Shakespeare’s Bodies Onstage

A review of Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body

Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body, Bloomsbury, 2017, 240 pp., $80.99.
Evelyn Tribble, Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body, Bloomsbury, 2017, 240 pp., $80.99.

I think most of my students don’t find Shakespeare very funny when they read his plays, even after they’ve grown comfortable with the language and despite my assurances that there are plenty of punchlines. Often, when I ask them if any moments from Much Ado or Twelfth Night made them chuckle while they were reading, they hesitate. Fearing that not getting jokes implies a failure of apprehension (or worse, a lack of sophistication), they sometimes gamely offer something like, “Dogberry’s malapropisms were kinda funny,” as if there is a clinical, correct answer. What usually provokes laughter in class is when I deploy my only reliable shtick: translating Shakespeare’s lines into modern colloquialisms. The Duke of Gloucester’s “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks” thus becomes “hey look, but I’m like really ugly though.” I think what’s funny is partly my irreverence, and partly my delivery (I’m not trying to gloat; this is honestly my only reliable shtick). A classroom isn’t very conducive to volunteering laughter, of course; it is designed for discipline and rigor and often promotes feelings of vulnerability. Unlike classrooms, however, theaters are communal spaces predisposed to mirth—and they tend to feature people who have actually honed their comic timing. I regularly laugh at Shakespeare during performances, and students who assert that they find a play funny are typically budding directors, actors, and theater enthusiasts drawing on memories of specific films or productions. Like my classroom shtick, however, many of the best gags in performance do not necessarily derive from Shakespeare’s writing. A skilled actor can win the crowd’s good humor with slapstick, improvising around a flubbed line, or having a brief exchange with an audience member. Sometimes, a production turns a phrase, or even a character, that might have meant one thing in early modern England into a joke or commentary rooted in modern meanings. Should we really award the laughter that a play in performance might generate to Shakespeare, though? How much credit should the team of players—actors, directors, costume and set designers, etc.—get, especially if Shakespeare wrote some characters for actors he knew had particular skillsets? Moreover, how do our ways of reading Shakespeare change if we remember that actors’ contributions inform how a play makes meaning?  

Theater practitioners putting on a play today understand that it is a team activity and that playwrights must share the stage with them. Scholarly attention to early modern theatrical practices has found in Shakespeare’s theater an even more diffuse and collaborative enterprise. Tiffany Stern’s Documents of Performance in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2009) presents composition as fundamentally “patchy”: plays were written and circulated in a plurality of different textual forms, different scenes of a play were often authored by a variety of people, actors only received their own “parts” (rather than the full text of the play) to study prior to their sole rehearsal, and prompt-books and backstage “platts” used to govern live performances were separately transcribed. We’ve known for a long time that Shakespeare was a serial collaborator, just like most of his contemporary playwrights; we can now insist that modern conceptions of authorial intention and solitary genius might be limiting our understanding of how plays actually worked. Early Modern Theatricality (Oxford, 2014), a landmark collection of essays edited by Henry S. Turner, emphasizes more aspects of early performance that lie latent behind scripts. All of the essays are written by scholarly luminaries, and each carries a simple title, like “Off-stage,” “Games,” “Desire,” or “Foreign.” Together, they contextualize how the theatrical environment actualized a network of different meaning-making elements. In his opening essay, “Generalization,” Turner writes that the book proposes “what engineers call an ‘exploded view’ of early modern theatricality: a blueprint that isolates functional parts, magnifies them for analysis, and then reintegrates them into the theatrical apparatus.” For example, in “Festivity,” Erika T. Lin examines the associations between plays and holiday feasts, arguing that since festivity “constituted a mode of embodied popular knowledge,” the commercial theater which was built upon this tradition “registered these beliefs on the level of theatrical form.”  William N. West, in “Intertheatricality,” reveals how plays that appear to cite or allude to one another actually reflect how “theatre is made out of other performances,” or how a given play existed in a “horizontally organized repertoire” that feeds upon itself and produces new theatrical moments out of a patchwork of others. In sum, the collection bursts the seams of what we might understand to be the shape of a play and the authority of a playwright. These essays blend deep historical research with close attention to textual effects, engage deeply with critical theory and philosophy, and, most importantly, activate a palpably excited imagination. Any account of vanished historical performances necessitates creatively filling in some gaps in knowledge; this work reflects how we are at a point wherein we might house our fantasies in sturdy frameworks.  

