Dutton,Richard and Jean E. Howard, eds. A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Volume III: The Comedies. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. x+464pp. ISBN 1 405 10730 8.

Todd M Lidh
Flagler College

Lidh, Todd. "Review of Dutton, Richard and Jean E. Howard, eds. A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Volume III: The Comedies." Early Modern Literary Studies 11.2 (September, 2005) 11.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-2/revlidh.html>.

  1. This collection of essays, containing 22 of the 90 total across a four-volume set, presents itself as "scholars addressing fellow scholars" (2). As such, Dutton and Howard have brought together a range of authors to discuss Shakespeare's comedies, and the essays do demand a certain level of comfort and familiarity with both the primary texts in question and largely recent scholarship. Additionally, one would be well-served with an interest in pop culture and movies - especially Shakespeare in Love, a film represented more frequently in the index than Toby Belch, Jaques and Shylock. The editors wish to "showcase the best of current work rather than to advocate for any particular critical or theoretical perspective" (3); indeed, the scope of essays is welcomingly wide, to include historical, feminist, material, semiotic, cultural and a variety of other approaches.

  2. The early essays in the present volume consider the comedies in general, each taking its slice of theoretical pie. A sampling of titles - "Shakespeare's Festive Comedies," "Shakespeare's Crossdressing Comedies" and "Shakespeare's Comic Geographies" - should convey the editors' attempt at broad coverage, and many of these initial essays serve as both general introduction and an opportunity to present some challenges to accepted critical thought. Julie Crawford, for example, discusses "The Homoerotics of Shakespeare's Elizabethan Comedies," but she emphasizes the female homoerotic, which often "is assumed not to exist at all" (146); Francois Laroque, however, contrasts the festive in Shakespeare - including games and clowns - by describing Ben Jonson's efforts as "pedantic" and "elitist," hardly a useful approach from one scholar to another. Other contributors tread better-known ground, including Lloyd Davis' treatment of classical rhetorical theories of "comic" and "dramatic" and Janette Dillon's discussion of traditions and English comedy, particularly focusing on the Robin Hood stories.

  3. The final ten essays deal with one play each: the comedies arranged in chronological order of composition, beginning with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and concluding with Twelfth Night. None of these contributions should be considered a general analysis of its focal play; rather, these scholars utilize the specific work at hand to develop many of the ideas and theories presented earlier in the volume. Additionally, such narrowly-focused treatments allow each author to sift through and combine details, dialogue and stage directions with historical documents, cultural trends and contemporary publications. For example, Benedick and Beatrice "refashion" themselves both literally and figuratively; As You Like It reveals public anxiety over the fall, rise and fall of the Earl of Essex; Katherine and Petruchio's declamations are designed to aggravate an audience of females and males; and the aural elements of Twelfth Night are endemic to the play's political meaning. Such exercises enliven these familiar plays, encouraging the reader to consider them as fresh and immediate.

  4. One element of the collection that troubles this reviewer, however, is the frequency of self-citation. All but four authors include a previous work of their own, most including multiple works. As such, many essays which begin as helpful or provocative forays into a theory, a play or an individual character can feel a touch self-trumpeting. Certainly, these citations are surrounded by scholars both past and present, but the regularity of such referencing is distracting.

  5. In execution, this volume is an admirable joining of newer scholarship with broad coverage. No play is under-represented, and a reader comes away from this collection activated with new ideas about almost every comedy. Dutton and Howard achieve a remarkable balance between the general and the specific, and they accomplish their stated goal of incorporating essays that "open to a larger world of scholarship" (3). Minor reservations aside, A Companion to Shakespeare's Works, Volume III: The Comedies would serve upper-level undergraduates and newer graduates students well, by introducing them to diligent and sometimes challenging scholarship that remains grounded in the words and works of Shakespeare.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).