Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder.
In Shakespeare and the Theatre of Wonder, T. G. Bishop attempts to analyze the place of wonder in the history of Western aesthetics, particularly with regard to drama, and to apply the insights based on earlier theories and drama to three Shakespearean plays. Although Bishop discusses a broad range of historical documents, he does not take an historicist approach - in fact, his introduction offers some cogent criticism of recent historicist work. Bishop defines wonder as an experience that occurs and often mediates between such differing, perhaps even opposing, entities as word and flesh, pleasure and pain, philosophy and poetry, loss and recovery, speech and silence, actors and audience, historical time and performance time. He begins by establishing a history of wonder as a liminal phenomenon with his discussion of Plato and Aristotle, both of whom, he asserts, see wonder as affecting both intellect and emotion, although wonder's appeal to the latter makes both writers uneasy. Bishop also provides brief discussions of Longinus as describing wonder's dangerous rhetorical power and the Renaissances concern for wonder as a feature of theology, philosophy, politics, and exploration, as well as art and aesthetic theory.
Bishop views the medieval play cycles as attempts to embody and evoke religious wonder through the fashion of the sacraments, a sacred mystery revealed through an appeal to the senses. However, he also finds that these plays question and undercut the potentially transgressive enactment of wonder, citing examples from the York Lucifer and Transfiguration plays and the risen Jesus's meeting with Mary Magdalene from the N-Town cycle. Shakespearean drama, according to Bishop, is characterized by "a revisionary conservatism" (63) in which the professional playwright's theatrical practice adapts inherited stories both to serve the communal, ritualistic functions of medieval theater and to provide an analysis of his source material and theater itself.
However, the three plays discussed in detail - The Comedy of Errors, Pericles, and The Winter's Tale - are not forced into a theoretical Procrustean bed, as Bishop is admirably attentive to the particulars of each drama. Nevertheless, common elements of the "theater of wonder" emerge within the context of each play, including the uses (good and bad) of narrative, sexuality, doubling or twinning, violence, and ultimate reunion, particularly reunion with the mother. In all of these plays, wonder serves as a way of focusing on what Bishop calls "incarnation," Shakespeare's attempt to apprehend the world by fusing material reality and language. Bishop describes Shakespeare's practice as "the dramaturgy of a deep psychology of metaphor" (177) that self-consciously uses wonder to stimulate the audience's self-consciousness. The wonder with which the plays end is magnified by the skepticism which the playwright generates by emphasizing improbabilities and then helps his audience transcend.
Although I question a few of Bishop's readings of specific passages, for me the book's main limitation is its analysis of only three plays, one from the very beginning of Shakespeare's career, and two from the end. I wish that Bishop had analyzed more of Shakespeare's works, since wonder (as Bishop recognizes in passing) certainly plays a significant role in more than the three discussed.
However, the book provides a thoughtful and often enlightening analysis of its subject, and to leave the reader wanting more is by no means the worst of faults.
LINDA ANDERSON Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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