- Shakespeare’s Double Plays: Dramatic Economy on the Early Modern Stage by Brett Gamboa
Might the actor who plays Juliet’s Nurse double as Tybalt, Angelo double as Claudio, Desdemona as Bianca, Leontes as Autolycus, and Cymbeline’s Queen as Iachimo? Might many of Shakespeare’s heroines have been played by young men, not boys, and might doubling in his company have been much more extensive, imaginative, and meaningful than we have been led to believe? At a time when many of our modern theatre companies are experimenting with gender-blind and race-blind casting, Brett Gamboa argues that audiences at the Globe and the Blackfriars enjoyed much more radical practices than we usually see today. As he writes, “[b]iases towards verisimilitude have been projected onto Shakespeare’s company, leading to widely held but largely unfounded assumptions: that sharers wouldn’t double in minor roles; that the company would require sufficient time for actors to change [End Page 570] clothes; that adult males never played female roles; that actors would not double multiple roles within the same scene” (219).
Gamboa explores these “widely held but largely unfounded assumptions” through a series of chapters on topics such as “Versatility and Verisimilitude on Sixteenth-Century Stages,” “Dramaturgical Directives and Shakespeare’s Cast Size,” and “‘What, are they children?’: Reconsidering Shakespeare’s ‘Boy’ Actors.” He offers detailed discussion of the doubling possibilities in The Winter’s Tale, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Othello; an appendix provides thirty-two “hypothetical casting charts” for all the plays that Shakespeare wrote for the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men from 1594 to 1610. His intention is not only to challenge received ideas about casting, but also to argue that a different approach would offer both actors and audiences more pleasure and a greater depth of engagement with the plays. He is not offering new historical evidence, but rereading the evidence we already have, mainly through a very thorough and careful analysis of Shakespeare’s own dramaturgical practice. Gamboa is not prescriptive about modern practices: he writes toward the end of his book that “[w]hen it comes to theatre productions, my hope is less to define how a play should be cast, than to show the value of doubling, and to invite directors to be less random in the assignation of roles” (235). He does not in fact spend very much time discussing modern practices; his emphasis is more on what might have happened in Shakespeare’s own time.
Much of the book is devoted to a thorough re-examination of the kinds of evidence that previous scholars have used. Gamboa demonstrates how flimsy some of it is and how dangerous it might be to rely upon documents from the 1620s or later to deduce earlier practices. For example, the extant “plots” from the Caroline period show that the companies used more actors than was strictly necessary, compared to the efficiency of the Tudor patterns that Shakespeare inherited or those that can be derived from his own dramatic structures. His most striking challenge is perhaps to the assumption that “boy actors” would have been prepubescent teenagers who played exclusively female roles. Instead, he argues convincingly that they were much more likely to have been young men, capable of acting male parts as well, since Shakespeare would have needed to make the best use of a comparatively small company. He points out that “[w]hatever Shakespeare’s intent or practice, his play[s] carefully avoid the need for 13 speakers to share the stage at all times. . . . When a scene with 12 speakers wants one more, something happens to excuse someone” (148). Sometimes the absence is a conspicuous one, for example that of Lady Montague at the end of Romeo and Juliet or of Maria at the end of Twelfth Night. The explanation might be that the actor is onstage, but in a different role. The consistency of the twelve-speaker rule across thirty-two plays can hardly be a coincidence; Shakespeare must have written with...