Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 455-457
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Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Edited by Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Illus. Pp. xxvi + 713. $24.95 paper.
At first glance it would seem that with Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide Stanley Wells has gone into competition with himself, since he is also coeditor with Margreta de Grazia of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (2001). At second glance, while the Cambridge and Oxford volumes target largely the same audience with the same means—aiming to be sufficiently accessible in style and basic in content to help beginning Shakespeare students (or a curious general public) while remaining of interest in some areas even to the professional scholar—the Oxford Guide also breaks new ground and carves out its own market niche. [End Page 455]
Why the editors felt the need for two tables of contents (one short, one long) escapes me, but they do helpfully split up the Oxford Guide's nearly 700 pages into four parts or general topics: "Shakespeare's life and times," "Shakespearian genres," "Shakespeare criticism," and "Shakespeare's afterlife." The first section offers new essays on what might be called the usual suspects: biography, theater (physical space, audiences for both the Globe and Blackfriars), significant features of the theatrical landscape (fellow dramatists, theatrical conventions), and Shakespeare's own use of language and verse. In keeping with current theoretical emphases, the Oxford Guide offers expanded treatment of the general cultural context—not just "The society of Shakespeare's England" but also chapters on daily life, religion, love, sex and marriage; ideas of order; and Shakespeare's view of ethnic and racial foreigners. This "life and times" section is itself quite generous (164 pages), but it is in Parts II and III that the OxfordGuide becomes a teaching resource in ways other literary Baedekers do not even attempt: all nine chapters of Part II (155 pages) are devoted to the genres in which Shakespeare wrote and, in Part III, another thirteen to critical approaches (247 pages). Each chapter on a genre or a critical method includes an appended interpretation or "Reading" of a play in terms of that chapter's subject. This structure ensures an immediate concrete illustration of the initial, rather abstract overview and, because of the chapters' relative brevity, makes it possible to assign several chapters in order to initiate discussion of different, mutually enriching ways to analyze a Shakespeare play. It also provides specific discussion of a goodly portion—sixteen plays—of the canon (though it does slight both early histories and late tragedies).
One must be prepared for (and might even use to pedagogical advantage) Part II's somewhat quirky and unexpected approach to genre. It underscores the problems inherent in differentiating by genre in this period, problems certainly exacerbated by Shakespeare's unruly inventiveness. Modern critics have of course created more restrictive categories, but the further one pushes beyond Heminges and Condell's comedy/history/tragedy, the more one seems to encourage a potentially endless taxonomic proliferation. Having passed the major demarcation of nondramatic and dramatic (which allows Lynne Magnusson's excellent chapter titled "Non-dramatic poetry" to find a logical home in this section), then the Folio's tripartite division (chapters 16, 17, and 18), there seems no necessary reason to stop at chapter 23. Why not "Revenge tragedies"? "Comedies-in-which-a-girl-disguises-as-a-young-man"? We frequently do group these plays, at least in our teaching.
Part II holds other surprises. While Shakespeare notoriously combines elements of each major genre, one does not expect a separate "Comical and tragical" chapter, though this title turns out to be rather misleading. If not "Problem plays" here, why not "Satirical comedies," especially since there is already a subdivision for "Romantic comedies"? Or, another genre recognizable to Shakespeare's contemporaries, "Tragicomedies"? Technically such a chapter would include both problem plays and romances, but it might have made for a more coherent discussion to have treated the late plays as a revaluation of the hybrid form Shakespeare had experimented with at the beginning of the century (as...