W. R. Owens and Lizbeth Goodman, eds. Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. London: Routledge, 1996. v+346 pp. ISBN 0 415 13576 Paper.
Nancy Bunker
Southwest Missouri State University

Bunker, Nancy. "Review of Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 12.1-11 <URL:

  1. Ongoing discussions about the literary canon -- the "body of texts and writers traditionally regarded as 'great' and thus possessing special authority" -- continually ask teachers, students, and critics to reevaluate their views connected with it. Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon is a collection of essays which both introduces the concept of the canon and also includes aspects of performance that affect canonical investigation; it is one of four texts in the series Approaching Literature, designed to introduce students to various aspects of literary study. Owens and Goodman succeed in composing an attractive and engaging text for undergraduate students as they suggest several lines of inquiry a student may use to examine the concept, definition, and the changing environment that collectively engender canonization.

  2. In the Preface, the editors explain their choices of Shakespeare, the "most celebrated example of a 'canonical' author," and Aphra Behn, "one of the leading playwrights of her time" but not currently accepted into the canon, as foundations for this text. This course text-book examination contains two parts. Part I consists of seven chapters; the first and last, written by Goodman, address themselves specifically to the canon, and the middle chapters, each written by a different author, concentrate on Shakespeare as a theatre poet, Henry V, Othello, The Rover, and As You Like It. Part II contains a new critical edition of The Rover with its supporting notes. While Shakespeare and Behn seem to be a non-traditonal pairing for a text book, the chapters elaborate on similarities and differences between their works as issues for canonization. Each play discussion elaborates on the "key concern" for the issue of theatrical performance, both live and recorded, and the resulting effect on the process of canonization. The chapters examining Shakespeare's plays survey their long-lived canonical position, while the Aphra Behn essay delineates the issues pertaining to canon inclusion/exclusion that affect The Rover.

  3. The chapters that contain play discussions follow a distinctive pattern: introduction, themes contained in the work, questions regarding major concepts to be examined, and discussions that interpret text and offer analysis. Play text is often interspersed with critical theory relevant to the emphasis of the chapter, specific historical information, or critique of conventional readings. The editors sprinkle nearly four dozen black and white pictures, publicity photographs, engravings, and facsimiles from historical texts throughout the book; a further reading list completes every chapter.

  4. Goodman's initial overview of the canon invites the reader to question, analyze, and challenge the "givens" of canon study and encourages the process of formulating one's own definition, thus contributing to a "more considered" definition than currently exists. Her "Idea" chapter includes such traditional issues in canon formation as links with scripture, Englishness, and reverence for the classics. Opinions about the canon itself, derived from Open University scholars Graham Martin and Arnold Kettle, underpin her remarks about the criteria for interesting literature, the definition of literature, and the notion of literature as a mirror of life. Goodman, however, identifies the potential for debate as she includes Terry Eagleton's views of social construction and his position on the non-value of the literary works themselves. She characterizes the uneasy place of drama in literary criticism and asks the reader to remember that drama is more than a text; she also emphasizes Raymond Williams' contention of the importance of performance. The "Reviewing" chapter revisits Kettle's perspective of literature as a part of life, and introduces the idea of evaluating literature based upon its relevance to experience. Goodman clearly supports two methods for reviewing the canon of plays in contemporary culture. She reminds readers that there are several ways to interpret texts as they intersect with life and argues for interpretation that is true to the author or spirit of the original play. The chapter ends with a summary of the issues previously discussed about each play, and privileges Shakespeare, who ironically "seems to encapsulate the idea of an official canon and to inspire new thinking." Goodman's notable omission of any remark about Behn puzzles me, however; especially since the authors presumably offer both playwrights as examples for canon study. In fact, Behn's exclusion from the canon for nearly two centuries and her position of semi-regard today speaks volumes about the "official" canon.

  5. The chapters on Henry V and Othello explore the canon from very different perspectives. Simon Eliot, author of the chapter on Henry V, looks at the play's connection with historical facts and at the character of the historical King Henry V. Eliot identifies a half dozen specific historical facts that Shakespeare alters, eliminates, or recreates with new emphasis which contributed to the ongoing canonization of the historical Henry V and which contributed to the play's canonization process as well. Roger Day, chapter author for Othello, examines the play from its social context. He identifies the tragedy of Othello's limitations and the duplicity of Iago's actions and argues for the "connections between concerns of race, cultural identity, and sexuality" as a foreground for canonization.

  6. Both authors speak to the inextricable links between performance and canon inclusion with their discussions of performance history and reception. Henry V, a beloved political figure, was already entrenched in the playgoer's conscious mind when Shakespeare's version came to the stage. The "patriotic pleasure" derived from viewing a glorious, successful England contributed to its canonical status; however, the "crossover" between politics and theatre in Henry V still captures modern audiences. The canonizing of Othello may come from its reputation as one of Shakespeare's "most consistently popular and frequently performed" plays, and Day insists that its "power to grip the imagination and excite intense feelings" fixes its status within the canon. He contends that the features of well-placed persons, the controversial Muslim, black-skinned hero, and the invitation for audience responses to race and cultural identity are sustaining elements of canonization by audiences. Both chapters examine the themes contained in the plays, suggest interpretations of language, and discuss the use of soliloquy. Eliot pays special attention to the contrary activities of the Chorus, and Day's portrait of Othello as displaced general and unable husband illuminates his later discussion of Desdemona's handkerchief.

