Shakespeare by Stages: An Historical Introduction (review)
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Shakespeare Quarterly 57.4 (2006) 482-484

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Shakespeare by Stages: An Historical Introduction. By Arthur F. Kinney. Malden, MA; Oxford; Victoria, Australia; and Berlin: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Illus. Pp. xii + 180. $64.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Shakespeare by Stages aims to introduce students of both theater and literature to the plays by situating them in the material conditions of the theater of their time. The book is a generally accessible way to appreciate how Shakespeare's plays dynamically reflect the conditions of their making: "the physical space, the acting company's talents, the costumes and properties that were available, and the audiences whom he must please" (4). This appreciation "helps us to begin to re-create the plays for ourselves" (4). The book offers unique breadth and concentration for several audiences and purposes.

Kinney's graduate seminar at the University of Massachusetts (xi) contributed to the book's nature and effectiveness. The authorial voice actually models an informed reader making creative use of the findings of the primary authorities—theater historians. The book's achievements are to gather and present with amazing conciseness a range of essential primary and secondary sources, including twelve illustrations, and to discover implications for understanding particular features of Shakespeare's plays. As in the classroom, then, author, teacher, and student are all engaged in similar processes of learning and creative interpretation (although Kinney assumes more authority with larger social and historical dimensions).

There are five chapters, on stages, players, playgoers, equipment, and "reactions." Typically, as in the first chapter, primary documents such Johannes de Witt's drawing of the Swan and Thomas Platter's diary description of London amphitheaters are presented. The discussion continues with quotations from classic and contemporary theater historians who have developed the significance of these documents, such as Bernard Beckerman and Muriel Bradbrook on the opportunities afforded by the vast neutral space of amphitheaters. The author then [End Page 482] offers ways that such material conditions do or could operate in the plays, such as the way the Henriad, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, and Othello use the fluid stage to alternate between public and private scenes. Each chapter concludes with a brief discussion of a single play.

By showing how inferential scholarship builds from primary evidence, this presentation models the sort of process visible in a work like Andrew Gurr's The Shakespearean Stage, 1574–1642 (1992). There are often times when a more pat account must serve, however, and when some scholarly issues of theater history are passed over. For the most important aim is to appreciate what Shakespeare's plays do with the conditions under which they were created. All of the plays are referred to here, along with those of many other dramatists.

The second chapter, "Players," emphasizes the importance of Shakespeare's players' exceptional talents to his success. It summarizes the careers of Burbage, Kempe, Armin, and Phillips and notes many players' guild origins, friendships, and intermarriages across company lines. It touches on company organization, playing seasons, the repertory system, rehearsals, performance time, touring, doubling, and the use of so-called "plots" indicating entrances—all as they bear on particulars of the plays. Besides the speculations on inspired doubling, the most interesting section to me is "The Art of Counterfeiting," which distinguishes Shakespearean acting from later norms and which discusses the related topics of standardized gestures, soliloquies, and asides, with much illustration from the plays. Hamlet provides the conclusion: the Elizabethan art of personation, Kinney shows, is a key to the nature and complexity of his character.

The third chapter, "Playgoers," considers fourteen known playgoers who attended Shakespeare's public venues while he was an active playwright (I'd add minor poet and major penmanship teacher John Davies of Hereford as one of the most important, and report that there are now 250 known early modern playgoers, not 162 [86]). Kinney argues that Shakespeare's plays "take in the widest sweep of reactions the public playhouses could attract" (93), addressing segments of the audience both separately and collectively...


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