This is the most self-serving of posts.

This week, the new third edition of the Norton Shakespeare finally came out. It’s a total overhaul of this widely used text: unlike the first two editions, which were based on the Oxford Shakespeare, “Norton 3” includes fully edited and annotated texts of all significant variant editions of Shakespeare’s plays, freshly edited from scratch by a large team of collaborators (under the same general editorial team as the other editions, and under the textual editorship of Suzanne Gossett and Gordon McMullan). It’s a pretty rigorous implementation of a single-text approach to editing: not all substantive versions of each play are included in print but all are available in the same format, with the same level of annotation, in the electronic edition. That’s the other really interesting aspect of this new Norton: it is being published as an electronic edition and in print simultaneously, with a brand new and very useable interface in its e-edition. The e-version is not an afterthought or an add-on, but completely equivalent to the printed text and, in many ways, richer. If you’re at all interested in teaching students something about textual scholarship alongside their Shakespeare, you’ll probably find the Textual Comments in the electronic edition an especially exciting feature: these are short essays on particularly interesting or revealing textual cruxes or editorial decisions, designed to alert students (or other non-specialist readers) to the kinds of challenges an editor of Shakespeare faces and the kinds of solutions the editor of a particular play in the Norton has come up with.

Now the self-serving part: I edited the text of two of the plays, both of them Shakespearean collaborations: Edward III and The Book of Sir Thomas More. The latter hasn’t been included in its entirety in an annotated Complete Works before; the former only rarely. More in particular is an interesting edition, I think, because in following the Norton’s single-text principle I decided to regard Hand C (the playhouse scribe who organized the revised version of the manuscript) as my authority — which meant, in some cases, relegating lines written by Hand D (aka Shakespeare, or so I am persuaded to think) to an appendix or the textual notes; and meant, in other cases, leaving words of presumed Shakespearean origin out altogether. I can’t deny that that gave me a degree of perverse pleasure.

More significant to me than those two editions, though, is the new theatre-historical introduction I was asked to contribute to the volume, replacing Andrew Gurr’s “The Shakespearean Stage.” Why do I think this essay matters? Because I did my best in it to give a picture of the theatrical world Shakespeare knew that avoided presenting questionable hypotheses as facts, and because I tried as much as possible to leave room for theories that, no matter how persuasively they have been argued within the small world of early modern theatre history, have not yet been sufficiently recognized in broader, non-specialist conversations about early modern theatre. I think — I certainly hope — that this is the most up-to-date introductory, short account of the history of Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre that’s currently available in an undergraduate-friendly format.

To spell out in a bit more detail why what I’m saying about Shakespeare’s theatre makes this a very different essay than its predecessor, here’s a point-by-point summary of what the piece gets up to:

– There is no duopoly narrative at all. Instead, I present a portrait of London as a city full of (in the inns) and surrounded by a large number of performance venues, populated by at least three, at many times five or more, resident companies and visited also by touring groups of actors and other performers. It’s an account that takes seriously the Jacobean travel writer Fynes Morrison’s claim that “there be, in my opinion, more plays in London than in all parts of the world I have seen.”

– It admits that there’s a ton of stuff we don’t know at all. Like, how successful most of Shakespeare’s plays were commercially. Or which roles Shakespeare played — or, in fact, who played most roles. Or what roles big stars like Alleyn or Burbage played, with a few exceptions. Or what the hundreds and hundreds of plays we’ve lost were like.

– It contemplates the possibility that some theatres, including the Theatre, the Curtain, and the Rose, and possibly even the Globe, only had two stage doors and a central space that could be curtained off but did not have access to the tiring house.

– It doesn’t claim to know where the Lords’ Rooms were in the open-air playhouses, but considers it more likely that they were in the galleries closest to the stage than that they were in the balcony.

– It presents as very likely the scenario that wealthy customers sat on stage in the open-air playhouses, before they started doing so in indoor theatres.

– It doesn’t see the inns as an earlier form of indoor playhouse, noting that only one of them clearly had an indoor performance space.

– It emphasizes that regular indoor playing really wasn’t a thing at all for adult companies before 1610 — i.e., during the years of Shakespeare’s active career.

– It fully incorporates David Kathman’s research on the male youths that played the female roles, discussing their ages and the importance of apprenticeship networks in their training.

– In its account of how acting companies functioned, it leaves some room for hired hands that maintained long-term relationships with their companies (such as John Sincklo with the Chamberlain’s Men).

– There’s a discussion of casting that stresses that not all leads were played by Alleyn or Burbage (not even title characters), and that not all comic roles were performed by “the clown.”

– Touring is given due consideration, as is the development that made some companies regard London as their “home” (including Pembroke’s Men). There’s a map based on Sally-Beth MacLean’s work which shows all known venues visited by the Chamberlain’s and King’s Men (and which doesn’t include Exton in Rutland!).

