The Oxford Handbook to the Age of Shakespeare

edited by R Malcolm Smuts, OUP, 848pp, £35

In the latter half of the 20th century, Shakespeare studies underwent a sea change. Gone was the close reading of text and in its stead, feminist, colonial and deconstructionist theories abounded. No one read Shakespeare for Shakespeare any more. They read the plays to tease out injustice, prejudice and their own ever-more tangential theories.

Thankfully, the late 1990s saw this trend reversed with the ascent of the “new historicism” spearheaded by Stephen Greenblatt. “Historicism has become the dominant approach to literary studies in the 21st century,” writes R Malcolm Smuts in the introduction to this huge and hugely informative book. Historicism maintains that, to grasp Shakespeare, one has to understand the Elizabethan/Jacobean culture he was a part of. This seems like common sense, though some versions of this theory have taken a more deterministic approach, claiming that social and political history are the only ways to understand a text.

Smuts and his fellow contributors wisely tread the middle path, recognising that knowing contemporary history will tell us a lot about Shakespeare but not everything. This new research leads Smuts to conclude: “The period of Shakespeare’s youth and young adulthood now appear as one characterised by much more serious anxieties and intellectual ferment than scholars once supposed.” No writer is an island, and Shakespeare would have been aware of, and receptive to, political, religious and ethical currents surrounding him.

Two chapters focus on specifically Catholic issues. The first of these, Glyn Parry’s “Catholicism and Tyranny in Shakespeare’s Warwickshire” is a

masterclass in historical exegesis, teasing out all the ravelled pieces of religious non-conformity and political despotism.

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