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  • The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists ed. by Ton Hoenselaars
  • Jessica Slights (bio)
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists. Edited by Ton Hoenselaars. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2012. Pp. xxii + 298. $94.00 cloth, $30.99 paper.

These essays share a commitment to focusing critical attention on the considerable literary output of the many men who wrote regularly for the early modern stage. Designed both to support introductory work on the drama and to prompt more expert conversation within the discipline, this slender but comprehensive volume provides new readers and those already familiar with the period’s central texts and players a great deal of useful information, as well as some new ways of thinking about early modern theatrical culture.

The volume is organized chronologically, beginning with an account of the contributions of John Lyly and the University Wits (Arthur F. Kinney) and ending with a discussion of Caroline playwright Richard Brome (Heather Hirschfeld). The period’s celebrities, both traditional and more recent, are represented, of course—Thomas Kyd (Clara Calvo), Shakespeare and Jonson (Warren Chernaik), Middleton (Michelle O’Callaghan)—but so are lesser-known figures such as George Chapman (Paul Franssen) and Philip Massinger (Rui Carvalho Homem). Each essay provides current biobibliographical information, and a number offer focused readings of individual texts, as well as broader analysis of the theatrical output of the playwrights they discuss. Robert Henke’s contribution, for instance, provides an overview of John Webster’s “satiric, ironic, perspectivally unstable and sceptical plays” (187) and a succinct but compelling reading of The Duchess of Malfi as a play that “thematises the divide between private and public consciousness” (191). While some of the essays are content to review long-standing critical debates, others propose new approaches. In his engaging attempt to “re-brand” John Marston, for example, Matthew Steggle resists earlier accounts of the satirist as a lonely misanthrope, instead presenting him as a well-connected university man, a “sophisticated, collaborative, creative literary professional,” fully embedded in the theatrical culture of his day (80). Similarly, Catherine Henze seeks to rescue the collaborative drama of Beaumont and Fletcher from accusations of sensationalism, arguing that what she calls their “musical melodrama” (149) ought to be recognized for their political, as well as aesthetic, dimensions.

Taken together, the sixteen essays in this collection—all newly commissioned by established scholars from the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe—offer a richly textured account of early modern theatrical culture from the early [End Page 219] 1580s through 1640. The mosaic that emerges is of a lively literary scene shaped by constant collaborative innovation. Indeed, it is this exploration of collaboration—of working together in partnership, mentorship, communal enterprise of all sorts—that sets Shakespeare and Contemporary Dramatists apart from earlier collections. There is little here of the excited polemic that marked David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass’s Staging the Renaissance (1991) as a central text in the establishment of materialist criticism, but Hoenselaars’s collection exerts a firm pressure on readers to acknowledge the complex ways in which early modern theatrical texts are marked by the many people and forces that participated in their production. We encounter conventional authorial partnerships, as well as the contributions of printers, actors, and audiences, but our attention is consistently drawn to other less obvious modes of collaboration, including literary influence, posthumous revision, commercial partnership, and professional networking. London appears throughout the volume not simply as a site of theatrical production, lively source of dramatic inspiration, and symbol of bullish urbanity, but as an active participant in the making of theater. Theatrical spaces, too, appear as collaborators shaping dramatic texts through their limits and possibilities and ensuring that both performances of and responses to lesser-known plays are essential to our active collaboration with them, as Elizabeth Schafer argues in the volume’s final essay.

The collection’s commitment to the idea of collaboration is also the means by which it gracefully incorporates discussions of Shakespeare, the theatrical elephant in the room. In his centrally placed essay “Shakespeare: Colleagues, Collaborators, Co-Authors,” Hoenselaars argues that rather than displace the period’s best-known playwright from the “Parnassian...


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