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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare and Historical Formalism
  • Scott L. Newstok (bio)
Shakespeare and Historical Formalism. Edited by Stephen Cohen. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. x + 242. $99.95 cloth.

A yearning for renewed attention to the “formal” properties of early modern literature has been expressed often in recent scholarship. Shakespeare and Historical Formalism would thus appear to arrive at a propitious moment. The collection is divided into two sections of four essays each. In part 1, “Historicizing Form,” Douglas Bruster argues for “The Materiality of Shakespearean Form”; the next two pieces are reprints, one of a 2003 Modern Language Quarterly essay by Jean E. Howard (“Shakespeare, Geography, and the Work of Genre on the Early Modern Stage”), and the other excerpted from Heather Dubrow’s 1999 Shakespeare and Domestic Loss (“‘I would I were at home’: Representations of Dwelling Places and Havens in Cymbeline”). Christopher Cobb concludes this section with “Storm versus Story: Form and Affective Power in Shakespeare’s Romances.”

Part 2, “Re-forming History,” includes Marissa Greenberg’s “Crossing from Scaffold to Stage: Execution Processions and Generic Conventions in The Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure”; Nicholas Moschovakis’s subtle “Partial Views: Literary Allusion, Teleological Form, and Contingent Readings in Hamlet”; R. L. Kesler’s “Formalism and the Problem of History: Sonnets, Sequence, and the Relativity of Linear Time”; and Mary Janell Metzger’s “Teaching Shakespeare and the Uses of Historical Formalism.” Readers familiar with Mark David Rasmussen’s edited collection Renaissance Literature and Its Formal Engagements [End Page 523] (2002) will recognize overlapping contributors (Cohen, Bruster, and Dubrow), as well as other echoes (such as concluding with a pedagogically oriented piece).

Cohen’s introduction lays out the volume’s purpose, making claims for the consolidation of an approach to criticism. On the whole, his position is appealing; if asked to commit to a rubric for much scholarship that I admire in the field, “historical formalism” seems an inviting candidate. Yet what is the precise utility of this new phrase? Cohen seems to present historical formalism as at once ambitious (the genuine claimant to the new historicist mantle) and oddly noncontentious: “enmeshed in a web of institutional and cultural as well as social and political histories, literary forms are overdetermined by their historical circumstances and thus multiple and variable in their results, neither consistently ideological nor inherently demystificatory but instead reacting unpredictably with each other and with other cultural discourses. The goal of a historical formalism is to explore the variety of these interactions, mutually implicating literature’s formal individuation and its historical situation in order to illuminate at once text, form, and history” (3). There’s a mode of cautiousness here, at the sentence level and in the larger argument. Cohen envisions this approach to serve as both an elaboration of new historicism (indeed, redeeming its unpaid promise) and a correction. This concentration on New Historicism overlooks the many alternative approaches taken in the last thirty years of Shakespeare criticism; one would imagine that historical formalism ought to intersect rewardingly with any of these approaches, rather than to identify its inheritance as deriving so narrowly.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Greenblatt, a subtextual presence for the entire volume, looms over Cohen’s introduction, which to a large extent follows Greenblatt’s own self-described intellectual paths. Fixing on Greenblatt almost gives the introduction a feeling of retrenchment (even at the level of troping New Historicism’s early predilection for chiasmus). In addition, it occludes the intellectual milieu from which Greenblatt emerged. Strong antecedents such as Jameson (and, to a lesser extent, Georg Lukács) are evoked throughout the volume, but it’s more often than not a gesture in service of validation, rather than a genuine reengagement with an “important Marxist historical and ideological account of form” (as the “Further Reading” list summarizes Jameson’s Political Unconscious [209]). As Dubrow quips, “Jameson’s analyses of romance would appear to have made the world of genre safe for Marxism” (70). Other Marx-inflected critics who have explored the historical significance of literary form are less fully considered: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Kenneth Burke, Lucien Goldmann, Antonio Gramsci, or Raymond Williams.

The contributions to Shakespeare and Historical Formalism deploy a notion...


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