Evelyn Tribble’s recent scholarship, which culminates in Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (Bloomsbury, 2017), perhaps attends most directly to the shared responsibilities of actors and authors. Unfortunately, we don’t have extensive primary records of actors demonstrating their skills or of audiences appreciating them. For the most part, as Tribble notes, our knowledge largely comes from references to actors’ behaviors within the texts of plays themselves, and these references are frequently satirical. While nevertheless brandishing an exhaustive attention to textual and archival sources to support her claims, throughout her work Tribble draws on insights from cognitive science. Through the lens of “distributed cognition,” Tribble illuminates how actors embedded their practices in “smart structures” that included not only the script of a play but also conventions of movement and choreography, bonds with other actors, and habits cultivated through physical training. Shifting attention away from written texts, Tribble uncovers how the “cognitive ecology” of the theater, which “emphasizes the interplay of internal cognitive mechanisms and social and physical environment” constituted what could actually happen on stage during live performances. Tribble’s new study builds upon her earlier book, Cognition in the Globe: Attention and Memory in Shakespeare’s Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); she also contributed an essay, “Skill,” to Turner’s Early Modern Theatricality, and edited a special forum in Shakespeare Studies 43 on skill featuring refreshing perspectives by other scholars. In Cognition in the Globe, Tribble first introduces distributed cognition to our understanding of a theatrical milieu in which actors, who likely never saw the full script of a play prior to performance, had perhaps a week (and maybe one rehearsal) to learn their parts. Professional players, she proposes, developed techniques for “information underload, offloading as much as possible onto the environmental and social system” by relying on things like rhyme and meter (for mnemonic patterns), linking gesture to speech, and training younger actors by apprenticing them to experienced ones. Tribble foregrounds the importance of actors’ ability to develop “fluent forgetting” so that they would never look out of place on stage.  

IEarly Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre, Tribble presents a more popularly accessible approach to similar material, and zeroes in on specific kinds of professional fluency: movement, dancing, and fencing. She also returns to the generalized “skill behind the skills” required of all actors, namely, “memory, vigilancy, and pregnancy of wit,” before turning to discuss modern productions that imitate “original practices” on reconstructed stages. The book argues that “reorienting our attention to skill display and to theatre as a form of entertainment, with as many affinities to sport as to literature, helps us capture a fuller picture of the early modern stage.” Theater audiences and sport spectators might arrive with different expectations and habits, but the analogy evinces an earnest striving to understand actions invisible in a written text from a holistic perspective. To even think about the phenomenon of an actor walking on stage, we must remember that an actor’s physique and costuming, as well as cultural norms about gait and posture, explicitly or implicitly inform his or her method. One of the most famous clowns on Shakespeare’s stage, Will Kemp, was notably athletic enough to leap over a broad ditch, and famously morris-danced over a hundred miles from London to Norwich. The scope of his energetic theatrical performances, we can be sure, included physical as well as verbal somersaults. Tribble invokes the cognitive notion of “meshed thinking,” which attends to how experience allows us to manage “layers of attention in real time,” in order to frame her study in terms of “kinesic intelligence,” which entails a conscious habituation of the body to perform specific tasks effortlessly and even unconsciously. Moreover, the book stresses the importance of “skilled viewing,” which reflects how an audience might discern subtle differences in characters’ behavior by being aware of specific physical habits—just like basketball fans can immediately distinguish a refined free-throw shooter from a clumsy one. An actor’s demonstration of “physical memory” and gracefulness, in other words, could be just as significant as their “verbal recall” of scripted lines. Moving beyond fleshing out our sense of the historical early modern actor’s body, each chapter also reveals how these new insights into historical theatrical practices can actually inform our understanding of specific plays. Most impressive about this book, then, is how it applies its approach to Shakespeare’s familiar texts and develops incisive new readings. 

Recognizing that “gesture and gait profoundly shape our perceptions of others,” the first chapter arrives at the challenging “choosing scene” in All’s Well That Ends Well. In this scene, courtiers all appear to accept Helena’s suit of love, but an onlooker, Lafew, supposes that they are rudely denying her. Commenting on how editors who suggest that Lafew misunderstands what is happening “clearly privilege the words of the courtiers over their actions,” Tribble points out how the play itself presents the courtiers as having little regard for words and that the actors are implicitly cued – “These boys are boys of ice”—to be rigid, unenthusiastic, and motionless. We all know what an insincere, noncommittal acceptance looks like; seeing this at work here requires investing Shakespeare’s scene with something of our own bodily experience. It is not unlikely that actors reconstructing this scene would arrive at this reading without much fuss, but they are required to think with their bodies at all times. The point Tribble makes is that reading Shakespeare’s words should not be decoupled from thinking about what bodies might actually be doing and imagining the variety of things they could be doing. In the second chapter, after a discussion of different styles of early modern swordplay and the culture surrounding fencing, Tribble revisits the opening scenes of Romeo and Juliet. Explaining how the play juxtaposes a variety of different fencing styles between its characters, Tribble argues that while “young men in the play imagine swordplay as a matter of skill and honour,” the play reveals that “it is merely a matter of chance.” Implicit in this observation in the logic of swordplay is an argument about why the play’s titular, overly idealistic lovers themselves come to tragedy. In other words, the texture of the play’s themes inheres even in choreography. The discussion of the logic of dance in chapter three underscores how constraint and improvisation are linked; the encounters between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, when read through the lens of skill, merge understandings of dancing and fencing to enable audiences to perceive a “antagonism and synchrony, rivalry and concord” in physical maneuvers as well as in language. Later in the book, Tribble turns to Hamlet, arguing that many readings privilege “the philosophical Hamlet over the physical Hamlet” and thus ignore “the evidence for Hamlet’s preoccupation with skill and mastery.” Here, she presents a compelling portrait of the melancholic prince as jealous and competitive, as a blustering athlete as well as a mumbling bookworm. This reading addresses many of the character’s inconsistencies and should not be easily discounted.  

