- The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy ed. by Michael Neill, David Schalkwyk
Recent work on Shakespearean tragedy has critiqued the psychological character criticism championed by A. C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy (1904). Take, for example, Margreta de Grazia’s ‘Hamlet’ Without Hamlet (2007); Linda Wood-bridge’s English Revenge Drama: Money, Resistance, Equality (2010); and Heather Hirschfeld’s End of Satisfaction: Drama and Repentance in the Age of Shakespeare [End Page 135] (2014). The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy, edited by Michael Neill and David Schalkwyk, advances this critical conversation. The volume is diverse in its topics, contributors, and interpretive methods. Its fifty-four essays are cogent and digestible: in an average of fifteen pages, each essay summarizes a key debate in Shakespeare studies—ranging from editorial history, affect theory, and adaptation to ecocriticism, ethics, and queer theory—and then contextualizes that debate in theoretically informed close readings of specific plays.
The collection is divided into five segments: “Genre,” “Textual Issues,” “Reading the Tragedies,” “Stage and Screen,” and (a two-part section) “The Tragedies Worldwide.” By way of general observation, Hamlet and King Lear are ubiquitous in the volume; Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello are substantively covered; Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, and Coriolanus receive less attention by comparison. As the contributors show, all these plays foreground ideas about action, human agency, fortune and misfortune, loss, ethics, disaster (natural, psychological, political, and physical), power, excess (rhetorical, theatrical, and otherwise), revenge, justice and injustice, fear, belief, and doubt. Such a list is but a modest index of keywords that recur throughout this provocative collection.
Considered as a whole, The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy charts at least three distinctive approaches to Shakespearean tragedy. First, the volume is committed to thinking about—and, in some cases, rethinking—what it means to talk about “Shakespearean tragedy” as a genre. Many essays (especially Paul Kottman’s introductory essay, “What is Shakespearean Tragedy?”) examine both how Shakespeare works with tragedy as a genre and how “Shakespearean tragedy” works beyond a defined set of generic conventions, becoming what Kottman (borrowing from Hegel) regards as an “art form” (3) that inspires the sorts of modern and postmodern performances, adaptations, and afterlives examined in the latter parts of the volume. Many essays in the volume (including pieces by Andrew Had-field, Subha Mukherji, Hester Lees-Jeffries, and Pascale Drouet and Nathalie Rivère de Carles) also place Shakespearean tragedy in conversation with other genres, including history plays, satire, romance, and tragicomedy.
The propensity of Shakespearean tragedy to exceed fixed generic conventions and traditional period demarcations informs the volume’s second line of inquiry. Several essays (particularly those in parts 1 and 3) are historicist and treat the plays across a range of temporalities: classical, medieval, early modern, modern, and post-modern. These essays situate Shakespearean tragedy in various Elizabethan and Jacobean contexts, including religion (Peter Lake, Steven Mullaney, Catherine Belsey); race (Ian Smith); language, character, and rhetoric (David Schalkwyk, Emma Smith, Lynne Magnusson); and theories of embodiment, particularly as they relate to an understanding of the natural world (Philip Armstrong, Gail Kern Paster, David Hillman, and Leah S. Marcus). A triad of early essays considers historical “inheritances,” focusing on what Shakespeare’s tragedies appropriate, adapt, and revise from classical and medieval traditions, as well as how they inspired the Romantic-era commentaries that shaped the psychological criticism of Bradley and others. It is worth noting Richard Halpern’s outstanding essay on “The Classical Inheritance,” which questions assumptions about both Greek and Roman influences [End Page 136] on Shakespeare and opens up new considerations, particularly of Seneca. Attention to classical legacies recurs in essays by Tom Bishop, Michael Neill, and Emily Bartels, as well as in many passing commentaries throughout the volume concerning how Shakespearean tragedy departs from Aristotelian conventions.
Part 4, “Stage and Screen,” initiates the volume’s movement from early modern to modern and postmodern afterlives. Here we have a dozen essays on historical...