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HUMANITIES 145 through the Spectator. In these essays Joseph Addison taught the public to discern beauties that were 'difficult of access, concealed yet potentially inexhaustible,' turning reading into a socially creditable fashion. For guidance in the pursuit of cultural capital, readers relied increasingly on critics, who legitimated their authority by displays ofexpertise in assessing an author's genius or originality, exposing the riches of a text, or lighting readers the way to judgmentand sensibility. Canonization thus 'wenthand in hand with the institutionalization of reading.' Over time 'poetry' was absorbed into the category of 'literature,' which became a legitimate object of study by the late eighteenth century, though it was not instituted as an academic discipline until 1828. Ross's definition of canon formation is highly elastic: canonicity is discovered to be at stake 'whenever early writers attempted to publicize their activity.' Some might object to this as too broad, but I find more restrictive definitions often to be too obvious or self-serving. Such an open investigation permits Ross to turn a remarkably varied body of evidence to account: poems, prefaces, biographies, anthologies, newspapers, lectures, portraits, periodical essays,library inventories,bibliographical formats, and so on.The result is a thesis, convincingly argued, ofimpressive explanatory force. Even passing analyses of a gerne such as the funeral elegy or a landmark like The Dunciad - not to mention discussions of Shakespeare's apotheosis, the barrierbetweenwomen and their niche in thepantheon, the intellectual strategies of Joseph Warton and Samuel Johnson, and so onare among the most illuminating I've encountered. To my mind this is the mark of a brilliant book, that it sheds light on so many questions both large and smalt theoretical and practical. The product of great care in every way (including an exemplary index, copious endnotes, and meticulous editing), this book is essential to an understanding of canon formation in Britain, but it also should be required reading for historians ofauthorship,literarycriticism, printculture, and the reading public. (THOMAS F. BONNELL) Alexander Leggatt. English Stage Comedy 1490-1990 Routledge. X, 182. $105.00, $34.99 English Stage Comedy 1490-1990 is most welcome as a comprehensive and perceptive survey of perhaps the most extraordinary canon of stage comedy in world literature. Those familiar with earlier books on comedy' by L.e. Potts, Maurice Charney, and Harry Levin will enjoy this addition both to the idea of comedy itself and to our understanding of how comedy builds on the past to create innovation on the British stage. Leggatt notes that comedy is self-conscious; it works through the history and expectations developed by earlier stage comedy. Even so innovative and unique a play- 146 LETTERS IN CANADA 1998 wright as Joe Orton shows the influence such earlier playwrights as Congreve , Sh~ridan, and Wilde. Certainly comedy springs from specific historical and cultural situations, but it is largely influenced by expectations of an audience aware of the long tradition of stage comedy. Although his title promises a discussion of English stage comedy from 1490 to 1990, Leggattconcentrates heavily on the earlier comedy, especially that of Jonson, Shakespeare, the Restoration playwrights, Sheridan, and Wilde. Since stage comedy depends so greatly on the practices of stage production and acting traditions, I was somewhat surprised to find Leggatt's discussion so heavily founded on dramatic literature as opposed to comedy in performance. Leggatt's Shakespeare is firmly founded in the text, but even a quick glance at today's stage and cinema shows the versatility and range of possible production. The cinema especially has expanded the bOW1daries of drama, with definitive versions of Much Ado about Nothing and the just released A Midsummer Night's Dream - excellent examples of innovation through performance. But this seemingly self-imposed limitation - reading plays as if they were novels - has a great strength: Leggatt's discussion goes beyond the boundaries of theatre for more general applications to comedy in whatever form. When he talks of comic types, such as the misanthrope and trickster, his discussion throws light on comic fiction or poetry, indeed on nonliterary uses such as the cartoon. He discusses the perennial problems of love and marriage, the clash of the generations, the criticism of society, and his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 145-146
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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