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The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. .

Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, eds. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xxix + 541 pp. index. illus. $48. ISBN: 0-19-811735-3.

This book, a "companion" intended to "aid ... the enjoyment of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare" (vii) is so gorgeous that a casual glance through it while it resides on a promotional table during an academic conference is likely to mislead. It looks like a coffee-table book, with oversized dimensions and stunning illustrations. But a mote careful perusal of its contents indicates how useful this text will prove not only to the general reader but to students and academics as well.

Before I proceed further, I need to acknowledge that I was asked to contribute an entry to the Companion, the entry on "money" in Shakespeare's plays. While I have no complaints about what Costard would call the remuneration I received for this entry, it was not so large that my opinion of the book is likely to be prejudiced in any way. I notified the present journal about my contribution when asked to review this volume. (Because nearly one hundred others contributed entries as well, journals seeking reviewers may find it difficult to locate scholars without a connection to it).

The first thing one notices about this Companion is its illustrations. I have called the book "gorgeous" already, and it seems a necessary qualifier: from useful illustrations such as a seventeenth-century type-case reproduced from Moxon's Mechanical Exercises to photographs of relevant sites--Gower's effigy in Southwark, for instance, and, a page later, the interior of the Stratford grammar school--the visual dimension of this volume alone makes it worth purchasing. Real thoughtfulness went into the comprehensive selection of this book's illustrations. All the Shakespeare portraits are here, as are many portraits of his contemporaries, and there are large reproductions of important title-pages, crucial passages, and other documents: the van Buchel/de Witt drawing of the Swan; a manuscript page of addition IID of Sir Thomas More containing what appears to be Shakespeare's handwriting; the Holy Trinity church parish register record of Shakespeare's baptism.

What most strikes me about such illustrations, however, is the wealth of photographs from twentieth-century stage and film productions. To mention only a few of the illustrations that adorn this volume: a full-page photograph of Vivien Leigh as Lavinia in Brook's 1955 production of Titus; Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the Savoy Theatre's 1930 production; Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet in 1904; Dorothy Tutin as Cressida in the Barton/Hall Troilus and Cressida of 1960.

The entries themselves tend to be succinct, though they are many in number. One of the most useful aspects of the volume, therefore, is a "Thematic listing of entries" (xi-xxviii) that categorizes the book's contents. To give an example, one of the thematic categories is "Theatrical Context to 1660," which is broken down into "The playgoing experience" (with ten entries, including two illustrations: Roxana's title page, and the title page of The Wits); "Theatre hierarchy, management, and records" (twenty entries); "The theatre building" (ten entries); "The stage space, mechanics, and properties" (thirty entries); "Theatre companies and patronage" (eleven entries); "Theatres" (twelve entries); "Inns" (one entry); "State regulation and court performances" (nineteen entries); "Anti-theatrical debate" (four entries); "Other entertainments" (five entries); "Theatre personnel to 1660" (forty-seven entries). The utility of this tool for those preparing lectures is not to be underestimated; its sections helpfully con vey both the range and practical content of various topics.

The major characters in each play have separate entries that list the most basic facts about them. For instance: "Cloten, the son of Cymbeline's Queen, is beheaded by Guiderius, Cymbeline 4.2." Plays themselves receive more expansive treatment, consisting of a general headnote followed by paragraphs on "Authorship" and "Sources," a detailed, scene-by-scene plot summary, then, typically, paragraphs on "Artistic Features," "Critical History," "Stage History," "On the Screen" (brief filmography), closing with a list of recent major editions and representative criticism. These entries are generally valuable, though they are disparate in nature. For instance, while Anthony Davies' entry for Henry VI, part one gives no fewer than ten works of representative criticism relating to that play, his entry for Henry V lists only two: Meron's book on Henry's Wars and, oddly, Battenhouse's 1963 essay on the play as "heroic comedy." It is difficult to explain not only the inequity of critical bibliography in the two entries--one would expect, for example, the imbalance to go in Henry V's favor--but also why Henry V received such short shrift when it has been so central to recent discussions of power and politics in Shakespeare's dramatic worlds.

Perhaps most readers will turn to this Companion not for what it says about individual plays, but for its lively coverage of the larger community of artists, actors, directors, and others connected to Shakespeare, his plays, and their afterlife. A representative entry in this regard is the one for "Keats, John (1795-1821)": "English poet. Keats is best known in this context for his celebration (after * Hazlitt) in his letters and marginalia of a Shakespeare of protean sympathies, generous redundancy of imagination, and natural feeling, declared the epitome of 'negative capability' -- a 'chameleon' poetic stance which he contrasted to the egotistical * Milton and * Wordsworth and to which he himself aspired." A reference to R. S. White's study, Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare, rounds our Nicola Watson's compact and useful entry.

If it becomes available in paperback, I will certainly suggest my students buy this book. It is difficult to imagine anyone interested in Shakespeare not benefiting from this volume. Of course, one may find fault with scattered things, from various inequalities of coverage (perhaps unavoidable, given the scope here) to the nomenclature of the Oxford Shakespeare (All is True, Innogen, etc.) that, surprisingly, still has the ability to be annoying. So useful is it, however, that such minor flaws, as well as an occasional glibness about American Shakespeareana, can be forgiven this sumptuous product of Airstrip One.
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Author:Bruster, Douglas
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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