Magazine article The Spectator

The Play's the Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

The Play's the Thing

Article excerpt

In Shakespeare's time, Say Johnathan Base and Dora Thornton, you went to the theatre for your fix of news, politics and entertainment.

History, geography, politics, news, entertainment: the world is at our fingertips, staged before our eyes through the click of a mouse. Before the age of the internet was that of television, and radio before that. In the 19th century, you went for your weekly fix of politics, news, opinion and enlightenment to papers such as The Spectator - its name a nod back a further 100 years, to the first of the great periodicals that emerged from the coffee-house culture of the early 18th century.

According to the influential historian and sociologist Jurgen Habermas, it was in that coffee-house culture of the Whig world of Joseph Addison and his Spectator that a new space for debate was created: the 'public sphere'. Individuals, albeit mostly male, came together for the free discussion of society and its problems. Debate was paramount and common judgment was sought. Political participation was enacted through the medium of polite conversation. Thus emerged the twin concepts of public opinion and democratic accountability.

One of the big flaws in the argument of Habermas is the insufficient due that it pays to the public theatres of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. Where did you go in Shakespeare's time for your weekly, even daily, fix of history, geography, politics, news, opinion, enlightenment and entertainment? To the theatre.

The stages of the Rose and the Curtain, the Globe and the Cockpit constituted the first true public sphere. The theatre was the place where you could find out about the history of the world, the formation of your national identity, the customs of foreigners (known as 'strangers'), not to mention the nature of love and jealousy, rage and melancholy, laughter and despair, grief and joy.

It was a democratic space, where by paying a penny at the box office you could stand in the yard, jostle with earls and fishwives, ambassadors and whores, and listen to debates about the nature of power, the quality of mercy and the order of society, debates that just happened to be articulated in the richest and most memorable language ever to pass the lips of an actor.

Christopher Marlowe, pioneer of high Elizabethan tragedy, summoned up the spirit of Tamburlaine the Great wreaking havoc and death as he marched from Scythia to Persepolis to Damascus to Babylon. The imagination of William Shakespeare moved dizzyingly from rural England to Padua, from the battlefield of Bosworth to that of Agincourt, from Verona to Milan. He took his theatre audience on frequent visits to ancient Rome, to Ephesus and Navarre, to an ancient Athens that was also the English countryside. To Venice and Messina. He merged the forest of Arden in his native Warwickshire with that of Ardennes in France.

The line of locations stretches out: Elsinore, Windsor, Illyria (which is now Croatia), the battlefield of Troy, Venice again and Cyprus, Vienna, the province of Roussillon in the Pyrenees, Paris, Florence, ancient Britain, Scotland, Wales, sundry outposts of the Roman empire, Egypt, Antioch, Tyre, Tarsus, Pentapolis, a ship on the Mediterranean sea, Mytilene, Sicily and Bohemia (now the Czech republic), and finally an imaginary island that appears to be simultaneously in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

Into the plays wander 'strangers' from what Coriolanus memorably calls 'a world elsewhere'. Othello comes from Mauritania in North Africa, Caliban has an Algerian mother, Shylock and Tubal are born of the Jewish diaspora. …

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