My book, Theatre and Testimony in Shakespeare’s England: A Culture of Mediation, has just been published by Cambridge University Press in the UK; by January, it will be out in the US and Canada as well. CUP have made some excerpts available on their website, including the index and a section of the introduction. I thought I’d share the latter here in a more reader-friendly format; I’ve also added chapter summaries from the end of the intro.
Introduction: The authenticity of mediation
A man dressed in a simple black gown or an elaborate robe of office stands before a crowd of listeners. He speaks, and as his audience attend to his words they understand that the words are not his at all, but belong to another, absent voice. Continuing to listen, they begin to hear, through the conduit of the man’s body, that other voice as though its owner were speaking. And as the absent voice materializes, it conjures a world of absent events and people, meetings of kings or street brawls among drunkards, mundane business transactions or chilling encounters with the supernatural.
In analytical terms, what takes place in this scene is the substitution of a present body and voice – that of the speaking man – for an absent voice or set of voices, resulting in a representational act that diminishes the real presence of the man’s body and makes it almost less palpable than that of the voices that come to inhabit his mouth. An act of embodied mimesis results in a momentary presence effect. In historical terms, the scene depicts a transaction that took place routinely and on an everyday basis in public squares, courtrooms, assemblies of state, and theatres in Tudor and early Stuart England. The man1 could have been Mr Fanshawe, a court clerk, speaking the words of Richard Weston, from a document in the hand of Edward Coke, at the trial of Anne Turner in 1616; he could have been Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon, speaking the words of Elizabeth I, from a document in either the queen’s or his own hand, in the House of Lords in 1563; he could have been Richard Burbage, speaking the words of Hamlet, from a document in either Thomas Vincent’s or William Shakespeare’s hand, at the Globe in 1600.
This book traces the central role such presence-generating performances played in Elizabethan and Jacobean culture. It is organized around two core contentions: first, that this period did not, as scholars have suggested, witness a crisis of representation, but rather relied thoroughly on deferral, mediation, or representation as engines of authority;2 and second, that the theatre established itself as the central form of cultural expression in the period precisely because it is an art profoundly dependent on similar mechanisms of embodied mediation as its basic functioning principle. It was the art form most perfectly suited for its time. My task, then, is two-fold. On the one hand, I pursue an in-depth study of cultural fields beyond the playhouses (predominantly the habits and practices of participants in criminal trials, but also the activities of historiographers, early scientists, and dabblers in magic) to establish the complex workings of a culturally pervasive if not absolutely dominant logic of mediation. On the other hand, I analyse the deep affinity between this culture and the theatre’s means of creating a phantasmagorical reality. Shakespeare’s plays are particularly responsive to such an analysis, not least because their theatrical self-consciousness so often finds expression on the level of the plot, and my readings here are designed to allow what might otherwise read simply as metatheatrical ornament to emerge as reflections on political, legal, or even epistemological as well as dramatic concerns.
To flesh out these claims a little, let me begin with an example of the power of deferral and the deferral of power in action. ‘We princes, I tell you, are set on stages in the sight and view of all the world duly observed. The eyes of many behold our actions.’3 Queen Elizabeth I’s famous dictum was destined to become a locus classicus of late twentieth-century criticism, perfectly encapsulating, as it seems to do, the theatrical strategies of Renaissance monarchies.4 But where was the queen when she said those words? Not in parliament, nor in any particularly public place, but in her chamber of presence at Richmond, addressing a select group of parliamentary commissioners. Her words only reached a wider audience – the kind of audience under whose scrutiny princes supposedly always labour – on ‘the Monday following’, when the speaker of the House of Commons ‘delivered’ the queen’s speech to the ‘Lower House’.5 Addressing her subjects through a mediator was in fact the queen’s common modus operandi: more frequently than not, royal speeches were performed for a small group of privileged listeners, and only subsequently reiterated, ‘delivered’, to a larger political public.6 Even more remarkable are occasions such as Elizabeth’s answer to the Lords’ petition urging her to marry in 1563. Despite the personal nature of the issue, her speech was given in parliament by Lord Keeper Nicholas Bacon, with Elizabeth present by his side. Although she remained silent, the manuscript of the speech is titled ‘The queen’s majesty’s answer’ – and justly, since the document is in the queen’s hand, and in the first person throughout.7 The Lords and Commons thus witnessed a complex orchestration of presences and representations: seeing both the monarch and her officer, hearing his voice speaking her words, grammatically adopting her person as his own persona. A similar transaction regularly took place at the opening of parliament, when it again was the common responsibility of the Lord Keeper, whom J. E. Neale calls ‘the mouth of the sovereign’,8 to deliver the royal speech.
