John M. Mucciolo, Editor. Assisted by Steven J. Doloff and Edward A. Rauchut. Shakespeare’s Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions (Essays in Honour of W.R. Elton). Hampshire and Vermont: Scolar P, 1996. xii + 292 pp. ISBN 1 85928 193 1 Cloth.
Steve Cirrone
Center for Higher Education

Cirrone, Steve. "Review of Shakespeare’s Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions (Essays in Honour of W.R. Elton)." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 13.1-4 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_cirr.html>.

  1. Shakespeare’s Universe is a selection of essays gathered together under five categories to honour the late Shakespeare scholar-critic William R. Elton, the categories being "Shakespeare, Politics and Religion," "Shakespeare and Gender," "Shakespeare and Staging," "Shakespeare and Language" and "Shakespeare and Criticism." Each category is made up of three to six essays, most of which make intriguing, though at times tenuous, critiques of various aspects of Renaissance literary history. According to the editor, the text’s collective critical spirit stems from a central document of Shakespeare criticism, Johnson’s Preface (1768), but I fail to see the document itself or its spirit playing any major role here. What is evident, however, is that most of the essays endeavour to construct their arguments according to the tenets of new historicism. The preface states that each essay attempts to challenge the practical application of certain Renaissance "truths" or universals by examining the microstructures (historical nuances) present in the individual and culture. The volume’s preface also promises that the essays collectively set out to fashion the broader implication that "universal appeal cannot result from mere generality; rather, it must equally feed off the natural which, in turn, must exist primarily at the level of textual or individual specificity." This implication has the sound of intelligence yet, unfortunately, what is meant by "the natural" is left unclear both in the preface and throughout the entire volume.

  2. Additionally, since the text’s scope seems somewhat ambitious for one volume, the essays collected herein do little but scratch the surface of the subject of each category. And although the title and categorical organization of the text plainly states that a strong Shakespeare-based thread connects the essays in the volume, none of the essays deals exclusively with the historical contextualization of Shakespeare’s work, and others barely mention Shakespeare at all. Additionally, few of the essays included in this volume actually make use of the historicist arguments laid bare in Elton’s monumental work, King Lear and the Gods. Such incongruity results in a text of insightful scholarly materials collected under an umbrella title, leaving one to wonder what exactly the standard for submission and acceptance must have been. Perhaps there is an intrinsic problem in a labour of love such as this: any one text that sets out to praise a scholarly giant such as Elton is bound to come up thin.

  3. This is not to say that the essays themselves are all without critical merit. Despite the rather inconsonant complexity of the text, several essays in this volume stand as works of genuine critical insight in and of themselves. Of particular interest is the essay by George Walton Williams, "Hamlet and the Dread Commandment," which rephrases Hamlet’s traditional indecisiveness into a textually based argument for seeing Hamlet’s agonizing as a representation of the political and social ramifications of the plight of a son who challenges the direct commandment of his father. Williams delicately and intelligently constructs his argument by comparing Hamlet’s decision-making process with those of Laertes and Fortinbras. (All three have been given injunctions by a father or father-figure.) Also recommended is the essay by T.H. Howard-Hill, "U and Non-U: Class and Discourse Level in Othello," which examines in somewhat Marxist fashion the way in which the linguistic differences between Cassio and Iago suggest that class remains the single most defining relationship between them and that class-clash must be considered to be part of the motivation for Iago’s consuming distemper. Howard-Hill’s judicious and historically specific essay sheds new light on the motivations of an enigmatic Iago that may indeed be a figure attempting to fight for, from Iago’s perspective, social justice.

  4. Of the other twenty-one essays collected in this volume, "‘A Liberal Tongue’: Language and Rebellion in Richard II," by David Norbrook, and "Perspective in Troilus and Cressida," by Francois Laroque, also deserve special mention, not only for their intellectual power to persuade -- though this too is evident -- but also for their adequacy in questioning the known universe of Shakespeare by a close examination of certain historical influences found in the texts themselves. Just as important, both Norbrook's and Laroque's approaches to their subject matters fit nicely with most of the promises of the volume as outlined in Mucciolo's introduction. And in the volume as a whole, many of the essays do try very hard to persuade the reader through the sheer power of well-written arguments; but I would caution the reader in closing by saying also that a number of these essays fumble through or overlook plausible historical grounds for argumentation in favour of using an abundance of critical jargon.
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(RGS, 30 March 1998)