Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Making $hakespeare, Chapters 1-4

Tiffany Stern's book Making Shakespeare: From Stage to Page is awesome. I love it. I'm having a hard time stopping myself reading it to blog. But blog I must, so . . . here goes.

Her book, which discusses the process of and the influences on production of Shakespeare's plays, from the circumstantial (the size, shape, and location of playhouses, the actors in the company for which he wrote), to the authorial (the process of writing, revising, co-authoring, adapting, etc.), to the commercial (scribes and printing houses). She situates herself in a really interesting critical location in her prologue. The "stage-to-page" methodology she's using comes out of the new historicist school with its interest in textual indeterminacy (what is the text?, in both philosophical and practical senses) and de-centering the author (who is the author?, ditto); it also comes out of the established school of theater history and the more recent but just as militant school of book history. All of this stuff, by the way, I completely love and just go all nerdy-melty for, so I could tell that this book, from the very Prologue, is perfect for me.

A lot of stuff in here I already knew, but I'll just sketch out what the chapters are about. "Text, Playhouse, and London" begins by imagining the various approaches to the theater district in Bankside; across the Thames with the waterboatmen, or across the London Bridge, or, to the Blackfriars, through the Ludgate. These approaches and their sights, sounds, and smells would have been fresh in the eyes, ears, and noses of audience members; Stern traces references to and resonances with these locales in the plays. She also explores the ways in which the large, round, open-air theaters and the smaller, rectilinear, indoor theaters affected the plays; after the move to the Blackfriars, Shakespeare doesn't write plays that demand huge battles and booming cannons or drums, but more static plays that work with the "aesthetic of fixed things, painting, sculpture, stately dance, tableaux . . . "(32).

"Additions, Emendations, and Revisions" makes the point, first, that, contrary to Heminges and Condell, Shakespeare did revise his plays, marking out lines, etc. We can still see echoes of revision when there are repeated speeches, or speeches with nearly repeated lines; when there seem to be two endings, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream; when a character learns some information, but then later, seems not to know the same information anymore, as in Julius Caesar. Shakespeare seems to write in blocks, in chunks, that might later be moved around, given to different characters, used in different plays, or left out entirely, a hallmark of "a culture that works with commonplace books" (42). Differences between quartos, or a quarto and a folio version, may also indicate revision, which might have happened because a specific actor left, a specific audience member got pissed off at a reference that hit too close to home, a political change, or a change in censorship practice. It may indicate a difference in characterization, as in Othello when, in the folio version, Othello reacts more measuredly and with more self-control at Iago's allegations. And, as we know to be the case with our boy Middleton, revision may have occurred posthumously as another playwright adapts an earlier play.

"Rehearsal, Performance, and Plays" discusses all the ways in which a specific company of actors might influence a play's creation or revision. Preparing a production in this time had to happen very quickly, with little time for intense, method-acting reflection. There were no directors. Each actor was responsible for his part (literally, handed on a piece of paper, was his part with cue lines, not the whole play). Actors were often typecast: the senex (doddering old man), the king, the rebel, the romantic lady, the lover, the fool, much like actors today always play the hilarious and perpetually single best friend, or the miraculous aged black person. If an actor left, died, or fundamentally changed (as when boy's high voices lowered), parts that were written for him might be given to a different character entirely or future roles for a similar "type" might change, as the fool roles did when Will Kemp left and Robert Armin took over. Plays often gestured towards each other, as actors in new roles made references to past roles they played. Acting was also more formulaic than today; a set catalogue of gestures signified "the passions" (the major emotions, seven or more of which had been identified and codified). Certain tones of voice signified verse or prose.

On the whole, this is an extremely readable book full of a bunch of stuff I already knew, in theory. What makes it shine are the details, the anecdotes. Traitors par-boiled, pitch-blackened faces on pikes along London Bridge may have been in mind when audience members saw an actor, face blackened, play Othello. Shakespearean heroes compared themselves to baited bears beset by hungry dogs, calling to mind the imagery of the bear-gardens. While we care a great deal about characterization, Shakespeare may at times have been using a character as a mouthpiece for a particular piece of verse, and not really cared about which character said it, as in Romeo and the Friar. Italian names in non-Italian plays might indicate that Shakespeare originally set that play in Italy--or, as Stern says, that "Shakespeare thought that everywhere abroad was a version of Italy" (52). Middleton might have written the iconic "Double, double, toil and trouble" line of the witches in Macbeth. She writes some hilarious anecdotes about Richard Burbage, one where he gets propositioned by an audience member only to find that, when he shows up for the assignation, Shakespeare has got there ahead of him. Another where Burbage, as Hamlet, adds moans, groans, and other sounds after he's already said "The rest is silence" which, when I did it myself, created quite a funny effect.

So I didn't get through 2 books today, but I may still get to Surprised by Sin and if I don't, Stern was worth not being surprised by sin, I guess.

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