More often than not, then, the queen’s body was not on public display, and even when it was, her voice may not have been. What was present were her words, sent forth through another’s mouth. That the Lord Keeper’s breath stood in for the queen’s in those moments was appropriate, given the nature of his position: as the custodian of the great seal, the instrument which allowed for the authorization of documents in Elizabeth’s absence, he functioned officially as her stand-in. And the seal itself reproduced an image – in its wax form, a sculptural, three-dimensional image – of the royal body.9 The Lord Keeper thus traded by the nature of his office in surrogate manifestations of the royal presence.
On the much less elevated local level, similar acts of impersonation took place every time a parish priest read a royal proclamation from the pulpit: again, what was heard was a first-person utterance (as when James I speaks of ‘that Right which we had to the succession of this Crowne’ in a 1603 proclamation [SRP, 11]), but the author of this speech act and its speaker were clearly distinct. To understand the minister’s words as a usurper’s declaration would be to misinterpret them entirely. Listeners had to maintain a sharp division between the priest’s voice and the king’s, even as the former served as the vehicle for the latter: they had to imagine that they were hearing the king speak and at the same time had to remain aware that the speaker was not himself laying claim to that position. The transmitters of royal words needed to be constantly audible and visible precisely in order to underwrite the authenticity of their performance. The minister’s credit and literacy ensured that what congregations got to hear was indeed what the printed sheet sent down from Westminster contained, even as the Lord Keeper’s office guaranteed that the words he delivered were in fact authentically the queen’s. Diverse forms of credit and authority were thus mobilized simultaneously in these performances.
Harold Love has discussed various types of early modern documents that ‘possessed a latent authority awaiting release by utterance’.10 In the case of proclamations or royal speeches, the monarch her- or himself was that latent element. The authority released by speaking the text stemmed directly from the rendering present of the originary royal voice itself. What the queen’s concern about being ‘set on stages’ registers, then, is not so much an anxiety about being a public actor, but an awareness of her existence as a character, constantly subject to representation as an essential part of the political process. The visual aspects of royal representation have been exhaustively analysed by historians from Frances Yates and Roy Strong to, most recently, Louis Montrose.11 But I would suggest that what might have been more important than these pictorial stand-ins for the monarch were the regular aural impressions, or impersonations, of the queen. Her voice was reproduced over and over throughout the land, by other bodies speaking her into a virtual presence.
The logic of these transactions was theatrical in a very precise sense. They were based on scripts whose authority was in a certain sense absolute; they relied on the physical actions of bodies that were recognizably not the sovereign’s own, but fantasmatically took on her person for the duration of the act; and they rendered an absent voice present and imaginatively audible. All of this is true of the early modern stage as well. There, too, the script was the source and locus of authority, at least state authority: the playtext, not its enactment, was ‘seen and allowed’ by the Master of the Revels, the official in charge of licensing plays for performances.12 The player’s body was both subject to imaginary disappearance and an abiding presence; even as Burbage brought Hamlet, Othello, or Lear to life he still remained Burbage (just as Olivier remained Olivier, and Branagh remains Branagh hundreds of years later). And on stage, too, absent or fictional characters came into being, an imaginary reality was created, through bodily acts, among which the actions of ‘the larynx, the lungs, the lips, and the mouth’, what Judith Butler has called ‘bodily offerings’,13 were paramount.
My point is not that Renaissance England was a stage-play world, profoundly theatrical in its social practices of ‘histrionic self-presentation’.14 The theatre did not provide a model for the cultural patterns I have begun to describe. But it was the art form most uniquely suited to the time. As I will show, the ways in which human bodies were authorized to speak absent characters and events into being on stage and the ways in which political, judicial, testimonial, and historiographical authority was constructed in the culture at large shared a profound structural homology. In both cases, gestures of mediation or deferral go hand in hand with an ostensible insistence on presence or immanence.
