- Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time by Matthew D. Wagner
There is much to admire in Matthew D. Wagner’s Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time. Whereas critics like David Scott Kastan, Agnes Heller, and Gary Waller have focused more on time as a theme or subject of inquiry in Shakespeare’s plays, Wagner adopts a phenomenological approach. He concentrates on the way that time is experienced by theatergoers, and he argues clearly and persuasively that time on the Shakespearean stage has markedly different characteristics than on the modern stage. Among the strengths of this book are its intelligent readings of individual plays, its deft use of Heidegger and Husserl, and its precise, graceful language (a particular achievement given the slipperiness of time as a subject of discussion). Despite these many strengths, however, Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time has one major weakness. In key places, Wagner extends his thesis outward, as when he discusses Marlowe or compares Shakespearean time with that seen in Beckett and Ibsen. This broader scope could potentially have been one of the book’s greatest strengths had Wagner not overlooked one major strand of theater history. As a result, his larger generalizations about the inherent relationship between theater and time are not as convincing as they might have been.
Wagner argues that time as it is experienced and represented on the Shakespearean stage has three main characteristics. First, it possesses “temporal dissonance” (2), by which Wagner means that time schemes conflict and that time on the stage does not add up to a single, smooth continuum. As Hamlet puts it, the “time . . . is ‘out of joint,’” a phrase that Wagner uses often to describe the chaotic nature of Shakespearean temporality (2). A second characteristic is “temporal materiality” (2), by which Wagner means that Shakespearean time “was figured in material objects and bodies,” “ranging from . . . clocks and watches to the human body itself ” (35) (a subject explored in Wagner’s very interesting third chapter, “The Bodies of Time”). A third characteristic of Shakespearean time is “temporal ‘thickness’” (2), meaning that the plays often layer together past, present, and future so that each one is immanent in the others. A compelling example of this “thickness” is Hal’s famous soliloquy in 1.2 of 2 Henry IV which, as Wagner demonstrates, stacks together an awareness of his past, his present, and his future.
The finest part of this book is chapter 4, “Time and the Play,” where Wagner shows how and where these three temporal characteristics—dissonance, materiality, and thickness—are manifest in the plays. He chooses four plays, each a key example of a genre: 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, King Lear, and The Winter’s Tale. The readings here are consistently fine and occasionally extraordinary, as when Wagner discusses the curious suspension of time in Twelfth Night. Malvolio’s busy efforts on behalf of his own future (and his characteristic use of the future tense) contrast with the pervasive waiting of other characters. Another striking reading is Wagner’s analysis of time in King Lear. Wagner argues that Lear refuses to see a chain of linear causality, denying the forward thrust of time by assuming that the [End Page 381] present with its hundred knights will continue to be like the past, and he shows that the play increasingly pushes us to see time as Lear sees it.
Had Wagner limited his discussion to Shakespeare, I would have concluded this review with a final admiring compliment about its contribution to Shakespeare studies. But Wagner’s impulse to broaden his thesis is not always successful. Readers of Wagner’s long discussion of time’s dissonance in chapter 2 and his comparison of early modern with modern stage time in chapter 5 may wonder, as I did, what happened to Ben Jonson. This is not a nitpicking objection, since Jonson was deeply concerned with (and voluble about) the very question of temporal dissonance that Wagner wrestles with. The utter absence of Jonson in this book results in a skewed understanding of the early modern stage and...