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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 170-173

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Book Review

Macbeth: Texts and Contexts

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Texts and Contexts

Macbeth: Texts and Contexts. Edited by William C. Carroll. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xxii + 346. Illus. $39.95 cloth.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: Texts and Contexts. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1999. Pp. xx + 394. Illus. $39.95 cloth.

Readers interested in a historicized understanding of Shakespeare's plays will find much to like in the Bedford critical editions of Macbeth by William A. Carroll and of A Midsummer Night's Dream by Gail Kern Paster and Skiles Howard. As the editors make clear in their introductions, their primary aim is to provide historical and discursive contexts for the plays. Without assuming specialized knowledge of English history and society in Shakespeare's day, both editions are designed to invite critical engagement with the plays by including selections from contemporary sources that enrich readers' knowledge of the politics and culture in which the plays participate. The sources are [End Page 170] organized into chapters, with commentary on their thematic relevance and with headnotes and annotations that render them readily accessible to readers. The illustrations--reproductions of woodcuts and title pages, musical scores (Paster and Howard), genealogy charts (Carroll), etc.--capture for readers parts of the period's material culture. The result in each case is a richly textured slice of early modern English culture and history, providing multiple starting points for scholarly inquiry.

While they share a historical interest, the two editions differ in the critical approaches employed, a difference that accounts for their choice of source materials and interpretive strategies. Carroll's new-historicist approach to Macbeth appropriately highlights the play's relevance to James I's succession to the English crown. The bulk of the sources are devoted to making these connections visible, with selections ranging from competing historical narratives of Macbeth and English constructions of Scotland (chapters 1 and 2) to treatises on the topics of sovereignty, treason, and witchcraft (chapters 3, 4, and 5), topics on which James himself had written. The headnotes and commentary are highly illuminating and guide readers through the intricate politics of royal succession and religious reformation. It is fascinating, for example, to see the extent to which contemporary opinions on the royal succession were interwoven with ongoing political maneuverings, so that the play's reference to "the evil" (4.3.147-60) acquires particular salience in connection with James's use of the healing royal touch in establishing his legitimacy as England's ruler (224). Again, in contextualizing representations of Macbeth, the headnotes identify for readers the ideological positions of various historians and the political debates in which their writings intervened. The editorial comments further indicate the political uses to which the narratives of Macbeth were put, including Shakespeare's reshaping of historical materials to his dramatic purposes and Restoration redactions of Shakespeare's play. The effect is to foreground the period's plural conception of history as the basis of an informed skepticism that makes for serious historical inquiry. As Carroll himself makes clear, his "primary purpose" in presenting sources is "so that readers may make their own judgments" (3).

At times, however, the editor's desire not to predispose readers' judgments leaves uncertain how some sources are to be located politically and culturally. The problem is specific to chapter 6 in Carroll's edition of Macbeth, which returns to topics treated in previous chapters from the perspective of their implications for women. The shortest of the book's six chapters, "Discourses of the Feminine" features a relatively small number of sources that focus largely on the maternal and on biological explanations of woman's nature. Although the selections are justified in terms of Macduff's caesarean birth and Lady Macbeth's references to motherhood and unsexing herself, there is room for more extensive discussion of the social context in which these...


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