The devolution of the monarch’s role in the administration of justice provides a ready example of this principle. At least from the thirteenth century on, monarchic rule in England had been based on the delegation of authority – the king or queen ruled by dispersing personal power among state officials, issuing writs and commissions to transfer royal authority to judges, councillors, and local magistrates.15 By the early seventeenth century, Edward Coke could confidently assert that although the ‘King is always present in Court in the Judgment of Law’,16 he cannot himself be a judge, since that authority has been delegated to his legal officials. King’s Bench – the central criminal court – might have notionally conducted its proceedings ‘coram rege’ (‘in the presence of the king’) but the presence of the king there was as much a matter of representation as Elizabeth’s presence in the country churches where her proclamations were read. At the same time, that fictitious presence was of essential importance: the bench was the king’s; criminals found themselves indicted in trials of ‘Regina’ or ‘Rex’ vs John Doe; and local magistrates were charged to keep ‘the King’s peace’. Legal and government officials throughout the land were imagined to speak for and in place of the monarch, and it was through their actions and speech acts that king or queen established a palpable presence in the realm. The stand-ins’ bodies and voices played a crucial part in this: their authority derived from royal writs, sheets of paper or parchment, signed and sealed, but those documents and the power inherent in them could only become functional through embodiment. This nexus between surrogates and monarch, bodies and documents is nicely illustrated by the form of the crown plea rolls, the official records of cases in Queen’s or King’s Bench. Many of the Elizabethan plea rolls open with a large historiated letter ‘P’ (the first word of the roll being ‘Placita’, ‘pleas’) depicting the queen sitting in state (fig. 1). The gold of the letters next to the image (‘Pl[ac]ita Cora[m] D[omi]na Regina’, ‘Pleas in the presence of her majesty the queen’), mirrored in the golden ornaments of rule and Elizabeth’s golden dress in the illumination, links the business of the court with the office and the person of the monarch; the perspectival effect created by the tiles turns the letter into what seems to be a virtual window into the court’s interior, where the royal body in its majesty guarantees the justice of proceedings. However, the presence chamber that appears to lie just beneath the surface of the official record is as illusory as the presence of the queen in the actual court over which she nominally presided. What held that fiction in place on an everyday basis were the substitute bodies of the government officials, which thus formed the fulcrum of the play of presence and representation that fuelled early modern English state power.
The theatre, too, thrived on that same restless back-and-forth between presence and absence, between voice and script, actor and character, stage and imaginary world, presentation and report. But there is at least one major, important difference between theatrical and political representation: the authority of the theatre was not of the reality-making, but of the fiction-making kind. Its power was aesthetic, its goal was to entertain (or at best, to educate). Paradoxically, however, just as in the political realm the distinction between Lord Keeper and queen had to be maintained as well as effaced, and just as in the legal sphere the judgment was the king’s even as the king could not judge (that is to say, just as reality-effects in the real world depended on the continued audibility of both present speaker and absent – royal – character), the theatre relied on doubleness in order to maintain its groundedness in fiction, in order to avoid collapsing into reality. If such a double vision is an inherent characteristic of the aesthetic, as Stephen Booth has argued, the political and the aesthetic shared a common logic in Shakespeare’s England, even if they employed it towards opposite ends.17
This sense of theatrical doubleness almost vanishes in formulations like W. B. Worthen’s assertion that the professional theatre ‘consumed writing . . . to produce a theatrical commodity’.18 His metaphor implies that stagings are fuelled by scripts which disappear – are consumed – in the process, but early modern performance never fully digested its written sources. One of the aspects of theatrical double vision in the period was an abiding awareness, raised by both playwrights and players, of the scripted nature of performed plays – that the actors speak lines provided to them by someone else, in groups pre-arranged in someone else’s organizational scheme, following plots laid in someone else’s narrative. Much of this pre-fixed arrangement was often known (or at least knowable) to the audience in advance, in the form of familiar plot lines or readily recognizable blocking protocols, through playbills and summaries or ‘arguments’, or even, in the case of revivals, in the form of the text itself.19 In that sense, every performance was marked by its relationship to anterior, mostly textual ‘commodities’ – a relationship that entailed both the momentary suppression of those underlying sources and the issuing of recurrent reminders that they existed. Theatre explicitly derived its authority both from presence and from absence – it always operated partly in the realm of the virtual, was never fully authentic; or rather, its specific authenticity was an effect of a strategic inauthenticity, a deliberate failure to let the origins of voice and word coincide. In this profound reliance on a logic of deferral (the locus of authority is neither the actor’s body nor the playwright’s script, and yet both),20 the theatre encapsulated the larger cultural trope of authority-through-transmission or mediation.
