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Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. xiv + 347 pp. $45.
Paul A. Olson's introduction to Shakespeare's comedies, Beyond a Common Joy, is well named. As his masterful analyses demonstrate, Shakespeare's comedies are uncommon in many respects, and the joyousness they convey is similarly beyond the usual enjoyment audiences experience from the comedies of others. The book is a monument to scholarship, as Olson pursues in great depth--with an abundance of documentation (almost sixty oases of footnotes!)--the nature and range of Shakespeare's achievement in the comic mode, beginning with its relation to Roman New Comedy. Like any monument, the book is heavy, sturdy, and dignified, making it rather difficult to get into. But once in, the reader discovers that the rewards keep coming.
Olson's avowed purpose is "simply to provide examples of works that will help students to think independently and historically" (xi). His examples are well chosen for his purpose, with extended analyses of several but not all of the major comedies, e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and a whole final chapter on Measure for Measure. He gives some attention to others, e.g. The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter's Tale, but slights All's Well That Ends Well, Love's Labor's Lost, Pericles, and Cymbeline. He almost entirely ignores The Two …