Friday, July 16, 2010

Making Shakespeare Notes: Chapter One

I suppose I ought to have prefaced my last post with a reminder that this blog is serving as my research journal, and presently that involves reading Tiffany Stern's Making Shakespeare. I'll be posting my notes on this and other research materials for some time.

There were two ways for most Londoners to get to the playhouses on the Bank side; either by ferry or by the bridge, both of which required paying a toll (7).

London bridge was decorated with the severed heads of executed traitors, which as a result of parboiling and taring (to prevent decomposition) were black in appearance. Thus the black faced characters (i.e. devils) that appeared on the stage would bear a striking resemblance to the visages of the condemned that playgoers had recently looked upon (8-9).

"Even the ways by which Londoners approached the playhouses might, as shown, have an affect on what they understood from the plays they saw there" (9).

Plays of the time were performed in the provinces as well as in London, and the reference to London would have only been familiar to the London audiences, which is why they are not more present (11). We can see echoes of this in modern plays, however, such as I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, in which it is customary to localize certain place names that would be unfamiliar to a non-NYC audience.

The Theatre became the Globe when reconstructed on the Bankside, and the Chamberlain's first play in the new space, Ad You Like It, is peppered with referenced to the stage and the world being one in the same. The audiences knew that the Globe was the Theatre, and the playwright has written these jokes for his new space (14).

Henry V was probably written for the Curtain and not for the Globe, and thus the apology for he inadequate space in the prologue serves as an advertisement for the Globe, which would open shortly thereafter (15).

The proximity of the theatres in the Bankeside to the bear baiting pits created competition with those venues for the same audiences, and the spectacular use of blood and bear baiting imagery is probably a result of this proximity and competition (19-20).

The physical structure of the playhouse gains meaning in the text of the plays when considering the location of music. Music from from heaven (above) is positive and marks a turning point towards a joyous resolution of the action. Music from hell (below) is ominous and portends the downfall of the hero (25). The entrances points for certain characters would also be determined by this context; audiences would have likely assumed that the Ghost of Hamlet's father, ascending from the trap, was an evil spirit, and thus would have been more sympathetic toward Hamlet's reluctance to obey his command (26).

"The play on paper often does not record the play performed" (27).

The move to the Blackfriars clearly had an influence on Shakespeare's playwriting, as the action of a play now needed to stop every half hour or so to accommodate maintenance to the candles needed to light an indoor space; thus his fave-act structure emerges (31). Also, the closer proximity of the smaller Blackfriars stage, coupled with the more courtly conscientiousness of its audience, creates a natural shift towards topics of art and beauty (32). Brash spectacle is limited, and the audience is asked to imagine more.


The physical space of the London playhouses, their location on the Bankside, and the tastes of the audiences all have demonstrable impacts on the plays Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) wrote. They fashioned their works to provoke responses from their audiences to keep their audiences coming back for more, and an understanding of the physical context of Shakespeare's plays is necessary for understanding how they work.

At the end of the chapter, Stern introduces evidence suggesting that the sole copy of Macbeth extant from the period may be the result of a one off court performance designed to flatter James' descent from Banquo and his attitudes towards witchcraft. Shakespeare revised not just individual plays, but his over all writing style to suite the needs of differing performance venues and their larger contexts. There's no reason we should be afraid to do likewise.

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