The theatre of deferral
The most obvious device playwrights could resort to in their efforts to keep the theatre poised on the cusp between presence and representation was metatheatricality. Moments like Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V, Marston’s induction to Antonio and Melida, Webster’s to The Malcontent, or the many preludes in Jonson’s drama, from this perspective, do not serve as disruptions of the theatrical illusion, playful or otherwise, but participate in the larger theatrical project of keeping the play’s relationship with reality always asymptotical – of affirming, that is, the illusory status – and power – of the stage’s creations. These scenes thus help to reinforce, not to undermine, the theatre’s particular authority. When Jonson draws attention to the script, to the actors’ dependency on his words, to the fact that their bodies are controlled by someone else’s lines; or when Shakespeare alerts us to the inadequacy of the stage, to what cannot be seen, to that which is not, neither in fact detracts from the power of theatre. This is not to say the rude mechanicals’ fears in Midsummer Night’s Dream are well founded – they are not, but only because their lack of skill puts their production far from the danger they imagine it is courting. Shakespeare and Jonson reminded their audiences of the partial unreality of the show precisely in order for it to succeed – it needed to be both unreal and real to come off, although, as I will argue below, the two authors had rather different views of what such success might entail and what might be at stake if the distinction between truth and fiction were to collapse.
Here is a concrete example of this principle in action. In act 2 scene 1 of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes catches himself losing his thread of thought mid rant:
Praise her but for this her without-door form,
Which on my faith deserves high speech, and straight
The shrug, the hum or ha, these petty brands
That calumny doth use – O, I am out!
That mercy does, for calumny will sear
Virtue itself; these shrugs, these hums and ha’s,
When you have said she’s goodly, come between
Ere you can say she’s honest.
(2.1.71–78, my italics)
The moment gets perilously close to scripted corpsing, to literally killing the character: who exactly is ‘out’ here, Leontes or his actor? (This is not like Coriolanus’s ‘Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part, and I am out’ [5.3.40–41]. It is no mere metaphor, but an enactment of being ‘out’.) The reiteration of ‘shrugs’ and ‘hums and ha’s’ smacks of a forgetful performer reconstructing his lines on the fly. Yet out of this momentary unhinging of the theatrical illusion, the play produces a particularly effective representation of the character’s mental process, of Leontes’s own highly constructed and yet highly confused and confusing logic; and it achieves this effect, paradoxically, by foregrounding the presence of the actor – by tricking the audience into fearing that the show might be about to grind to a halt.
But the drama’s propensity to reflect on the mechanics of its own illusion-making went well beyond such deliberately forced moments of metatheatricality. Theatrical representation in general does not simply move back and forth between actorly body and authorly script; it is also almost always informed by what Marvin Carlson has called a kind of intertextual ‘haunting’,21 where the roles an actor’s body has previously inhabited come to enrich and complicate his or her portrayal of subsequent characters. So strong can these associations be that they are capable of effacing, to an extent, physical realities. As Joseph Roach has shown, the great seventeenth-century actor Thomas Betterton continued to play Hamlet well into his seventies, and could do so because audiences had come to associate him, and his gestural and vocal arsenal, with the role to such a degree that the obvious and doubtless visible distance between Danish youth and aged Londoner – and between Betterton’s own younger self and his decaying presence – had little dramatic relevance. The ‘theatrical body’ (in Roach’s phrase) transcends the ‘real’ ‘body of flesh and blood’.22 But the play of presence and representation is not entirely divorced from the actor’s own (‘real’) body. Betterton, however much his actual presence might merely be a signifier of ‘Betterton’ (its youthful signified having long since evaporated), still existed on stage, in front of an audience’s eyes in a way that ‘Hamlet’ did not, and never can. That the actor represents a particular historical version of his own self in order to be able to represent Hamlet complicates matters, but does not disrupt the body–text dynamics that underpinned early modern theatrical mimesis. [. . .]
