You are on page 1of 4

Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion. Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr.

, Patrick

Cheney, Andrew Hadfield, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 338 pages.


The London stage in the late 16th and early 17th centuries was a space filled with much

controversy and much variety. There are, of course, hundreds of books devoted to

Shakespeare, dozens to Marlowe and Jonson and others; there are many books devoted to

early modern English drama’s relationship to religion (such as Clifford Davidson’s

History, Religion, and Violence) and to society, as well as the era’s stagecraft (the

collection Staged Properties for example), and the texts themselves. In the new

collection of essays Early Modern English Drama: A Critical Companion, editors Garrett

A. Sullivan, Jr., Patrick Cheney, and Andrew Hadfield bring together twenty-seven

essays, most of which deal with a specific play and a specific aspect of the early modern

historical and literary period that that play particularly illuminates (the first two explore

general topics of authorship and acting companies).

The purpose of the collection, as stated in the preface, is “to serve as a complementary

text in a college or university course in Renaissance drama, undergraduate or graduate”

(v). Toward this end, the essays are arranged chronologically, presumably to be read

along with the plays being studied in class. However, despite this purpose, Early Modern

English Drama often seems unsure of its audience—the introduction and opening essays

do a very good job at setting the stage, as it were, for a study of Renaissance drama. The

introduction emphasizes the differences between Elizabethan audiences and modern ones,
emphasizing the greater physical involvement of early audiences and the controversial

nature of the theatre at the time, as opposed to the modern understanding of theatre as

“high art.” Wendy Wall’s essay “Dramatic Authorship and Print” points out the difficulty

in nailing down the precise texts of early modern plays, given the number of hands they

went through before publication, and the expectation that different performances would

be somewhat tailored to the actors and the audiences. And Roslyn L. Knutson’s entry

“Theatre Companies and Stages” details the often confusing landscape of the playhouses

and acting companies themselves, including their many changes of name and venue.

Although Knutson tends to get a bit wordy and over-involved at times, these three essays

as a whole are a good introduction to the world of early modern theatre and are especially

accessible to a student new to that world.

The rest of the essays, however, range wildly from excellent to nearly unreadable, and

from very accessible subjects and themes to rather obscure ones, making it difficult to

recommend the book unequivocally to either beginning students or advanced ones. Greg

Walker provides an intriguing study of the early innovations in Fulgens and Lucres,

which is matched by Lucy Munro as she considers generic experimentation in The

Knight of the Burning Pestle. Garrett A. Sullivan and R.W. Maslen utilize mostly textual

criticism to give very good insights into, respectively, Arden of Faversham and its

depiction of the early modern household and Twelfth Night’s comedic gender-bending.

Many of the essays dealt helpfully with contemporary history and society, such as John

Gillies’ connection between Tamburlaine and the Renaissance excitement about

exploration and conquest, Kristen Poole’s discussion of Dr. Faustus in light of

Reformation theology, and a pair of essays by Danielle Clarke and Dympna Callaghan

concerning marriage and widowhood in The Tragedy of Mariam and The Duchess of


Unfortunately, though many of the essays are quite interesting and helpful, there are

enough poorly written and questionably conceived essays to drag the collection down.

Some are merely muddled, like Constance Jordan’s “Henry V and the Tudor Monarchy”

and Neil Rhodes’ “Hamlet and Humanism.” Others seem to almost entirely forget to

include the play which is their subject, such as Katherine Eggers’ “The Alchemist and

Science,” while still others flit from point to point without ever really addressing the

subject of their title, like Karen Newman’s “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and London,”

which does a fine job of discussing the play, but only throws in London in the last

paragraph. I nearly gave up reading Gail Kern Paster’s discussion of “Bartholomew Fair

and the Humoral Body”—if she had a point, she hid it very well.

In the final analysis, Early Modern English Drama has enough strong essays to make it a

helpful read, but it is far from a must-have on the Renaissance scholar’s shelf. Likewise,

professors teaching Renaissance drama may find a few entries of value for their students,

but are unlikely to want to depend on this volume alone. The book does have two

strengths: the uniform briefness of the essays (each is roughly ten pages, a nice length),

and the concentrated focus of each essay, at least in theory, on one play and one aspect of

the play. The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama, which is overall

very similar in purpose, organizes each essay around a specific issue in drama or society
(Playhouses and Players, Drama and Society, Political Drama, Romance and the Heroic

Play, Pastiche and Tragicomedy, Comedy, Tragedy, Caroline Drama, Private and

Occasional Drama, and so forth), and discusses a multitude of plays within each category.

There is an effective broadness to this approach, but the pointedness of Early Modern

English Drama is a nice counterpoint to it, and the emphasis each essay places on a

specific play yields accessibility and comprehensibility. Well, disregarding those two or

three essays which remain incomprehensible anyway.