– Drawing on Roslyn Knutson’s work, it presents a comprehensive account of repertory practices, including the habit of copying successful plays in other companies’ repertoires.

– In telling the story of how and where the Globe was built, it abandons a whole slew of unsubstantiated (if widely disseminated) notions, such as: that James Burbage bought the Blackfriars to replace the Theatre; that he bought the Blackfriars for the Chamberlain’s Men (or any adult company); that Cuthbert and Richard Burbage were basically broke in 1598; that the Globe was built in Southwark as a direct challenge to Henslowe and the Rose; that Henslowe was forced to abandon the Rose by the success of the Globe; that the building of the Fortune was a reaction to the success of the Globe.

– It notes that there is no evidence that the King’s Men were interested in indoor playing, and that there is evidence that they were not interested in such an idea, before 1608 — and that the eventual decision to use the Blackfriars had very little, if any, impact on Shakespeare’s drama (with the exception of The Tempest); and it emphasizes that the Globe remained the primary venue associated with the company for the first few years of the Blackfriar’s adult use, a fact reflected in the decision to spend a huge amount of money on rebuilding the playhouse in 1613.

– It presents the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men as an unusual company both in the sense that no other troupe’s actors were so intimately linked with the theatre(s) in which they performed and in the sense that they were associated with a major playwright for an exceptionally long period. At the same time, it cautions that we can’t reduce the company’s repertory to Shakespeare’s plays, and that we mustn’t underestimate the number of others plays they also performed (most of which are lost to us).

– In discussing the Court, it insists that public playing and playing for a royal audience have to be considered as related but separate activities. It stresses that the Master of the Revels never truly managed to contain the range and quantity of theatrical performances in London, and that the Jacobean proliferation of companies with royal patronage can be seen as the court throwing in the towel and finally recognizing the sheer number of residential companies in and around the capital.

– It shows that based on everything we know, court repertories seem surprisingly conservative — that they relied on “classics” at least as much as on more aesthetically cutting-edge fare, and that the same plays keep reappearing over the years.

– It presents the relationship between actors and the authorities as occasionally strained, but not as essentially antagonistic. I highlight the roles actors played in the civic life of London as well as the extremely sporadic nature of central government efforts at control. In describing the relationship between the City of London and the theatres, I don’t ignore the economic aspects of that relationship. And I argue that the plague was much more of a threat than either local government or the Privy Council.

– There’s a detailed discussion of early modern acting styles, what we know and don’t know about them, and just what it may have meant in 1600 for an actor to “wholly transform himself into his part” (in the absence of the methods of psychological realism — or a notion of “realism” as such).

– The discussion of what seemed “lifelike” on the early modern stage is developed a bit further, with bits on doubling and some more stuff about all-male casts — and a conclusion about the desirability of the artificial in Shakespeare’s theatre.

– There’s a section about parts and rehearsal, and about symbolic conventions of space (and how those conventions allowed actors to anticipate what stage action was going to look like even without extensive rehearsal periods); at the same time, I argue that the relative openness of the early modern stage, and the absence of a lighting design, gave actors more freedom to improvise (further reducing the need for rehearsal). Basically, Shakespeare’s theatre was more codified than ours and more free.

– Drawing on examples from Shakespeare’s plays, I go into some detail about stage use and about implicit and explicit stage directions.

– Through a close reading of the Peacham Titus Andronicus drawing, I discuss the multiple ways in which costume could signify — and the importance of anachronism in dress and cultural references in Shakespeare’s theatre.

– And I conclude with a section on the tension in early modern theatre between an appeal to the senses and an insistence that the visual and/or the present were mostly there to give the audience mediated access to the “actual” fictional events of the play. This is how the essay ends: “That is the great paradox of Shakespeare’s theater: it invested a great deal of goods, money, and physical labor in an effort to persuade people not to ignore those material realities altogether, but to use them as a means of accessing greater, still more wondrous, and wholly imaginary worlds beyond.”

I must confess that I’m rather proud of this thing — it’s probably the most important piece of scholarship I’ve written. I do stick my neck out a fair bit in it, but although I had to cut down on some of the qualifications and notes of uncertainty that I would have preferred to sprinkle more liberally, I don’t think I strayed too far from where the evidence and the most rigorous scholarship (rather than conventional wisdom and received ideas) pointed. I will follow up in the next couple of years with a book-length version that spells out many of these arguments in much more detail. The book will also give me a chance to fix mistakes and reconsider things — so please let me know if and where I’ve gone wrong!

4 Responses to The New Norton Shakespeare and Theatre History

  1. sthomson1971 says:

    Is it possible to get your essay without buying the edition? I’d be happy to pay for it, but i just don’t have room for the hard copy Norton.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I’m afraid not. I suppose you could purchase the e-text of the edition separately, though that would be rather a steep price to pay for a single essay!

  2. Tony Antoniades says:

    Congrats, Holger! Looking forward to reading it.

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