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Reviewed by:
  • Laughing and Weeping in Early Modern Theatres
  • R. S. White
Steggle, Matthew, Laughing and Weeping in Early Modern Theatres (Studies in Performance and Early Modern Drama), Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007; hardback; pp. 172; 3 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £50.00; ISBN 9780754657026.

History of the emotions is an important, emerging subject for scholarship in early periods, and this succinct book is a valuable contribution. It raises the central questions: when, how and why did actors feign laughter and weeping, and audiences respond in like fashion? Matthew Steggle’s methodology is orderly to the point of schematism, initially tracing statements of theory in the Renaissance which give some information as to how people thought about emotions in terms of bodily symptoms and psychological causation. He then in turn looks at laughter and weeping in the theatre both on and off the stage, in terms of empirical evidence, such as phrases like ‘Ha, ha, ha’ and implied stage directions like ‘Do these my teares delight thee then?’ (Daborn’s A Christian Turn’d Turke). The net is cast widely, gleaning information from [End Page 213] all the plays that survive from the period, major and minor. It is not possible to be too literal-minded in interpreting the evidence, since dramatists and theorists (especially unsympathetic Puritans) were well aware that emotions can be feigned and that outward behaviour does not always reveal true feelings.

A concluding chapter on a phenomenon which has been called by modern critics like Nicholas Brooke, following in T. S. Eliot’s wake – ‘horrid laughter’ – deals with some more problematical areas. After soberly considering the evidence, Steggle’s conclusion (which I welcome since I have never agreed with the theory) is that, while there was ‘comic relief’ in tragedy and a genuinely mixed genre of tragic-comedy, yet there are no convincing signs that a satirically tragic kind of laughter existed on the Early Modern stage, and that if laughter happened at inappropriate times it was more likely to be ‘a result of unexpected performance mishaps’ which would have been frowned upon.

However, even if (to my mind) this conclusion is judicious, Steggle’s laudably empirical approach may underestimate some genuinely odd moments in the theatre such as Titus’s laughter when he is at the end of his tether, which is unaccountably not quoted in the book despite a section on Titus Andronicus: ‘TITUS ANDRONICUS Ha, ha, ha! MARCUS ANDRONICUS Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with this hour …’. This part of the play is interesting, I believe, not as an example of a hypothetical tone of satirical or ‘horrid laughter’ but because it shows Shakespeare reaching towards a theory unique to him amongst the period’s dramatists that an emotion tuned up to an extremity can somehow break into its opposite. Modern psychology and familiar experiences confirm that this can happen, but it does not prove that either Shakespeare here or writers of revenge tragedy intended to create in audiences such a feeling, which, as Marcus points out, would subvert the clear lines in such a morally pitched play.

My quibble on this point suggests both the value and limitations of Steggle’s book. While its factual and thorough basis helps to dispel modern and ahistorical theories about the presumed universality of emotions, yet at times the genuinely alien and discrepant moments invite a more flexible degree of critical insight than we consistently get. Theatre historians and critics will welcome this book, but it is not the end of an unfolding story of representing emotions on the Early Modern stage. [End Page 214]

R. S. White
School of Social and Cultural Studies
University of Western Australia


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