Sunday, 24 November 2013

Review: The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (2001), eds. Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

Edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells

Oxford University Press, Hardback, 2001.
4to. xxix+541 pp. Preface by the editors, April 2001 [vii-viii].

First published, 2001.


Thematic listing of entries
List of plays
Note to the reader

The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare

The British Isles and Frances in the English Histories and Macbeth
The royal family in Shakespeare’s English Histories
Shakespeare’s life, works and reception: a partial chronology
Further reading

Picture acknowledgements


Very valuable but unfortunately prejudiced resource

Browsing this book fills me with mixed feelings. On the positive side, it is remarkably comprehensive for a single volume of less than 600 pages. On the other hand, there are certain perfunctory treatments, and even certain omissions, which strongly smack of foolish academic prejudice.

Good things first. All of Shakespeare's works are very well-covered. Textual problems, sources, synopsis, artistic features, critical and performance history, even short section about screen versions are provided in each and every case. Numerous other issues related to Shakespeare also enjoy concise, well-written and informative entries. Examples include the authorship controversy, various social issues (law, education, etc.) during Shakespeare's time and what use he made of them, history of reception and performance in countless countries (from Russia to Brazil), historical background as regards Elizabethan England (especially an extensive discussion of the theatrical world), biographical sketches of actors, actresses, directors and critics and who not involved with Shakespeare (from Burbage and Garrick to Olivier and Gielgud, from Dryden and Johnson to Shaw and Auden) and many, many more. Browsing the volume is exhilarating and educational.

Many of these entries do look too short and superficial, and some areas are not as comprehensive as they might have been. But that is to be expected, and it is not one of the reasons for my (slight but certain) disappointment with the volume. To take a musical example, there is not even the shortest entry on Liszt, so the reader is never told about his fine symphonic poem Hamlet. However, Verdi, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky enjoy information-packed columns full of fascinating and rather obscure historical details as do Shakespeare-inspired works in the fields of opera and ballet. To take a literary example, despite many omissions, there are discussions of the major scholarly editions of Shakespeare's work (Penguin, Arden, Cambridge, Oxford), their history and their significance. Notably, each entry is signed with the initials of its contributor.

It is worth noting that the book is richly illustrated with everything from rare photos of obscure actresses to reproductions of original documents, and it contains a perfectly dosed amount of amusing trivia. Sometimes these two aspects are ingeniously combined. One of my greatest favourites is a Ford advertisement from 1964 titled “Seven characters in search of seven cars”. This is simply hilarious. Imagine Prospero driving a Ford Cortina or Benedick satisfying himself with something “smart and snappy – the Anglia.” Few things convince me better in Will’s universal appeal. Even the automobile industry cannot resist him. The whole “advertising” entry is deliciously funny.

Considering Shakespeare's unprecedented popularity and enormous impact on just about everything, it is of course quite impossible to collect everything about him in a single volume. With that in mind, I think the small army of contributors have done an excellent job. The writing can sometimes be a little dry and dull, but it is always clear and precise. It is often opinionated, but it is virtually never obnoxious. I am not going to discuss my disagreement with specific opinions expressed in this book. This seems like a childish nitpicking. Diversity of opinion, at least in art and within reasonable limits, should be encouraged, not disparaged. But I do object to some inexplicable omissions and to the extremely superficial treatment of some inclusions.

For example, why is there no entry on Isaac Asimov and his Guide to Shakespeare? His impressive discussion of the historical and mythological background of the plays certainly deserves to be mentioned. Amazingly enough, even Harold Bloom is snubbed; his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is speedily dismissed as "every bit as hyperbolic and bardolatrous as its title suggests" and something that "cannot be recommended". I have read only small parts of Mr Bloom's magnum opus and they strike me as singularly uneven. But that's a matter of taste and highly irrelevant in this case. The outstanding popular success of his book warrants more than a casual mention in any companion to Shakespeare. The same goes for Asimov's volume which is still in print and relatively widely read.

(I wonder if Bill Bryson and his excellent Shakespeare: The World as a Stage in the Eminent Lives series would have been mentioned at all had the Companion been published after it. I am at least pleased to note that W. H. Auden – who is generally skipped by Shakespearean scholars – does have an entry. He and his essays are even mentioned in the discussions and bibliographies of Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest. So they should be.)

If these can pass "merely" for academic prejudices against popular writers, hardly something untypical in the rarefied circles of academia, the omission of Harold Goddard is downright baffling. He was an academic and his idiosyncratic yet compelling 1951 study of Shakespeare's oeuvre (The Meaning of Shakespeare, now available in two paperback volumes) is well worth the time of everybody seriously interested in the Bard. Bernard Shaw's controversial attitude is discussed in some detail, but the definitive collection of his Shakespearean criticism (Shaw on Shakespeare, 1961, ed. Edwin Wilson) is never mentioned.

In general, the treatment of some notable scholars and critics – or just "popular" writers – could have been more extensive. And the "Further Reading" is so short and superficial that it is just not serious. It goes without saying that the literature on Shakespeare is vast and well-nigh impossible to be encompassed. But that's why one reads this kind of multi-scholar reference books: to benefit from the experience and the insight of as many and as eminent scholars as possible. And yet – and despite the short (and without annotations) bibliographies in the end of many entries – the companion leaves something to be desired as far as further reading is concerned.

The most shocking and shameful treatment of great scholar I have discovered so far is that of G. B. Harrison. It is so perfunctory that it can be quoted in full:

Harrison, George Bagshawe (1894-1991), English academic. Author of Shakespeare: The Man and his Stage (1923), and Shakespeare under Elizabeth (1933), which speculates on the black prostitute Lucy Negro as a possible Dark Lady. His widely diffused Penguin editions of each play (1937-59) were based on the Folio text, but with only limited annotation.

G. B. H. deserves so much more than that. He wrote at least two other books – Introducing Shakespeare (1939, rev. ed. 1954) and Shakespeare's Tragedies (1951) – which should be on the to-be-read list of every Shakespearean neophyte. He also edited an impressive collection of contemporary writings, England in Shakespeare's Day (1928) that offers a vivid picture of Elizabethan England. Mr Harrison was extremely well-versed in the period and his historical background is often illuminating.

It is true that his Penguin editions – which can nowadays be found in the Penguin Popular Classics series – are not the most lavishly annotated, but neither are they valueless on this account. In fact, Mr Harrison edited Shakespeare's Complete Works (first published as a single volume in 1952) and this single-volume edition contains much more extensive annotations as well as a good deal of informative and perceptive essays about the works and their historical background, all written in a clear, lively, witty, engaging and insightful style.

To dismiss a Shakespearean scholar of Mr Harrison's accomplishment with so miserable an entry as the one quoted above is simply crass. I wonder how many other similar examples, which I unfortunately cannot notice, are contained within this book. It's a disturbing issue to contemplate.

Although this kind of book has been made largely superfluous by the Internet, The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare is still very much worth having – especially if you don't always have the opportunity to be online. It is a treasure trove to dip into with pleasure and profit while exploring the Bard. But please keep in mind that it is not always fair and reliable, the impressive array of scholarly contributors and (usually) the deceptively impartial writing notwithstanding. At least several notable writers on Shakespeare suffer from perfunctory and misleading treatment, or are completely omitted.

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