That Old Saw: Early Modern Acting and the Infinite Regress

By Menzer, Paul | Shakespeare Bulletin, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

That Old Saw: Early Modern Acting and the Infinite Regress


Menzer, Paul, Shakespeare Bulletin


Speak the speech, I pray you," Hamlet tells the player, "trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town cryer spoke my lines" (3.2.1-2). (1) Turning from elocution to execution, Hamlet continues, "Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus" (1.4). Most editors girdle "thus" in commas, a typographical hiccup indicating that, here, an action suits the word. For 400 years, this moment of textual apnea has guaranteed the play's modernity by gesturing towards an archaic playing style:

   BURBAGE: "thus"
      BETTERTON: "thus"
         GARRICK: "thus"
            KEMBLE: "thus"
               KEAN: "thus"
                  BOOTH: "thus"
                     BERNHARDT: "thus"
                        BARRYMORE: "thus"

Gielgud, Olivier, Kline, Fiennes: "thus, thus, thus, thus," ad Branagh, ad infinitum. If it is true, as Tyrone Guthrie claimed, that, "Hamlet is always going on somewhere," then in accent variable and gesture indeterminate somewhere a player is always offering a kinetic description of what constitutes precisely too much air sawing (72).

Richard Burbage's unrecoverable semaphore at "thus" signifies the stubborn invisibility of the actors who gave William Shakespeare's words first flesh. Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet--a scene sufficiently memorable to earn its own shorthand, "The Advice to the Players"--has been many things to many critics: a winking bit of theatrical in-joking; a Donation echo on the purpose of playing; and an exemplary instance of the happy "variety" that distinguished Hamlet to Samuel Coleridge and Dr. Johnson. (2) Most durably, Hamlet's advice has provided scholars a tantalizing glimpse into the style of playing on the Elizabethan stage. "Tantalizing" because for all Hamlet says, he does not say much: in short, 'Not too much; not too little; I know what I like.' Undeterred by thin evidence, scholars have persistently characterized Elizabethan and Jacobean playing in terms predictable--"formal" or "natural"; "rhetorical" or "naturalistic"--and those less so: "presentational" or "ceremonial." (3) Lacking substantive graphical or textual witness, scholars have turned to rhetorical manuals, oratorical tradition, and bald speculation to recover playing methods in the age of Shakespeare. (4) For the longstanding attempt to exhume the Elizabethan actor, Hamlet's advice to the players presents something like forensic evidence.

Most critical discussions of actors and acting on the Elizabethan stage are not even wrong. The terms in which the debate is conducted simply do not mean anything. We never know exactly what we are talking about when we talk about acting. One critic bewails the lack of "comparative evidence, in the form of iconographic or objective critical descriptions, which could tell us how a given actor or company did in fact present particular scenes or moments in plays" (Marker 95). Should an "objective" account one day ascend from a dusty Bodleian volume, it probably would not illuminate the discussion. Witnesses rarely tell us anything about acting because the witnesses usually say the same thing: 'Not too much; not too little; we know what we like.'

For 400 years, Hamlet's advice to the players has been more closely heeded by critics than by players, enabling a paradigm for scholarly work on acting that depends on false binaries to replace the elusive "objective criticism." Hamlet's advice has advanced a Whig history of mimetic style, a history that promotes the plays and players of the Shakespearean theatre as the triumphant fluorescence of sophisticated art over the crudities of the past. Such criticism fundamentally misunderstands trans-historical truths about performance: acting does not get better; it gets different. The best acting is "natural." Bad acting is not. It has always been thus.

Hamlet's advice is therefore a necessary point of departure to ask what precisely was at stake at moments of intra-dramatic acting critiques. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • A full archive of books and articles related to this one
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

That Old Saw: Early Modern Acting and the Infinite Regress
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

    Already a member? Log in now.