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Jeremy Lopez, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama
by Edmund G. C. King

Lopez, Jeremy. Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. xii + 231 pp. ISBN: 978-107-03057-2. £60.00 cloth.

“Anthologies make no one happy. The more inclusive they are, the more they invite the charge of having left something out” (153). So writes Jeremy Lopez at the start of Chapter 46 of Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama. One of the tasks he sets himself in this unconventional, ambitious, ultimately confounding book is to interrogate the form of the hardcopy dramatic anthology. Where has it come from? What acts of editorial exclusion and endorsement underwrite its existence, and on what grounds are they performed? What institutional and cultural forces encourage its reproduction? Should it continue to persist in the age of electronic editions and online set texts, and if so, what form should it take?

Constructing the Canon purports to trace the history of multiple-author dramatic anthologies from Robert Dodsley’s Select Collection of Old Plays (1744) and its reissues and re-editions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Isaac Reed (1780), C. W. Dilke (1814–15), John Payne Collier (1825–27), and William Hazlitt (1874) to the university-student-focused anthologies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The 2003 Routledge Anthology of English Renaissance Drama and the 2005 second edition of Blackwell’s Renaissance Drama are the most recent anthologies in Lopez’s sample. According to Lopez’s misleadingly prescriptive criteria, these anthologies can be separated neatly into two categories. [1] Up until 1885, the dramatic anthology was a British phenomenon, bought and read by antiquarians located largely outside the university. Since the twentieth century, it has migrated across the Atlantic, becoming an essentially North American publishing phenomenon aimed squarely at the American college market. Lopez concerns himself largely with assessing and critiquing the consequences that this change in the implied readership and purpose of anthologies has had on the shape and contents of the early modern dramatic canon.      

Organized into 61 micro-chapters of roughly 1000–1200 words each, Lopez’s book aims its revisionism as much at the traditional academic monograph as the anthology itself. In a chapter archly entitled “How to use this book” (Chapter 6), Lopez seeks to head off any readerly expectation that the book will progress logically “from Origins to Inheritance, from Dodsley to Norton” (19). Such a familiar structure would, he suggests, simply reproduce the norms of the critical orthodoxy he means to disrupt. Instead, the short chapter format is meant “to encourage a particulated view of the field” (20), one that privileges choppiness and unconformity rather than the unified fluency of the settled argument. In a sly parody of academic reading practices, Lopez writes that he has structured the book to encourage something he calls “‘diagonal’ reading”:

The chapters ending in 1 and 0 are concerned, in various ways, with how editorial groupings of texts define and circumscribe the interpretive vocabulary to which those texts might be subjected. The chapters ending in 5 are concerned with the relation between genre and canon. The chapters ending in 7 explicitly take up questions of the relation between form and history … The chapters ending in 9 demonstrate the degree to which the current early modern dramatic canon and its critical tradition are mutually constitutive through readings of some of the most canonical plays: The Spanish Tragedy, Edward II, The Changeling, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, A Woman Killed with Kindness, and Arden of Faversham [while] chapters ending in 2 … deal with critical or theatrical revisionism [and] those ending in 4 … are mostly concerned with plays in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon … chapters ending in 3 … deal with different problems of “form” … those ending in 6 … both explain the book’s form and goals and analyse the idealism of various critical, editorial, and theatrical attitudes towards antecedent texts … [and] chapters ending in 8 … present tripartite readings of two plays: The Custom of the Country … and Northward Ho. (20–1)

Lopez does cede enough autonomy to the reader to admit that the “diagonal groupings do not necessarily develop a linear argument and certainly do not need to be read in a strict order,” somewhat undermining his rationale for structuring the book as he does. Given the tiny spaces Lopez forces himself to work within, it is not at all clear that the benefits of organising the text in this way outweigh the drawbacks. Lopez clearly wants the experience of reading Constructing the Canon in sequential order to be something like encountering a gallery of miniature portraits, with each canvas contributing to a larger totality. This approach, however, places a large burden on the reader. Meaning and coherence do not necessarily flow from one textual portion to the other. The effect in many cases is less “particulatedness” than fragmentation.