To me, the most exciting thing about Tribble’s claims is that while they are steeped in reliably strong close readings and attention to historical sources—she reads manuals and treatises on fencing, archery, dancing, and gesture alongside letters and a variety of theatrical sources (even treating some non-Shakespearean works at length)—her conclusions frequently seem intuitive. This is not to say that they are banal; rather, they are readings that are often occluded by doctrinal adherence to the words on the page. Early Modern Actors & Shakespeare’s Theatre flips a critical switch and reminds us that we are constantly reading each other’s bodies, and that we continually struggle to control our own. In considering why Edgar was more intriguing to both actors and audiences than Edmund in early productions of King Lear (despite the inverse being generally true today), Tribble exposes how the role “demands an extraordinarily high level of kinesic intelligence to animate the array of characters Edgar must embody.” Any actor playing Edgar’s role engages in daring and varied physicality; when we read the play, we might hastily dismiss him as somewhat shallow, despite the fact that the play itself critiques both inflexibility and speaking instead of doing. I look forward to deploying Tribble’s appealing, lucid prose in my own classroom, and using her work to encourage students to think ‘with the body’ when launching their own interpretations. It’s worth noting how effortless Tribble makes rather sophisticated intellectual labor appear. Throughout her writings, she demonstrates exhaustive knowledge not only of early modern theater and culture, but also cites studies from cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, and dance—really, anything that might be helpful to our understanding. This interdisciplinary, resourceful, and imaginative pursuit of a largely absent target synthesizes a wealth of thinking. It models what can only be described as profoundly skillful scholarship.  

Work like Tribble’s opens the door to exhilarating new approaches to familiar texts, but there are stakes for this that extend beyond granting graduate students new fodder for analysis. These stakes have to do with the same reasons some readers feel like they’re supposed to find Shakespeare funny (or tragic, or meaningful, or even, well, good). Tribble’s final chapter makes a productive, if implicit, case for revising and revitalizing our relationship to the most aridly canonical of authors. This chapter discusses modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays in reconstructed spaces like Shakespeare’s Globe and the American Shakespeare Centre, or companies that attempt to recover original practices like the Original Shakespeare company. She finds such practices intellectually rewarding, but also recognizes that in all of these endeavors, “collisions…occur between contemporary practices, assumptions and habits and the past practices that are invoked or imitated.” Tribble does not dismiss these productions, since even though “they can never be mere reproductions” they are nevertheless “a creative and productive collision of practices.” I argue that such collisions should also press us as readers, actors, and audiences to remember that we happen to Shakespeare as much as he happens to us. Such projection is inescapable; we do it when we read and imagine faces for characters (and how often do those faces belong to famous actors?).  

Shakespeare’s unique cultural status sometimes prefigures responses to him; we imagine that he talks to us or about us, tells us what is funny, or romantic, or heroic, or human. The delivery of a joke, which I posit as synecdoche for pretty much everything that can happen in a performance, always relies on content, delivery, context, and the disposition of the audience. Shakespeare’s words, then, are only part of the puzzle; their peculiar brilliance lies not in presenting wholeness or universalized truths, but in their creation of opportunities, opportunities for actors to demonstrate their skills and for readers to imaginatively inhabit unfamiliar scenarios. What he offers us are instruments for collaborative thinking, rather than decrees or lessons. Throughout his oeuvre, he warns us against unreflective adherence to authorities of all kinds, and he even explicitly tells us that one-way streets for the transmission of ideas are dead-ends. In Love’s Labor’s Lost, over-educated elites are advised to learn how to tell a joke without being smug about it: “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear / Of him that hears it, never in the tongue / Of him that makes it.” One of his plays is literally titled As You Like It; another is subtitled What You Will. Viola’s surmise in Twelfth Night about what makes for a successful clown might well be extended to how we judge Shakespeare’s plays in general: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool; / And to do that well craves a kind of wit. / He must observe their mood on whom he jests, / The quality of persons, and the time; / And, like the haggard, check at every feather / That comes before his eye. This is a practice /As full of labor as a wise man’s art.” It’s hard work to tell a joke well. We should remember that in his plays, this “labor” is never undertaken by Shakespeare alone, that it is reactive to people, contexts, and moods, and that the work hinges on our own participation. I’m going to keep working on my shtick.  

Adhaar Noor Desai is Assistant Professor of Literature and Bard College. His teaching and research are focused on early modern poetry and drama. He is writing a book studying the concept of imperfection and its significance to early modern literature, science, and technology.