Brinda Charry, The Arden Guide to Renaissance Drama: An Introduction with Primary Sources (Arden Shakespeare) (Bloomsbury Publishing, London: 2017) £18.99 (paperback)
Renaissance plays are among the world’s most valuable literary artifacts. They are also historical documents, ideological statements, philosophical reflections and theatrical scripts.
Brinda Charry has produced a relatively accessible and comprehensive overview of the period and its drama, split into two distinct sections.
In the first, she comprehensively surveys the different contextual features which led to the emergence and evolution of the drama. This section is clearly written in an accessible style, with a satisfying focus on cause and effect, and a host of references to contemporary sources and other critics.
By playing kings on stage, actors actually drew spectators’ attention to the fact that a large component of power was successful performance. In doing so, they stripped kingship of its sacred aura.
The title makes much of the inclusion of ‘Primary Sources’. These are mostly carefully curated, and helpfully embedded in the text. To an extent, their usefulness will depend on the reader’s area(s) of interest.
In the second section, Charry writes short critical essays providing an introductory overview of fourteen plays from the period, including three by Shakespeare and two by Marlowe: my main concern here is that my own experience of an English Literature degree, heavily leaning towards the literature of the period, took in only six of the titles she covers.
The book concludes with a fairly broad bibliography.
So far, so good. But who’s this book for?
Overall, it’s a bit ‘pick-and-mix’. For most people, therefore, I’d recommend borrowing it from your library rather than paying nearly twenty pounds for it. Whilst the language and style is accessible, enthusiastic A Level students, and indeed first year undergrads could do better with Hopkins and Steggle’s Renaissance Literature and Culture (Continuum: London, 2006) ISBN 978-0826485632. It’s shorter, a little cheaper, and that little bit clearer. Given the text choices currently available for study in the UK, A Level students will find little value in the second half of the book.
Second or third year University students might find it more helpful, but the danger here is that much of it could be broadly redundant, albeit that it is usefully collected here. Anyone ‘majoring’ in the period will probably already have familiarity with the selected works beyond these introductory essays, and the background material will likely have been covered before.
Four stars, therefore – well written and comrehensive, but almost looking for an audience that might not exist?
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