[The book's first chapter] begins my extended examination of the logic of deferral in the legal realm, specifically in criminal trials. Trials were described in the period as live events during which witnesses delivered their statements in person and without mediation, and this remains the standard account in current legal history. Based on manuscript evidence, I argue that in fact these supposedly spontaneous exchanges were highly scripted. From the 1550s on, depositions were taken during pre-trial examinations and could replace witnesses in the courtroom – as long as they were produced orally, not as documents but as performances. This conjunction of two seemingly contradictory gestures – one of deferral (to an earlier interrogation, captured in an authorized document) and one of rendering present (through the live rendition of that document, which replaces the ostensible source of authority, the deposition, with its performance) – will emerge over the course of the book as a paradigmatic manoeuvre for the establishment of truth in the period. I show in great detail that similar paradoxical conjunctions of presence and representation structured the legal process on all levels, and argue that these forms of mediation came to be seen as preferable and more persuasive or powerful than the mere presence of a witness’s voice and body. In part, this view depended on a practical equivalence of writing and speech, where the written trace of a testimonial utterance could be regarded as functionally identical to the original speech act. As I suggest at the close of the chapter, over the course of the seventeenth century this perception became increasingly untenable, and by the 1640s the long-standing doctrinal insistence on liveness gave rise to the conviction that witnesses had to testify in person. Presence finally trumped representation.
Chapter 2 further develops my account of the logic of mediation through an in-depth case study, the prosecution of the Earl of Essex by Attorney General Edward Coke in 1601. I draw connections between Coke’s approach to documents and Humanist reading methods to show that he applied the very techniques most learned readers would have used to interpret texts, methods that were also widely practised by other lawyers in early modern England. This chapter offers the most detailed account of these lawyerly reading habits currently available, and analyzes the ways in which they enabled a complex interplay between the authority of the text and of the reader. I trace the connections between this approach to reading and performance, arguing that the eventual production of speech was one of the underlying goals of both Humanist and lawyerly interpretation, and that reading could be figured as kind of virtual witnessing in the period. Both on the page and in live discourse, the credibility of a figure such as Coke depended on his own person (i.e., his reputation and official standing) as well as on the authority of people and cases he could cite and defer to. The relationship between testimony and prosecutorial narrative mirrors this shared authority, and Coke reflects on this in his working notes to the Essex case.
Chapter 3 constitutes the hinge between the legal field and the world of the theatre in my argument. In it, I examine the conceptual foundation of the notion that the oral recitation of texts could bring the written voices to life – a conviction not legal in origin, but widely held in early modern culture, and most famously expressed in Erasmus’s claim that letters can render the voices of absent correspondents live and present. Unsurprisingly, the theatre entertained a number of versions of this idea, particularly in the form of debates over how much actors were controlled by playwrights’ scripts. In this light I examine two connected metaphors for theatrical representation: on the one hand, that of possession, which figured players as uttering authors’ words like victims of demonic possession supposedly speaking in the tongues of the devils that had taken hold of their bodies; on the other hand, the more widely recognized trope of conjuration, which imaged performances as bringing to life absent or imaginary events and people through scripted speech. What united at least some dramatists and lawyers was the assumption that reality effects, the illusion of seeing past or fictitious characters and events, were produced by harnessing both presence and representation, by employing what I will describe as a degree of strategic inauthenticity. Ben Jonson, by contrast, seems to have positioned himself on the fringes, if not entirely outside of, the culture of mediation, taking a considerably more critical view of the effects of actorly transmission. I offer readings of two of his plays, Volpone and The Devil Is an Ass, that feature prominent possession scenes, contrasting them to Shakespeare’s treatment of the same subject in Twelfth Night to tease out the implications and complications of the possession and conjuration tropes. In Jonson, I argue, we find an always barely contained anxiety about the stage’s maddening capacity for generating realities other than those intended by the dramatist – for him, the conjuring powers of the theatre were all too powerful and too far beyond his control, always reducing (or elevating) his didactic and moral abstractions to more concrete and uncontrollable manifestations. Shakespeare, on the other hand, took a much more sceptical position, finding the theatre’s power to call up spirits ‘from the vasty deep’ (as 1 Henry IV ’s Owen Glendower puts it) severely constricted and liable to misfire, and everywhere utterly dependent on mediator figures and a range of forms of shared agency.
