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Shakespeare and the Staging of English History by Janette Dillon (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 262-265 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0023

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In Shakespeare and the Staging of English History, Janette Dillon aims to reconstruct stage pictures on early modern stages for selected scenes from Shakespeare's history plays. The book begins with a discussion of the opening stage direction of 1 Henry VI, reasoning how an important stage property, the coffin, is borne and adorned, in what order each attendant enters, what position on the stage each character occupies, and what kind of atmosphere as a whole is created onstage. By focusing primarily on the logic of spatial allotment of both stage properties and characters, Dillon's approach to Shakespeare's history plays reflects the perspective of a professor of drama, who envisions the plays in detailed stage performances.

One of the most intriguing features of the book is Dillon's claim that it centers on "the nature and meaning of performance on early modern stages" (5). Our knowledge about the actual productions of Shakespeare plays in the Renaissance is very limited because unlike written texts that may survive over time, stage productions are ephemeral without modern filming devices. Dillon mentions the existence of evidence such as "inventories of costumes and props and occasional eyewitness testimony" (1), and this circumstantial evidence has inspired her discussion. However, the main parts of her reinterpretations are still based on clues from stage directions and lines from characters within the plays. Dillon makes an apology on the very first page of the introduction by informing us that "words like 'probably' will figure frequently" (1). This apology may be considered a self-evident drawback by some critics. I have in mind the word "conjectured" that E. K. Chambers uses in his criticism of Edmond Malone's description of the sign of the Globe, and Chambers's skeptical comment, "I do not know where he got this information." However, just like all defenses of poetry since Aristotle, which shield the imaginary and the fictitious, Dillon's apology can be considered justifiable. She explains, at least, how she has inferred her probable stage pictures. Since even the authorship of the plays attributed to Shakespeare has long been a subject of contention, conjectures about original Shakespearean staging practices are naturally difficult and debatable.

A basic premise of the book is that space onstage parallels social relationships, not just for early modern actors but also for early modern audiences. Dillon writes that "early modern actors and audiences had a strong shared sense of 'right' and 'wrong' about position and movement in social space and were inured to the idea that spatial and kinetic practice encoded certain aspects of social relationship" (7). She adds a note here that on spatial codes in the early modern period, we can refer to her earlier study The Language of Space in Court Performance, 1400-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Nevertheless, since the premise is critical to the whole book, it requires more elaboration than this note and the two brief examples she gives subsequently—the everyday practice of children kneeling to their fathers and women sitting on the left of men (7).

Actually, not only the stage but also the whole theater, with its differently priced seating and spaces (groundlings did not have seats), was encoded with meanings of social relationship. Even though Dillon pays very little attention to the immediate spatial context of the stage, from critics such as Andrew Gurr, a major academic advisor to the reconstruction of the Globe in London, we learn about the spatial arrangement of the theater in the form of a circle around the stage. Gurr brings attention to the significance of this circular notion of theatrical space at the beginning of Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, where he points out that "Shakespearean playgoers were members of a crowd surrounding the speakers," and there were even some seats behind the stage indicating the occupants' "social eminence." This important fact about the existence of different viewing angles is only mentioned in parentheses, where Dillon uses the term "front" as she refers to the position of the coffin in 1 Henry VI abovementioned: "(The term 'front', it must be remembered, however, is being used here of a stage which does not have the audience positioned entirely in front of...

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