Renaissance Drama

Renaissance Drama

Renaissance Drama

Renaissance Drama


Renaissance Drama, an annual and interdisciplinary publication, is devoted to drama and performance as a central feature of Renaissance culture. The essays in each volume explore traditional canons of drama, the significance of performance (broadly construed) to early modern culture, and the impact of new forms of interpretation on the study of Renaissance plays, theatre, and performance.


“As from the Waste of
Sophonisba”; or, What’s
Sexy about Stage Directions

Genevieve Love

The reading-text of a play represents the effort of an author or a culture to preserve,
as best it can, the full pleasure of the original performances, to make that pleasure
available in part to those who have not seen the play performed at all, and thereby
to provide a perpetual incentive for further performances, to satisfy the unfulfilled
desire created by the written text.

—Gary Taylor, Moment by Moment by Shakespeare

Let me begin with a moment of unfulfilled desire. Near the beginning of John Marston’s The Wonder of Women Or the Tragedie of Sophonisba (Queen’s Revels, 1605), Sophonisba and her bridegroom Masinissa are engaged in a rather complicated wedding-night ritual. Marston’s stage directions tell us that Sophonisba, “in her night attyre” is “discouer[ed]” in a curtained bed; as Masinissa addresses her, he “drawes a white ribbon forth of the bed as from the waste of Sopho,” symbolically “vnloos[ing]” her maiden girdle. Before Masinissa can follow up on his drawing forth of the white ribbon, however, choruses of “Io to Hymen” are interrupted by the entrance of a body bearing signs of war: “Enter Carthalo his sword drawne, his body wounded, his shield strucke full of darts” (B2). Masinissa’s Carthaginian ally brings news of battle with Rome, and Masinissa departs for war without another word to his bride. If this is not a moment of unfulfilled desire within the play’s fiction—Masinissa and Sophonisba react to this news less with disappointment about their deferred wedding night than with excitement about defending Carthage—it is certainly crafted to be a moment of unfulfilled desire in the theater. Marston saturates the scene with striking visual and aural effects that heighten playgoers’ anticipation of the consummation of Sophonisba and Masinissa’s marriage—night attire, music, a “phantastique measure,” a “discovery” in a “faire bed”—and then defers that consummation. He draws his audience in with “a white ribbon” that turns out to lead nowhere.

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