Critical Shakespeare
Joanne Woolway
Oriel College, Oxford

Woolway, Joanne. "Foreword: Critical Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 1.1-7 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/foreword.html>.

  1. Welcome to the first issue of the second volume of EMLS and the beginning of a new year of publishing for the journal. With Shakespeare bibliography, criticism, and electronic tools having recently hit the headlines in relation to Professor Don Foster's attribution of "A Funeral Elegy" to William Shakespeare, it seems especially appropriate that this should be an all Shakespeare issue, and an issue that will doubtless lead to further debate. The intricacies of the individual discussions aside, it is fascinating to watch the interest that Shakespeare generates, not just among members of the academic community, but also in national presses. Clearly, there is far more at stake in discovering an unknown Shakespeare elegy than one by, say, Alexander Pope, and the arguments and counter-arguments, when they fly, tend to be correspondingly more heated. Uncertainties will not suffice; we seem to have a need for a definite attribution.

  2. Yet it is often the case that the questions are more interesting and revealing than the answers, if they were found, might be. For example, printed below the "Funeral Elegy" are the initials "W.S." If the poem is not by Shakespeare, was the publisher aware that these initials might be the source of some potentially profitable misunderstanding? Or, was there an aspiring but self-effacing young William Smythe out there who did not realize that, if he were as successful in his outpouring as he hoped (and we now debate), confusion with the rather better known playwright would spoil his moment of glory? If the elegy was written by Shakespeare, was he so sure of its quality as to feel that initials would be enough to identify him as the author? Did he want to be identified? Did maintaining a certain kind of reputation matter to Shakespeare? How aware was he not only of his success in the eyes of his contemporaries, but also of the potential for the success of his plays in the future--even after his death?

  3. There are many more questions that could be asked. But the larger issue surrounding this and other debates in our own time is that of the reputation and status of Shakespeare today. This includes the matter of how good we expect Shakespeare to be, and what criteria we use to decide this, but it also touches on the place of Shakespeare within our cultural heritage. Although Ben Jonson carefully distinguished between respectful admiration for Shakespeare, and uncritical adulation ("I lov'd the man, and doe honour his memory [on this side Idolatry] as much as any" [8:584]), later critics have not been so restrained and have often combined adulation with a marked determination to appropriate Shakespeare to their own political, social, or national agenda. As a result, the author has become, as Michael Dobson has expressed it, "as normatively constitutive of British national identity as the drinking of afternoon tea, and it is now probably as hard for any educated Briton to imagine not enjoying the former as it would be to imagine forgoing the latter" (7). Similar status has been accorded to Shakespeare this century and in other countries in the form of what George Bernard Shaw mockingly termed "bardolatry." When Shakespeare's writing is discussed, therefore, more is at stake than a literary reputation.

  4. Leading on from these issues is the question of the import of Shakespeare criticism, from Jonson, via Dryden, Coleridge, and various eighteenth-and nineteenth-century critics, to the present day. What social purposes does their work serve? What are the rewards for "getting it right"? How and why do we try to "own" Shakespeare's "meaning" in our own interpretations? Why is Shakespeare criticism often a testing ground for literary theories, whether bibliographical, or, recently, historical-theoretical? Is our criticism expressed differently because people with different approaches and concerns--from actors, to theatre critics, to school teachers, to university professors, to dedicated theatre-goers--all have an interest in the author?

  5. The articles contained in this issue of EMLS further these interests by challenging Shakespeare studies in different ways. Paul Yachnin questions the theoretical assumptions which inform our discussions of the plays and proceeds with an interpretation of Taming of the Shrew; Steve Sohmer asks us to consider sources and their potential impact on traditional interpretations of Hamlet; David Lucking posits a traditional understanding and general notion of nomenclature in the drama and builds upon that to discuss Coriolanus; and Robert Viking O'Brien proposes a reconsideration of character within socio-theoretical paradigms.

  6. We are confident that these pieces will generate discussion through our Readers' Forum. Steve Sohmer's piece has already provoked some comment (New Yorker, Nov 20, 1995 66-83), and we hope that debate will continue once readers have had the chance to read the full article and to reflect on all of these ideas in the context of his wider argument. Considered responses to any of the articles or reviews can be sent to the editors at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.
  7. As well as the slightly new format for our Web site, you'll also see that we've developed the interactive section to include more conference programs; in the coming year this will be expanded further to include conference proceedings, discussions of papers, and "work-in-progress." Readers will also notice that, with this issue, our ASCII edition (available to our electronic mail subscribers) is now derived directly from the files on our Internet site using Netscape, and that our GOPHER site is no longer available.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 30, 1996)