- The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580-1630
Henry S. Turner's magisterial book The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580–1630 is simultaneously a traditional New Historicist enterprise and a project that moves early modern theater scholarship in a new direction. Like other New Historicists, Turner regards certain habits of thought in the early modern period as crucial to the formation of the drama of London's public theaters. Yet, in writing the book, Turner also responded to what he perceived as a critical lacuna. As he notes in his introduction, critics after Greenblatt have focused much more on the performativity of everyday life in Tudor-Stuart England than on the history of dramatic form or the conventions of theatrical representation. Turner begins with the premise that the drama performed shortly after the Theater was built was "a highly spatialized mode of representation … and not simply … an artefact of print" (2). His book investigates how theatrical space shaped dramatic form in early modern dramas; it owes as much to semioticians like Keir Elam and theater historians like Glynne Wickham as it does to Greenblatt and his cohort.
Turner begins where many of us start our introductory Shakespeare lectures: with early modern man's increasing spatial consciousness in the face of the technological developments that prompted historians to christen the early modern period the "Age of Exploration." He asserts that educated men of this period perceived a resemblance between the abstraction of geometry and the mimesis of poesy: both arts possessed "the power to transport the viewer across vast distances through a single act of imaginative projection" (9). Turner's assertion may invite initial skepticism but the parallels he offers ultimately become convincing over the course of his argument. The distinctions we now assume to inhere between practical and fine arts were not evident to most early modern thinkers, who studied the new disciplines without our classificatory differences.
In the centrality of ethical philosophy to sixteenth-century English thought, Turner locates the basis of the parallels between Renaissance poetics and modern scientific method in the early seventeenth century. These parallels derive from [End Page 273] shared concepts, terminology, and practical techniques and may be seen in the artists' methods of composition, in the vocabulary used "to designate a concept of symbolic content" (16), and in shared semiotic conventions.
Even before the emergence of the public theaters of London, theater was perceived as one of the mechanical sciences, sister to such sciences as carpentry, navigation, and, by the early modern period, civil and military engineering. Most of the mechanical sciences involved the manipulation of spatial structure, spatial movement, and the art of spatial representation. Dramatic form cannot be truly understood until the context of the science of theatrical representation is recognized.
Turner suggests that it is time that critics moved from examining "whether the theatre operated as a site for refracting social and ideological contradictions of its moment … [to] how specifically it did so" (30). He pursues this project by case studies in topographesis, which he defines as "the representation of place by texts of all kinds but also by maps, diagrams, paintings, or images" (30). The book is divided into two parts: the first half analyzes the intellectual background of topographesis, while the second half offers case studies that examine "unusually self-reflexive" plays. Theatrical topographesis owes a great deal to Renaissance geometry, as Turner is at pains to demonstrate in both halves of the book.
The opening chapters outline the significance of the early modern concept of "practical knowledge" and its derivation from both "the linguistic epistemologies of European humanism" and "the quantitative and iconic modes of representation characteristic of the spatial arts" (43). Science as we now define it was in its infancy during this period and was then largely understood as Aristotelian natural philosophy. In fact, Turner argues, the concepts of judgment and decorum in Aristotelian dialectic offered methods of reasoning that were applied to practical matters...