Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe

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In early modern Europe, before a "theatre" was a playhouse, it was an encyclopedia. In this book William N. West explores what "theatre" meant to medieval and Renaissance writers and critics, and places Renaissance drama, for the first time, within the powerfully influential context of the encyclopedic writings which were being produced at the time. Recent criticism has recognized that the culture of early modern Europe was a theatre culture, fascinated by performance of all kinds, but it was also an encyclopedic culture, obsessed with collecting and sorting knowledge. Early encyclopedias presented themselves as textual theatres, in which everything knowable could be represented in concrete, visible form. Medieval and Renaissance plays, similarly, took encyclopedic themes as their topics: the mysteries of nature, universal history, the world of learning. But instead of transmitting authorized knowledge quickly and unambiguously, as it was supposed to, the theatre created a situation in which ordinary experience could become a communicable source of authority.

By the mid seventeenth century, the theatre had become the model for the reformation of the encyclopedia and the encyclopedia for the theatre, as knowledge itself came to be seen as a kind of performance. West covers a wide range of works, from the canonical encyclopedic texts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, Jonson's The Alchemist, and Bacon's Novum Organum, and provides a fascinating picture of the cultural and intellectual life of the period.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[West] covers medieval and Renaissance demonstrations of the ars combinatorium and theatrical performances, and with taste as well as erudition...This is an important contribution to the history of ideas seen from a very rewarding perspective." Renaissance Quarterly

"A fascinating and suggestive book." Studies in English Literature

"West has written a learned book that draws freely on several scholarly fields and a panoply of primary sources...A certain semantic slippage is necessary to West's project and I, for one, am happy to grant him the privilege, for the liberties he takes in constructing his larger argument are more than compensated for by the quality of his local readings and his clear presentation of engaging historical materials." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England Ty Buckman

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Product Details

Meet the Author

William West has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of Nevada, Reno, and is currently assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He has published on encyclopedism, the arts of memory, symbolic economies, and the epistemology of early modern performance in journals such as English Literary Renaissance, Renaissance Drama, and Comparative Literature. He is currently at work on a book on the significance of confusion and misunderstanding in early modern drama.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Note on texts
Introduction: Circles of learning 1
1 The space of the encyclopedia 14
2 The idea of a theatre 43
3 Tricks of vision, truths of discourse: Illustration, ars combinatoria, and authority 79
4 Holding the mirror up to nature?: The humanist theatre beside itself 111
5 The show of learning and the performance of knowledge: Humors, Epigrams, and "an universal store" 143
6 Francis Bacon's theatre of Orpheus: "Literate experience" and experimental science 193
Notes 224
Bibliography 274
Index 291
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