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The Uniqueness of Elizabethan Drama Jonas A. Barish Elizabethan drama might be considered to be unique in a number of ways, but I should like to speak only of a single familiar way, the full uniqueness of which may perhaps be easy to overlook. I refer to its multiplicity or comprehensiveness, and I would contrast it rapidly in that respect with three of its main rivals in the theater of Western Europe: the drama of the Greeks, that of neoclassical France toward the end of the seventeenth century, and that of modem Europe in its first or naturalistic phase as pioneered by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov. We can start with the physical stage. Whether the Eliza­ bethan theater derives from pageant wagons, or the trestle stages of traveling fairs, or from gaming houses, or inn-yards, or archi­ tectural structures like city gates and funerary monuments, or from the baldachinos and pavilions in Renaissance paintings, what evolves is a complex playing area, with a central platform, an alcove or discovery space at the rear, flanked by doors, a trap door leading to a cellarage below, a balcony or balustraded space above, with possibly a second level above that, and on the platform itelf a pair of great columns that divide the stage. We have a versatile, multiple playing space which can represent locales such as a field, a castle, a city wall, a ship’s deck, a forest, a desert, a cave, a cell, a tavern, a hall of state, or a street, in free alternation or succession. Characters can wander in from one door and out another, lean out of windows or emerge from the alcove, skulk behind pillars or peer from over arrases, and they may occupy two or more parts of the stage simul­ taneously. One of the most striking effects in Elizabethan drama comes from this last-named feature, as in the parley scenes in historical plays, when besieging armies stationed on the platform challenge the defenders of a town or castle situated above, or 103 104 Comparative Drama scenes of overhearing, in which characters lurking above, or behind pillars, eavesdrop on others—perhaps, as in Act V of Troilus and Cressida, being themselves eavesdropped on in turn —or scenes in which something is going on below stage as well as at platform level, like the cellarage sequence in Hamlet. If we compare all this with the fixed scene, or skaena, of the Greek theater, often representing a palace door, as in Oedipus, or with the fixed scene of the French neoclassic stage, usually an antechamber of the palace, as in Britannicus or Bérénice or Phèdre, into which come and go only those characters who have essential business there, or with the tasteless bourgeois parlor of Ibsen, with its expressive clutter, perhaps permitting a bare glimpse of some world beyond—a fjord, a mill-stream, a townscape with steeple—we can see that in these other cases the fixed stage creates a sense of high focus. The action with which we are concerned is locked to the place on which our gaze is fixed, and whatever occurs elsewhere will have to be reported by messenger or some similar device of secondary narration. On the Elizabethan stage, even when the action takes place entirely on a single island, as in The Tempest, it still suggests fluidity and dispersal rather than concentration. It moves us hither and yon over the island, refusing to fasten itself to one spot. Probably The Alchemist comes closest, of Elizabethan plays, to confining itself to a fixed site, yet it does so for a special and highly eccentric purpose: to create a sense of abnormal pressure, of something bursting at the seams and threatening to explode. The rascally alchemists use the stage doors as places into which they can thrust inopportune clients, so as to make room for new arrivals who cannot be put off, so that what we see is not so much the confinement of a story to its natural locus in a single room as a multiple action deliberately crammed into a smaller space than it can naturally occupy, with the result that at length, like the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 103-112
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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