Humane, learned, un-showily stylish and at times moving in their tender intelligence, these essays by Anne Barton, ranging from a richly 'mellow' piece first published in 1953 - a period when even undergraduates wrote as if they were middle-aged - to the magnificent 'Wrying a Little', on Cymbeline, Jacobean marriage law and female desire, are nourishing to the spirit. Livy, Machiavelli, Ford, Dekker, Heywood and Jonson all figure in the book, but the main recurring subject is Shakespeare. It is, moreover, good to see the publication of this book marked by an accompanying Festschrift - a volume of essays on comedy by friends and colleagues of Professor Barton, ranging from American luminaries like Jonas Barish and Stephen Orgel to newcomers like Richard Rowland (who contributes a thumpingly good piece on Heywood). Shakespeare is still the most challenging object in the literary canon, the most generous with meaning and, at the same time, the most apt to find out folly in those who would interpret him. Anne Barton is, so to speak, a good listener to Shakespeare. She is the beneficiary of his generosity and survives the challenges better than most of us. She survives - but not quite unscathed, perhaps.
LRB 18 August 1994 | PDF Download