Category Archives: Thesis

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.

When does a PhD end?

When does a PhD end? This is a bit of an awkward question. I’ve now handed in my thesis, typed, proofed and bound, and am waiting to have my viva on 2nd October 2015. My PhD isn’t officially over until my examiners, Tiffany Stern and Christopher Tilmouth, decide that my work is good enough and allow me (after completing any corrections) to receive a doctorate at a ceremony most likely due to take place in November 2015 at the earliest.

So my PhD ends in November 2015. Or does it? As far as the University of Cambridge and my college are concerned, my PhD ended when I submitted the thesis: I no longer have to pay college fees or university tuition, and my grant has come to an end as well. This seems right too, particularly as I now live and work several hundred miles away from the Great Saint Mary’s (the traditional point for measuring one’s distance from Cambridge).

So my PhD has already ended. I think my examiners would disagree. And, to be frank, so do I. Indeed, I’m beginning to wonder now if PhDs ever really end, even once has gone through all the rituals of closure. Like others before me, my thesis will hopefully constitute the basis of my first book and my continuing research and teaching interests in the years ahead. Quite how many years that may be, I can’t possibly know, but a quick mental survey indicates that the number is likely to be quite high.

I ask these questions here because this post introduces an already advertised shift in the identity of this blog. Rather than something tied to the trials and tribulations of a PhD, it will become a more general space for academic reflection. As my opening paragraphs have just shown, this might even be a more honest approach to the nature of one’s development as a researcher, which rarely follows the boundaries of administrations or qualifications.

Some changes are in order. They are:

  • A new category “Thesis”, which will replace both the awkward categorisation by chapter, which never really worked, even if it now makes an interesting record of what shape I expected my dissertation to take between 2012 and 2015.
  • Further recategorisation by subject, to make it easier to find material and to connect past and present work. This includes removing the label “Outside thesis”, for obvious reasons.
  • A slightly different look to the website and an update to the master pages (“About”, etc,)


The Zotero Quest

Those who know a little about role-playing games (RPG) may be familiar with the concept of ‘levelling up’. When your character acquires a certain quantity of experience (all experience is quantitative in these games), they pass from their current level to the one above, becoming – in a variety of ways – more powerful.

In some ways, the life of a PhD student is a bit like an RPG. And not just because of the peculiarities of our habitat. As you complete the various quests that constitute your research (find and read all your sources; write a conference paper, an article, a chapter, a thesis, a book…), you acquire experience and, ultimately, level up.

Of course, there are some events during a doctorate (as in an RPG) that earn you more experience than others. In a game like <i>Final Fantasty</i>, for instance, one earns a great deal more experience from defeating a story-specific enemy – known as a ‘boss’ – than from scything your way through all of his or her underlings.

There are many candidates for the academic equivalent of a boss. My supervisor, much as I’m fond of him, has occasionally played this role (albeit without the tentacles), asking me a difficult question, which, once answered, unlocks new power for my research. Alternatively, and perhaps more plausibly, one might consider job interviews, journal submissions or conference presentation as boss battles. Or maybe I’m just too combative a speaker.

I’m also wandering from my original aim. You see, I have just had a level up moment. It involves footnotes, a word I only use here, after a long and exciting exposition, in the hope that it won’t make you stop reading.

The chapters of my thesis have between 150 and 200 of what the French call “notes de bas de page” each. Inserting all of them was a long and painful process, but it would have been far longer and far more painful if I had not been using Zotero to store my bibliographical data. Like a particularly potent piece of equipment, this program has made my forays into the dungeons at the foot of each page of my thesis much easier. And yet, as I discovered recently, I had been wielding it ineptly.

Take a look at this.

bad notes

Although these footnotes follow the MHRA style guide to the letter, they are not good footnotes. Numbers 126, 128 and 130 all refer to one edition of Shakespeare’s plays, while notes 129 and 131 refer to another. This information will be quite useful to my reader, but to make it appear I would have to complete the oddest quest my PhD has set me yet.

Enter Zotero’s Visual CSL editor. With this tool, once can rewrite the ontologies of a style. It takes some time to work out how it functions (although a lot less time than reading the code itself), but, once you have it, you can create your own, modified style guides.

good notes


While I am, perhaps, a bit too proud of these footnotes now, there is a larger point to be made here too. Changing the format of these lines entailed acquiring a far better understanding of how Zotero worked, and how to modify it. On top of this, it also taught me about the ontology of citation: the immensely clever system that has the capacity to enclose all other systems of reference.

