, simply because the material is too varied and abundant to be dealt with in a short chapter. Books as physical objects on the stage become conflated with the innumerable kinds of importance, and social and religious use, that books carried — included are their physical appearance and typography, their contents, and reception. Ophelia's faked appearance with a prayer book, for example, becomes the focus of discussion about Puritan family prayers and female literacy, topics that the context of the scene does [End Page 1319] not necessarily activate. But despite objections that one might raise to specific examples, Professor Kinney's book is richly suggestive about...


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