Shakespeare Wondereel

This is a book I'd been looking forward to reading, as its blurb announced an examination of 'the influence of the Elizabethan cross-dressed tradition on the performance and conception of Shakespeare's female roles through an analysis of all 205 extant plays written for the adult theatre'. It additionally promised to provide a historical context and to demonstrate the influence of other dramatists on Shakespeare's portrayal of women. All of this, and especially the comprehensiveness of the analysis and the promise of MBT Shoes On Sale a proper historical and dramatic contextualization of Shakespeare's plays, is most welcome and timely: we do need a study that revisits the question of the cross-dressed boy actor in the light of the work of gender critics and theatre historians since the 1980s.

My disappointment was the more pronounced when I started reading this book and found that, instead of building on the achievements of critics such as Lisa Jardine, Stephen Orgel and Jean E. Howard, however critically, Mann's attitude towards their work is dismissive if not hostile. Much of the introduction is dedicated especially to attacking feminist and gay critics, taking them to task for imposing their preconceived ideas on Shakespeare's plays and for ignoring the original performance context. While personal attacks may sometimes spice up an argument and can vividly illustrate a point, they are seldom gracious. When they come with a pontificator tone ('It will not do', Mann intones, 'to ignore what must have been the considerable and far-reaching consequences of the cross-dressed tradition, in terms both of the performance of the roles and more particularly of their conception which so much depended upon it and such force and repetitiveness, they add up to cumulative unpleasantness.

In this instance, the unpleasantness is exacerbated by a sense that Mann himself is guilty of the sins of which he accuses others, namely coming to the argument with a preconceived view, and ignoring scholarship that embeds Shakespeare's plays in their historical context. Mann dismisses the views of critics who decide to treat Shakespeare's plays as literary texts by citing G. E. Bentley's work as proof that MBT Lami he never intended his plays to be read. His account of the performance context is oblivious to many of the important new discoveries and deductions about performance practices and boy actors which theatre historians such as Tiffany Stern, Lucy Munro, and Scott McMillin, to name but three crucial figures, have made since Bentley's day. When it becomes apparent, in a footnote that Mann is still chafing at the fact that Richard Levin and Muriel Bradbrook were subject to criticism by feminist and materialist critics back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it becomes clear that his book is an intervention in debates from which I, at least, had thought we had moved on.

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Vintage Shakespeare Light Wondereel No 1921
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