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The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents.

Russ McDonald. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1996. xix + 373 pp. $35. ISBN: 0-3121-5857-2.

Russ McDonald's book meets a critical need for teachers of Shakespeare: a comprehensive yet succinct guide to the ideas and contexts that shape our understanding of Shakespeare. In combining introductory essays and documents related to specific topics, McDonald facilitates a "successful encounter" with Shakespearean texts, i.e., "when the person confronting them is well informed about the texts, their creator, and the culture from which they arose" (3). For McDonald, this informed reading is the path through the multiple critical approaches and historical questions surrounding Shakespearean drama. The Bedford Companion draws students into the ongoing dialogue on the subject by "bringing the work of art into closer proximity with its formative conditions" (8). No companion or critical introduction now on the market matches McDonald's for its command of material, its scope, and the lucidity of its prose.

The nine chapters divide into three sections: biography and career (chapters 1 to 3); literary matters (chapters 4 to 6); and social, political, and cultural milieu of Shakespeare's England (chapters 7 to 9). The introductory essays for each chapter survey current information (referring to the documents and to the plays) and sketch the important controversies or critical movements. For instance, in the last chapter, "Politics and Religion: Early Modern Ideologies," McDonald considers topics of absolutism, order, the court, courtiers, monarchs, and the church, then returns to issues of the Shakespearean theater and authority. His presentation of these topics, and indeed his concept of a companion with documents, while conditioned by recent critical and historical interests, does not serve a particular critical or historiographical model.

Such a strategy is, I think, ideal for a companion to the classroom study of Shakespeare. The book invites the college-level student into the ongoing dialogue about Shakespeare without presumptively closing off voices or validating one over another. McDonald indicates in his introduction, and I would confirm, that the chapters can be used in any order, and the documents can be used independently of the essays. McDonald also acknowledges that all who use this book will want to supplement the documents; two areas in which I supplement are writings by women and illustrations of order. Nonetheless, McDonald has selected the documents judiciously, with an effort to include generous excerpts and the less frequently .reprinted documents as well as the major texts and illustrations for the study of Shakespeare. Most important of all for a text whose primary audience is the undergraduate student of Shakespeare: the prose is inviting, mature, and engaged. It is not condescending or elementary, the bane of the prose of many such "companions" to Shakespeare or to any literary subject. If any one thing makes McDonald's book widely successful in the classroom, it will be the quality of the prose. Students will read it.

Although the book's purpose is to describe and summarize, it does, inevitably, present an image of Shakespeare. As McDonald reiterates, we read Shakespeare in many ways these days. His essays are fair to these many ways, yet what emerges consistently in his accounts is the Shakespeare whose works are characterized by "intellectual flexibility" (116) and who was "no revolutionary," nor a "blind reactionary," but one who asks his audience to "think critically" (274). McDonald may be modeling for us and for our students a Shakespeare for the twenty-first century, a Shakespeare who contains the range of twentieth-century Shakespeares, yet who is more than any Humanist, historicist, or post-modernist models. McDonald communicates a Shakespeare who is a lively companion for readers, and the success of his book may be measured not simply by the facts students learn, but by the pleasure they take in becoming informed readers of Shakespeare.

MARCIA A. MCDONALD Belmont University
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:McDonald, Marcia A.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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