Talking Books with Russ McDonald

UNCG Photo By Chris English : -- UNCG's Russ McDonald during a photo session for the "Student First Campaign"[Michael P. Jensen’s interview of Russ McDonald appeared in the latest issue of The Shakespeare Newsletter (65.2, 75-81), only weeks before Dr. McDonald’s sudden, shocking passing. I share it here as part tribute, part memorial. Taken all in all, this true Shakespearean, scholar, teacher, and colleague was a blessing to the academic community. His work will continue to be. ~T.J. Moretti, Editor]

Michael P. Jensen

I was so starved to have some chat about Shakespeare in 1999 that I took a continuing studies class at Stanford built around the plays performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that year. Instructor Cheri Ross, later at Duke University, assigned the first edition of The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents to supplement the reading of the plays.

I thought I was above this introductory guide, but I was so impressed by Russ McDonald’s lucid coverage that I read beyond the weekly assignments and devoured the entire book. The chapter that convinced me to do this is on Shakespeare’s language (2nd ed., 36-58). I know of no other area of Shakespeare studies that is so difficult to express clearly without losing the reader. The chapter is brilliant. I refer to the chart showing the relative portions of poetry and prose in each of Shakespeare’s plays at least once a year (77-8). The second edition was published by St. Martin’s in 2001. A third is due in 2017.

Even better is Shakespeare & the Arts of Language, part of the Oxford Topics series published in 2001. This is a book-length treatment of that chapter in the Bedford book, and the extra pages allow McDonald to go very deep, indeed. The Bedford book is for your students. This one is for you.

A later addition to the topic is the 2006 Cambridge University Press book Shakespeare’s Late Style. It is fashionable to deny that Shakespeare’s late plays should be considered as a category apart from the rest of his work. At least in poetic language, McDonald shows there are substantial differences between the late plays and those that came before, and explains what these differences are like. He concludes that the new poetic style is suited to the ambivalent view of life that is part of these later works.

Acknowledging the distinctiveness of Shakespeare’s late plays came as early as McDonald’s first book, Shakespeare & Jonson / Jonson & Shakespeare, (University of Nebraska Press 1988). It was written in an era that concentrated on the differences between these writers, and commentators usually found Jonson’s achievement wanting. Without ignoring their legitimate differences, McDonald looks at what they share, specifically previously unrecognized thematic and structural commonalities. This results in parallel studies of, among others, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Every Man in his Humor, Jonson’s middle comedies and Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, and, yes, Jonson’s masques and Shakespeare’s late plays. Do not overlook this provocative little gem.

McDonald’s interest in performance is evident in the Bedford book’s fourth and tenth chapters, respectively on Shakespeare’s theatre and subsequent performance history. Another contribution is Look to the Lady: Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench on the Shakespearean Stage (Georgia University Press 2005). Each was considered to be the finest interpreter of Shakespeare’s female characters in their times. McDonald looks at these distinct actors and at the societies that valued their performances. This fascinating and under-read book of performance criticism is derived from McDonald’s 2002 Averitt Lectures at Georgia Southern University.

McDonald is also well known as an editor, with three anthologies and a number of texts on his CV. Theory drives the 1994 Cornell University Press book Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts, which looks at the move beyond New Criticism by presenting essays that study how we may now read the sonnets (Helen Vendler), provides different kinds of close readings (Stephen Booth, Harry Berger, Jr. and James R. Siemon), and considers F. R. Leavis and performance criticism (Barbara Hodgdon), among other approaches.

Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000 (Blackwell 2004) pairs two to five essays under such categories as “Materialist Criticism,” “Studies in Gender and Sexuality,” and “Psychoanalytic Criticism”—really, the range of current critical interests during that period. The forty-nine essays under the fourteen critical approaches are given in chronological order so that later essays answer the former, or show a more fashionable perspective. Thus, Gary Taylor demonstrates a different approach from Fredson Bowers, and Paul Werstine advances “Textual Criticism and Bibliography” from Taylor. “Historicism and New Historicism” begins with E. M. W. Tillyard, moves to Stephen Greenblatt, who is answered by Jean E. Howard, then by Louis Adrian Montrose. More recently, McDonald co-edited the 2012 Arden paperback, Shakespeare Up Close: Reading Early Modern Texts, with Nicholas D. Nace and Travis D. Williams. I wrote about this book in a “Talking Books Update” (63.2, p. 75), and refer you there for further explanation.

