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Shakespeare and Authority

Citations, Conceptions and Constructions


Edited by Katie Halsey and Angus Vine


Palgrave Shakespeare Studies

London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Hardcover. xxi+347 p. ISBN 978-1137578525. £80


Reviewed by Sophie Chiari

Université Clermont Auvergne





In Shakespeare’s plays, “authority” is imposed, obeyed, usurped, when it is not “tongue-tied” (sonnet 66). While it can be divine, it is most frequently relative: “Thieves for their robbery have authority / When judges steal themselves” Angelo declares in Measure for Measure (2.2.178-179).(1) According to the OED, this French-derived word first refers to an “authoritative piece of writing” (I) before implying a “power to enforce obedience or compliance” (II) and, ultimately, a “power to influence the opinions of others” (III). Those three meanings are tackled in a nicely printed collection of essays, Shakespeare and Authority : Citations, Conceptions and Constructions, edited by Katherine Halsey and Angus Vine, both from the University of Stirling.

As is often the case with edited collections, this hefty volume originates from a conference, that of the British Shakespeare Association in 2014. Composed of sixteen chapters encompassing the Shakespearean sources, the texts themselves, and their reception, it examines the construction of authority through the prism of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet, as is made clear by Halsey and Vine in their introduction, “for much of the seventeenth century, it would have been by no means apparent that [Shakespeare’s] works would be afforded the position of unique cultural authority that they have come to possess” [3].

What ensues from this is that authority eludes simple definitions as its multiple meanings change through the centuries. In the early modern period, far from simply suggesting the moral authority of someone or the threatening power of the authorities, it also evoked the weight of tradition. In the world of drama and literature, a figure of authority is, by essence, located in the past. As a result, while Shakespeare has become an iconic playwright, he was not, in his own time, an absolute figure of authority. He started becoming so during the Restoration as he was adapted to fit the tastes of a new audience and reached that privileged status in the eighteenth century as he became an “author” figure [8] worth editing and commenting upon.

The editors have chosen to divide their collection into three parts, namely 1) Shakespeare’s influences (conveniently called “authorities”), 2) the playtexts themselves, and 3) the playwright’s afterlife. Let it be said from the start one may regret the multiplicity of Shakespeare editions used in the volume (including some dating back to the 1960s) in spite of a “Note on the Text” signalling a general reliance on The Norton Shakespeare (third edition, 2016) meant to reinforce the volume’s coherence. By the same token, some chapters are divided into subsections, and some are not. The lack of a general bibliography at the end—instead, each chapter is followed by a list of “Works Cited”, a presentation which also has its merits—rather surprised me, as well as the heterogeneity of the topics tackled by the contributors under the umbrella term of “authority”. Plurality clearly implies eclecticism here, and this is underscored by the lack of cross-references in the volume. If some essays are very clearly related to the topic of “authority”, others deal more loosely with it, especially in the second part of the collection. Yet each contribution perfectly stands on its own and reassesses, in more or less oblique ways, this shifting concept put forward in the title. All in all, the book’s chronological scope as well as its variety of approaches to the chosen topic make its reading fairly stimulating.

Part I of the volume contains five chapters that lay the groundwork for a comprehensive examination of the notion under study and attempt to redefine it in multiple ways. Colin Burrow explores for instance how Shakespeare’s “authorities” (rather than “sources”) interact with each other and allowed the playwright to emphasise the frailties of his characters: “the voices of textual authorities seem to get stronger as a tragic character’s own practical authority diminishes”, he contends [46]. John Drakakis proves similarly interested in texts which have presumably influenced Shakespeare and examines the question from a theoretical point of view (a rather welcome one at this stage), relying on Barthes, Foucault, Genette or Kristeva in order to challenge our assumptions about textual transmission. The word “resource”, he argues, is probably the most adapted term we now have to comment on the intertextual world of the dramatist. As a Senior Editorial Researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary, Giles Goodland highlights another aspect of the issue by looking at the value and position of Shakespearean citations in the OED. Reattributions and antedatings, he writes, have partially stripped the playwright of his so far undisputed authority. The same linguistic vein is explored by Margaret Tudeau-Clayton in a challenging chapter which examines English as a living language whose mobility, she sustains, “undermines the very ideas of a centre and of cultural ownership” [121]. Doing so, she pays particular attention to the mention of the “King’s English” present in the Folio version of The Merry Wives of Windsor and possibly inserted at a rather late date, i.e. under the reign of James I. The last chapter of the section turns to law and politics and bridges the gap between Parts I and II. “Can Shakespeare help us to develop a lexicon of legal authority?” Eric Heinze asks [136]. The two tetralogies allow the author the reconsider the divine right of the king and to emphasise a shift “from legalist to militarist approaches to legitimacy” [150].

