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Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context.

Patricia Parker. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. x 2D 392 pp. $52 (cl), $19.95 (pap). ISBN: 0-2266-4584-3 (d), 0-2266-4584-1 (pap).

For the sake of argument, Patricia Parker begins by seeming to contest Dr. Johnson's criticism of Shakespeare's wordplay. Johnson wrote dismissively of puns: "a quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was content to lose it." Parker's Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context reorients reading Shakespeare, putting this Cleopatra at the center of the project. Sensitivity to the connections created by Shakespeare's wanton language opens up rich avenues of interpretation. Perhaps not at all incidentally, these interpretive directions are subversive of political, social, and sexual orthodoxies.

For Parker, words are material to the plays. She explores verbal networks (words related to preposterous, conveyance, translation, delation/dilation, construction, joinery, and matter), endeavoring to glimpse through these networks "the relation between the plays and their contemporary culture, in a period when English was not yet standardized into a fixed orthography, obscuring on the printed page the homophonic networks possible" (1). In seven chapters, she comments on Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, the English histories and Hamlet, All's Well that Ends Well and TroiIus and Cressida, and Othello and Hamlet.

Parker is acutely sensitive to the often very finely tuned iterations of the terms she traces; and as close reading her analyses are insightful, sometimes wonderful. Particularly notable is chapter 6 on "Dilation and Inflation: All's Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida, and Shakespearean Increase," which explores how references to dilation and increase link Helena and Parolles and both of them with the momentum of the plot of All's Well. A crucial aspect of the book's argument, however, insists on consequences of this analysis beyond mere appreciation.

Parker chooses the terms around which she focuses her analysis for their significance to the immediate cultural context of the plays. Reading Shakespeare this way is therefore, after the example of Raymond Williams, an aspect of the "broader reading of early modern culture"(10). The book's final chapter, "Othello and Hamlet: Spying, Discovery, Secret Faults," opens up new dimensions of these plays by discussing them in the context of letter-writing handbooks (secretaries) and the system of Elizabethan surveillance. Full notes make this book a valuable review of much of the recent work in the cultural studies of the early modern period.

There are many excellencies and some irritations, the latter often of a mechanical sort. Given the wealth of bibliography in the notes, one laments the lack of a list of works cited. Curiously, there is no index entry for Parker herself, even though she properly refers to her own earlier work and to essays that appear in the several important collections she has coedited. Further, though Parker's argument generally, and in the chapter on Merry Wives explicitly, takes note of how recent work on the material conditions of the early texts of the plays exposes the way modern editions can distort the workings of Shakespearean wordplay, she cites modern editions without saying which ones, except when the passage involves an editorial decision she criticizes. Desdemona's name in 3.3 of Othello, for example, was not described as begrimed and black as the Moor's face until the second quarto (1630) of that play. It is odd to use that reading without recognizing that it is almost certainly post-Shakespearean. Parker's argument allows her to be eclectic in her textual choices, but she is most convincing when she provides reasons for her decisions.

This last (in a different but - as Parker inspires one to check this - related sense) quibble brings us back to Cleopatra. For a book on wordplay, Shakespeare from the Margins is remarkably sober. Long sentences and paragraphs studded with numbers that take a reader to extensive notes: such conspicuous diligence suggests that Parker is not so much giving Cleopatra her due as making her over, the way Dryden did.

MARGARET MAURER Colgate University
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Author:Maurer, Margaret
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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