Lopez devotes many of his micro-chapters to readings of single, non-canonical plays. In the book’s “Interlude,” he claims that this attention to previously neglected drama enables him to “develop a method for reading the anonymous, collaborative, conventional, typical and otherwise non-singular (or all too singular) plays of the early period” (95). There are provocative readings here of a range of plays which have hitherto received little critical attention—George Chapman’s Monsieur D‘Olive (1606), Thomas May’s The Heir (1622), the anonymous Tragedy of Nero (1624) and Dick of Devonshire (1626), and Philip Massinger’s The Picture (1630). This is the potential canon of early modern drama, in all its multiplicity, one that contrasts starkly with the etiolated selections traditionally presented by academic anthologies.

For the most part, however, Lopez’s “method” turns out to be traditional formalistic close reading. At best, Lopez’s readings of unfamiliar plays can be thrillingly counterintuitive, using aesthetic analysis as an entry point for addressing the book’s wider concerns. Lopez’s account of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger’s The Custom of the Country develops into an extended Freudian reading of the Duarte subplot, in which Duarte’s desire to shed his disguise and return to his former life—a literal “rebirth,” in Lopez’s terms—relies on Duarte’s ability to tolerate seeing his mother marry his supposed murderer, Rutilio. “If you want to give birth to yourself,” Lopez concludes, “you probably have to sleep with your mother” (88). In a footnote to this concluding sentence, Lopez writes: “As much as anything else, the joke here is meant as a meditation on the central difficulty of my own project: the difficulty of creating a truly new form while fully incorporating one that is imagined to be inadequate” (88n). Duarte’s identity here segues first into that of his antagonist, Rutilio, and finally, into Lopez himself as author, attempting to reconceive both the monograph and the anthology from within. In a later chapter on The Queen of Corinth, Lopez rehearses the same idea: “forms of personhood in early modern drama are like generic forms: endlessly failing to be realised” (146).

These moments of formal clarity and coherence are, however, comparatively rare. More often, Lopez’s guiding signal gets lost in the static produced by the book’s proliferation of local readings, many of which culminate in a flamboyant concluding sentence that showcases Lopez’s twinned obsessions with paradox and chiasmus. So, in Thomas May’s The Heir, it “was May’s very desire to be ahead of his time that has rendered him, in retrospect, indistinct” (191). In ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford “rips out the heart of Kyd and finds there his own entombed” (86), while Ford’s Laws of Candy, “being like a Fletcher play … helps us to define what a Fletcher play is not” (139). The sheer profusion of these knotty, gnomic concluding sentences, each appearing within three of four pages of each other, quickly engenders a sense of repetitiveness. Sealed off by their own cleverness, too few of these readings are given the breathing space they need to reach out and connect with the wider issues of canonicity that Lopez sets out to address in the early part of the book.

Lopez’s most substantive—though by no means his most original—point is that the canon, as it is both taught and anthologised, has become increasingly determined by the figure of Shakespeare. The result is that the majority of the surviving early modern stage repertoire is defined by the suggestion of Shakespeare’s absence—it becomes explicitly “non-Shakespearean drama.” Those non-Shakespearean plays that do make it into modern anthologies tend to be those that resemble Shakespeare’s plays most closely. Shakespeare therefore becomes the editorial standard—the aesthetic category—by which early modern drama is judged. Those plays that can be placed alongside Shakespeare’s most comfortably in the university lecture hall or tutorial classroom, or that contrast with Shakespeare in neatly demonstrable ways, are prime anthology fodder. The criterion of easy teachability, Lopez implies, has resulted in a steady narrowing of the early modern dramatic canon. This problem is particularly acute at the level of genre. The most anthologised non-Shakespearean texts, like Marlowe’s Edward II, tend to be tragedies with central figures who resemble Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Comedies, plays of uncertain or mixed genre, and those by anonymous authors are pushed to the canonical margins by this process.

