Lighting Up Shakespeare

The author of four substantial scholarly books, numerous editorial interventions, and various critical articles, Anne Barton is a lucid and witty writer whose learning is both extensive and solidly grounded. Though born in America and a graduate of Bryn Mawr, she has lived and worked most of her adult life in England, where she is currently Professor of English and Fellow of Trinity College at Cambridge. Her career has been consistently, though not exclusively, devoted to the study of Shakespeare; and the present volume, Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, represents, as it were, a retrospective exhibit of much of her career. Two of the sixteen essays included are previously unpublished, the first, on English marriage customs in relation to Cymbeline, and the other, on “Comic London,” which stands next to last in the collection.

It is good to have the other fourteen essays collected here in a single book; and a thoroughly impressive book it is. The essays were first published not only in familiar repositories of the literature, such as the Shakespeare Quarterly and the Shakespeare Survey but in several Festschrifts and other topical places. With characteristic modesty and good taste, Ms. Barton has omitted a number of pieces which, though substantial, are already sufficiently familiar. Still, the collection stretches from a first undergraduate essay (1953) to the present—a solid body of informed, sensitive, and sensible commentary of which any scholar could be proud and with which future writers on Shakespeare will have to be acquainted. It is a big book but not a formidable one, and a consistent pleasure to read.

Since so much of the book has already appeared in print, albeit in scholarly journals, it may be appropriate for a reviewer to concentrate on the two new pieces, of which one shows Anne Barton’s historical work at its most distinctive, and the other illustrates its application beyond literature. The first essay concentrates on Cymbeline, commonly grouped with the romances or late plays. Probably it was produced in 1611, likely it was written a year or two before that, and its text derives from the 1623 Folio. Its action is set in early Britain, in the reign of Cunobelin (Cymbeline), during the rule of Augustus Caesar as Roman Emperor—very long ago, as needs no saying. Sundry Romans still live on the island, holdovers from the legions of Julius Caesar, the first invader. One of them is Posthumus Leonatus, so called because his father died before his birth. As a soldier-courtier, he frequents the court of Cymbeline, where he falls in love with, and is loved in turn by, Imogen, the King’s daughter by a previous marriage. This budding affinity is unwelcome to the King and particularly to the King’s second wife, who wants Imogen reserved for her uncouth son Cloten. In pursuance of this plan she has Posthumus Leonatus banished to the continent and Imogen jailed till she consents to marry the repugnant Cloten.

The question central to Ms. Barton’s essay has to do with the nature of…

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