Also a textual editor, McDonald has edited the New Penguin editions of Titus Andronicus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 2000), Othello (2001), The Merry Wives of Windsor (2002), and he wrote a new introduction for the Penguin edition of The Winter’s Tale (2005). Most of these are also part of the The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (2002), under the general editorship of A. R. Braunmuller and Stephen Orgel. Last year, St. Martin’s published The Bedford Shakespeare co-edited by McDonald and Lena Cowen Orlin. Based on the New Cambridge texts, this anthology of twenty-five plays emphasizes pedagogy and performance. Forthcoming works include articles on the rhetoric of Jonson and others in Patricia Parker’s Shakespeare Encyclopedia.

A past President of the Shakespeare Association of America, Russ McDonald delivered the funniest SAA exit speech in memory. He was educated at Duke and the University of Pennsylvania (M. A. and Ph.D.), taught at Mississippi State University, University of Hawaii, University of Rochester, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and since 2006 has been at Goldsmiths in London. In fact, Russ often answers my emails from the British Library. I want his life.

MPJ:  Let’s get the challenging questions out of the way with The Bedford Shakespeare. The world is saturated with Shakespeare textbooks right now. Why another? I suspect the answer is partially the unusual pedagogy.

Russ McDonald: Your instinct is correct that the motivation for the anthology was pedagogical from the beginning.  Chuck Christiansen, Joan Feinberg, and Karen Henry at Bedford had long wanted to do a teachable Shakespeare edition.  Karen has a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies, and Chuck is legendary for his skill at identifying the kind of classroom tools that teachers need.  Lena and I, having taught Shakespeare for decades, had amassed a series of supplementary materials that we thought colleagues and students would find useful.  Moreover, the ever-growing interest in performance led us to believe that an abundantly illustrated edition would appeal to students and instructors.

MPJ: The book is bigger than my phone directory, though I live in a small county. The trend is for complete Shakespeare texts. You have twenty-five plays.

Russ McDonald: Granted, the book is hefty, and today the trend is in the opposite direction.  Speaking of phone books, I refer to a point made by one of my departmental colleagues as we debated a curricular decision, “You recognize that this proposal is entirely for the benefit of that student who is trying to do her whole degree on her phone.”  While its size makes it inconvenient, its contents necessitate such bulk. I was from the first hesitant about producing a text containing only two-thirds of the plays, but the opportunity to include so many helpful photographs and critical-pedagogical aids led me to accept the fact that the rarely-taught plays had to be omitted.

MPJ: I hope this question does not read as if I am disparaging the New Cambridge texts because I honor them, and editors such as Andrew Gurr (Henry V) and Michael Hattaway (As You Like It) do a fantastic job for Cambridge University Press. Still, the market tendency is to edit texts anew. Even the Norton Shakespeare (2015), which once used the Oxford Complete Works (1986 and 2005), has gone that way in the third edition. Why did you make this choice?

Russ McDonald: We worked on this book for ten years, and had we edited and glossed the texts ourselves, we would have needed another five years.  We chose the New Cambridge texts because they had already been scrupulously edited and very well glossed, and we arranged for Brian Gibbons, one of the Cambridge general editors, to condense the notes to the level required by a university student.  In fact, the earlier editors are credited in the fine print at the back of the book, and all received a modest royalty for our appropriation of their work.

MPJ: The book has such an innovative pedagogy that I found myself referenced twice for my work on Shakespeare comics. That has never before happened in an edition of Shakespeare. You and Dr. Orlin used a lot of reference works in putting this edition together. Which were the most useful?

Russ McDonald: Clearly one great source of supplementary material is the Cambridge UP series entitled Players of Shakespeare, in which important actors talk about their approach to a role. Another is Brian Vickers’s six-volume collection of Shakespeare criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries.  And Lena’s deep grounding in social history made the job of choosing contextual images and excerpts very easy to do.

