Keith Brown. Sightings: Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Erik Tonning. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2008. 270pp.  ISBN 978 3 03911 412 2.

W. L. Godshalk
University of Cincinnati

W. L. Godshalk. "Review of Keith Brown. Sightings: Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Erik Tonning." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>.

  1. Eric Tonning has judiciously collected, introduced, and edited thirteen of Keith Brown's interrelated essays, here divided into two major parts. Part 1 deals largely with Shakespeare, and especially with Hamlet. Part 2 is concerned with various topics from the title page of Leviathan to the structure of Lawrence Durrell's The Revolt of Aphrodite which, according to Brown, is early modern in form and manner. Only Part 1 will be discussed in this review.

  2. In his first essay, Brown distinguishes between "moral quality" (i.e. the "world" of the play) and "moral content" (i.e. the "action" of the play). The moral quality of Hamlet, Brown contends, "is in many ways best understood as essentially a function, not of the plot, but of the play's formal properties taken in the widest possible sense." From this point of view, Hamlet is "the embodiment of a static pattern (i.e., a world) rather than an unfolding one (i.e., an action)" (28). In any case Plot and World may be regarded as "opposite ends of one sliding scale" (21).

  3. In essay two, "'Form and Cause Conjoin'd': Hamlet and Shakespeare's Workshop," Brown carefully traces symmetries throughout the play. He is centrally interested in the "idea of the sovereign mid-point" (40) and with Hamlet's "double-centered structure." If we count the number of scenes in the play, the closet scene is central; counting the line numbers, the Mouse-trap is central. Brown notes that counting line numbers in a play with prose passages and broken lines is problematic. Nevertheless he argues that the closet scene (3.4.) is the sovereign centre of the play. The ghost of the true king Hamlet marks this centre.

  4. The following essay, "Polonius, and Fortinbras: and Hamlet?" has three main sections. Part 1 argues that Polonius was modeled on Henrik Ramel, usually called Ramelius, a principal secretary to King Christian of Denmark. Brown feels that Shakespeare would have had a hard time convincing an early seventeenth century Englishman that the "echo was not, in some sense, consciously intended" (59). In any case, the Ramelius explanation suggests that the playgoer should take "a wider view of the tragedy as a whole" (62). In the second part of this essay, Brown argues that Shakespeare meditated on the "whole idea of sixteenth century Denmark as it presented itself to the outside world" (63). More than in most of his plays, in this one Shakespeare "creates a world" (63). It is difficult to "avoid the conclusion that [ . . .] prior historical reflections [in Shakespeare's mind] are forming and shaping Shakespeare's work" (64). Part 3 of Brown's essay mentions in passing that "Fortinbras" is a play on "Armstrong" (71), and quickly suggests the possibility that Fortinbras was modeled on Duke Magnus, a celebrated black sheep of the Danish court who died in 1583. 

  5. Essay four is inescapably repetitious, says Brown, because "in Hamlet, everything correlates" (77).  Brown is interested in Hamlet's place on early modern maps such as those of Mercator and Ortelius, which, according to Brown, could be seen as source-material for Hamlet. Elsinore is to the Baltic, as Rome is to the Mediterranean. Danish kings could close or open the Baltic at will, and the English, for various reasons, took a keen interest in Danish politics. Brown comments, "the map does afford a kind of pleasing 'emblem' of a major aspect of the play. And, like any other emblem, it is one which it can be instructive to contemplate" (109).

  6. In his most intricate and compelling essay, "Construction and Significance in Shakespearean Drama" (111-39), Brown places himself solidly in the camp of Lukas Erne: Shakespeare is not just a dramatist, but also a literary artist. Brown finds that Shakespeare exhibits certain mannerist traits in "some of his work for just a few years around and before 1600" (128). Shakespeare appears to be experimenting with the possibility of "incorporating into his plays precisely those constructional dramas and ironies, with their finesses between truly and falsely sovereign centre points, consciously significant proportions, and occasional recourse to number symbolism" (129-129). These plays are "'mannerist' literary artefacts" (129). Shakespeare's interest in mannerism appears to wane after Hamlet.  With these ideas in mind, Brown analyzes The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, and concludes that Shakespeare "patterned, proportioned and punctuated the text" of Merchant in two different and elaborate ways -- "one based on line totals, the other on counting scenes," and he dovetailed the two schemes into each other (139).

  7. The penultimate essay (in Part I) asks if King Lear is a masterpiece, that is "a piece of work produced by a craftsman in order to be admitted to a guild as an acknowledged master" (OED). Here the guild is metaphoric, and it is Sophocles against whom Shakespeare is measured. Brown essentially wishes to examine "the intimate link between the formal design of the play and its idea-content" (141). The structural symmetry of King Lear "can also be reinforced by a patterning of content, of which the chiastic layout of Act I is a notable example" (144). Brown continues with an instructive analysis of all five acts. He apologizes for the time this will take the reader. But a careful reading of these pages is well worth the labour.

  8. The final essay of Part 1 calls: "More light, more light!" and Brown examines the "possible use of lighting in the Elizabethan public theatres" (161).  He quotes from Cotgrave's Dictionaire (1611) the definition of "cresset" lamps, "such as they use in playhouses." So lights must have been used, but to what purpose? Brown is obviously a mannerist critic who closely analyzes the structure, form, and patterning of the work he is studying. He is in the school of Alastair Fowler, Kent Hieatt, and Mark Rose. I am happy that Brown includes me among them. This book of essays is 270 pages long. On page 135, the centre of the book, appears the word "Middle" in the centre of the page. The sovereign centre? Could it be other?



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).