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Reviews Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thomson. A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 289. $69.95 cloth. $24.95 paper. In the third chapter of Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary (1995), Alan Dessen imagines "a dictionary or handbook comparable to the OED that would define both stock terms and less familiar usages so as to facilitate interpretation " (42). A dictionary of word's and phrases employed in stage directions would be extremelyuseful, Dessen contends,but the relative lack ofdocumentaryevidence andthe difficultyofinterpreting the existing datawould make the compilation ofsuch a handbook a prohibitively arduous task. At the end of his chapter, Dessen concludes,"ifdie evidence were more plentifulandtheproblems fewer, a series ofdictionary entries wouldbe an excellent way to set forth the theatrical vocabulary of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Such, however, is not the case" (63). Since the expression of these doubts, Dessen has teamed with Leslie Thomson to conquer his misgivings about the feasibility ofsuch a project. The result is A Dictionary ofStage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642, which deserves a prominent place among the essential reference works on the English Renaissance stage. Thomson brings to the task a database of more than 22,000 stage directions taken from approximately 500 plays extending from 1581 (the date of the first surviving play associated with the London professional stage) to the closing of the theaters. Since the authors are interested primarily in the theatrical vocabulary ofTudor and Stuart professional repertory theaters, this database excludes academic plays, masques, pageants, and other dramatic events that might not represent the exigencies and constraints of the professional stage. Utilizing this mine of information, Dessen and Thomson have split the task ofcomposing over 900 entries keyed to words and 225 226Comparative Drama phrases actually found in the plays' stage directions, and in so doing have completed an essentially successful attempt to get at the theatrical language shared by dramatists, actors, and spectators ofthe period. The entries themselves cover terms ranging from rare expressions, such as "fireball," found in the database only once, to words like "enter" or "carry" so common that they might not, on the surface, appear to require clarification. As a means of limiting the meaning of these terms to "the realm ofwhat was or could have been done in the original productions" (viii), the authors begin each entry with a definition of the word or phrase glossed with reference to other stage directions, not the OED. This definition is followed by a series of specific examples of uses of the term, varying in length depending upon the frequency of the term's employment, the variety of meanings that these examples display, and the patterns of association into which the examples fall, such as repeated links to certain occasions, activities, locations, or character types. Here, in these patterns ofassociation, lie some ofthe dictionary's most valuable insights. For example, we find that a "silver oar" is connected "to pirates (who have violated the laws of the sea) being led to execution"(152); that rosemary "as an onstage property" is "linked ... to weddings" (184); and that "candles/tapers are found in scenes located indoors as opposed to torches/ links that usually indicate outdoor locales" (41). A reader of a specific stage direction in a play, encountering such a term in isolation, maybe puzzled as to its full significance, but a quick reference to the entry in Dessen and Thomson's dictionary will elucidate that word or phrase by placing it alongside similar early modern examples ofits employment. Although Dessen and Thomson draw evidence primarily from stage directions , they occasionally supplement these examples with passages taken from the plays' dialogue or other contemporary theatrical documents, such as Henslowe's inventory ofcostumes and properties. In longer entries, examples are grouped together to emphasize connections between terms; for instance, actionslike "mourning" are linkedto particular costumes (blackcoats), sounds (flutes), and objects (hearses) associated with that activity. Any examples of atypical uses of a term appear at the end of an entry, and cross-references between entries are indicated byplacing related terms in bold type. These crossreferences also correspond to an appended list ofTerms byCategorythat groups together entry words...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 225-228
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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