  7. Owens' chapter on The Rover provides a treatise on Aphra Behn's life and times. From the first mention of Behn as a marginalized persona located in a dream sequence of revered poets interred in Westminster Abbey, to his casual mention of the Abbey as her final resting place, Owens portrays her as a major force in British drama. As the first woman who made her living as an author, her early feminist work and "extraordinary" presence found success but suffered consistent attacks as well. Two centuries of "oblivion" and condemnation of the Restoration dramatists in general create a challenge for studying Behn, but Owens furnishes a brief biographical sketch, speaks to the revolutionary role of women writers in the seventeenth century, and surveys her career in both prose and drama. Because Behn openly insisted upon professional equality for women, she argued for life and art on her own terms. Even as her non-traditional lifestyle with gallants and raucous men generated a dubious reputation with both men and women and fuelled sentiment against her, Behn refused to be silenced. Owens furnishes lengthy excerpts from her most assertive responses to criticism and argues for her voice in theatre history. Importantly, the characterizations and the portrayal of love and sex Behn exhibits in The Rover establish its role as a seminal document of feminist concerns. Anti-feminist Behn critiques from Jacqueline Pearson and Heidi Hutner argue against Owens' perspective in this chapter and dismiss the notion of atypical female characters.

  8. Although there can be "no doubt" that being a woman affected her exclusion from the canon, Owens' reviews of The Rover's performance history reveals perpetual assaults on Behn's original text. From its first performance in 1677 to an adaptation in 1790, the play is marked by omissions, revisions, and alterations by legions of theatrical personnel who claim to excise its objectionable matter. Even twentieth-century productions have used phrases such as "streamline her 'confusing' play" as justification for revisions. Such displaced efforts to rewrite Behn and to disavow the spirit of her own version have contaminated performance and have contributed mightily to her obscurity. Goodman concludes this chapter with a subsection discussing performance issues that surfaced and impacted upon two major British productions of The Rover. She reviews the 1987 experimental stage version and the 1994 recorded-for-video version and explores the agenda that prioritizes gender and the unequal cultural and social status of all the characters in the play. The processes and decisions regarding the doubling of parts, playing space, costumes, masques, and camera angles reveal some modern-day challenges to mounting a production of this complex play.

  9. Kate Clarke's chapter, As You Like It, reveals its place in the canon as one of Shakespeare's "most popular comedies" and reiterates the historical view that comedy has been less worthy of study, perhaps because of its alliance with "popular culture" and circumstances that invoke laughter. She positions the function of comedy in this play as both valuable in releasing tension and typical in dramatic structure (familiar, unfamiliar, and return to familiar), because it confirms the social order that audiences endorse and enjoy. Clarke treats this play differently from previous chapter authors as she argues for As You Like It as "a literary text written for performance." As the "dramatic function," defined as the "potential for performance inscribed in the text of a play" joins these two components, Clarke's examination weaves characterization, themes, the specific issue of love, the language of romantic poetry, the function of marriage, and the pastoral into a labyrinth of interconnecting analysis that insists all factors are relevant to each other. A subsection of this chapter examines the disguise and gender confusion Rosalind demonstrates throughout the play. Clarke's complex description of the early audiences who saw men disguised and portrayed as women argues for the sexual dynamics of such issues and their role in performance as they create laughter and challenge traditional audience belief systems. Jacques and Touchstone receive special attention within canon and performance commentary as the reader is asked to visualize these characters, hear their words, and connect with their function in the play. Clarke advocates that readers use their life experience to provide context for the anti-social position these characters portray.

  10. Part II of this book contains a full-length critical edition of The Rover. The play format includes line count and stage directions that enable reading without difficulty. Owens explains the textual policy, justifies the authority of the first edition, and furnishes seven pages of explanatory notes. I am puzzled by the absence of a Table of Variants, especially since Chapter Five discusses the myriad of play texts and performances that have plagued The Rover since its first stage presentation. The variants would disclose the most frequent changes to the original text and provide a quick read for the differences in performance history. If Owens' edition, at last, is to serve as the authoritative text for this play, it must contribute to scholarship with an enriched textual understanding; a critical edition requires the complete textual apparatus.

  11. An order form, contained in the binding of the book, affords an opportunity to purchase video cassettes of As You Like It and The Rover. In addition, the Bibliography lists audio and video resources for each play in the text; each citation denotes the collaborative effort between the BBC and The Open University in producing the cassette.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(JD, LH, RGS, 29 January 1998)