Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction

By Germaine Greer | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2
Poetics

The very architecture of Shakespeare's theatre was emblematic. It was called after all the Globe, and its motto, ‘Totus mundus agit histrionem’ (All the world's a stage), made a serious point. Well might Hamlet luxuriate in the reverberations of his double irony as he shows the audience all around and above and below him to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ‘this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2. 2. 298–303).

The playhouses were known to be unhealthy places, which is why they were the first institutions to be closed down in times of plague; they were also the only places where all the denizens of London, from the meanest pickpocket to the grandest functionary, could foregather and actually experience their membership of a community. Even the largest churches did not afford the same spectacular possibilities, for the pulpit was raised above the congregation who stood all on one plane. In the theatre the audience could see itself as a tapestry of faces, surging below in the pit and rising on the tiers around the wooden walls, with the actor on his promontory, the projecting stage, at their mercy.

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