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Essential Shakespeare

The Arden Guide to Text and Interpretation


Pamela Bickley & Jenny Stevens


London: Bloomsbury / The Arden Shakespeare, 2013

Paperback. ix+343 p. ISBN 978-1408158739. £14.99


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Aix-Marseille Université



In a field which is often new ground for undergraduates, Essential Shakespeare presents itself as a challenging guide. Explicitly written in order to stimulate undergraduate thinking about Shakespeare and to provide accessible and informed readings to overwhelmed students, this engaging volume brings no original interpretation—it is not meant for that purpose—but successfully explains the most important concepts related to the playwright’s use of language through a number of critical perspectives. As such, it perfectly meets the needs of demanding students trying to get to grips with the problematic issues raised by the early modern playwright.

Adepts of erudition and pedagogy, Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens have selected fourteen plays (out of the thirty-six originally printed in the 1623 First Folio) which are supposed to span the main artistic achievements of Shakespeare’s career. Unsurprisingly, if lost plays such as Cardenio and notoriously difficult ones such as Love’s Labour’s Lost are ignored, the most famous works are included and all the dramatic genres explored and exploited by the Stratford man are present in the guide. Indeed, Essential Shakespeare offers four chapters on the comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure), no less than five on the tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra), two on major history plays (King Richard II, Richard III), and three on the romances particularly representative of Shakespeare’s late style (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest).

The works selected by the authors are not arranged in simple succession. Up to a certain extent, each of the selected plays is shown in close relationship with the previous one. Yet, Bickley and Stevens provide no real links between those works, and as a result, even though the chronological order will certainly help disorientated students to better understand Shakespeare’s progression along his dramatic career, this may not be enough to allow them to make sense of the playwright’s complex intertextual games and extensive cross-referencing.

Now, the authors do not aim at providing an exhaustive guide, and they indicate right from the beginning that “each chapter opens with what is no more than a snapshot of a particular reading approach and a demonstration of how it might be applied to the Shakespeare text” [2]. In other words, each of the fourteen chapters considers a specific branch of criticism, thereby providing some acute insights into a particular play. Reading all the volume’s sections, one easily realises that, say, the carnivalesque aspect of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the male anxiety caused by sharp-tongued women in Much Ado About Nothing, will never stop giving grist to the critical mill of the so-called ‘Shakespeare industry’. There is indeed no such thing as a definitive interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, and that is probably the best lesson taught by this Arden guide.

There are also some surprising choices as what Bickley and Stevens do not explain is the fact that, even though major plays are thoroughly examined, important ones like the three parts of Henry VI or, more surprisingly, Romeo and Juliet (briefly alluded to in the last chapter) and The Taming of the Shrew, are left aside without any word of explanation in the rather brief introduction to the volume. Yet, these plays are often studied at undergraduate levels, and critical comments on their possible meanings and interpretations would have been welcome. Moreover, given that the case of hybrid texts such Measure for Measure (and, to a lesser extent, Twelfth Night) is now regarded as highly problematic, the comic genre seems slightly underrepresented with only two real comedies included in the volume.

The two authors rightly observe that for Shakespeare, “[t]ragic possibility is redeemed by laughter” [17]. Yet, in the book as a whole, they deliberately choose to emphasise the tragic dimension of Shakespeare and the idea that painful emotions must be given precedence over laughter. Why not, since it is a difficult task to convey the wide range of emotions provoked by early modern plays in such a short space. However, one feels that more information could have been given on the festive comedies, for instance, and that the tricky notion of “popular” Shakespeare might also have been touched upon. All in all, some preliminary pages especially devoted to the notion of dramatic genre might have been worth adding to a book aiming at introducing Shakespeare and literary criticism to newcomers without oversimplifying his texts.

In spite of these minor defects, The Essential Shakespeare is a well-balanced synthesis where each chapter provides a real wealth of information about the playwright. More importantly, it offers a highly readable overview of Shakespeare’s main plays for those already acquainted with the playwright’s language. Indeed, for the sake of clarity, each chapter is divided into four parts. The first deals with critical theory and practice, the second aptly reminds the reader of the early modern context, the third provides the close reading of an excerpt of the play under study, and the last one is entirely devoted to performance and production. Eventually, a “Further Thinking” section at the end of each chapter usefully broadens the horizon of the Shakespearian-to-be.