The remainder of the book is devoted to dramatic works and focuses largely on Shakespeare, who emerges in my account as the paradigmatic playwright of the culture of mediation. In Chapter 4, I offer a detailed reading of the deposition scene in Richard II as a moment that crystallizes the concerns of previous chapters, and allows for an expansion of my legal arguments into the field of early modern historiography. The deposition (a term whose semantic range the play fully engages) is presented in analogous ways in the play and in Shakespeare’s main source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles: as a scene of scripting, reading, and reporting; an event made up of performative vocal acts, their written sources, and their ultimate reconstitution in and as writing. In both chronicle and Richard II, the deposition triggers an extended, if oblique, reflection on how strategies of deferral and substitution construct legal, historiographical, and representational authority. I examine analogies between the model of mediation I described in earlier chapters and the (text-bound and apparently disembodied) representational strategies of early modern historians, arguing for the centrality of a model of intermediary or second-level eyewitnessing to their approach: given that chroniclers did not experience most of the events they narrated, their authority instead derived from personally inspecting manuscript sources that told of those events. As in Edward Coke’s prosecutorial commonplacing and law reporting, credit inhered simultaneously in the source and in its reproduction. I suggest that this same logic finds expression throughout Richard II, both in the way the play conceptualizes royal power and in its many metahistoriographical moments, but that it receives its richest dramatization in the deposition scene, where the king is made to read out a list of the crimes of which he is accused – a list he need not acknowledge as his own, nor admit to, but only lend his voice to in order for the performance to be recognized as a confession of guilt.
Ultimately, the chapter argues that what other critics have characterized as the corrosive quality of the second tetralogy’s staging of moments of conveyance or reproduction is in fact a means of establishing authority – the kind of authority I analyze throughout the book. This perspective allows for a reassessment of the larger project of Shakespeare’s history plays. Some recent critics have detected a tension between an actor’s powerful presence and the historical character, which is always in danger of being displaced by the player. My readings suggest that any such displacement is only ever provisional, since the actor in turn defers to the historical figure, and to his character, in the play of multiple (and mutual) authorization that animated both the theatre and historiography in Shakespeare’s England.
Chapter 5 explores the broader implications of the principle of authority-through-mediation for an art form like the theatre, which is normally presumed to rely on direct experience and presence. I approach this question through an extended reading of The Winter’s Tale, which dramatizes, in my account, Leontes’ inability to rely on others for access to truth, and his corresponding insistence on locating all truth within himself. The central scene for this interpretation of the play is not the famous ending, but the much-neglected moment that precedes it – the reunion of Leontes with his long-lost daughter Perdita, staged through a long narrative shared between three reporter figures. In this scene, The Winter’s Tale forces us to undergo the same transformation as the king: we, too, can no longer rely on what we see, but must experience the play’s reality through testimony. Conventionally, this moment has been dismissed as a deliberately weak representation, designed to set up the far greater spectacle of Hermione’s awakening, but I argue that such an understanding constitutes a profound misreading of both Shakespeare’s dramaturgy and the relative authority of report over experience in early modern culture more generally. As two key examples of the dominance of authorized narrative over unmediated access, I discuss the figure of the coroner, whose account of viewing a corpse that remained invisible to other officials and to trial jurors became a more authoritative piece of evidence than the body itself; and the typical procedure in possession trials, where the seemingly immediate impact of seeing a demoniac in a trance was routinely eschewed and replaced with reports of the victim’s symptoms delivered by men of high repute. My account of report’s dominance over experience in the period constitutes a major revision of the orthodox view of these trials, which are commonly described by historians as spectacular events. I end by arguing that even in the statue scene, an apparent moment of visual magic, the play in fact privileges the verbal and the indirect and crucially depends on gestures of mediation and deferral.
In an epilogue, I draw out some of the implications of the model of theatre as an art of mediation for current debates about Shakespeare’s status as a literary playwright, arguing that while print was beginning to function as a supplement analogous to the actor’s voice for some of his contemporaries and immediate successors, Shakespeare’s theatre, for all its interest in narrative and report, remained deeply invested in the presence of a living body as the necessary medium of representation.
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