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Shakespeare's Late Style.

Russ F. McDonald. Shakespeare's Late Style.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. x + 260 pp. index. $85. ISBN: 0-521-82068-5.

In Shakespeare studies, the idea of lateness calls to mind the romances, and understandably invites speculation on generic categories. Although Russ McDonald writes judiciously about genre throughout his study, he approaches late Shakespeare through the neglected, perhaps ultimately elusive, notion of style. In so doing, he makes a lucid attempt to recuperate what has for some time been a problem for literary history. But for isolated articles, notes to editions of the plays (assiduously synthesized by McDonald, himself an experienced editor), and the exception of Patricia Parker (about whom more below), one would be hard pressed to cite a recent study of Shakespeare that proceeds along similar lines. (Gordon McMullan's forthcoming Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing promises to be akin to the more theoretical meditations of Adorno and Said.) McDonald explores this critical lacuna in his introductory chapter, and unapologetically invokes as distant precedents the scattered remarks of earlier figures such as Lamb, Coleridge, and Hazlitt. I would hazard that the closest analogue for such a sustained evaluation of an early modern author's style might be found in Christopher Ricks's Milton's Grand Style (1963), nearly a half century behind us. Moreover, determining stylistic traits in Milton is a different, I think more easily determinate, task than it is in Shakespeare: what in Milton (or Spenser, for that matter) might arguably be a product of deliberation, in Shakespeare more frequently seems a product of his stylistic fecundity.

For as admirably exhaustive as McDonald's volume strives to be--for him, somewhat in the agglomerative spirit of Puttenham, style entails everything from alliteration or punctuation to more general patterns of syntactical order and disorder--it occasionally results in a kind of exhaustion. Citing a passage from Henry VIII (1.1.168-93), McDonald upholds Buckingham's speech, without further examination, as a "showcase for the late Shakespearean style, displaying most of its hyperbatonic properties: intrusions, elliptical phrases, embedded clauses, loose connections among grammatical elements, regular enjambment, numerous light and weak endings, playfulness with caesurae, stops near the end of the line, all this amounting to a kind of jagged music, but music nonetheless" (138). To be fair, there are many other such passages likewise consisting of two dozen or so lines that McDonald does take care to unpack over a series of pages, detailing multiple stylistic properties in a manner both magisterial and eloquent (as "jagged music" here touches upon something quite genuine). Yet it's precisely the vaguely overlapping presence of so many coincidental effects that contributes to the opacity of much of the late verse, and that in turn frustrates the attempt to isolate any one trait within any single passage--a diffusion (which, to his credit, McDonald is at pains to capture) that can resist the intelligence, more than almost successfully. In short, I think McDonald pursues a daunting task. That said, there are few who would be as qualified to undertake it as he is, both in terms of scholarly acumen as well as sensitivity to reading verse, and the resulting study is gracefully pursued. The extent to which this style actually entails a late departure for Shakespeare we must take somewhat on McDonald's word: while chapter 1 does explore Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra as representing a pivotal moment circa 1607, it would require an additional volume (or more) to establish fully the "control group" from which Shakespeare was departing.

At one point, McDonald characterizes his book as an "illustrated taxonomy" (32). While I am convinced that it was wise not to organize it more schematically, as a kind of quasi-reference work--in the tradition of Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery (1935) or Sister Miriam Joseph's Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (1947)--at times I still wondered whether the expectations of a monograph led me to anticipate more of an argument than McDonald usually seems willing to deliver. He readily admits a hesitancy along these lines: "As with most of the other poetic strategies, I normally decline to assign specific semantic functions" to any particular aspect of Shakespeare's style (206). In part, this arises (once more) from the apparent superabundance of the late style, thereby making the "urge to formulate some general statements about the mature Shakespeare's syntactical practice ... frustrated by its immense variety, the idiosyncratic mixture of contradictory effects": as a result, "almost any generalization about an important syntactic trait must be qualified immediately by acknowledgement of a complementary feature" (134). While McDonald favorably cites the work of Patricia Parker, he remains far more reluctant than she to press suppositional claims much beyond the scope of the plays themselves. (Parker, in contrast, explores rhetorical tropes and etymological traces in service of broader conjectures about early modern culture: scholarship by Joel Fineman, Jeffrey Masten, and Madhavi Menon would also fit this model.) One core contention that McDonald does feel comfortable asserting is that microformal patterns replicate--or echo, mirror, reinforce, mimic, correspond to--macroformal patterns. The Blakean "world in a grain of sand" comes to mind when McDonald argues for this "fractal" or "synecdochic" aspect to the plays (37), a "correspondence between minute grammatical particulars and broad organizational principles" (40). Generally a sophisticated way in which to convey a "mutual reinforcement" of style and genre (29), it becomes a somewhat repetitive observation in the final chapters, even verging on allegorization, culminating in: "The verse is new because the way of thinking is new" (220). But in these last sections, McDonald also begins to elaborate a provisional theory of audience complicity and response, a theory reliant on pleasure as a motivating factor in how the late style functions: we get pleasure from the artifice of elision, divagation, suspension, and various types of repetition and recognition; and we get pleasure from sensing that local (stylistic) effects are reinforced on a more global (plot-driven) scale as well. In this respect, McDonald's book might be partaking in the turn, of sorts, that Jeff Dolven has tentatively termed a "New Aestheticism" in Shakespeare studies.


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Author:Newstok, Scott L.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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