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466Comparative Drama Ralph Berry. Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1999. Pp. 228. $39.50. Ralph Berry's book about Shakespearean tragedy is not, and does not claim to be, a single sustained argument. It is made up mostly of essays and book chapters published over the years. In his introduction Berry dismisses the traditional overarching ideas that used to preoccupy critics oftragedy (tragic waste, poetic justice) and argues for eclecticism as a necessary method: "One must, I think, change one's guard and mode ofattack for each play" (17). The result is an occasional discontinuity in matters ofdetail: there are discussions ofRichard III and Richard II as actor-kings, but no attempt to link them; when Aufidius taunts Coriolanus as "boy" this has a sexual meaning (passive homosexual) in one chapter and class connotations in another; each reading remains independent . Occasionally a chapter begins with what reads like a reference back to a chapter in a different book, highlighting the discontinuity of this one. Berry offers a few tentative ideas about Shakespeare's development in the Introduction , but does not really follow them through. Yet Tragic Instance is more coherent than this may suggest. Its coherence lies in a distinctive critical voice: brisk, tough, witty and (for this relief much thanks) crystal clear. Berry is a highly individual critic, owing allegiance to no particular school and making only minimal references to the Shakespeare criticism ofthe last twenty years. His master themes, which frequendy intertwine, are politics and theater. His political concerns are not with the politics of Shakespeare's time but with those ofthe twentieth century. At the risk ofanachronism , he thinks through modern analogies: at the end oíHamlet, Horatio is a civil servant ingratiating himselfwith the incoming government; the events of Othello take place in a Governor-General's residence; what Lear wants from Cordelia is not so much a declaration of love as "a vote of thanks, for the record" (146); Menenius's Fable of the Belly anticipates "the trickle-down theory" (201); Timon is "old money" (166). Entertaining and risky, such analogies can mislead; but at their best they give a sharp immediacy to the play. They are, I think, connected implicitly with Berry's interest in Shakespeare production, on which he has published extensively over the years: directors can (and frequently do) make such points in rehearsal to clarify relationships for the actors. Role-playing within the texts is another recurring theme. Berry is especially interested in what may be called the power politics oftheater: Richard of Gloucester as the star condescending to support Buckingham,but actually stealing the scene; Cleopatra making sure the dying Antony does not upstage her. Political failures can be acting failures: Richard III fails because he loses touch .Reviews467 with his audience. Again there are twentieth-century analogies: Cleopatra in her opening lines is playing Noël Coward, and her refusal to perform in Rome is a refusal to play vaudeville. Her versatility is the versatility ofa star who can do both tragedy and comedy. Here and elsewhere Berry is making familiar points in an engaging way. But he can also reject the familiar. Discussing Julius Caesar, he turns away from the traditional modern political analogies (the dictator, the ineffective liberal) to concentrate on the idea of Rome, which he shrewdly describes as a place where people "have fathers, but no children" (82). His typical stance being one ofcool appraisal, Berry keeps away (in some tragedies at least) from the passions and mysteries at the heart of the drama, preferring to read from the sidelines. Seeing in Romeo and Juliet a conflict between Petrarchan and anti-Petrarchan styles, he sides with the latter, which he characteristically calls "the resistance movement" (65). He prefers Mercutio's language to Romeo's and sees the play as finally detached from the lovers. The second of his two chapters on Hamlet examines the communities that lie on the periphery ofthe play, each of which has a distintive signifiance: France for gentlemanly culture , Poland for war, England for destiny and death. His discussion ?? Othello centers on a close account of the class tension...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 466-468
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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