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The Dramatic Life of Objects in the Early Modern Theater

  • Douglas Bruster
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Series book series

Abstract

The early modern playhouse in England was a theater of easily held things. Hand-held objects figured centrally in plays of all genres there, not just the dramatic adventures of “amorous knight[s]” that Stephen Gosson derides. Indeed, one of the clearest departures that early modern playwrights made from Aristotle’s precepts came in the ready employment of those “lifeless things” that the Poetics goes on to criticize when used as a means of recognition.1 So common was this practice, in fact, that our memories of many early modern plays involve images of characters holding things. With Shakespeare, for example, Haimlet (1601) can suggest a man contemplating a skull; Antony and Cleopatra (1607), a woman with an asp; Romeo and Juliet (1596), a young woman with a dagger. Sometimes this link between character and prop is so strong that certain objects can gesture toward a drama, character, and scene: a severed finger may call to mind De Flores in the third act of The Changeling (1622); a skewered heart, Giovanni in the final scene of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1632). The endurance of such images—often aided by contemporary and subsequent printed illustrations—helps us to understand why Gosson would claim that, from a spectator’s point of view, the “soul” of many plays resided in their objects.

Keywords

Theatrical Object Reading Effect History Play Hand Prop Early Play 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    See, for examples of criticism that relate stage objects to the traditions of iconography, Bridget Geliert, “The Iconography of Melancholy in the Graveyard Scene in Hamlet,” Studies in Philology 67 (1970): 57–66;Google Scholar
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    One of the most extensive studies of hand props in the early modern era focuses on Shakespeare. Frances Teague’s Shakespeare’s Speaking Properties (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1991), to which this chapter later refers, provides valuable information on Shakespeare’s use of hand props but without placing his use in the context of others’ uses of hand props. See also Felix Bosonnet, The Function of Stage Properties in Christopher Marlowe’s Plays. The Cooper Monographs on English and American Language and Literature, “Theatrical Physiognomy Series,” vol. 27 (Bern: Francke, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Brownell Salomon, “Visual and Aural Signs in the Performed English Renaissance Play,” Renaissance Drama n.s. 5 (1972): 143–69; at 160. Teague cites alternate definitions of property as well: “appurtenances worn or carried by actors” (David Bevington, Action Is Eloquence [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984], 35); “Any portable article of costume or furniture, used in acting a play” (Bosonnet, Function of Stage Properties, 10). See Teague, Shakespeare’s Speaking Objects, 15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Henslowe’s Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 319–21. On Henslowe’s inventory, see Lena Cowen Orlin’s essay, “Things with Little Social Life,” in Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, ed. Natasha Korda and Jonathan Gil Harris (forthcoming: Cambridge University Press).Google Scholar
  22. 16.
    See, for example, Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass, Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Stallybrass’s “Worn Worlds: Clothes and Identity on the Renaissance Stage,” in Subject and Object, 289–320; and Stallybrass’s “Properties in Clothes” in Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, ed. Korda and Harris.Google Scholar
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    Neil Carson, A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    A Warning for Fair Women (London: 1598). Quoted in Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), appendix 2, “References to Playgoing,” 213.Google Scholar
  26. 25.
    For an extended study of the social and psychological valences of hands and manual agency in literature, see Katherine Rowe, Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  27. 26.
    R. A. Foakes, Illustrations of the English Stage 1580–1642 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1985). As Foakes reminds us, we need to exercise considerable caution in evaluating visual records of the early modern stage (xvi). Illustrations published with dramatic texts do not necessarily represent the plays in question or any actual performance. Printers often used “stock” pictures to illustrate dramatic texts. So while the woodcut on the title page of Robert Wilson’s The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London (1590), for instance, appears to represent a dramatic performance of some kind, the fact that it had appeared in a text published over two decades prior to Wilson’s play, and comes from an earlier illustration still, should give us pause (164). But such representations can nonetheless provide evidence relating to “stage practices, costumes and properties” that might otherwise escape us (xvi). Even illustrations of a non-theatrical origin, once selected to accompany a play text when printed, speak to contemporary notions of the appropriate. What does it mean, we could ask, that those responsible for bringing out Wilson’s play chose this illustration rather than another? And that readers of The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London had an illustration (in which one figure holds a pointing stick, appar-endy lecturing or directing another figure) that they might associate with the play? It is certainly not the case, as Foakes alleges, that the illustration “has no reference to Wilson’s play,” for the prominent position of the woodcut on the tide page makes it something like the primary visual reference to and of Wilson’s play as originally published. There is thus a literalism about “the” theater in Foakes’s collection that detracts from his analysis of the illustrations.Google Scholar
  28. 27.
    On the historical era of Falstaff’s costume in this illustration, see T. J. King, “The First Known Picture of Falstaff (1662). A Suggested Date for His Costume,” Theatre Research International 3 (1977–78): 20–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Thomas Rymer, “A Short View of Tragedy,” in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Curt A. Zimansky (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956), 160.Google Scholar
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    Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, ed. Lawrence J. Ross (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966).Google Scholar
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    Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” Literature and Psychoanalysis; The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Tale Trench Studies 55/56 (1977): 94–207; at 101 (emphasis in the original). The passage quoted is part of a larger argument about the relationship between the critical history of The Turn of the Screw and James’s text itself. On the notion of a “reading effect,”Google Scholar
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  33. Barbara Johnson, “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida,” in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Müller and William J. Richardson (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 213–51; 213–14.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    See T. J. King, Casting Shakespeare’s Plays: London Actors and Their Roles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), chap. 2, “Eight Playhouse Documents,” 27–49.Google Scholar
  35. 37.
    In addition to Peek’s The Battle of Alcazar—discussed later in this chapter—one might look to Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller for a parodic salute to the ostentation of neochivalric display. See his extended and loving mockery of the “lists” before the Duke of Florence. Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (London: Penguin, 1985), 316–23.Google Scholar
  36. 38.
    See, for example, Jonathan Goldberg, “Rebel Letters: Postal Effects from Richard IIto Henry V,” Renaissance Drama 19 (1988): 3–28, and “Hamlet’s Hand,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 (1988): 307–327. Even Teague’s index to Shakespeare’s Speaking Properties replicates this tendency, indexing pages dealing with documents in history plays and in tragedies but not in the comedies.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 41.
    Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 93.Google Scholar
  38. 43.
    See Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearian Playing Companies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 40, 43, 47, 48, 59–60;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 135.Google Scholar
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    Doctor Faustus from the A-text in Doctor Faustus, ed. David Beving-ton and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1992), 5.1.91–92. On the politics of the poetic blazon, see Nancy J. Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265–79, who explores Petrarch’s “legacy of fragmentation” and its relationship to “the development of a code of beauty, a code that causes us to view the fetishized body as a norm” (277).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Douglas Bruster 2003

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  • Douglas Bruster

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