MPJ: I was quite impressed by the many early modern sources cited in the edition, which is not just true but also my awkward transition to asking you about Ben Jonson. At least in print you have not worked on Jonson very much since 1988 except for a couple of chapters in books, “Jonson and Shakespeare and the Rhythm of Verse” in The Cambridge Companion to Ben Jonson probably being the most accessible, but I suspect you are aware of Jonson studies. Who was your book reacting to?

Russ McDonald: Shakespeare and Jonson / Jonson and Shakespeare was a first book.  It was not a version of my doctoral dissertation, which is best left to molder in my file cabinet.  (That was a limited study of Jonson’s development as a dramatist in light of contemporary comedy, especially Middleton, Chapman, and Marston, and I published a chapter of it as an article:  “Jonsonian Comedy and the Value of Sejanus.”)

The Shakespeare-Jonson book grew partly from my participation in an NEH Summer Seminar in Comedy taught by Cyrus Hoy at the University of Rochester, a year before I began teaching there.  In undergraduate and graduate school I had learned to read closely, but studying with Cyrus taught me to read more comprehensively, to think of a writer’s vision.And in articulating the different visions of the two playwrights I came to think that the conventional separation of the two great figures was unjust. As Jonas Barish put it, since the 17th century they had been “linked in odious tandem.” In practice this meant that Jonson’s work was for the most part scrupulously sequestered from Shakespeare’s work so as not to risk unflattering comparisons.  But my manuscript was accepted in 1986, and my interest in forms and dramatic modes made for an old-fashioned book.  I was still getting my balance as a reader and writer.  What I mean by that is that I was a slow starter, and it took me about ten years after the Ph.D. to gain critical security and confidence.  So while everyone else was reading Greenblatt and the cultural materialists, I was still learning to read and write.  Having finished the Shakespeare and Jonson book in the middle of the eighties, I then began to think—not strategically but analytically and self-consciously—about what really interested me about our period and about Shakespeare, and I discovered that I cared about nothing so much as language, especially poetic language.  You ask about the influence of Shakespeare and Jonson / Jonson and Shakespeare, and the simple answer is “very little.”  The book appeared at exactly the wrong time for a study of form and vision, and so no one paid much attention to it:  it was not reviewed in Shakespeare Quarterly, for example.  Richard Dutton and Robert Watson wrote generous reviews—Watson’s was especially detailed and welcome.  And one English scholar, young at the time and apparently eager to show off, wrote an unaccountably savage review to the effect that the grotesque image of the two playwrights on the dust jacket was an appropriate introduction to the absurdity of the argument.

MPJ: Ouch. Jonson’s plays deserve to be produced more often, don’t they?

Russ McDonald: I would like to return to thinking about Jonson, and your question about productions is a pertinent one.  About once a decade one of the major British companies will trepidatiously mount a new production of Volpone or The Alchemist, but they often try to modernize or somehow make the difficult text easier for the audience; most of the time that effort denatures the play and ends up not pleasing the audience either. In 1991 Sam Mendes directed The Alchemist in the Swan in an exemplary production that was extremely successful artistically.  But Nicholas Hytner’s Alchemist at the National in 2006 was a failure, even though he had, in Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, two of the greatest actors in the world:  one of Subtle’s personas was that of a California guru, and the audience didn’t get it.  Likewise, Trevor Nunn, when he directed Volpone in the Swan last year, simply rewrote Sir Politic’s part to such an extent that you couldn’t tell what was happening.  (I will acknowledge the brilliance of his presenting Lady Wouldbe as a Kim Kardashian celebrity fashion-seeker). Michael Kahn’s Epicoene at the Shakespeare Theater in DC (2002) was fairly successful although much cut—interestingly, a poster placed in the lobby at the end of the show asked patrons not to reveal the final secret of the plot.

MPJ: But the play spoils itself – oh, never mind. I am in awe of you, George T. Wright, and not many other people for your ability to read the poetry for all its components. I am pretty much stuck with ideas expressed, meter, allusions, you know, the obvious stuff. When did you first break through the language of Shakespeare?

