The Dramatic Life of Objects in the Early Modern Theater

Part of the Early Modern Cultural Series book series


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.


Theatrical Object Reading Effect History Play Hand Prop Early Play 
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© Douglas Bruster 2003

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