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  • The Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre
  • Peter Happé
Janette DillonThe Cambridge Introduction to Early English TheatreCambridgeCambridge University Press2005 Pp. 296$75.00.

This is a carefully designed book whose function is essentially to teach. It sets out to present a great deal of information about the early theater and some of the social, political, and religious contexts in which it developed. There are several levels of instruction and these are discernible in the planning of the book, which has some distinctive features. The book does not follow a chronological order but rather sets out to present a number of chapters dealing with major topics such as places of performance, actors, writers, and genres. Within each chapter are many highlighted passages from plays and other documents in original wording, but modernized and integrated into the discourse and also presented as documents and comments for further individual contemplation. They [End Page 254] are sometimes deliberately contrasted. From time to time there are case studies of particular plays such as King Lear and A Game at Chess. To compensate for the absence of a chronological structure in the chapters there are two appendices giving a list of plays and performances from 965 to 1642, and an extensive list of events from 1337 to 1642 (the latter is rather indigestible). There are two maps (one contemporary) and some useful illustrations, some of them being well-known documents such as the diagrams for Castle of Perseverance and the Lucerne Passion, but others are original drawings and reconstructions particularly of conjectured circumstances of performance. Another appendix gives dimensions of known playing areas, and there are informative tables showing dates of festivals and feast days, and comparative theater-related costs, playing seasons and plague closures. To an extent these are used in the discussion, but they are also likely to be useful more generally.

The objective to make this an informative book is thus palpable, but it is also designed to be thought-provoking, and there is a distinct avoidance of didacticism in the ways in which ideas are presented. The author's stance is very much one aimed to question ideas and to encourage thought that does not necessarily reach cut-and-dried conclusions. This is seen over such matters as genre and ideas about theater, to which we shall return below. This approach helps to make the book of wider interest than simply being useful for classroom instruction, for it questions many widely held views of the nature and history of early theater in ways that experienced scholars will no doubt find interesting. Here we can address some of these under the broad headings of ideas about theater, historical perspectives, and performance practicalities.

The approach to "theater" is in part a questioning of what the word itself might mean, there being no simple answer because of its changing nature over different periods of time. The discussion also brings into account similar ambiguities about "play" and "performance." It is shown that there is a marked difference between plays that are written from one consolidated point of view and those which eschew a simple stance and use dramatic form as a complex experience of entertainment as well as instruction. In particular some of Shakespeare's plays are highlighted for their ideological ambiguity. Within the plays themselves it is also demonstrated that there can be deliberate juxtapositions of style in words and in enactment whose very differences are purposefully exploited. The experience of such plays is thus predicated upon the contrasts embodied within them.

The approach by means of theatrical language also brings into question the use of technical and critical terms, which in turn raises the question of genre. Dillon is concerned to pay attention to traditional categorization of plays especially in the light of classical and neoclassical distinctions such as comedy and tragedy. While noting, in terms of chronology, that classical comedy as such [End Page 255] made greater progress to begin with in the sixteenth century, she describes how the distinction from tragedy was continuously challenged, not least by Shakespeare's satire via Polonius, among others. In doing so she introduces the idea of "knowing playfulness," which tends to state...


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