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About this book

A highly engaging text that approaches Shakespeare as a maker of theatre, as well as a writer of literature. Leading performance critics dismantle Shakespeare's texts, identifying theatrical cues in ways which develop understanding of the underlying theatricality of Shakespeare's plays and stimulate further performances.

Table of Contents

1. Textual Clues and Performance Choices

The scene of Bottom’s transformation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with a rehearsal of Pyramus and Thisbe that stages many of the sorts of creative decisions that typically arise during the early stages of theatrical production, issues of interpretation that contributors to this volume explore in depth in separate chapters. The actors are particularly concerned to find a good fit between their play and the audience before whom they will perform. Lion’s costume is modified to entertain rather than frighten the ladies, and the casement of the court’s great chamber window is considered as a possible source of actual moonshine before the actors decide to assemble properties (‘a bush of thorns and a lantern’) to stand in place of moonshine. When they finally get down to rehearsing their parts, Peter Quince choreographs Bottom’s exits and entrances into and out of a nearby bush, and instructs Flute on the importance of silence. The process is guided throughout by clues to performance found by the actors in their parts.
Margaret Jane Kidnie

2. Openings

It may have first looked like this: ‘Enter Demetrius and Philo’.
Peter Holland

3. Entrances and Exits

Entrances and exits both signify and effect change. When someone comes onto the stage they change it: they populate an empty stage; they bring new information; they cause an emotional reaction in the onstage characters; they interrupt, advance, reverse, slow down, hasten, stop what is already happening. When someone leaves the stage they change it: they cause an absence; they suggest what will happen off stage; they give the remaining characters a chance to reflect and to focus on their subsequent actions. Entrances and exits, therefore, are one way by which the dramatic trajectory and impetus of a play might be charted (indeed, a common rehearsal technique in the Stanislavskian tradition is to divide the play into smaller units than scenes, often marked by entrances and exits). Furthermore, this notion also points to the way that carefully scheduled stage traffic can shape an audience’s affective response to a play in performance, something understood most clearly, and metonymically prefigured, by those of Shakespeare’s characters who plan, plot, devise and scheme. Shakespeare’s schemers know, perhaps better than most, this potential of well-orchestrated entrances and exits to effect change. They know — somehow intuitively, or via an unholy dramaturgical alliance with their author — that timely comings or goings can alter what other characters see and know, or what they think they see and know, and thus, what they feel and how intensely.
Rob Conkie

4. Endings

Let us begin with an ending from the middle of Hamlet. King Claudius rises and calls for lights. The play, The Murder of Gonzago (aka The Mousetrap), is aborted and court and actors scatter off stage. Hamlet and Horatio are left alone among the detritus of the hastily abandoned performance. The King’s conscience has been caught, perhaps sooner and more effectively than Hamlet could have hoped for, and the play has ended. What happens next is odd. Hamlet starts to sing:
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungallèd play,
For some must watch, while some must sleep,
So runs the world away.
Has Hamlet finally lost it? What does song — and this song in particular — have to do with the fact that his uncle has seconds earlier revealed his guilt? Is this an appropriate reaction to such a profound moment? ‘Some must watch’ — yes, we have just watched Hamlet and Horatio watching Claudius watch the actors. ‘So runs the world away’ — agreed, the world has just run away.
Paul Prescott

5. Visual Scores

This chapter explores the extent to which Shakespeare’s plays play with our vision, our expectations and our understanding of the way the theatre can make us ‘See better’ (King Lear 1.1.152) by seeing differently. It looks at the increasing complexity of visual imagery throughout Shakespeare’s writing career by highlighting the relationship between textual and visual rhetoric and the foregrounding of the audience’s interpretation of the visual score. In order to illustrate this argument I have chosen to highlight three pairs of contrasting visually significant moments on stage. By combining a close reading of the text in these moments with examples from performance it is possible to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s work shows a developing sense of the importance of collective understanding of the visual on stage. The performance of the plays through ‘original practices’ experiments, particularly in the reconstructed theatres of Shakespeare’s Globe and the Blackfriars in Virginia, has helped to reanimate the collective visualization process that is embedded in the dramatic structure of Shakespeare’s work. The plays have not changed, but our understanding of their dramatic effect has, owing to the participatory nature of the audiences in these new old spaces.
Christie Carson

6. Props

During the previews of the 2009 Globe production of Troilus and Cressida, Achilles’ Myrmidons murdered the unsuspecting Hector with a machine-gun. The rest of the production was set reasonably firmly in the ancient world, achieved through the lavish set, pseudo-Greek costumes, tattoos and hairstyles and the props themselves, which were deliberately designed to be temporal signifiers. However, the introduction of the machine-gun seemed to rupture the audience’s sense of place and time, and the gun’s lack of transhistoricity was a cogent reminder of the intrusion of the materials of the present when performing the past; but the rupture may have been too great, according to the director (Matthew Dunster), who felt he had lost ‘control’ of the theatrical event. He thus removed the offending prop from the rest of the run. What this example illustrates is the role that objects play in constructing an audience’s sense of history. As Andrew Sofer writes, ‘in addition to locale, props silently convey time period’ (21). Equally, one object can change the entire temporal meaning of a production and remove a director’s ‘control’. By the very nature of its materials and its reconstructed design, the Globe Theatre imposes history on to its performers, actors and audience alike. When directors are invited to create a production there, they are forced to consider the historical implications of the space.
Farah Karim-Cooper

7. Talking Heads

For those of us who are interested in the stage life of the (mostly silent) objects that Shakespeare writes into performance, trying to see what they have to say while his extraordinarily clamorous characters fill the plays with ‘words, words, words’, certain events at the end of 2008 were gratifying indeed. For a fortnight in November the Shakespeare object triumphed over the Shakespeare actor when Hamlet’s occupationally mute sidekick grabbed the media spotlight and upstaged the lippy prince.
Carol Chillington Rutter

