- Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance ed. by Farah Karim-Cooper and Tiffany Stern
Now available in paperback, Shakespeare’s Theatres and the Effects of Performance provides a wealth of information about early modern staging practices. While this volume is dedicated to “the materiality of the playhouses” (2), it is not antitextual. Rather, the essays in the collection explore “the way physical and sensual theatre contributed to textual theatre” (1). This is a wise choice because, as contributor Paul Menzer notes, “Everything we know about Shakespeare and his age is preconceived by print” (141). Since so much evidence for the theatrical practices of this era derives from the extant playscripts, it would be impossible (even if it were desirable) to ignore this literary record. Even Menzer’s essay, which strives to peer through what Fredson Bowers called “the veil of print” in order to discern the manuscript form in which early modern actors received their parts, depends for a key piece of evidence on the 1615 Quarto of Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (151-56). The strength of this volume is its ability to expand our appreciation of these literary texts—and to allow us to envisage their proper performance—by connecting them to the material circumstances that attended and inspired their composition.
The editors’ own contributions are perhaps the best examples of this approach. Tiffany Stern’s essay, “‘This Wide and Universal Theatre’: the Theatre as Prop in Shakespeare’s Metadrama,” urges a reconsideration of what we now call “metatheatre.” She notes, “Shakespeare, writing for a non-illusionistic stage, would hardly surprise spectators by telling them that they were in a theatre” (14). Instead Sterm points to specific references to discrete attributes of playhouse architecture, such as Hamlet’s dramatic description of the “heavens” that covered the Globe stage as a “majestical roof fretted with golden fire” (2.2.302-03), to show how “the early modern playhouse seems to have repeatedly been used as a way of interpreting and heightening the words and, sometimes, as a way of querying or undercutting them” (Karim-Cooper and Stern 31). Similarly, Farah Karim-Cooper examines how early modern perception of “the sense of touch not as active but as receptive” enabled “the interior effects of theatrical performance [to be] imagined in tactile terms” (227, 230). Karim-Cooper’s schema describes both reception by early modern playgoers—who were normally “jostled, shoved and pressed in with roughly 2,999 others”—and also the way some onstage characters affected their fellow dramatic personages (218): “Thus Iago’s effectiveness in driving Othello mad with jealousy is imagined as tactile. Iago touches, rubs, scratches, pulls, pushes, pours with words and the play stages the terrible effects of his tactile strategy” (231).
Some of the other essays are as strong as those of Stern and Karim-Cooper. Holly Dugan’s contribution, subtitled “The Smell of the Hope Theatre,” is [End Page 173] particularly delightful, especially for those old enough to cherish the cinematic fad of “smell-o-vision.” Similarly, Gwilym Jones’s description of how early modern practitioners used a “device . . . similar to a modern firework rocket” to produce storm effects at public amphitheaters makes one wonder how much these outdoor performances resembled today’s theme park stunt shows (35). Understandably, when such a scant historical record has been studied so extensively, contributors sometimes come to different conclusions about the same evidence. For instance, authors Lucy Munro and Andrea Stevens differ on the extent to which animal blood would have been used to represent its human equivalent on the early modern stage. Given the wealth of ongoing research in this field, it is also not surprising that a few observations from this volume, originally published in 2013, already seem outdated. Evelyn Tribble claims, for instance, that “Shakespeare’s players performed in the same ambient light as their audiences. This fact is widely recognized” (238). Martin White, however, made a convincing case that this was not...