Russ McDonald: I have always responded viscerally to the music of the Shakespearean text.  In college I played the role of Feste, the clown in Twelfth Night, and in hearing that text over and over, night after night, I began to notice and to cherish certain rhythms and poetic moments—the way, for example, when Orsino threatens to kill Cesario to spite Olivia, the verse suddenly lurches into rhyme. Professionally, I started thinking about language critically in my early years of teaching.  At the end of a year-long course in Shakespeare, I noticed that I and students too had difficulty reading the verse of The Winter’s Tale.  It seemed to my ear and mind substantially different from what had gone before.  So, invited to give a paper at a local conference, I wrote an essay on what I called the “periodic style” of the play, the way many of the sentences refused to yield up their meaning until the last few words—in short, much like the plot of the play. I also began to hear the extraordinary repetitions in the language of The Tempest. These two pieces were published in Shakespeare Quarterly and Shakespeare Survey, respectively, and it was at that point that I began to recognize that I wanted to concentrate on the features that had attracted me to Shakespeare in the first place, that is, the sounds of the text.  I was assisted in this discovery by the appearance in 1988 of George T. Wright’s Shakespeare’s Metrical Art.  One of the central chapters of that book, “The Play of Phrase and Line,” had been published in Shakespeare Quarterly a couple of years earlier, and the value of his work to those of us interested in form cannot be overstated.  Also in the middle of the eighties I began to participate, first as a resident scholar and then as Head Scholar and co-director, in the Teaching Shakespeare Institutes at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the brain-child of Peggy O’Brien and Jeanne Addison Roberts.  One of the regular contributors to that Institute was Stephen Booth, and having the opportunity to spend a month with his ear and his brain was an unmatchable gift.

MPJ: I realize that we now live in theory world where identifying ideas in texts is often considered self-indulgent, with the emphasis on “self,” and identifying treads such as “late plays” is treated as a waste of time. I’m not mistaking your linguistic identifications in the late plays as science since it can’t predict results or be falsified by experiments, but these identifications read to me as evidence that it is hard to deny that there is something different about these plays. Am I reading too much into your work?

Russ McDonald: No, you are not reading too much into my work.  I think it’s idle to deny that those last plays exhibit certain affinities among themselves, similarities that set them apart from the earlier work. I can’t explain why these differences came about. There have been multiple attempts to account for the shift to romance—the acquisition of the Blackfriars playhouse, the early influence of Beaumont and Fletcher, the death of Shakespeare’s mother and his entering upon what for an Elizabethan would have been old age, fatigue with tragedy and interest in a new theatrical form—but whatever the reason, The Winter’s Tale is very different from Othello and relatively similar to Cymbeline.  I suppose it is correct to say that an important influence here is the work of Northrop Frye, whose sovereignty was still in force when I began graduate study.  I was surely influenced by two or three books that emerged in the 1970s.  Shakespeare’s Romances Reconsidered, edited by Henry Jacobs and Carol McGinnis Kay, contains several excellent essays. (These derived from a conference held at the University of Alabama, a meeting I actually attended in my very first year of teaching.  In those days there were far fewer conferences than there are now, so I thought I had reached the academic Parnassus to be having drinks in the University of Alabama faculty club with the likes of C. L. Barber and Clifford Leech.)  Howard Felperin’s Shakespearean Romance is a wonderful book:  learned but readable, wide-ranging but attentive to detail.  And the Arden2 Introductions to those late plays are still essential reading: Frank Kermode’s Tempest, J. M. Nosworthy’s Cymbeline, J. M. W. Pafford’s The Winter’s Tale, and David Hoeniger’s Pericles.   I should also mention more recent such examples, especially Suzanne Gossett’s exemplary edition of Pericles for Arden3.

MPJ: All this comes under the closest kind of reading, of course, and you have edited or co-edited two books on close readings published eighteen years apart. Why was there a need for Shakespeare Reread?

Russ McDonald: With the rise of theory in the 1980s, Shakespeare studies began to suffer from the tyranny of context. I missed, for the most part, the influence of new historicism because while everyone else was reading Greenblatt—Renaissance Self-Fashioning was published in 1980—I was writing about Jonson and Shakespeare and trying to come to terms with genre.  And by the time I came up for air I began to notice that Greenblatt’s incontestable brilliance as a reader was not sustained in the work of many of his followers.  Moreover, it seemed that many of the prominent figures in criticism, notably Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, were much more interested in politics and class than in the theater. In any case the textual object had begun to recede in importance.  To look too closely at the literary text was “to fetishize” it, and for at least a decade it was difficult to publish anything that involved close attention to poetry. Shakespeare Reread was an attempt to marry the skills of close textual analysis, which many of us continued to practice, especially in the classroom, with the contemporary discourse of context and theory.  It grew out of the plenary session I organized at the SAA in Austin in 1989, with Patricia Parker, Stephen Booth, and Edward Snow.   Of course I came around to history and historicism in working on The Bedford Companion, and poetics and historical linguistics in writing about English rhetoric in Shakespeare and the Arts of Language.

