- This Wide and Universal Theater: Shakespeare in Performance, Then and Now
David Bevington's This Wide and Universal Theater, published in hardcover in 2007, now makes a welcome appearance in paperback. The author's goal, set out on the first page of the study, is "to provide an account of Shakespeare's theater in all its complexity of physical space, casting capacities, and audience expectations; to place Shakespeare's plays in that original theatrical space as a way of suggesting how an awareness of their theatrical dimensions can illuminate numberless dramatic situations inherent in the dialogue; and to juxtapose those insights with more modern instances in film, television, and theatrical performance in order to appreciate some ways in which changed modes of presentation can arise out of, and contribute to, changed perceptions of the text" (1-2) . Bevington's project, ambitious and somewhat loosely defined, promises more than any one book can deliver, but it is to his credit that he compresses so much riches in so little a room.
In nine compact chapters, he sets himself to treat all of Shakespeare's plays in the context of Elizabethan and/or Jacobean performance conventions, paying attention to the evolution of outdoor and indoor playhouses, the makeup of Shakespeare's acting company, the architecture of the performing space, and the probable function of its individual features. He relies on well-known and widely accepted historical evidence, which he reinterprets with sensitivity to early modern theater's aesthetic potential and its practical constraints. Against this general background, successive chapters explore specific performance issues arising from the plays, their likely handling in Shakespeare's theater, and the response of playhouse artists and audiences to these issues over the centuries. His consideration of creative and cultural reaction to the plays embraces not only the stage, but film and television as well.
Bevington's methodology is demonstrated in his chapter devoted to the staging of Shakespeare's comedies, in which he examines the fluid interplay between the thematic and locational demands of the comedies and the conjectural stage environment within which they were originally realized. He attends particularly to The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and As You Like It but manages to comment succinctly and effectively on half a dozen other examples of the genre. In his treatment of Shrew, for example, he highlights the challenges posed in staging the Induction scene and the equally taxing undertaking of distinguishing the Italianate character of the Bianca-Baptista-Lucentio material from the natively English identity of the Katherine-Petruchio plot. Drawing upon four filmed versions of the [End Page 584] drama, a television production, and some dozen stage revivals, including the musical Kiss Me, Kate, he demonstrates the imaginative responses of various media to the play's exigencies. The wisdom of the flexible agenda Bevington sets himself at the book's outset becomes apparent in the wealth of observations this enables him to make about related forms of production.
Other chapters constructed on much the same pattern explore the histories, the so-called problem plays, the tragedies, and the romances, with Henry VIII relegated to an afterword. The tragedies receive two chapters. The first seeks "to examine the ways in which Shakespeare approached the staging of tragedy, first in a play (Romeo and Juliet) with significant affinities to romantic comedy, and then in two plays (Hamlet and Othello) through which Shakespeare helped to redefine the greatness of a genre" (130). The subsequent chapter, focusing on King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, attempts to answer the question, "What staging concepts and methods seemed appropriate to him as he moved toward the culmination and completion of his career as a writer of great tragedy?" (159).
Bevington finds the earlier tragedies to be explorations of the art of performance: the interrelationship of stage architecture and dramatic action in Romeo and Juliet, the interconnectedness of Hamlet's theatrical self-awareness and the role's acting style, the construction...