What I’m reading: why, another Shakespeare book, of course! “The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare”

I just finished The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (Margreta DeGrazia & Stanley Wells, eds.; Cambridge UP, 2010). This medium-sized companion is a good overview of the basics, and would definitely be useful for a school/uni library or on the shelf of any Shakespeare enthusiast. The chapters include a biography of the man by Stephen Greenblatt and a look at the theatres of early modern London by Tiffany Stern, as well as discussions of textual theories and other literary concerns such as Shakespeare’s writing process and how his works came to print. There are chapters on the various genres of the plays, including one on the comedies by Stanley Wells. Discussions of how race, religion, and gender resonate through Shakespeare’s plays are included, as are chapters on Shakespeare and the media, popular culture, global Shakespeare, and Shakespeare in performance. The final chapter is filled with suggestions for further reading and online exploration of Shakespeare in general.

By way of example, in Claire McEachern’s chapter, “Shakespeare, religion and politics,” one section addresses questions of interiority, transformation, and individual action (194-195). The entire chapter is interesting, but I found her short examination of these particular questions especially thought-provoking. When interiority differs from practice, how is this presented on stage? Does performance affect interiority? Do words? Her answers look at Hamlet, Prince Hal, boy actors in female roles, and the dynamic between Iago/Othello, Claudio/Hero, and Rosalind/Orlando. For me, these few paragraphs considering of depth of character as opposed to visual array stood out from the rest of the piece.

The following complete chapters were also standouts (in my humble opinion):

Anthony Dawson, “Shakespeare on the stage” – an interesting look at the physicality inherent in Shakespeare’s texts, such as directed movement, gesture, and stance. He also discusses staging and scenery and how they intersect with the actor and character, as well as how the architecture of the stage contributes to performance.

Jonathan Gil Harris, “Shakespeare and race” – Harris looks at the complexities of race in the texts, how “race” as a word has variable meanings, and its use. His chapter explores “race” in not just Othello, but also examines how it runs through Anthony and Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice. (I highly recommend this chapter.)

Stephen Orgel, “Shakespeare, sexuality and gender” – Orgel examines sexuality as it pertains to maturity, gender identity, and marriage in early modern England and Shakespeare’s plays in particular. His findings are intriguing and surprising, and the chapter is an excellent read. Plays treated by Orgel include Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet; he also presents cultural and medical beliefs from the period, as well as historical anecdote and legend. (This is another I highly recommend.)

Last but not least, the final chapter on further reading is impressive. Page after page is filled with suggestions for further research on everything from the complete works to stage history to music, including books, journals, and online sources. This catalog of information, along with the bibliography provided at the end of each chapter, gives the student or Shakespeare enthusiast a plethora of ways to increase their knowledge (or just skim around for the enjoyment of it). This overall abundance of sources alone is worth the price of the volume.



What I’m reading: “Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre”

(Wow! Two posts in two weeks. Don’t get spoiled, this is likely to be an anomaly.)

I read a lot, and I mean A LOT. Most of the books I read are primary and secondary texts – not much popular stuff. (I’m a pretty boring conversationalist, unless you’re into early modern drama.) I’ll put up some info on what I’m reading, in case you might have an interest. I don’t intend these posts to be a review by any stretch of the imagination, or a complete recounting of the entire book – just a little taste to whet your appetite. Here’s my latest adventure:


Stage Directions and Shakespearean Theatre
Eds. Sarah Dustagheer & Gillian Woods
Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2018

This is an interesting little volume. I was intrigued by the promise of a closer look at stage directions, and it did not disappoint – I learned many things about the seemingly innocuous “stage direction,” and found the various examinations of them to be thorough, expansive, and highly informative. Contributors included Tiffany Stern, Paul Menzer and Jess Hamlet, Emma Smith, Terri Bourus, and Sarah Lewis.

I’ll quickly touch on some of the discussions I found most notable:

Who actually wrote stage directions? Surprisingly enough, the editors argue in their introduction (as does Tiffany Stern in her chapter) stage directions were not always written by the playwright. There is no definite answer offered for the question, but it is posited that they may have been intended for “backstage” personnel such as prompters, and of course, added by subsequent editors (41).

Are stage directions literary? Emma Smith makes a good case for this, citing instances such as Shakespeare’s referring to Othello as “the moor” (rather than by name) in only a handful of directions – and those being ones gesturing to his sexual relationship with Desdemona. These are things spectators of a play would be unaware of, yet the reader finds in them an underlying suggestion of the stereotype of the “sexual or violent” other. (94-95)

Are they for actors or readers? Well, see the example above, for starters. Also, Douglas Bruster finds that often stage directions include descriptive elements that actors would already know, such as family relationships (sister, brother, etc), location information, and elaborate description of attire. He also finds that some directions appear to be carefully worded so as to include puns and homographs (132-33).

When should editors step in and add them? Are they necessary – and aren’t any added directions simply a directorial choice, as we normally have no written record of how a scene is played? We can assume how a scene may have been played, based on the text, but we don’t really know. Terri Bourus addresses this thorny question, and explores why, how, and when editors should make the choice to add them. She also examines stage directions and how they may be affected by spatial placement on the page.

The book has many discussions on dumb shows – the possible reasons for including them, how they relate to stage directions in general (are they the *real* stage directions?), how they should be interpreted. There are also sections on dead bodies on stage – their “discovery” and what it means metaphysically and theatrically. There are chapters focused on The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil, and Macbeth. I enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading further on the intricacies and paradoxes that are stage directions. Who knew there could be so much to learn about the staging notes we see scattered throughout a play? Like so much else in early modern drama, there is more to them than meets the eye.