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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 154-157

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Book Review

Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters

Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. By Lynne Magnusson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. x + 221. $59.95 cloth.

In the introduction to her book, Lynne Magnusson expresses surprise at "how few stylistic studies of Shakespeare's work since the emergence of the new historicism have taken up the challenge to relate linguistic texture to social, cultural, and ideological practices and . . . how few historicist studies have found ways to reengage linguistic detail or texture in any sustained way that accords with their theoretical principles and political enterprise" (6). Shakespeare and Social Dialogue thus aims to begin filling this gaping gulf. But it does much more than that. Though unassumingly written and cautiously argued, it has important implications not only for the analysis of Shakespearean and dramatic dialogue in general but also for the current debate over the nature of character in literature and drama. It remaps the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of speech and character by demonstrating in a series of elegant, fine-grained readings the remarkable extent to which the speaking and writing style of authors and characters is determined by a combination of their social positioning and the degree of risk involved in certain speech actions. In a pragmatic approach drawing on three main sources--Brown and Levinson's politeness theory, Bakhtinian dialogism, and Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the linguistic market--Magnusson shows what a broad [End Page 154] band of verbal behavior (and hence of "character 'effects'" [34]) can be predicted by models attentive to the essentially dialogical nature of the word and the person, to the situatedness of verbal interaction, and to the power relations inscribed not only in social rank but in "age, gender, family and household position, occupation, affective bond, sexual interest, financial and other material circumstances" (37) in early modern English society. She thereby goes a step beyond earlier work on dramatic dialogue which has tended to focus "only on the immediate situation of two speakers engaging in interaction and not on the larger social shaping of discourse" (184n).1 Together with modern pragmatic theory, Magnusson draws extensively on epistolary manuals and concrete examples of personal, business, and administrative letters in order to identify Elizabethan discourse genres and interactional modes relevant to the exploration of Shakespeare's language. Even if we cannot hear the Elizabethans speak, she argues, a study of "the written language of social exchange" (3) can tell us a great deal about their socially-situated speech behavior.

Magnusson is nevertheless careful to avoid the extremes of determinism: her clear-eyed demonstration of how much a writer's or a character's speech-style owes to social pressures actually enables her to delineate more sharply--by subtraction--the space that can reasonably be ascribed to individual linguistic creativity or to the individual self. The result is that, in the course of her exploration of Shakespearean examples, she is able not only to challenge and correct a series of authoritative critical interpretations that tend to overplay the autonomy of the individual character but also to reveal some of the more subtle departures from socio-stylistic norms that make up dramatic or literary personality.

Part I outlines a rhetoric of social interaction by bringing to bear Brown and Levinson's politeness model on "the verbal forms of early modern civility" (11). Chapter 1 demonstrates how the "complicated eloquence" (11) of Katherine and Wolsey in Henry VIII derives above all from the political contexts of their interactions. Chapter 2 uses a skillful analysis of the complex, rank-determined rhetoric of a tense exchange of letters between Sir Philip Sidney and his father's secretary, Edmund Molyneux, to throw light on "the language in which Shakespeare's speaker in sonnet 58 answers back his aristocratic friend" (12). The result is a challenge to critics who (like Joel Fineman) hold that Shakespeare, "through his private craftsmanship in language, invents a new language of inwardness or individuated subjectivity in the sonnets...


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