I once asked Stephen Booth, after he had made some brilliantly historical comment about a Shakespearean phrase, “Where did you learn that, Stephen?”, and he replied “The only place I ever learn anything, the OED.”  That dictionary has taken a lot of hits, in that its early editors tended to privilege Shakespeare over other early modern writers and thus made him seem inordinately innovative in the history of the language.  But networks and reticula of ideas and connotations suddenly come into focus when one is tracking down the denotation of a word.  Speaking of Booth, his Yale edition of the Sonnets contains a world of knowledge in the notes.  Another place to start would be with Frank Whigham and Wayne Rebhorn’s brilliant edition of George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy.  And certain books on early modern language that lean towards linguistics can be extremely helpful.  In graduate school four decades ago Richard Foster Jones’s The Triumph of the English Language was required reading; more recently Charles Barber’s The English Language: A Historical Introduction has proved useful and readable.  In thinking about Shakespeare, of course, Frank Kermode’s Shakespeare’s Language takes pride of place, although I confess to some disappointment at its chronological structure, and he seems to lose interest or at least energy after about 1604.  And some collections of essays merit attention, especially Vivian Salmon and Edwina Burness, A Reader in the Language of Shakespearean Drama, Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language, edited by Lynne Magnusson, Lynette Hunter, and Sylvia Adamson.  I should also mention—I have an essay in this one—Renaissance Figures of Speech, a collection of essays published some ten years ago and edited by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber; Keir Elam’s Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse:  Language Games in the Comedies; John Porter Houston’s Shakespearean Sentences; and, again, Wright on Shakespeare’s Metrical Art.

MPJ: What changed between Shakespeare Reread and Shakespeare Up Close?

Russ McDonald: The critical landscape did change substantially between 1994 and 2012, and one feature of that altered terrain is the recent tolerance for, or we might say restored interest in, close inspection of the literary object.  During these two decades a few of us continued to play close attention to form and to write about poetic detail, but as the first decade of the twenty-first century proceeded, our numbers increased, and publishing became a little easier. Shakespeare Up Close was initially conceived as a tribute—publishers bridle at the noun “festschrift”—for Stephen Booth. Travis Williams and Nicholas Nace, two young scholars who had studied with Booth at Berkeley, asked me to join them in collecting a set of essays that would honor him by emulating, however inadequately, his careful attention to textual nuance.  Their proposed method was fairly shrewd—essays of no more than 3000 words, a limit which proved attractive to contributors and prompted them to submit their work on time—and indeed it has been replicated in other collections since then.  It is worth pointing out that Shakespeare Up Close has a subtitle, Reading Early Modern Texts, and that many of the essays concern themselves with other Renaissance writers: but the strict demands of electronic advertising require a “Shakespeare” in the title.

MPJ: Your other anthology is subtitled, in part, “Criticism and Theory 1945-2000.” I get why you ended with the close of the century, but why begin at 1945?

Russ McDonald: The date limits are entirely arbitrary, suggested by Andrew McNeillie, who was then editor at Blackwell and who proposed the collection over a very good dinner at the Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC.  In fact one essay in the collection, Tillyard’s, appeared in 1944, but the two dates in the title are mainly for the sake of convenience: after the second world war to the present, or the present as it was when I began putting it together.  With a few exceptions, the critical writing done after World War II differs significantly from that written before it, and so the dates seemed to make for a plausible period.

MPJ: In speaking of Shakespeare studies you seem to show a disinterest in theory and the various –isms of critical practice.  Why, then, were you inclined to undertake a project of this kind?

