Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Book, Body, Voice: The Staged Reading and Non-Shakespearean Early Modern Drama

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

Book, Body, Voice: The Staged Reading and Non-Shakespearean Early Modern Drama

Article excerpt

The "Read Not Dead" series of staged readings at Shakespeare's Globe, making its way through the approximately 400 non-Shakespearean plays written between 1567 and 1642, has rendered commonplace the expression of non-Shakespearean early modern dramatic content in staged reading form. As Lucy Munro's review article of "Read Not Dead" in this issue makes clear, staged readings have become an important venue for the performing, spectating, and recording of non-Shakespearean early modern drama. Furthermore, staged readings and non-Shakespearean early modern drama sometimes seem to occupy analogous positions within Shakespeare studies and performance studies. They raise similar questions, for example, of hierarchy and value: are staged readings understood as inferior, would-be performances; are non-Shakespearean dramatists seen as aspirants to the prominence of their more celebrated contemporary? Finding an aptness to the pairing of the plays of Shakespeare's contemporaries with the staged reading, this essay considers the theoretical ground staked out by the staged reading. Staged readings hover between written text and performed event, a gap also confronted by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries--I will touch on John Marston and Thomas Middleton--who worried over the possibility and problem of mobility between reading and playgoing, wondering what differentiates written text and performed event, and what phenomena might float between them. (1) As they include both the event of performance and the reading of text, staged readings highlight both embodiment and textuality. In their peculiar conjoining of actors' bodies and playbooks, staged readings can offer a perversely modified version of theatrical spectacle: their theatrical power may chiefly inhere in the actor's voice (more than body, perhaps) on the one hand and in the physical presence of the text on the other. By way of entry into a consideration of staged readings' particular theatrical power, I consider a moment in Julius Caesar that briefly stages the uncanny relationship between written text and theatrical spectacle. This moment brings together two investments I take to be important in staged readings. One is an investment in a book--the script in front of each actor or reader--and the other is an investment in a body--the live presence of the actor or reader.

Brutus has just settled down to read in Act 4 of Julius Caesar (Chamberlain's, 1599) when his solitary engagement with his book is interrupted by the appearance of a striking theatrical effect: Caesar's ghost. This moment stages a kind of confrontation between reading and theatre. Brutus's attempt to read, an act not accessible to playgoers (it doesn't seem he intends to read aloud), is trumped by the dramatic appearance of an unexpected body, that of the murdered Caesar. While Brutus's reading isn't a communal activity, his reaction to Caesar's ghost is one that playgoers are in a position to share. The sight of a ghost, unlike the sight of a man reading to himself, is a properly theatrical one. That is to say, the appearance of a ghost might be expected to create a moment of some potency in the playhouse, a potency not easily created by the appearance of a book on stage, nor, more significantly, easily translated onto the printed page.

I've presented the scene so far as a confrontation between reading and theatrical effect--between book and body--which reading loses. But this competition, if it is one, is not that simple. Brutus's plan to read is essential to the theatrical efficacy of the ghost: his settling down with his book takes quite a while, occasioning a slowness of pace and an evacuation of action that prepares us for the entrance of the ghost. Finding his book after apparently mislaying it, Brutus calls out to his servant: "Look, Lucius, here's the book I sought for so; / I put it in the pocket of my gown" (4.3.251-52). We don't know, and never learn, why Brutus should have sought the book so, nor have we witnessed the search to which he refers. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.