I’d say that makes me, roughly, a level 28 researcher.


On the Legality of my Thesis

My thesis has five pictures in it. They have caused me quite a lot of problems, enough to merit this post, which will – I hope – veer between entertaining lament and useful advice about copyright and doctoral research in the age of the institutional digital repository.

My thesis has five pictures in it. They are:

  • Charles le Brun, La Tente de Darius (1661)
  • William Hogarth, David Garrick as Richard III (1745)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Jean-François Ducis (1782)
  • Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, Brizard dans le rôle de Léar (1783)


  • An engraving of Cleopatra applying the Asp, from volume six of Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1709)

All the above images can be found relatively easily on the internet. Problems arise, however, when one wishes to publish them in a thesis.

Let’s start with the four paintings. All of them, having been painted centuries ago, are in the public domain. Or, rather, the originals are. Unfortunately, images of paintings (i.e. images of images) have their own copyright, and many museums assert control over these. They are entitled to do so, since taking a photo of a painting, particularly a photo of sufficient quality for book reproduction, seems to constitute artistic labour in its own right. I say seems because British law is a little vague on this.

Thankfully, as a lowly doctoral student, I don’t need to use a museum’s expertly created images of their paintings for a book that is going to sell millions of copies. Rather, there will be exactly one copy of my thesis printed and stored in the Cambridge University Library. Given this situation, at least one institute (the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris) has – at time of writing – been kind enough to give me an image for free. Other places seem likely only to charge me a negligible amount.

Unfortunately, these days, PhD research is not just being made available in a room of the university library, it’s also being posted online, in digital institutional repositories (the Cambridge one is here). This means that whatever image I put in my thesis can have a potential audience of the entire online population. Rights for this kind of distribution do not, unsurprisingly, come cheap. Indeed, at least museum only allows me to rent online distribution rights for a year at a time, and not to purchase them at all.

The solution to this problem is rather radical. The online version of my thesis can only contain either public domain images (so pictures taken by myself, or whose creator has waived any copyright in) or empty frames, inside which I should write something along the lines of: “please consult the paper copy of this thesis to see this image.” Or, you know, Google it.

This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.
This image is copyright ©Boston Public Library. It may be used for educational, non-profit purposes.

Enough with the paintings. The engraving is actually very similar. Rowe’s book is out of copyright, but the image of the book’s page may not be. In this case, however, there is an image of the image I need, which – while not fully in the public domain – is available for scholarly use, providing I give sufficient acknowledgement to the Boston Public Library. Which I shall do.

Thus concludes, for now, my adventures with copyright. Funnily enough, I actually talk a little about this topic in the course of my thesis. The first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government (and not by private parties, like the Stationers’ Company) was the Statute of Anne in 1710. Its promulgation was a spur to the publication of both Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare and several of those that followed it. Early publishers of Shakespeare were just as interested in maintaining the rights to his work as modern museums are to their holdings now.

Orphan Black and General Sensibility

Have you been watching Orphan Black? I have, and enjoying it immensely as a way to get away from writing up my PhD. Unfortunately, though, the fact that my thesis is all about performance makes it pretty much impossible to ignore my research completely when watching a TV series. Especially this one. I can’t help but use eighteenth-century methods to reflect on the program’s plot, its mise en scène, or, in the case of Orphan Black, how it depends so heavily on its lead actress (and now producer too) Tatiana Maslany.

A bit of background is in order here, so prepare yourself for a few spoilers. Orphan Black is set in contemporary North America, with one difference: human cloning was achieved several decades back, and then – with key aspects of the research mysteriously lost – hushed up. All is well until, one day, a woman called Sarah Manning comes across what appears to be her identical twin (but is really her clone) in a train station. From there, a complex series of events unfold, in which Sarah meets (at time of writing) ten other clones, and, together, they try and work out who they are and where they came from.

Maslany in the role of: Sarah, Alison, Helena, Cosima and Rachel.

All the clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. Yet all of them are distinct characters: Sarah is former con artist, Cosima a geek, Alison a soccer mom, Helena a trained assassin, and so on. Maslany’s ability to transform from one person to the other is extraordinary, and has won her numerous acting awards.

What interests me, however, in my own little eighteenth-century way, is how this ability to transform has, to a certain extent, hidden Maslany herself. When watching Orphan Black, unless you try very hard indeed, you do not see the same actress in each of the parts. Televisual trickery sometimes helps with this: by combining several takes, it is possible for multiple clones to meet and talk (and, in one extraordinary season finale, dance) together. Yet even when there is no post-production help, the most critical of viewers will be hard pressed to say that Sarah, Cosima, Alison and all the others are visibly the same person.