Part II touches on Shakespearean authority through another five chapters exploring the plays’ multi-faceted language and metaphorical resonances. Angus Vine first sheds new light on 1 and 2 Henry IV where he finds “a complex discourse of finance and reckoning” [158] which anticipates the link between fiscal and financial accountability that emerged at the end of the seventeenth century. To the notion of accountability, Joe Sterrett prefers that of trust as he proceeds to explain, in the following chapter, “how sovereignty […] makes the trust of kings different from other forms of trust like the trust between lovers” [179]. He investigates the issue through an object, the ring, and three plays, namely The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline, and All is True (i.e. Henry VIII). The perspective of Daniel Cadman’s chapter 9 is totally different as it examines Measure for Measure in connection with Lipsius’s works, including De Constantia (1584) and the Politica (1589), two authorities which Shakespeare probably had in mind when he created his disguised and dissembling ruler, Duke Vincentio. This is followed by an essay on stewardship, “a form of governance” which, as Eleanor Lowe puts it, “is precariously perched between a higher authority and those below” [213]. In a highly stimulating and carefully researched analysis of the character of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, she shows that Anthony Maria Browne’s ‘booke of rules’ (1595) sheds a new light on the steward’s role in early modern England in general and, by extension, on “the discourse of domestic power” in Shakespeare’s play in particular [221]. Closing this second section, Laetitia Sansonetti pays attention to an intriguing character in Julius Caesar, viz. the poet Cinna who, Orpheus-like, is killed and dismembered, and this is for her the opportunity to pay renewed attention to the power of poetry and rhetorical art.

Part III, “Shakespeare as Authority”, contains seven black-and-white illustrations and is more clearly focused as it explores the Shakespearean heritage left by the Bard. James Harriman-Smith discusses the Shakespeare revival of the eighteenth century and reminds us of the great actors who played Shakespeare at the time — Garrick, of course, is duly mentioned. Interestingly, Harriman-Smith shows that these actors managed to influence the way editors conceived their work. Andrew Rudd then devotes a cogent twelve-page essay on the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) whose “veneration” (266) for Shakespeare helped him “project an image of himself as a kindred genius who inherited Shakespeare’s mantle” [ibid.]. This analysis gives way to an exploration of the contestations of Shakespearean authority that emerged in the British and Irish Romantic culture. Indeed, in chapter 14, Benedicte Seynhaeve and Raphaël Ingelbien turn to the figure of Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824), a Romantic Irish novelist who used Shakespeare (and was fascinated by Macbeth) to make “covert commentaries on Irish history” [283]. Curiously, nothing bridges the gap, in the volume, between romanticism and the second part of the twentieth century, as the following essay by Fred Ribkoff and Paul Tyndall is devoted to “Peter Brook’s cinematic rendering of Shakespeare’s King Lear” [301]. Dwelling on Brook’s practices and sensibility as a stage-director, the two authors examine how Brook has destabilised the Shakespearean authority and they notably insist on his “alienation technique” [305]. The last chapter of the collection usefully provides the readers with an overview of “Shakespeare’s authority in contemporary culture” [317]. Jane Partner investigates the recent depictions of Shakespeare as a “punk” or a “hipster” [319] and insists on the power of the visual arts to disseminate “Shakespeare’s cultural authority” [333].

In the wake of such books as Law and Authority in Early Modern England (edited by Buchanan Sharp and Mark Charles Fissel, University of Delaware Press, 2007) or Conal Condren’s Argument and Authority in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Shakespeare and Authority presents thought-provoking individual chapters and, as such, is a valuable contribution to the flourishing field of Shakespeare studies. More specifically aimed at Shakespeare scholars and specialists of the early modern period, it will undoubtedly enlarge their vision of Shakespeare as poet and playwright now turned into one of the greatest artistic influences of our century. Tellingly enough, as Clare McManus observes, the playwright has even “become an authority figure for writers to kick against in despair”.(2)


(1) William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. In Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus & Gordon McMullan (eds.), The Norton Shakespeare (Third Edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

(2) Clare McManus, “Shakespeare and Gender : The ‘woman’s part’ ”. Published 15 March 2016, accessible online on the British Library website (date accessed: 12 June 2018).



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