New Casebooks: A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As the General Editors of the series explain, the New Casebooks (published in Great Britain by Macmillan and in the United States by St. Martin's Press) are meant both "to introduce the reader to the new critical approaches" to a particular text and to "illuminate the rich interchange between critical theory and critical practice that characterizes ... current writing about literature" (ix). In many ways, Richard Dutton's volume admirably fulfills these objectives, gathering ten essays on A Midsummer Night's Dream that, while sometimes blurring the categories they are said to represent, nonetheless provide clear and generally readable examples of the varied theoretical approaches contemporary critics have taken to the play.
The collection includes new historicist, cultural materialist, Marxist and post-Marxist readings that range widely and imaginatively across the historical context of the play; festive criticism that expands the seminal insights of C.L. Barber through the work of Victor Turner and Mikhail Bahktin; psychoanalytic, deconstructive, and performance-centered essays that recognize the openness of the play to interpretation; the new textual criticism that seeks not to judge and reconcile the differences between the Folio and the Quarto versions of the play, but to honor them. The varied and sometimes contradictory readings the different critical approaches make possible suggest that the play, like Bottom's dream, has no bottom.
The essays together illustrate, as the General Editors intend, "the ways in which contemporary criticism has established new methods of analysing texts" (ix). Looking back to the old New Criticism (and to Macmillan's earlier series of Casebooks which remain available), the collection begins with an essay from 1975, David Bevington's New Critical nuance of Jan Kott's reading of Dream, moves on to essays published between 1979 and 1989, including Norman Holland's well-known psychoanalytic reading, "Hermia's Dream," and what Richard Dutton calls "perhaps the most influential writing on A Midsummer Night's Dream in recent years" (11), Louis Adrian Montrose's "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture," and concludes with two essays from 1993. The volume closes with a comprehensive, annotated list of further reading with entries categorized by their theoretical approaches.
While Richard Dutton's "Introduction" and his Notes at the end of each essay explain the similarities and differences among them and, without the esoteric language that often characterizes contemporary criticism, place them in their larger theoretical contexts, the collection may nonetheless leave some students, the audience for whom it seems intended, without a clear understanding (as they might put it) of "where the essays are coming from," of their relationship to earlier criticism or to the critical theories that inform them. One wonders, for example, what an undergraduate student, reading Shakespeare seriously for the first time, will make of the historicist or psychoanalytic readings of A Midsummer Night's Dream, drawing, as they do, on the details of Renaissance history or psychoanalytic theory. While the essays are engaging and provocative, they may also, without some further exploration of the history, assumptions, and agenda of contemporary criticism, leave the student with the all too familiar conviction that Shakespeare is accessible only to scholars.
As though to shake that potential conviction, the final essay in the collection, Terrence Hawkes's "Or," explicitly addresses the relation of criticism to the literature it criticizes. A long extract from Meaning by Shakespeare (1993), it concludes with the emblem of Thomas Sharpe, an eighteenth century watchmaker who carved from a mulberry tree, allegedly planted by Shakespeare at New Place, tiny souvenirs, "far more ... than a single tree could genuinely yield," to sell % visitors and tourists at great profit" (253). Sharpe, Hawkes proposes, "is an apt figure for the literary critic, ... making and remaking whatever the text might be said once to have meant in order the better to 'mean by' it now" (254). What we value in art is our experience of it, what we value in criticism are the meanings it makes of art, and it is important that students recognize the difference. Richard Dutton has gathered a comprehensive and engaging collection of essays on A Midsummer Night's Dream in his New Casebook. Students with some experience of Shakespeare's plays and some familiarity with the map of contemporary criticism will, as the General Editors hope, no doubt find it an illuminating resource.
MICHAEL J. COLLINS Georgetown University
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|Author:||Collins, Michael J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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