Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. xx+328pp. ISBN 0 521 65881 0.
Adam Smyth
University of Reading

Smyth, Adam. "Review of Margreta de Grazia and Stanley Wells, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 17.1-5 <URL:

  1. This is the fourth incarnation of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, following previous lives in 1934, 1971, and 1986, and editors de Grazia and Wells declare their intention "to respond to changes in emphasis in Shakespeare studies." The changes they identify are the rise of "a broadly historical or cultural approach," which has taken over from work of a "formalist orientation"; a new attention to textual studies; an interest in gender and sexuality; research on "the presence of persons and populations from beyond the confines of England"; work on Shakespeare's importance "to other nations and histories, particularly colonial and post-colonial"; and research which recognises that Shakespearean performance on both stage and film "has become more globally oriented" (xv).

  2. There are chapters that represent all of these "changes in emphasis", along with accounts of Shakespeare's life; the poems; genre; the early modern theatrical experience; Shakespeare and English history; accounts of Shakespeare in performance, and of Shakespeare criticism, from the seventeenth to the twentieth-century; film; Shakespeare "worldwide" (in fact, Shakespeare in Germany, India, and Japan); and Shakespeare reference books. R.S. White asserts that "there is no longer any room for any 'party line' [in Shakespeare studies], least of all one asserting universality" (281), and while this call for an end to party lines is, of course, itself a party line, White's plea for "plurality and diversity" is enacted across the volume as a whole. The Companion is an effervescent, lucid, readable, and thoroughly enjoyable collection.

  3. Given the editor's professed desire to move away from "the mainly formalist," it is ironic that -- to my mind -- the most effective chapters of the Companion are those which focus with most rigour on the specifics of the texts. (Of course, this is ultimately only an expression of this reviewer's preference for Shakespeare as a read, rather than a performed text). Leonard Barkan's "What did Shakespeare read?" very neatly illustrates the connection between the structure of grammar school pedagogy and the structure of drama, showing how teaching proceeded in a question and answer, dialogic form, and how translation activities encouraged "students to impersonate other voices" (36). As a result, "language as a school subject [was] … performed as a dramatic conversation" ( 35). Margreta de Grazia's "Shakespeare and the craft of language" is interesting on the relative "flexibility" of Shakespeare's lexicon and syntax -- on words evolving into other words; on puns; on "the protean quality" of late sixteenth-century English -- before the stricter codifications of language in the second half of the seventeenth century. With a combination of precision and general thesis that characterizes her chapter, de Grazia notes, for instance, that "Comedy's phonetic drift (from homicidal to honeysuckle, from elbow to de ilbow) results in absurdity; tragedy's syntactic dislocations end in linguistic pieces (Lear's 'pah', Othello's 'pish')" (61).

  4. While these chapters are certainly highlights, in some ways the Companion's professed intention to "respond to changes in emphasis in Shakespeare studies" (xv) is not fully enacted by the chapters that follow. Opening the volume with a biographical sketch of Shakespeare does not, surely, accurately represent the place of biographical readings in current Shakespeare studies, which have become relatively marginalized. And given that the greatest technological shift between the previous 1986 edition and this current volume is the rise of the Internet, it is surprising that the volume lacks any sustained discussion of Shakespeare online. There is a page on "Shakespeare on the Internet" in Dieter Mehl's useful survey of "Shakespeare reference books," but, inevitably, given the respective rates of change in print and electronic media, some of the references are behind the pace. And there is a broader and more interesting question that has gone unexplored: how does the Internet create new understandings about Shakespeare and his writings? Here attention needs to be paid not just to neat and tidy academic sites, but also to the vast sprawl of online Shakespeares: by turns Bardolatrous, dissenting, orthodox, crazed. What do these sites suggest about the contemporary cultural status of Shakespeare? Has technology enabled new kinds of Shakespeare? One of the refrains of the Companion is the repeated attempts by individuals, communities and nations to lay claim to "our Shakespeare": to possess him, as their own. So how does the Internet -- a transnational technology which creates new kinds of communities -- facilitate alternative claims about Shakespeare? And what does the Internet -- a cultural phenomenon, not simply a resource -- suggest about Shakespeare's likely future?

  5. The target audience of this volume -- as with all of these Cambridge Companions, which seem to be cropping up everywhere -- is tricky to pitch. The Companion is a highly accessible survey of the current state of Shakespeare studies, but chapters are short, and given the broad canvas that many adopt -- "Shakespeare in the twentieth century" in 16 pages; "Shakespeare worldwide" in 13 -- contributions are, at times, whistle-stop tours. When one writer notes "It is not possible, in the space of a short essay, to convey the density or the details" (148), the comment might stand for the volume as a whole. Readers wishing for more will have to go elsewhere. Chapters are generally helpful, here, in directing readers on to further texts, but some of the chapters are referenced in a rather scanty fashion. The third footnote (of three) to Ernst Honigmann's chapter on Shakespeare's life, for example, refers to indexes in other volumes rather than providing the information itself. But for readers working outside Shakespeare studies who seek a quick familiarity with the field, the Companion constitutes a valuable introduction.

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

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).