A Thesis Abstracted

I found writing up my thesis to be an exciting time. I have always enjoyed writing (hence this blog), but the assembly of so many words, ideas, arguments, was something new to me. For various reasons (publication, the fact I’m writing this before my viva, copyright), I cannot publish the thesis online here. I can, however, offer you my abstract, the document which attempts the probably impossible task of distilling three hundred pages and years of reflection into a mere four hundred words.


 

This thesis draws the line of a rise and a fall, an ironic pattern whereby the English stage of the long eighteenth century, in its relation to Shakespeare in particular, first acquired powerful influence, and then, through the very effects of that power, lost it. It also shows what contemporary literary criticism might learn from the activities that constitute this arc of evolution.

My first chapter interrogates the relationship between text and performance in vernacular writings about acting and editing from the death of Betterton in 1709 to the rise of Garrick in the middle decades of the century. From the status of a distinct tradition, performance comes to rely on text as a basis for the intimate, personal engagement with Shakespeare believed necessary to the work of the sentimental actor. Such a reliance grants the performer new potential as a literary critic, but also prepares a fall. The performer becomes another kind of reader, and so is open to accusations of reading badly.

My second chapter analyses the evolving definition of Shakespeare as a dramatic author from Samuel Johnson onwards. An untheatrical definition of the dramatic (Johnson’s) is answered by one which recognises the power and vitality of the stage, especially in its representation of sympathetic character (Montagu and Kenrick). Yet that very recognition leads to a set of altered critical priorities in which the theatre is, once more, relegated (Morgann and Richardson).

My third and fourth chapters consider the practices and critical implications of theatrical performance of Shakespeare during Garrick’s career. I focus on the acting of emotion, the portrayal of what Aaron Hill called ‘the very Instant of the changing Passion’, and show that performance of this time, attentive to the striking moment and the transitions that power it, required from the actor both attention to the text and preternatural control over his own emotions. In return, it allowed Garrick and others to claim a special affinity with Shakespeare and to capture the public’s attention, both in the theatre and outside it. Yet this situation, that of ‘twin stars’, does not last. French and German responses to English acting, the concern of my last chapter, show its decline particularly well. They also, however, show the power that existed in such a union between page and stage, and equal weight is given in both my third and my fourth chapter to how the theatrical-literary insights of eighteenth-century critical culture might also illuminate modern approaches.


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