As a consequence, Shakespeare’s readers are introduced to several complementary levels of analysis, and if the power of early modern music is thoroughly commented upon in the chapter devoted to Twelfth Night for instance, the various stage and screen productions are also mentioned as part of Shakespeare studies in each of the book’s fourteen chapters. Therefore, while the authors make it clear that the plays are endowed with their own intrinsic values and that oversimplification should be avoided at all cost, they also toy with the idea that the multiple appropriations of Shakespeare’s plays can generate a renewed interest in texts often thought of as intimidating.

Generally speaking, the reader of Essential Shakespeare is invited to investigate the potentially subversive characteristics of the playwright’s works and to consider some vexing questions regarding the challenges of conversational analysis (Much Ado about Nothing), post-structuralism (Richard II), New Historicism (Richard III), Marxist critique (King Lear), British studies (Cymbeline), postcolonial studies (Antony and Cleopatra), presentism (Othello), psychoanalysis (Measure for Measure), and feminism (The Winter’s Tale), to quote but a few instances of the various critical approaches developed in the volume. One only wishes that the passages under close scrutiny were analysed in a more detailed way, so that newcomers could really understand the relevance of the concepts emphasised by Bickley and Stevens regarding Shakespeare’s plays. Unfortunately, only one page and a half is devoted to Othello’s act 3, scene 3, while roughly two pages deal with Richard III’s memorable act 1, scene 2. But the hints which these commentaries provide are helpful as well as food for thought, even if the analyses are generally too short to allow any undergraduate to fully appropriate the complexity of the Shakespearean text. As the selected excerpts are never reprinted for lack of space, readers unfamiliar with the playwright might be at pains to make sense of the theories introduced in Essential Shakespeare.

All things considered, this not so easy-to-read volume is a very ambitious enterprise when one comes to realise the difficulty of Shakespeare’s plays and the real challenge that Shakespeare studies represent for beginners generally unaware of early modern codes and habits. However, trying to adjust their writing accordingly, Bickley and Stevens also concentrate on the demands of the early modern audience as they occasionally dwell on the importance of cross-dressing as well as on the particularities of the Southwark venue or the instability of the Quarto and Folio texts, so that their “go-to guide” (advertised as such in the blurb) successfully bridges the gap between 21st-century readers / spectators and early modern playtexts. As such, the book will prove a valuable companion for those who teach Shakespeare at pre-university and degree levels.

Yet, less specialised readers should not be put off, since Bickley and Stevens usefully remind them how diverse critical approaches to Shakespeare are, and how fascinating his plays remain today. Indeed, the films briefly discussed in the volume (like Polanski’s acclaimed Macbeth [1971] and Loncraine’s astounding Richard III [1995], not to mention the more controversial Hamlet adapted by Almereyda in 2000) all testify to the contemporary resonances of the Shakespearean canon. In fact, if this book, which should first and foremost be considered as a good teaching resource, will sometimes seem difficult for the non-initiated, it will definitely appeal to students already well-versed in Shakespearian drama and seeking fruitful perspectives on his works without being encumbered by notes. Such readers will certainly appreciate the bibliography, the glossary of critical terms, and the brief index which altogether make the volume more reader-friendly than it seems at first sight.

Therefore, as a carefully prepared book, Essential Shakespeare does offer a rich store of critical opinions on a major English playwright. It also manages to show how often Shakespeare broke down categorisations in his plays and how relevant they still are today, as they keep acquiring new meanings for readers and spectators alike. Because Bickley and Stevens’s volume avoids repetitions, it reads like a well-informed survey, and eventually achieves its goal—dealing as it does with essential plays by Shakespeare and guiding alert readers through the maze of Shakespearean scholarship. So, for doing all of this in some 350 pages, it certainly deserves to be given a special place on academic bookshelves.


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