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Shakespeare Quarterly 56.2 (2005) 135-155

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Distributing Cognition in the Globe

My title takes its inspiration from Edwin Hutchins's 1995 study of maritime navigation, Cognition in the Wild.1 At first glance, an analysis of navigation would seem to have little application to a study of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical practices, but Hutchins's book and the methodological assumptions on which it is predicated provide a powerful, flexible model for understanding the complexities and achievements of the early modern repertory theater. Using Hutchins's work and that of other cognitive anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers, I will argue that our understanding of the playing system, particularly of the mnemonic demands that the repertory system made on its participants, has been consistently distorted by a tendency to view cognition as individual rather than social, which has caused us to imagine the workings of complex group structures in mechanistic terms. In other words, we have mistakenly assumed that properties of the system as a whole must be possessed by each individual within it. Instead, as I shall argue, cognition is distributed across the entire system. This is not in any way to suggest that individual agency has no place. On the contrary, an environment as cognitively rich as the early modern theater is precisely calculated to maximize individual contributions.

To exemplify the difficulties that theater historians sometimes have with taking account of system, I begin with two recent books that discuss rehearsal practices in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods: Tiffany Stern's Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan and John C. Meagher's Pursuing Shakespeare's Dramaturgy.2 In very different ways, both writers attempt to account for the cognitive demands that the repertory system imposed on early modern actors. Companies performed a staggering [End Page 135] number of plays: six different plays a week, with relatively infrequent repetition and with the additional demands of putting on a new play roughly every fortnight. As Bernard Beckerman observed, between 1594 and 1597 a leading player such as Edward Alleyn "had to secure and retain command of about seventy-one different roles, of which number fifty-two or fifty-three were newly learned."3 In addition to making enormous demands of human memory, these practices raise questions about the mechanics of producing plays under such conditions: simply put, how did actors do it? According to Tiffany Stern, very little rehearsal was scheduled: "group rehearsal was only actually necessary for parts of plays that could not be learnt alone . . . and was therefore the most dispensable part of play preparation, especially as blocking, music, even, perhaps, some gestures, seem to have been conducted during performance by the prompter and his men."4 Stern argues that actors studied their parts privately or with a senior member of the company. "'Study' seems to have involved teaching a part by imitation; it was not a creative event, nor did it encourage textual exploration and discovery."5 She also suggests that actors worked "within a 'line'": "having a formula that covered every performance made sense in a theatre in which there was little preparation time: it is always easier to play roughly the same part."6

Stern's insistence that creativity was not a part of the rehearsal process is a welcome corrective to views overly influenced by anachronistic models of playing that assume a director and a set of actors seeking novelty, with the time to make textual (and sometimes personal) discoveries. However, at times she adopts a mechanistic view of system and implies that the agents involved are guided largely by a scripted, conventional set of behaviors. Actors are first described as specializing within a line and then as playing "roughly the same part"; the practice of learning by imitation is later characterized as learning "parrot-fashion."7 Neither conclusion is borne out by the evidence. To take the example of acting within a line: while [End Page 136] some specialization seems to have occurred, especially in the case of the leading man and the clown, the implication that players had "a formula that covered every performance" confuses the framework&#x02014...


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