Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History

Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History

by Jonathan Bate
     
 

Four hundred years ago, Hamlet urged his players, "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." But in expressing the passions of the play, he advised, "Let discretion be your guide." Ever since, the tensions between faithfulness to the text on one hand, and expressive freedom on the other, have kept

Overview

Four hundred years ago, Hamlet urged his players, "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue." But in expressing the passions of the play, he advised, "Let discretion be your guide." Ever since, the tensions between faithfulness to the text on one hand, and expressive freedom on the other, have kept Shakespeare productions in a state of constant flux. From the radical alterations and "improvements" of the late seventeenth century, to the startling dislocations in setting, dress, and political context of the twentieth, from the extravagant sets of the Victorians to the stark minimalism of London's 1970s fringe theatre, Shakespeare's plays have lent themselves to an astonishing variety of incarnations.
Written by a team of distinguished scholars, under the editorship of Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson, Shakespeare: An Illustrated Stage History offers an elegantly designed and compellingly readable account of four centuries of Shakepearean productions. The book is consistently illuminating. Of the theatre of Shakespeare's own day, for instance, we learn not only what the plays would have looked like but also how changing conditions affected their composition—how, in 1604, the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players, which forbid the utterance of Christian oaths on stage, drove Shakespeare to set his plays in antiquity for the next five years. Likewise, when the King's Men moved indoors from the Globe to the Blackfriars theatre for the winter season, Shakespeare was forced to compose his plays in five distinct acts, separated by musical intervals, because the candles lighting the stage would burn down and need to be replaced. We also learn of the vehement Puritan antipathy to the theatre, an antipathy so great that at the outset of the civil war, in 1642, Parliament passed the Stephens Act, outlawing all stage performances—to avoid the "high provocation of God's wrath"—and formally declaring players to be "rogues," subject to public whippings and even the death penalty. Though the theatre has never since been considered quite so dangerous, the contributors clearly show how politically powerful Shakespeare performances have remained, and how variable, with both the establishment and the opposition enlisting the Bard in their causes. The book is equally engaging on the great actors, from eighteenth-century giant David Garrick to modern figures such as Ralph Fiennes, John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, and Peter Brook (the book includes a fascinating piece by actress Judi Dench that provides a performer's view of Shakespeare).
What emerges most significantly from the book is a vivid sense of the enormous malleability of Shakespeare's work, responsive not only to changing political, economic, and social conditions, but also to the widest range of imaginative impulses in staging, direction, and interpretation. An invaluable and delightful book for anyone interested in Shakespeare or the stage, this superb volume gives readers a much clearer knowledge of the forces that have shaped Shakespeare productions. Indeed, they will feel as if they've been given backstage passes to the best performances of the past four centuries.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
If, as the editors of this book declare in their preface, "all the world has become Shakespeare's stage," its capital nonetheless remains the English theater. From their original stagings 400 years ago to today's unconventional adaptations, the plays of Shakespeare have been a constant source of entertainment, edification, and employment on the stages of Great Britain. Twelve chapters describe the history of Shakespeare on the stage from various perspectives: archaeological (discussions of recent finds), historical (stories of actor-managers, directors, and companies), and personal (Judi Dench's discussion of her career playing Shakespeare), to name a few. Frequently punctuated with illustrations and photographs, this fascinating account serves as a souvenir program of the ultimate Shakespeare festival: 400 years of Shakespeare on the stage. Recommended especially for theater and literature collections.-Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago P.L.
Jake Helbig
No other English-language playwright's works have been as widely produced or readily adapted into operas, ballets, and musicals as Shakespeare's. Although this beautifully illustrated volume never touches on the why of this, it does fairly exhaustively recount the how of Shakespeare's rise from being one of many Elizabethans scribbling plays during a culturally fertile time to overwhelming preeminence in the theatrical canon. Each chapter in it is the work of a different scholar, director, or, in one case, actress, which makes for unevenness of tone. Some chapters fascinate: for instance, Martin Wiggins' discussion of the fate of Shakespeare's plays and theatrical company during the turbulent century after his death, when civil war divided England and brought the theater-hating Puritans to power. Others, like Russell Jackson's on the late-nineteenth-through early-twentieth-century rise of actor-managerrun Shakespearean companies, may be packed with facts and insight but are so dry and scholarly that they will be tough going for many. Still, overall, the book is fine and intelligent.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780198123729
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
04/04/1996
Pages:
276
Product dimensions:
7.20(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

About the Editors:
Jonathan Bate is the King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Russell Jackson is Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham.

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