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Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study.

Edward Berry. Shakespeare and the Hunt: A Cultural and Social Study. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xii + 253 pp. index. illus. $59.95. ISBN: 0-521-80070-6.

One of the best experiences a work of criticism can offer is to surprise its readers: we all pursue our own research interests avidly enough, but to be convinced of the interest of a subject outside one's usual range of vision is all too rare a pleasure. Edward Berty's book produces this pleasure of surprise in its evocation of the culture of the hunt in early modern England, and in its pursuit of the metaphorics of hunting in Shakespeare. Berry admirably shows that we can only understand the recurring images of the hunt in Shakespeare's plays and poems if we understand the social world from which those images emerge.

Berry argues that the hunt was "a social practice, a symbol, a ritual, a discourse, [and] an ideology" (ix) vital to Elizabethan and Jacobean England. In an initial chapter he explores the complexities of this "hunting culture," suggesting that the hunt "re-inforced the patriarchal and authoritarian tendencies" of that culture, but that it was also "a site of controversy" (36). To this end he traces Puritan and humanist critiques of hunting, explores the ways in which representations of female bunters challenge the martial masculinity of the hunt, and examines how poaching parodied the hunt's decorous ceremonies even as it violated the legal restrictions on hunting. Hunting, Berry concludes, "crystallized some of the most important tensions characteristic of the period as a whole: tensions in conceptions of the monarchy, of social status, of gender, of power over nature" (37).

This claim introduces a series of chapters that traces the representation of the hunt through Shakespeare's plays and poems. This is where Berry is strongest. It can be a real pleasure to watch him develop a compelling reading of a text out of its hunting imagery by reading that imagery alongside the social practice of hunting, as when he turns to "blooding" rituals to reveal the significance of Venus' gesture of anointing herself with Adonis' blood in Venus and Adonis, or when he interprets The Taming of the Shrew in light of manuals about the taming of falcons--"manning," as training falcons to the lure was called (101-02). Berry's strength is his capacity to elucidate a text by drawing out patterns of images and metaphors and by returning those metaphors to the social world of the hunt.

As anyone familiar with Berry's previous work might expect, he is at his best with the comedies. In chapter 2 he offers a sophisticated discussion of the conflation of hunting and the erotic in Love's Labor's Lost. Chapter 5 approaches The Merry Wives of Windsor through a very interesting discussion of poaching and social conflict. In chapter 6 he examines the tensions between hunting and pastoral in order to draw out a subtle reading of the paradoxes of As You Like It. But while the readings are at times very strong, Berry remains somewhat reticent in articulating what both hunting and the metaphorics of hunting tell us about early modern culture more broadly. Despite the subtitle of the book--"A Social and Cultural Study"--Berry is clearly primarily interested in using the culture of the hunt to illuminate Shakespeare's plays, and has less to say about hunting culture itself. He draws on the hunt for the imaginative resources it offered Shakespeare--"raw material" as he once calls it (127)--but he doesn't a lways make the plays speak back to their culture, or when he does, it is primarily with the oblect of assessing, as he tries to do in the final chapter, Shakespeare's attitude toward hunting, nor what hunting and the drama together can tell us about the hopes, fears, and conflicts of a culture.

This is not necessarily a criticism, but it is, I think, a fair assessment of Berry's interests. Although the broader cultural argument of the book remains somewhat underdeveloped, the readings of the plays are compelling and sophisticated, and Berry's practice of setting them alongside works like George Gascoigne's The Noble Art of Venery produces genuinely surprising insights. The book is a pleasure to read and should be valued by anyone interested in Shakespeare or in "country" culture in England more generally.
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Author:Robinson, Bendict S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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