Academic journal article Early Theatre

Beds on the Early Modern Stage

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Beds on the Early Modern Stage

Article excerpt

Bed scenes in early modern plays provide sobering reminders of how little we actually know about staging practices in the London playhouses of the time. And the stage directions for these scenes are at the heart of the problem because they provide insufficient information for confident interpretation four centuries later. Directions for bed scenes often say that a bed was 'discovered' but not where or how. And, if a direction includes a reference to curtains, were they on the bed or hanging over an opening in the tiring house wall? Whether a bed was located in an opening in the tiring house wall or put out on stage, the usual assumption is that a wide central opening--a 'discovery space'--was used; but it is far from certain that such an opening existed. The standard idea of an early modern stage bed is a canopied and curtained four-poster, although such a structure would have blocked sightlines and been very cumbersome. More generally, since bed scenes would have entailed extra staging demands, we might ask why playwrights nevertheless wanted to include them. The purpose of this study is to consider these and related matters with reference to all beds in plays written between 1580 and 1642. But because there is much we still do not and probably never will know about early modern playhouse conditions, I cannot claim to have arrived at answers that eliminate the need to rely on shaky assumptions. My hope is that by examining the extant evidence I have been able to offer an informed and useful range of possibilities.

Kinds and Counts

The primary reference for discussions of beds in early modern plays is Richard Hosley's 1959 article, 'The Staging of Desdemona's Bed'. (1) This study is certainly useful; but it is also limited because Hosley derived his evidence only from plays written for the Chamberlain's/King's Men. He therefore considered 'twenty-three instances of staging a bed' in 153 plays 'written for Shakespeare's company' between 1595 and 1642, regardless of the playhouse they were 'designed' for. (2) Based on his understanding of how these beds were staged, Hosley concludes that 'Desdemona's bed was originally presented to the view of the audience not by being discovered but by being brought on stage'. (3) But twenty-three uses of a bed in 153 plays is only fourteen percent and these beds occur in plays written for a single company. When all uses of a bed in all plays written between 1580 and 1642 are considered, however, the number rises and the range of examples is necessarily and usefully wider, but also more complex. In addition, Hosley's summary conveys the impression that beds were typically brought out on stage rather than located in a tiring house wall opening. But partly because of the limited context of his examples he does not discuss instances that suggest a different staging, nor does he describe the physical property used in Othello or in any of the examples in his survey. Similarly, G.E. Reynolds's study of the Red Bull playhouse considers the use of beds, but only in relation to that venue. Like Hosley, Reynolds concludes that beds were typically located out on the stage: 'I do not see that any rigid rule about the bed-scenes is possible nor any single explanation of why beds were thrust out on the front stage. That they were, however, is sure'. (4) A close consideration of all bed scenes partly confirms but also qualifies these conclusions.

In the roughly 485 extant plays written between 1580 and 1642 for performance in London playhouses, about ninety-three call for a bed or, rarely, a couch. (5) A search in Literature Online for bed confirms that the word occurs often in plays of this period (over 3000 hits), but when a visible bed or couch is required, it is called for in a stage direction--only nine plays (mostly pre-1600) have dialogue references to a bed that is needed but not signalled in a direction. In fourteen plays the property is called for on two separate occasions, and two plays use a bed three times. …

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