Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, eds. Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900: An Anthology of Criticism. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1997. ISBN 0 7190 4704 8 Paper; 0 7190 4703 X Cloth.
Christine Mack Gordon
College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota

Gordon, Christine Mack. "Review of Women Reading Shakespeare 1660-1900: An Anthology of Criticism." Early Modern Literary Studies 4.1 (May, 1998): 12.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/04-1/rev_gor1.html>.

  1. In the time period covered by this collection, few if any women were acknowledged as scholars. Nonetheless women read, discussed, acted in, and wrote about the works of Shakespeare. Thanks to editors Ann Thompson and Sasha Roberts, we now have the opportunity to read and consider the works of these neglected critics. From Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who wrote what is the first critical essay on Shakespeare ever published (in 1664), through Mary Bradford-Whiting whose essay on "Mothers in Shakespeare" appeared in 1898, the work of forty-two intelligent, articulate, and provocative women gives the interested reader in the waning years of the twentieth century an opportunity to explore the ways in which criticism both reflects and transcends the concerns of a particular time and place.

  2. Nearly all these writers are intensely engaged with their subject matter, whether they are preparing to play a role onstage, to re-tell the stories of the plays for a young audience, to create a previous history for some of the characters, to edit the plays for publication, or to share their enthusiasm with a general audience -- often with the members of various Shakespeare societies and clubs that flourished in the nineteenth century. Not too surprisingly, their opinions on particular issues or characters within the plays are remarkably diverse. Every reader will find her or his own favourites among these writers; I was perhaps most intrigued by the analyses offered by the actors playing the various characters, especially -- as with Adelaide Ristori’s reflections on Lady Macbeth -- when the actor had difficulty sympathizing with the character she was to play.

  3. The time period or the particular culture in which each woman wrote sometimes affects significantly her understanding or appreciation of a given work; this was most apparent in Mary Preston’s comments on Othello. Preston, apparently a Confederate sympathizer in the American Civil War, comments initially "How natural is the origin of this love-match! Two streams rushing from different directions find, at last, the same outlet -- the ocean." But soon she admits that in studying the play, she has always imagined its hero as a white man; Shakespeare’s imagination here was "one of the few erroneous strokes of the great master’s brush, the single blemish on a faultless work." More subtly, in some of the other essays, we can see how the cultural expectations of women affect a writer’s interpretation of a particular role or the whole of a play. Yet what surprises and delights is how often these writers see beyond the limitations (or what we believe these limitations to be) of their own lives and cultures; for anyone who continues to find something we daringly describe as "universals" in Shakespeare’s work, these essays will offer at least some confirmation.

  4. Unlike contemporary scholars, who must please the palate of their peers, these writers spoke to a more general audience, but one with a serious interest in this shared subject matter. They are able to explore issues of the day in the context of the arguments of the plays, to see both immediate and transcendent value in the creations of Shakespeare’s imagination. As writers, editors, and theatre artists, they explored the multiple meanings of Shakespeare’s work, and gave their own voices to the on-going cultural conversation. We should be grateful to the editors for restoring them to us.

  5. In addition to the selection of work, Thompson and Roberts also provide an introduction that defines the social and cultural contexts within which these women wrote, a helpful list of quick reference topics that point readers to particular issues of interest, as well as a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, a general index, and an index of works by Shakespeare. They have also found illustrations by women of Shakespeare’s work to enhance the volume. Since the work of most of these writers is out of print, this anthology offers readers an entrée into a substantial body of thoughtful criticism that would otherwise be lost. The editors acknowledge that the collection is "neither complete nor definitive," and explain their criteria for inclusion, noting that they have "collected enough material for ten volumes of this size." Nonetheless, this superb compilation will be of interest to anyone interested in Shakespeare, in the development of women as writers, critics, editors, and actors, and in the general intellectual history of women.

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).

(LH, RGS, 30 March 1998)