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COMPARATIVE 9Ï9ÎY19 Volume 34 No. 4 · Winter 2000-2001 "Look not big, nor stamp, nor stare": Acting Up in The Taming of the Shrew and the Coventry Herod Plays Jonathan Gil Harris In his 1945 study of Shakespeare's use of humoral psychology, John W. Draper noted that thesupposedlycholeric Petruchio's strategyfor subduing the equally volatile Katherine "is to out-Herod Herod."1 Though Draper doubdess intended his remark to be no more than metaphorical , I propose to take it literally. Shakespeare's TamingoftheShrew, I shall argue, is subtly informed bya metatheatrical awareness ofHerod and, more specifically, ofthe styles ofacting that distinguished his character on the early English stage. That Shakespeare knew of the conventions and characters of Corpus Christi cycle drama is beyond question. What remains unclear is whether his knowledge was derived, either wholly or at least in part, from first-hand childhood experience as an audience member. Although the young Shakespeare may have developed a taste for live theater in Stratford itself, which frequently played host to licensed traveling 365 366Comparative Drama players from 1569,2 his home town had no tradition of Corpus Christi drama. But as many scholars have speculated, Shakespeare may have witnessed one or more performances of the biblical cycle play staged during the week-long Great Fair ofCorpus Christi at nearby Coventry. He certainly had ample opportunity to do so. Although no longer the regular annual event it had been before the Reformation—it was not performed during the plague years of 1564 and 1575, for example—the city's cycle playwas staged on numerous occasions during Shakespeare's childhood prior to its discontinuation in 1580, when he was sixteen. The Coventry Fair was evidently a large tourist draw, attracting thousands of visitors and their purses. One seventeenth-century antiquary noted that "the confluence of people from farr and neare to see that Shew was extraordinary great, and yielded noe small advantage to this Cittye."3 As the son of one of Stratford's leading local politicians in the 1560s and 1570s, whose official administrative business took him to Coventry on several occasions, it is hard to imagine Shakespeare and his father not attending a nearby event invested with considerable civic and even national significance. In the absence of any incontrovertible evidence that Shakespeare was an audience member at a performance ofthe Coventry cycle, however, potentially illuminating points of contact between the mystery drama and his own have been for the most part neglected.4 A passage in the wedding scene of The Taming ofthe Shrew—a play that contains more references to Warwickshire locations than any other by Shakespeare5—hints that he did see the Coventry cycle, and that one ofits episodes may have made a lasting impression on him. The specific connection I shall sketch between the Coventry play and The Taming of the Shrew differs from the type of strictly intertextual relation conventionally adduced by scholars ofsource studies. I am proposing instead a relation of intertheatricality. This different relation, I shall argue, consists less in textual transmission—although there may be elements of that too—than in critical reproduction of a style of performance most notable for the actor's over-the-top selfpresentation, including exaggerated gestural techniques, dazzling costumes, and deafening verbal delivery . I shall term this style "acting up." The phrase not only suggests the hyperbolictendencies ofthestyle,which required the actor'svolumeknob to be decisively turned up (loud delivery! loud body language! loud apparel !); it also captures something of the socially transgressive behavior Jonathan Gil Harris367 tyranny, shrewishness—that the style was frequently employed to represent on the early English stage. The phrase additionally hints at the potentiallytransgressive status gap that so frequently obtained between the player and his character; to impersonate a middle eastern tyrant or even a young woman from a rich Paduan mercantile family, the player of the provincial Corpus Christi stage and the London commercial theater alike had to act "up" in a class as much as a histrionic sense. Shakespeare's reproduction ofcycle-drama performance styles in The Taming of the Shrew bespeaks not only a personal history of dramatic influence, however, but also an institutional history of theatrical rivalry...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 365-398
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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