Russ McDonald: One of the attractions of working on the kind of comprehensive book Andrew McNeillie suggested was that I saw it as a way of articulating for myself some of the critical approaches that I didn’t fully grasp.   And of course such a compendium offered students a very efficient way of understanding the various critical schools.  And I’d make two more points about that book.  1) One of the reasons that it is useful, I think, is that I always imagined specifically the student reader, the first-year graduate student, for example, and what he or she needed to know and didn’t need to know. 2) What is also fascinating is that I had a graduate assistant at that point, a poetry student at Greensboro, who was an absolute ace as a proofreader.  She and I read the entire book aloud to each other, all 900 pages, and what we discovered was that the great gods of the past, the critics on whom we were reared, didn’t proofread their work: many, many of the original articles contained typos and misquotations and other kinds of slips.  It was a lesson in critical perspective and a comfort to find that our predecessors were not perfect.

MPJ: One especially finds this a lot reading C. S. Lewis, I fear. Well, the organization is fantastic. I won’t insult you by saying that I saved the best until last, but I just loved Look to the Lady. It is fun, it is insightful, it has an unusual approach to performance criticism in that you compare three actors of Shakespeare and study why they seemed great in their generations, and my wife had to slap the book out of my hands so we would not be late visiting friends. Can you recommend biographies of Sarah Siddons, Ellen Terry, and Judi Dench?

Russ McDonald: Working on these lectures, and then shaping them into book chapters, made for a very happy year intellectually.  Although I’ve always been interested in theater history because I’m a theater hound at heart, and while the last chapter of the Bedford Companion offers a survey of Shakespearean staging over four centuries, in fact I had done little in the way of detailed scholarly work on Shakespeare in performance.  So learning about Siddons and Terry and the theatrical cultures that produced them and that they helped to shape was exhilarating: it was like being in graduate school again and going into a subject one knew little about.  Studying Siddons introduced me to one of the great works of scholarship—one that is familiar to all eighteenth-century specialists but which was new to me—A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800: sixteen volumes edited by Philip Highfill, et al.  The standard biographies of Siddons and of Terry, written by Roger Manvell, are readable and reliable.  I found Nina Auerbach’s book on Ellen Terry less useful because she is less interested in her subject’s theatrical work than in her role as a cultural figure, an independent woman in a man’s realm.  The several biographies of Dench are mostly hagiographic, although one can find valuable pieces, mostly reviews, written by Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson and others.  A little bonus in working on that book was my getting to interview Dench—when I asked her about verse speaking she offered Peter Hall’s argument about the infinitesimal pause at the line’s end, and to illustrate she burst into “I dreamt there was an emperor Antony,” and recited the whole speech.

MPJ: Fly on the wall. Which books helped direct your career?

Russ McDonald: The first book I was assigned to read in my first course in graduate school was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, and I suspect that Frye was a greater influence even than I recognized, since everybody in those days (students and faculty) had read and absorbed Frye and had had their critical skills shaped by his various books.  The book that taught me to read poetry was Stephen Booth’s An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a brilliant version of his Harvard dissertation.  My original copy is in tatters—I’ve ordered at least two more used copies over the years—but it still has my youthful underlinings and exclamation marks.  His edition of the sonnets came ten years later, and it is indispensable, of course, but for pedagogical purposes the Essay is unmatched, and it is a scandal that the book has been out of print for decades.  Another irreplaceable book is Jonas Barish’s Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy; I’ll never forget the thrill of encountering and coming to understand the brilliance of his detailed comparison and contrast of the prose styles of Jonson’s and Shakespeare’s speakers.  More generally, I also was hugely affected by Barber’s Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy, which taught me a great deal about genre.  And when I first began to teach Shakespeare, I found myself knocked over by Norman Rabkin’s Shakespeare and the Common Understanding; his notion of “complementarity” seemed to offer an ideal way into the plays for purposes of teaching, and I have, I think, simply appropriated that critical method and pretended that it is my own.  Also helpful in my early days were the great Yale paperback editions of Jonson’s major plays, with introductions by Alvin Kernan, Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, Eugene Waith, and others.

MPJ: Whose books influenced you the most?

