Dramatists against Theory: The Affective Dramaturgy of Cinthio, Lope De Vega, and William Shakespeare

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The reconstructed Globe encourages us to resite aesthetic discussions of Shakespeare's plays in the venue for which they were systematically and consciously designed by the playwright. These experiences should validate the procedures displayed in the scripts, but literary critics such as the New Historicists offer little direct discussion of theatrical events as a self-sufficient subject of critical exposition: the emphasis has tended to aesthetic, sociological, political, or even moralistic censure of texts. This negative emphasis is itself traditional, for (as Jonas Barish describes in The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice) it was shared by the theoreticians of the sixteenth-century, such as Sir Philip Sidney, whose Defense of Poetry paradoxically serves as a censure of Elizabethan stage practice rather than a sympathetic exploration of the nature and dynamics of contemporary drama. Notoriously, Shakespeare failed to accommodate such censure by any systematic explanation or defense of his art as seen on the Globe stage, despite such comments on the nature of "acting" as are afforded throughout Hamlet, and by the discussions of theatrical illusion at the Globe in the choruses to Henry V. In default of a more structured exposition by the dramatist, Hamlet's personal admonitions to the players are sometimes mistaken (as by the celebrated Restoration actor, Thomas Betterton) for hints of such an authorial account. Yet to take them for the dramatist's own views would be a classic error about the author's role. For the academically over-sophisticated Hamlet, supposedly fresh from the radical University of Wittenburg, can in no way to be equated with the non-university-educated Shakespeare: the play's hero is specifically an aloof academic critic like Sidney, censuring the vulgarity of contemporary theatrical stage practices of companies such as Shakespeare's own. Many modern literary critics' preference for abstract theory over the detailed practices of theatre arts thus finds analogous Renaissance precedents. Indeed, this broadly shared intellectual suspicion of practitioners may itself offer a fruitful modulating point between modern taste and that of such classic earlier periods as the Renaissance, not to mention the ultimate Platonic repudiation of drama in The Republic.

The students of theory both then and now share suspicion of naive performers who deal directly with popular audiences' desire for lively stories about seductive personalities, whether in Renaissance England, Italy, or Spain--all three being locations where the popular theatres have proved to share professional practices to a remarkable degree. This affinity is reflected not only in the resemblance of the stage configurations of the Rose and Globe Theatres to the Spanish corrales de comedias like that at Almagro, but in the types of plots and characters which audiences preferred to see on these stages, preferences openly accepted by leading lights such as Cinthio, Lope de Vega, and Shakespeare. The successful tours of English players in Northern European countries such as Germany can be documented readily but historical playhouse contacts between English performers and those of Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Spain are more elusive, despite seemingly shared methods and devices. However, there have been increasing efforts recently to co-ordinate the practices in the theatres of these three countries, as seen in such studies as Louise Clubb's Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time, and the anthology Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance, edited by Ronnie Mulryne and Margaret Shearing. In my essay included in the latter, "Shakespeare's Verismo and the Italian Popular Tradition," I argued for Shakespeare's alertness to specific Italian precedents, seen in his use of Cinthio's tragicomedy Epitia as a model for Measure for Measure. Of course, Shakespeare also found apt sources in Cinthio's Hecatommithi, for Othello and A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as for Measure for Measure. …


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