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  • Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare's Theatre by Evelyn Tribble
  • Claire Syler
Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare's Theatre. By Evelyn Tribble. Cognitive Studies in Literature and Performance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Cloth $80.00. 200 pages.

On one hand, Evelyn Tribble's Cognition in the Globe joins the deep literature concerning Shakespeare, posing familiar questions about the early modern stage: How did the players handle the mnemonic duties of their parts? What was the precise architecture of the stage and how was it used? How did the apprentice system impact performance? On the other hand, Tribble's book provides an entirely modern understanding of these and other historical questions through a contemporary theory of mind, distributed cognition. Tribble's efforts pay off handsomely. Distributed cognition has interdisciplinary roots (closely related to similar theories such as situated cognition and extended mind) and views thinking—or cognition—as a way to account for the interconnected nature of the entire dynamic and cognitively rich system; as Jean Lave notes, cognition is "'distributed—stretched over, not divided among—mind, body, activity and culturally organized settings (which include other actors)'" (qtd. in Tribble 4). By applying such a framework to Shakespeare's Globe, Tribble offers an intriguing "historical ethnography," which examines the interplay of "a coordinated yet shifting and uneven triad of insides, objects, and people: internal neuro-biological mechanisms that constrain and enable such processes as memory, perception, and attention; material tools ('cognitive artifacts') and environments; and social systems" (7).

For those familiar with the field of cognitive studies, the title, Cognition in the Globe, rings familiar. Indeed, Tribble borrows from anthropologist Ed Hutchins's influential book, Cognition in the Wild (1995), an ethnographic study of ship navigation that delves into the social structures of expert and novice navigators in the context of the ship's environment and tools. For Tribble, Hutchins's work provides an analog to Shakespeare's Globe and offers "a powerful model for thinking that bridges traditional divides between culture and cognition" (5).

Tribble's first chapter, "The Stuff of Memory," examines the ways in which the Globe's physical environment and material tools provide a distributed network in which players off-load cognitive activity. Critical to this argument is the view that the early modern playhouse is a workplace—a high-pressure, results-oriented space, organized so as to enable complex cognitive activity. Drawing on a wide range of literary and cognitive research, Tribble examines the ways in which Renaissance players used the material and physical environment (e.g. stage doors, plots, and playbooks) to simplify choices, thus experiencing "cognitive thrift" and increasing their ability to execute and coordinate higher-level cognitive tasks such as memorization, attention, and stage activity (32).

In the second chapter, "Action and Accent: Voice, Gesture, Body, and Mind," Tribble investigates the formal features of the language of the early modern plays, [End Page 199] as well as the actor bodies and voices which delivered that language. Here the key question involves the expected degree of fidelity in memorization and performance. Employing cognitive research on memory, Tribble effectively argues that verse is a distributed framework which prompts both memorization and "fluent forgetting"—an expert practice that enables performers to make "slight alterations to words that still conserve meaning and meter" (72-73). Tropes in language, such as the concept of antithesis, also support fluent forgetting. Using Hamlet's "picture of two brothers" speech, Tribble illustrates how fluent forgetting may have contributed to the competing versions of the speech found in the Folio and the first Quarto Hamlets. Finally, Tribble examines the primacy of the body as a causal agent for memorization via historical evidence and cognitive research on language, gesture, and mind.

Tribble's final chapter, "Social Cognition: Enskillment in the Early Modern Theatre," looks to the social structures embedded in the playing companies, particularly in the apprentice system. Because young boys played a range of complex roles, this chapter examines how novice players transitioned to experts. Tribble contends that boys playing key female parts, such as Cleopatra, were already experts; they could handle a hefty mnemonic load and, more importantly, they were...


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pp. 199-201
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