- Shakespeare and His Contemporaries by Jonathan Hart
It is easy to embrace Jonathan Hart’s Shakespeare and His Contemporaries as a valuable resource in the realm of Shakespeare scholarship. The breadth of Hart’s background as a Shakespeare scholar is evident in the thoughtful and detail-driven evidence he examines. He breathes new life into the viewpoint that history and drama are never static and await reinterpretation.
This book definitively promotes Hart’s premise of “decentering” (1) Shakespeare in his own time. He uses historical narrative as context for appreciating the complex role that Shakespeare played in the theatrical landscape of Elizabethan England. Hart thoroughly establishes the importance of Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, who likely influenced Shakespeare’s writing before and during the time he began to earn public accolades. To quote Hart, “The power of Marlowe’s dramatic language is another way of remembering that Shakespeare lived among great contemporaries and that the drama of Renaissance England and English Literature would be remarkable without Shakespeare” (6). Hart celebrates the central position Shakespeare’s writing has attained in both historical and dramatic written history through effective analysis of Shakespeare’s body of work.
In chapter 1, a thorough review of history during and after Shakespeare’s lifetime is informative regarding both the struggles and eventual expansion of England’s influence. Hart discusses not only those countries gaining global power in the late sixteenth century but also the tenuous position of Elizabethan England. Shakespeare’s England had not yet attained its status as a world power, and the English language was not central to international trading communities. Hart succinctly explains how Spain was the dominant player in Europe’s expansion until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and connects the growth of the slave trade to Spain’s gradual decline. He clearly communicates how European countries used skewed facts regarding Spain’s participation in the slave trade when translating documents about expansion and colonization into English, French, and other languages.
In chapters 2 and 3, Hart underlines and contextualizes the significance of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, particularly Marlowe and Greene. In comparing these two men’s bodies of work with Shakespeare’s, Hart reminds us that Marlowe was murdered at the age of twenty-nine, and Greene died at thirty-five. Shakespeare’s longevity gave him twenty-plus years to generate additional [End Page 294] works. Even so, Marlowe has been credited by Algernon Swinburne as being “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse” (187). Hart concurs that without a Marlowe there might not have been a Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare’s First Folio was divided into the headings of tragedies, comedies, and histories, a number of Shakespeare’s plays now considered romances were categorized as comedies. Hart constructs a strong case for the category of romances as a valuable critical tool. He not only examines how Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (ca. 1610) must be viewed as a romance but connects this argument to Greene’s Pandosto, The Triumph of Time (1588), which served as a direct source for The Winter’s Tale. Hart scrutinizes Pandosto in its own right as a romance. He states that “Greene wrote romance in a well-established critical and poetic context that justified the ways of romance to those who admired Aristotle and the ancient views of literature” (64).
In chapter 4, Hart goes further in his discussion of comedy and romance by succinctly defining two aspects of Renaissance comedy as “romantic pastoral” and “satirical comedy.” He deeply analyzes Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido (1590), Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599) and Twelfth Night (1600–1601), and especially Calderón’s No hay burlas con el amor as his examples of romantic pastoral comedy. Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1607) and Molière’s Tartuffe (1664) are dissected as the prime examples of satirical comedy. When comparing these two aspects of comedy, Hart analyzes what uniquely defines these plays as comedic while also examining their historicity.
In chapter 5’s...