Russ McDonald, ed. Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 930pp. ISBN-13: 9780631234883

J. Gavin Paul
University of British Columbia

J. Gavin Paul. "Review of Russ McDonald, ed. Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 7.1-6<URL:>.

  1. Russ McDonald's goal in crafting this anthology of post-WW II Shakespeare studies is straightforward and ambitious: to provide "a comprehensive yet handy record of that era, a means of surveying the scholarship, interpretation, and theory that burgeoned during a period of exceptional industry and rapid change in the Anglo-American academy" (x). Forty-nine essays -- the earliest being E. M. W. Tillyard's "The Cosmic Background" (1944)-are divided into fourteen "arbitrary" (xii) categories, including New Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Materialist Criticism, Historicism and New Historicism, Textual Criticism and Bibliography, and Postcolonial Shakespeare.

  2. Although the selections themselves surely matter more than the headings they are placed under, it is difficult to argue with the divisions that McDonald implements-among other choices, he incisively differentiates between Feminist Criticism and Studies in Gender and Sexuality, and discounts (quite rightly, I think) Deconstruction as necessitating a separate section in a collection of Shakespearean criticism. If there is an anomalous category, it is the anthology's first, on Authorship; this is the only section to include just one essay, and the piece by Samuel Schoenbaum on "Looney and the Oxfordians," while eloquent and amusing, sets a curious tone in that it provides a conspicuously tangential engagement with its rubric. Schoenbaum's work on matters related to biography is monumental, but the Oxfordian/Stratfordian authorship debate is a strange spectre to raise amongst selections that are otherwise much more critically and theoretically rigorous; McDonald, to his credit, directs readers to other sections (new historicism and cultural materialism) for more complicated formulations of authorship existing within "a network of political, commercial, literary, religious, and other cultural affiliations" (2). As for the classifications of the remainder of the essays, it hardly seems fruitful to quibble, since McDonald intends his categories to be understood as permeable: "every species of critical thinking, no matter how distinctive it may seem, is implicated with many others" (xiii).

  3. In the interests of variety and representative sampling, McDonald imposes a limit of one item per writer, and also makes "[an] effort . . . to attend to as many plays as possible with as little overlap as possible" (xi). When these welcome strategies are combined with the fact that McDonald organizes the anthology by methodology rather than by following a strict chronology, the result is a truly diverse collection that allows for disparate voices to be juxtaposed in revealing ways. Tillyard's essay, for example, is followed immediately by Greenblatt's "Invisible Bullets." The section on Performance Criticism ranges from what is essentially theatre history -- Gerald Eades Bentley's "Shakespeare and the Blackfriars Theatre"-to the revolutionary work of J. L. Styan, to W. B. Worthen's theoretical reassessments of what has come before ("Deeper Meanings and Theatrical Technique: The Rhetoric of Performance Criticism").

  4. The reprinted essays provide the anthology with its bulk and do all of the heavy lifting, but the book's greatest strength are the interstitial contributions of McDonald himself, brief three or four page introductions to each section of material. McDonald concedes that "[m]any users of this book will prefer to skip the introductory matter and get onto what they came for, the essays themselves" (xiii), but to do so would be a mistake. With concise, accessible, and even-handed summaries, McDonald demonstrates a remarkable ability to maintain a firm grasp on the shifting critical landscapes of the past fifty or so years. Best of all, McDonald extends his discussions well beyond the boundaries of Shakespeare studies; in outlining developments in textual criticism, for example, he remarks that "the literary critic's move away from the work of art as a coherent, self-contained unit towards an emphasis on fissure and multivocality finds its parallel in the bibliographer's abandonment of an ideal text in favor of collaborative production and multiple versions" (268).

  5. The compilation's one shortcoming is its lack of a bibliography or bibliographies that would provide a list of further reading for each of the fourteen categories that McDonald has demarcated. McDonald suggests that such lists can be reconstituted from the footnotes and bibliographies of the individual essays (xi), but such an endeavour on the reader's part would not always result in an expansion of one's reading horizons. Of the thirteen texts referenced by Gary Taylor in notes to his 1987 essay, "Revising Shakespeare," for instance, six of them refer to other works written (or co-written) by Taylor himself. I point this out not to slight Taylor, but to suggest that the absence of further reading lists from McDonald's anthology potentially undermines his aim of fostering "critical perspective" (xi). McDonald does attempt to mention possibilities for further reading as he introduces each group of essays, but these passing references are far from comprehensive.

  6. As with any anthology, it is always interesting to see to whom the editor gives the last word. In this case, the final essay is Patricia Parker's "Transfigurations: Shakespeare and Rhetoric," which models a style of close reading that forges connections not just between Shakespeare's plays but between the plays and their contemporary rhetorical contexts. Parker's essay (and thus the anthology) ends by looking forward: ". . . we need to pay attention to the exploitation of the terms and structures of rhetoric, in ways which would lead into the figurative logic shaping both lines and scenes, and from the plays themselves into the order of discourse and discourse of order they both echo and turn on itself" (905). This conclusion is fitting, as it reminds readers that at the core of even the most sophisticated of interpretive procedures are the works themselves -- the "lines and scenes" that are able to sustain a disparate range of critical extrapolations and manoeuvres. The collection as a whole echoes this spirit. For students, the anthology will serve as an extraordinary map with which to navigate vast fields of criticism that even specialists can find daunting; and for those specialists, McDonald's collection will stand as a rich and provocative record of the recent critical past.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).