Some of the book’s most incisive passages are devoted to critiquing the strategies for teaching early modern drama that the modern anthology encourages. “The overriding historical concern of introductory material” in the Norton and Routledge anthologies, Lopez observes, “is, broadly, economics” (67). The result is that the plays themselves are always subject to a form of pedagogy that always attempts to find the present inside the past. They become means by which to teach a reductive, distorted, and overly sensationalistic account of early modern history rather than formal objects in themselves. In a remarkable passage on The Changeling, Lopez writes that “we might read the play as an allegory of its own canonicity, a projection of the pornographic nightmare of a modern liberal arts education that is situated, by virtue of its aspiration to provide the greatest number of readers with the most vivid possible access to history, in vexed relation to mass media and the culture industry” (90). The past is reproduced in these anthologies, Lopez suggests, only in order to reflect the present and its own abiding anxieties—capitalism, commodification, and the body.

As persuasive as some of these critiques are, as an account of the processes of editing and selection that have shaped the canon since the eighteenth century, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama fails spectacularly. What makes this failure so frustrating is its waste of potential. While Lopez does include worthwhile discussions of individual series, such as the original Mermaid editions devised by Havelock Ellis and John Scott Keltie’s Works of the British Dramatists, there is far less book history in this account than one would expect, and Lopez makes little attempt to connect his analysis with existing histories of textual editing and literary criticism since the eighteenth century. Publishers’ archives might have produced some insights into the commercial contexts that determined the contents of particular anthologies. Analysis of sales figures, set book lists, university curricula, or even academic memoirs might also have provided some data to back up some of Lopez’s assertions about the presence of the single-volume anthology in the university classroom.

Lopez, however, eschews this kind of material in favour of the more abstract “particulatedness” to be found in formalistic close reading. When, in Chapter 60, Lopez reveals his own “canon”—thirty-seven early modern plays selected on aesthetic grounds, presented without reference to either chronology or dates and details of “printing or … performance” because that “would fly in the face of this book’s claim that the most important system of canonical organisation is the aesthetic one” (200)—any reader who has persevered through the preceding pages might well find this to be a suitably underwhelming conclusion to a deeply disappointing book. As we have seen, Lopez, in his scoping chapter, explicitly passes up the opportunity to write a straightforward reception and publishing history of the early modern dramatic canon “from Origins to Inheritance, from Dodsley to Norton” (19), in favour of his own less linear and more oblique approach. The truth is that a contribution towards that history, no matter how modest, would have made a much more valuable and useful book than the one Lopez has ultimately produced.

Edmund G. C. King
The Open University 

[1] See the recent critique by Brett D. Hirsch, “Moving Targets: Constructing Canons, 2013–2014,” Early Theatre, 18:1 (2015), p. 120, on the inaccuracies and omissions in Lopez’s chronology. 



  • Michael L Hays 2 years, 5 months ago

    I have to trust to this review--for I am not going to read the book-- and perhaps comment merely to extend its thesis. The logic of anthologies is guided by certain culturally situation principles. What is inescapable is not thereby indictable or inexcusable. A history and analysis of the canon as it reflects the forces influencing the selection of its inclusions and exclusions would be useful. And, for contrast, a discussion of why non-canonical works have been excluded would be useful. Without either discussion, It seems that Lopez is more interested in displaying his cleverness--too clever by half--than in addressing the subject itself.

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    • Michael L Hays 2 years, 5 months ago

      Typo: "situation" should be "situated."

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Cite as:

Edmund G. C. King, "Jeremy Lopez, Constructing the Canon of Early Modern Drama," Spenser Review 45.2.42 (Fall 2015). Accessed March 19th, 2018.
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