Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings

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MARTHA W. DRIVER AND SID RAY, eds., Shakespeare and the Middle Ages: Essays on the Performance and Adaptation of the Plays with Medieval Sources or Settings. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2009. Pp. viii, 276. ISBN: 978-0-7864-3405-3. $39.95.

In a recent BBC documentary recounting the theft of Shakespeare's First Folio, the art-thief, Raymond Scott, admits that when he first saw the book, he 'wasn't very impressed with it'; amid all of its fanfare and proclamations of uniqueness, it was 'only a disbound copy of a book.' For what is only a book, however, it is increasingly clear that Shakespeare's legacy has ripples far beyond its immediate circles among Early Modernists, and Driver and Ray's Shakespeare and the Middle Ages ably demonstrates that in time such ripples might quickly become waves. Documenting the importance of the Middle Ages to Shakespeare's oeuvre, as well as the importance of Shakespeare's plays to the modern reception of the medieval, the collection draws on a range of approaches from theology to musicology, from theater studies to gender studies, and invites insight from medievalists, Victorianists and Early Modernists alike. The resulting essays provide some fascinating suggestions and compelling arguments to support the central contention that 'while Shakespeare is not history, he has shaped our reception of it' (24).

On the surface, the book is intended solely to provide 'an introduction to reading Shakespeare's plays through the lens of the medieval works that inform them,' and it 'serves also as a guide to Shakespeare and medievalism in popular culture' (8). Nevertheless, the various essays draw on a wide range of sources, both contemporary and more recent, to show how the repeated performance of his plays has provoked a return to the medieval tropes inherent in many of his plays (particular attention is paid to his Henry plays, Troilus and Cressida, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth) and film adaptations which paradoxically return us to the sources precisely by way of a deviation from the source text.

Although the main focus of the volume remains on the impact of Shakespeare on our modern conception of the medieval period, a number of the essays achieve this by innovative approaches to this most studied of playwrights, demonstrating that there is still more to be discovered despite the colossal bibliography already in existence on the subject. One particularly insightful essay, for example, written by Carl James Grindley, probes the frequently overlooked role played by peasants, and makes a strong argument against their traditional assimilation with the Chorus, which sets the stage neatly for further non-standard approaches to Shakespeare's works. …