Maslany’s ability to enter into each of these roles so completely that it is so hard to see the same actress behind them all is proof of something that was once called “general sensibility”. John Hill coins this term in the 1755 volume of The Actor.

Hill argued that “any particular turn of mind, far from qualifying a person for playing, is rather a disadvantage”. For him, an aspiring actor must instead possess a “ductility of mind”, a “general sensibility”. In other words, “It were best that the heart of the player had no reigning passion of its own” but rather a “ready sensibility of all”. In these circumstances, the actor would disappear into the role assigned to them, as Maslany does in Orphan Black.

Interestingly, Hill is pushed to theorise “general sensibility” as a way of understanding why performances by star actors of his time, like David Garrick and Spranger Barry, sometimes fell short of their full effect, because, as he puts it, “whether we see Mr Garrick in Richard or in Osmyn, still [we see] Mr Garrick”. Only an actress, Susannah Cibber, possesses the full general sensibility that means we do not identify the player from the play.

Perhaps Cibber is an ancestor of Maslany. If not by blood, than at least by intellectual tradition. There is certainly much more to say about Orphan Black with regard to early modern acting theory. For example: the TV series has (spoiler) a series of male clones too, but they – unlike the women – are far less varied. Perhaps the showrunners couldn’t find an actor with enough “general sensibility”?

Another question. If Maslany becomes more famous, will she lose the power to transform? Hill attributes Garrick’s visibility in to a lack of “general sensibility”, but more modern approaches might call this phenomenon a downside of theatrical celebrity. Isn’t an actor’s art also dependent on the eye of the beholder?

And one more thing to finish with. Hill suggests that “general sensibility” entails having “no reigning passion” of one’s own. I feel Maslany might take issue with this: is she really an unfeeling person, oddly characterless when not in front of the cameras? I doubt she’d say so. And then, to step once more into the world of Orphan Black, can we justly distinguish Cosima from Sarah, Helena from Alison, in terms of a “reigning passion”? If so, then where did it come from, given that the characters are all clones of each other? An important, submerged, implication of the premise of this series as a whole, but one that soon appears after a little reflection, is that we are not mere slaves to our genetics, but rather infinitely variable, if not – perhaps – to the extent of Tatiana Maslany and her “general sensibility”.

A wave o’th’sea

My posts have been few and far between of late, as I am nearing the end of my thesis, and pouring my energies into making three years of thinking and reading presentable. I couldn’t, however, resist a little post about these lines from The Winter’s Tale. Florizel is watching Perdita.

FLORIZEL When you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’th’sea, that you might do
Nothing but that, and own no other function.

These lines are well known, and well loved, not least by me. In one of the little moments of serendipity which sometimes occur when reviewing and rewriting,  I’ve also found a way to make them into a kind of emblem of my doctoral research. Throughout the thesis, I’ve tried to characterise what changes in the way people understood Shakespeare between the time of Garrick and that of the Romantics. Two uses of the phrase “wave o’th’sea” now help me do this.

First, Hogarth’s. In his Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth uses these lines from The Winter’s Tale to show that Shakespeare, many years before this painter, had also observed how “the beauty of dancing” resided in its “serpentine lines”. In other words, Shakespeare – although he never used the term – understood Hogarth’s concepts of the line of beauty and the line of grace, and so writes elsewhere of “bends adornings” and the fascinating pleasure of “infinite variety” that can be found in the physical spectacle of the dance hall or the professional stage.

Against Hogarth’s use of a “wave o’th’sea” we may set Hazlitt’s, who weaves the phrase into one of his most famous comments on Hamlet.

We do not like to see our author’s plays acted, and least of all, Hamlet. There is no play that suffers so much in being transferred to the stage. Hamlet himself seems hardly capable of being acted. Mr Kemble unavoidably fails in this character from a want of ease and variety. The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of ‘a wave o’th’sea’.

The contrast with Hogarth is striking. Whereas the eighteenth-century writer finds in Shakespeare’s Florizel words that characterise the beauty of physical presence, of performance, Hazlitt finds an expression of the inscrutability of Hamlet’s character. A “wave o’th’sea” denotes variation and fascination in both cases, but, in the latter, is attached to character, to the inward world, and not, crucially, to the stage.

From the eighteenth to the nineteenth century therefore, the line of Shakespearean beauty changes its location and its nature. It moves inward and becomes a matter for the mind.