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268Comparative Drama Dieter Mehl. Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Pp. ? + 272. $39.50. Intended for students and general readers rather than specialists, this volume is a "rather free translation, updated and revised," of a book published in German in 1983 (p. viii). There is also a cheaper paperback version. A brief introductory chapter on "Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy" is followed by a chapter on "The Early Tragedies" (Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet), another on "The 'Great' Tragedies" (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth), and a final catch-all discussion of "Romans and Greeks in Shakespeare's Tragedies" (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus, and more surprisingly Timon of Athens and Troilus and Cressida). Chosen for convenience rather than to serve any overarching thesis, this scheme permits Mehl to develop an interesting distinction between earlier protagonists and Antony and Coriolanus: unlike the former, who are destroyed or corrupted by personified or generalized forces of evil, the Roman heroes combine "heroic greatness . . . with an absolute [and self-destructive] claim to self-determination" (p. 199). Mehl acknowledges his use of the commentary of recent editors and critics in endnotes and has added a briefly annotated "Select bibliography." Mehl devotes about two dozen pages to each of the major plays and somewhat less to the others. Each discussion is self-contained but includes occasional observations about the evolution of Shakespeare's tragic writing and its relationship to the histories. He ignores linguistic concerns, social and intellectual contexts, and (except in passing) performance choices. His essays begin by outlining some of the general issues of the play under discussion and then proceed in a methodical, more or less scene-by-scene fashion to analyze dramaturgy, plot, and character— primarily that of the tragic hero. Mehl focuses on the ways in which Shakespeare presents and explores his protagonists' dilemmas, poses their relationships with their social world, and manipulates the ebb and flow of the audience's sympathy. Mehl's strongest points usually emerge from close study of the plays and their primary narrative sources, as in his illuminating contrast between Shakespeare's and Chaucer's handling of Troilus and Cressida. He uses the same comparative approach to advantage in placing Hamlet beside other revenge tragedies and in juxtaposing the two plots of King Lear. Following Bradley, Mehl defines Shakespeare's tragic vision in aesthetic and emotional rather than philosophical or ideological terms. These plays raise large questions about the nature of evil and the significance of human suffering, but leave "much of the moral evaluation and application to the individual member of his audience" (p. 4). Instead of providing answers to these questions, Shakespeare's tragedies, as Mehl reads them, like those of his contemporaries, elicit the audience's sympathetic engagement in the fate of a hero: "The unmistakable dynamic quality of Elizabethan tragedy comes from the discovery of the individual human character, from a burning interest in its potentialities for good or evil, its corruptibility as well as its exhilirating power to inspire and impress" (p. 5). Reviews269 In writing on specific plays, Mehl protects what he takes to be Shakespeare's deliberate vagueness against the narrowness of doctrinaire approaches—Christian, skeptical, sentimental, moralistic. Romeo and Juliet, he argues, sanctions neither "an attitude of superior moral censoriousness " nor "a triumphant glorification of 'Liebestod'," but should be seen as typical of Shakespeare's "provocative inconclusiveness and . . . unresolved juxtaposition of divergent points of view" (p. 28). In the chapter on Lear, he warns that "the absence of any unequivocal moral lesson" does not signify "arbitrariness or lack of orientation." He affirms the presence of "a general idea of humane behavior implied in the tragedy as a whole" (p. 103), but does not articulate that idea. Mehl's vision of a transcendent Shakespeare beyond the intellectual commitments of his or our time will strike some readers as refreshingly liberal and humane and others as naively ahistorical. The book can serve students as a reliable guide serves novice mountain climbers, one who is thoroughly familiar with the traditional pathways and suspicious of more exciting but riskier approaches. For that very reason, some teachers of Shakespeare may prefer to expose their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 268-269
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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