Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare Only

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare Only

Article excerpt

Shakespeare Only, by Jeffrey Knapp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. 256. Cloth $38.00.

Reviewer: James P. Bednarz

Shakespeare Only concerns the question of what sets Shakespeare apart as a writer, and to this end Jeffrey Knapp presents two main arguments. To clear space for his main focus on authorial self-representation, he begins with an incisive polemic against the claims by contemporary scholars that either there were "no authors in Shakespeare's world" (x) or that drama itself was primarily anonymous and collaborative, identified chiefly with acting companies rather than particular poets. He then uses this critique as a platform to delineate his theory that Shakespeare conceived of himself as a commercial dramatist working in a degraded medium who paradoxically assumed that he could achieve "rareness" and "glory" by "aspiring to seem 'common' too" (xiii). His model of "dramatic authorship" can only be understood "in relation to mass entertainment" (4). Authorship, Knapp asserts, shaped "mass entertainment," just as "mass entertainment" shaped Shakespeare's conception of authorship. He becomes the many-in-one.

Reviewing criticism of the last two decades of the twentieth century with Knapp, one can now easily detect the extreme ideological assumptions concerning "the death of the author" that led influential theater historians to make surprisingly misleading claims about the nature of dramatic authorship in Shakespeare's age. Knapp is most effective in demonstrating how the drive behind such criticism "to celebrate collaboration in the moment before the individual" (12) now seems tendentious. He can do so because in the interim more sophisticated efforts to articulate the interrelations among overlapping modes of composition, such as coactivity, collaboration, and rivalry, have supplanted more suspect forms of analysis that deliberately exclude human agency. Indeed, despite Knapp's critique, those scholars who misread theatrical history in the light of Foucault and Barthes are now regularly exonerated for introducing a profitable paradigm shift away from naive assumptions of "sovereign authorship" that ignored the literary and theatrical networks in which early modern writing developed. Yet nothing that Knapp reveals advances beyond the more cogent presentation of this matter offered by Brian Vickers in "Appendix II: Abolishing the Author? Theory versus History" of Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002). So that as much as I am convinced that Knapp's critique is justified, at this point it adds nothing significantly new to an already exhausted debate.

Asserting that single-authored plays provide the central paradigm for the discussion of dramatic composition in the early modern period, Knapp sees Shakespeare as an author who defined himself as a poet-playwright-actor by accepting theater's low status. Instead of aligning himself with the "literary," as Ben Jonson had done, Shakespeare, according to Knapp, discovered an "empowering debasement" (52) in mass entertainment. "It is this peculiar readiness to shame himself," Knapp writes, "that makes the speaker seem distinctive in his own eyes" (53) not only in the Sonnets but in representative characters that reflect obliquely on his art. Shakespeare is thus said to be involved in an "autobiographical fantasy" in the Henriad as Hal seeks to incorporate the common, although, according to Knapp, with one main difference, since Shakespeare felt no corresponding need to banish Falstaff from his enlarged domain. The playwright is equally figured in the Duke from Measure for Measure who manages the play's seedy plots to secure his theatrical ends. …

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