Russ McDonald: In addition to those books just mentioned, I would add the works of a number of critics just one generation before me.  All of Stephen Booth’s books and essays, of course. Anne Barton, for example, is one of my most admired figures. Not only is Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play an essential book,1 but each of her Riverside Introductions to the comedies is a treasure.  And then there is Ben Jonson, Dramatist and the various essays collected in Essays, Mostly Shakespearean.  Although I don’t do psychoanalytic criticism, it is impossible to ignore the mind of Janet Adelman, and I’ve learned much from Suffocating Mothers as well as from several essays.  Stephen Orgel is always helpful, especially about genre and about Jonson and Inigo Jones.  Stanley Cavell’s Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare rewards repeated study: even when you think you know a text very well he will teach you something you didn’t know.  I also admire the early work of Patricia Parker, especially Inescapable Romance and Literary Fat Ladies. In teaching I find myself repeatedly drawn back to Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All: essentially a collection of her Harvard undergraduate lectures, the book is endlessly satisfying, broad ranging and yet detailed, sensible and brilliant.  More generally, I would mention Jonathan Culler, who explains difficult topics with bracing clarity. In addition to Structuralist Poetics there is his surprisingly useful edited collection called On Puns.

MPJ: Who isn’t read anymore who should be rediscovered?

Russ McDonald: Of the several titles I might mention two of them are by people who died just as they finished their books: Sigurd Burkhardt’s Shakespearean Meanings (1968) and Rosalie Colie’s Shakespeare’s Living Art (1974). I cherish these books because they sprang from such brilliant minds that you find yourself thrilled at the critical penetration.  Burkhardt’s book is a loose collection of essays, but they all spring from his sense of language as a material, a palpable thing which the poet must manipulate. Colie was amazingly learned: her earlier books concern complex philosophical questions, theology, the history of paradox, and genre theory.  The Shakespeare book offers a detailed and wonderfully persuasive analysis of the contrast between the Asiatic and Attic styles. Cyrus Hoy’s The Hyacinth Room never got the attention it deserves because his range is so broad—Shakespeare, Euripides, Chapman, Ibsen, Jonson, Pirandello—that his insights don’t easily fit into our boxes. But it is a wonderful discussion of dramatic kinds and their implications. I also much admire Mark Rose’s Shakespearean Design, and I frequently return to it for teaching purposes.  He provides some brilliantly detailed accounts of the structural parallels and contrasts in Shakespeare’s scenic arrangement; the analysis of the great tavern scene in 1 Henry IV, for example, is dazzling.  Finally I would heartily recommend the one book written by my dissertation director, Robert Y. Turner: Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship, a scrupulously argued study of the first ten plays and the development of Shakespeare’s early style.

MPJ: Thanks, Russ.  I really appreciate you introducing a number of new books to me.



  1. You will find this book in the bibliography under Anne Righter.



Adamson, Sylvia, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber, eds. Renaissance Figures of Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Adamson, Sylvia, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, et al., eds. Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language. London: Arden, 2001.

Adelman, Janet.  Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest. Abindgon: Routledge, 1992.

Auerbach, Nina. Ellen Terry: Player in Her Time. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Barber, C. L. Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953.

Barber, Charles. The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge   University Press, 1993.

Barish, Jonas A. Ben Jonson and the Language of Prose Comedy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1960.

Anne Barton. Ben Jonson, Dramatist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

_____. Essays, Mainly Shakespearean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

_____. G. B. Evans, ed. The Riverside Shakespeare, 1st ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Booth, Stephen.  An Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972.

Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Brockbank, Philip, Russell Jackson, and Robert Smallwood. Players of Shakespeare, vols. 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-2003.

Burkhardt, Sigurd. Shakespearean Meanings. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Cavell, Stanley. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare, Updated Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

_____. Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Colie, Rosalie Littell. Shakespeare’s Living Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Culler, Jonathan D, ed. On Puns: The Foundation of Letters. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

_____. Structural Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Structure of Literature. Abingdon:            Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

Dobson, Michael. “Shakespeare Performances in England, 2004.” Shakespeare Survey. Ed. Peter Holland. Vol. 58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. pp. 268-297.

Dollimore, Jonathan and Alan Sinfield, eds. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Dutton, Richard. “Review of Shakespeare and Jonson / Jonson and Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1981): 243.

Elam, Keir. Shakespeare’s Universe of Discourse: Language Games in the Comedies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

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