Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare Survey 55

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

Shakespeare Survey 55

Article excerpt

Shakespeare Survey 55, ed. Peter Holland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. x + 410 pp. Cloth $80.00.

The theme of Shakespeare Survey 55 is "King Lear and Its Afterlife," although it includes half a dozen essays on other topics as well as three surveys of Shakespeare performances in England and elsewhere and the usual "Year's Contributions to Shakespeare Studies." In all, this is a very attractive and useful volume in the series begun over half a century ago.

Kiernan Ryan contributes the first essay, a retrospect of scholarship and criticism on King Lear for the period 1980-2000. It begins by acknowledging what is by now a well known fact, that since the 1960s King Lear has "usurped the throne securely occupied till then by Hamlet." As a result, this play has become "an exemplary site of contention between the leading schools of contemporary criticism." The main issue in the twenty-year period Ryan covers up to the present is no longer, he says, whether King Lear counseled affirmation or despair, but rather "whether the play sustained or subverted oppressive structures of power and perception in its world and our own" (2). But before discussing critics who treat that issue, he naturally focuses on the basic issue of the two-text theory, noting that the theory has not yet attained anything like universal acceptance. This essay, like the examples which follow, implicitly accept a definition of "after-life" as Janet Bottom later defines it: "The 'after-life' of any Shakespeare play is lived through a variety of media-stage performance, critical analysis, translation, and adaptation" (106). Unaccountably missing from Ryan's account, however, is Alexander Leggatt's excellent book on King Lear in performance in the Manchester University Press series, which covers major productions of the play in the period Ryan covers.

The essay that follows Ryan's, one of the longest and most scholarly in the volume, considers what we might call the pre-life of Shakespeare's King Lear. Richard Knowles analyzes "How Shakespeare Knew King Leir." He notes the wide range of opinions, all of them still current, from the contention that Shakespeare knew the old play but was little influenced by it to the claim that he not only knew the play, but acted in it as a Queen's Man or later as a Chamberlain's or King's Man. He might even have acquired and used a manuscript version of King Leir, some maintain, before its publication in 1605. On the available evidence Knowles finds most of the claims unconvincing if not entirely baseless; moreover, he insists that Leir had precious little influence, if any, on other plays of Shakespeare's, such as Richard III. Instead, Knowles constructs a narrative, admittedly speculative, that reasonably explains how a nontheatrical manuscript became the copy for the 1605 publication of the play. He then concludes that, regardless of whether Shakespeare saw King Leir performed in 1594 or possibly later, he based his own version of the Lear story on the 1605 quarto of King Leir, the year in which he began his composition.

William O. Scott next discusses "Contracts of Love and Affection: Lear, Old Age, and Kingship." He recognizes the common belief that kings could not or really should not dispose of the their kingdoms in the way Lear proposes, but "commoners could reduce the cares of age by giving away their property" (36), and he cites examples from the period to that effect. But there was something "legally problematic" about "trading property for promises of future service, a mixture of property law and contract law" (38). Nevertheless, it was actually done for several centuries, but the timing of the exchanges and the enforcement was crucial, as Lear unhappily discovers, when he makes a contract, he believes, to buy future love.

In "Headgear as a Paralinguistic Signifier in King Lear" Andrew Gurr shows how the evidence about wearing and not-wearing of headgear repays careful study. …

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