In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Matter-Theatre:Construction in Cymbeline
  • Callan Davies

Five times in Cymbeline, a character asks, "what's the matter?" (1.1.3).1 This question conspicuously opens up various meanings of "matter" in the play, and—in the context of this special issue—invites reflection on the role of "matter" in metatheatre. The question appears as early as the third line (fifth in the Folio), part of the exposition in which two gentlemen discuss Imogen's engagement. The term then continues to feature throughout the play, both explicitly, by verbal reference, as well as implicitly, by allusion, echo, and association. The word "matter" draws on both rhetoric and early modern "science" from technology to anatomy; it has resonance in early modern England through its legal applications (the subject to be tried or approved, for example, OED n1 13a) and scholastic terminology (as in Aristotelian theory, where it signifies the "component of a thing that has bare existence" that must be joined with "form," OED n1 22a). Matter also has wider and more flexible understandings in this period, from its uses in logic as the contents of a given argument or contention (OED n1 24), as well as its broadest meaning of "thing, affair, concern" (OED n1 1a). The slipperiness of the word in early modern discourse forms Hamlet's playful response to Polonius's enquiry about the content of what he is reading:


Words, words, words.


What is the matter, my lord?


Between who?


I mean the matter that you read, my lord.


Hamlet deliberately misunderstands matter to mean a contention, with its legal senses of something to be tried between two parties, rather than [End Page 69] its rhetorical relationship to "words" as the subject of a book or speech (OED n1 9a). Polonius's subsequent comment of Hamlet's toying, "there's method in it" (ll.201–2), brings the meanings full circle to logic.

Matter is a major element in Cymbeline's self-conscious artifice and it places explicit emphasis on the rhetorical construction of Shakespeare's playworld and its narrative fragility. "Matter" serves as an historically-appropriate alternative to the twentieth-century coinage "metatheatre," first used by Lionel Abel in 1960. As Sarah Dustagheer and Harry Newman observe in their introduction to this issue, scholars of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drama have subsequently taken a range of approaches to what Dustagheer and Newman succinctly summarize as "self-conscious theater" (4). James Calderwood critiques the use of the prefix "meta," with its implications that metatheatricality goes "beyond drama" (4); he extends his notion of "metadrama" inward as well as outward, focussing on the "materials" and "media of language and theater, its generic forms and conventions, its relationship to truth and the social order" (5). It is precisely the "materials" of dramatic art to which I turn my attention; however, I avoid twentieth- and twenty-first-century vocabularies for "self-conscious theatre," concentrating instead on how such materials and media were articulated and understood in their own period. If, as Dustagheer and Newman observe, "metatheatre of this period was qualitatively distinct" (8), then we must pay attention to the discourse in which it was articulated in the period as much as to our own critical frameworks.

"Matter-theatre" therefore stands as a playful but precise historical counterpoint to Calderwood's metadrama. It allows us to move beyond metaphorical observations of dramatic self-reflexivity in the period to point to how plays are fundamentally invested in exploring their dramatic quiddity. That is to say, it points us to the materials of early modern performance—rhetorical, legal, philosophical, and technological—and to their acknowledgement by playwrights, in terms encompassed by and theorized through early modern understandings of the term "matter." "Matter-theatre" gives us one way of articulating heightened self-conscious dramatic construction in terms appropriate to a period in which it might seem that self-referentiality is everywhere. It also moves us beyond metatheatrical moments or "events" to a more fundamental concern with dramatic construction that pervades a play: in Cymbeline, theatrical recognition and self-awareness work both theoretically—through early modern understandings of "matter"—and at...