8. Costume

Having seen the production of Deborah Warner’s Julius Caesar to which Michael Billington refers here, I have some sympathy with the notion that ‘modern dress’ in Shakespeare production does not necessarily clarify for a current audience the political, or indeed the emotional, stakes and relationships encoded within a 400-year-old play. Warner’s was an excitingly staged, powerfully acted and very well-received production of Julius Caesar, in which around one hundred supernumeraries, taken partly from each of the local communities in which the production played (London, Paris, Madrid, Luxembourg), performed as the plebeian crowd. A scene of postmodern political and aesthetic fragmentation was created from truncated classical columns, surrounded by police incident tape and backed by perspex gates and a bright yellow backdrop. Politicians in suits ‘pricked down’ those who were to die on their laptops. The Iraq War was clearly referenced via desert fatigues in the second half of the production and through photographs in the British programme. In the second half, Cassius (Simon Russell Beale) wore suit trousers and a cardigan to confront Brutus (Anton Lesser) in his camouflage gear. It was as if, despite the pair’s spat over who was the better soldier (4.3), Russell Beale’s Cassius was not a solider at all but a modern politician who sent men to war but played no risky physical part in it himself.
Bridget Escolme

9. Fighting

They fight is one of Shakespeare’s most used stage directions, but what kind of stage action is he directing when he adds these words in the margin of the text? A stage fight is thoroughly predetermined: every step, every blow, every punch, every sword thrust, will have been painstakingly rehearsed, choreographed in slow motion, and practised diligently before every performance. The risk is pure illusion. The paradox of stage fighting is that the moment when the stage seems the most disordered, when the actors seem most out of control, is also the moment when the actors are in most control, when their safety depends on their fellow actors knowing exactly what each other will do and when.
Stuart Hampton-Reeves

10. Audiences

The subject of this chapter is at once both utterly obvious and bafflingly inexplicable. While on the one hand it is a commonplace that theatre needs, at minimum, both performers and audience, on the other hand, there is rarely sufficient questioning of what it is that audiences do. What does the presence of an audience bring to the dynamic of a performance? In Jerzy Grotowski’s words, theatre is ‘what takes place between spectator and actor’ (32). But what is it that actually takes place? Consider the list of questions we could ask about that relationship between spectator and actor:
  • Are audiences passive receptacles for a performance’s meaning, ideally infused with the sense of the actors’ performance but in danger, on the flip side, of utterly failing to understand what the performance is telling them?
  • Or does an audience participate in a performance, bringing their own reactions and sensibilities to bear upon the meanings that are created in performance? Are they makers of meaning rather than receptacles for it?
  • Is an audience a collective body, something of which we can speak in the singular?
  • Or are audiences collections of individual bodies, an aggregation of many different responses that should more accurately be described in the plural?
Sarah Werner

11. Sound

Like explorers climbing one upon the other to gain access to the top of the wall, since the beginning of the twenty-first century critics have stood on each other’s shoulders to peer over the wall separating us from the noisy early modern past. Whooping and stomping and thumping and oomphs of air can be perceived, barely, from our side. What’s happening over there, on the other side, where the kinetic cannot be untethered from the thinking, where something about sound in its arc in time means everything to the world in motion on the stage, and thus everything to the richness of the graphics we are left with on the page? To read Bruce Smith or Wes Folkerth — who themselves cite the shoulders of those engaged in acoustical history and theory on which they first stood — and then to write, is to clamber up on their shoulders with one’s muddy feet, longing to get that much higher, that much closer to experiencing the noise, to experiencing the moving bodies in performance. In her book Voice in Motion: Staging Gender, Shaping Sound in Early Modern England Gina Bloom argues that ‘a history of materiality is a history of things in motion, things moving through time and space’ (100). Citing an early modern text by Kenelm Digby, Bloom suggests a perspective on sound that was commonly articulated by early modern theorists: that motion and sound are ‘one and the same thing’, a theory Digby supports by his investigations with subjects who are deaf, where the movement of objects ‘make a like motion in his braine’ to sound without ‘passing through his ear’ (102).1
P. A. Skantze

12. Silence

On 29 August 1952, a concert hall in Woodstock, New York, hosted the premiere of a new work by the 39-year-old composer John Cage. It was one that he had worked on for longer than any other of his compositions (nearly four years). Cage was already established as one of America’s most adventurous and original musical thinkers, but few, if any, in the original audience settling down for 4ʹ33ʺ could have anticipated what they were about to experience. At the beginning of the performance, the renowned pianist David Tudor walked on to the concert platform, sat at the piano and closed the keyboard lid. After 30 seconds (timed with a stopwatch), Tudor signalled the end of the first movement, during which he had played not a single note, by briefly lifting the lid. For the second movement, which lasted just short of two and a half minutes, Tudor remained motionless while the wind stirred the trees outside. The third and final movement, lasting one minute and forty seconds, and in which, as before, the pianist made no sound, completed the piece. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds: 4ʹ33ʺ.
Robert Shaughnessy


During the last few decades, the study of Shakespeare’s plays has made convincing progress. From a close examination of individual texts, their use of language and rhetoric, their intellectual origins and contexts, and the mirror they hold up to nature, scholarly attention has moved on to consider the dramaturgical qualities of those texts, what has been made of them in performance and what might become of them in future. No resting place is here because no agreed way has been found to describe and evaluate individual productions of a play, either in the past or present, either actual or imaginary. Clearly not all productions are equally profitable for study or suitable for every purpose, but how can a critic make a choice between them? Nor are descriptions by reviewers and critics equally open-minded or well and truly observed.
John Russell Brown
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