Anne Barton and My Thesis

I came across Anne Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play on a nicely named ‘local interest’ shelf at the Chaucer Head bookshop, Stratford-upon-Avon. The title immediately leapt out at me, as it offered a way of formulating my own thoughts on Shakespeare and drama in the eighteenth-century: the phrase ‘the idea of’ neatly allows Barton to both talk about concrete realities of the stage and the metaphorical uses of such realities, something I’d very much like to do in my own research. Turning the book over to look at the blurb, I noted that this book started life as Barton’s thesis, something at once encouraging (a real book may come of a thesis on Shakespeare and the stage) and frightening (this thesis book was not only published in 1962, but then reissued into this Penguin Shakespeare Library edition five years later, presumably because of its popularity). Needless to say, I bought the slim volume for £3.75 (it was originally five shillings), eager to find out what Barton had to say, but also how she says it, given the similarity of our interests, if not of our time periods.

Barton’s approch is impressive. She divides the book into two halves, the first offering an insightful description of how plays from the thirteenth century to the mid-1500s speak about the nature of plays themselves. A lot of this section is to do with audiences, how they were first deeply implicated in the religious blend of drama and ceremony of medieval texts, before shifting to be represented by a ‘double’, the ‘Mankind’ or ‘Everyman’ of morality plays. The over-arching theme becomes the question of how the audience is excluded or included in the world of the play, with Elizabethan drama reaching the precarious equilibrium whereby the ‘play world’ excludes the audience at the same time as recognising its presence. A typical paragraph from this half of the book, stunning in the breadth of knowledge that must underwrite all such apparently simple description, merits quotation.

Half ceremonial, half drama, the guild plays which developed outside the Church were poised precariously between ritual and art. The people who crowded about the pageant on the feast of Corpus Christi formed an audience, certainly, but an audience actively involved in the performance of a community rite, a re-accomplishment of sacred history. By the fifteenth century, the special demands of the Morality form had produced an alteration in this relationship of actors and audience. The audience now depended upon a double, in the form of the central character for its part in the action. It was granted a second role as well, that of enlightened Mankind, which permitted it a greater measure of distance from the events of the play. Gradually, the spectators assumed possession of reality, while the world of the stage dwindled. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the tradition of the audience as actor became more a hindrance than an asset.

Once she has brought the narrative up to the dawn of Shakespeare’s time, Barton closes the first half and devotes the rest of the book to a close reading of Shakespeare’s use of ‘the idea of the play’. This remains more or less chronological, allowing her to trace Shakespeare’s artistic debts and innovations, as well as his development. Beginning with the early comedies, she then analyses the motif of the ‘player king’ (very much a Shakespearean innovation, albeit connected to such ancient tropes as the ‘May King’) before tackling Hamlet and Julius Caesar as the apogee of Shakespeare’s confidence in the power of the stage. Next she identifies a decline in such confidence, with unflattering portraits of players and audiences in Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and more. This then gives way to a new approach in the ‘romances’, particularly The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, where illusion tends to become reality: Perdita, for example, plays the role of a queen at the shepherds’ festivities, only to be discovered an actual princess a few scenes later. This point about the ‘romances’ is very similar to one made by Barton at greater length in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, which I discovered as an undergraduate.

The final few pages describe the way in which Shakespeare’s late plays break down the barriers and subterranean connections between stage and reality, notably in Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended” speech. This sweeping away leads directly into the Jacobean fondness for masques, whose involvement of audience and actors in a mix of drama and ceremony brings us almost full circle, back to a secular version of the medieval plays Barton began with. Such a relation between plays and reality destroys the fragile and productive equilibrium of Shakespeare’s stage, meaning that this aspect of the golden age of British play-writing, even before the closure of the theatres in 1642, was “gone beyond recall”.

What did I learn from Barton’s methods? First, that despite the title’s emphasis on ‘Shakespeare’, she is not shackled to the bard, and her book is all the better for being about more than just William. In my own work, I should also be prepared to dive into the prehistory of each area before examining Shakespeare’s place within it: the French sources of English acting manuals, or the methods of classical scholarship that informed the editing of Shakespeare.

The book in question, Anne Barton being Anne Righter before marriage.

Second, the organisation of this book in chronological order, paired with a division into two parts, each with their own chapters and sub-chapters, makes this text very easy to read, with a clear sense of one’s position in the argument. Part 1, Chapter 1, Sub-section 3 is on early drama, specifically mystery cycles and morality plays, and even more specifically on the ‘tyranny of the audience’ over how things could be represented. Such organisation is again testament to Barton’s formidable command of her material, but also an awareness of the needs of an academic reader of any level. If I can, I would like to bring some chronological organisation to my work, although (given my current skeleton) this will be at a chapter and not at a thesis-wide level. Similarly, I will certainly need to break chapters down into subsections, not just for my own sanity but also to provide a logical and clear map to any reader.

Last, but not least, I enjoyed Barton’s willingness to let the texts speak for themselves. She quotes a great deal, and lets what she means by ‘the idea of the play’ emerge naturally as something multifarious and constantly evolving. In part, this is because other elements of her study are very clearly defined: she sticks closely to theatrical texts, with only brief sallies into Plato, Francis Bacon and other prose thinkers. In the Shakespeare section, she focuses all her attention on the text, avoiding discussion of staging or other theatrical conventions unless they are built into what Shakespeare wrote. There is nothing here on collaboration, for example. I suppose the lesson here involves what one must sacrifice to get a coherent narrative, the importance of something stable (i.e. the focus on the playtext) in the telling of a complex narrative. As things stand with my thesis, I suspect that I still have too many moving parts: potential simplifications could involve the concentration on the figure of the ‘Shakespearean Actor’, removing anything on ‘dramatic illusion’ unless directly relevant.

As well as all this thought about the ‘how’ of Barton’s book, I also picked up some useful ‘what’. I’ll summarise it here in a few bullet-point observations with no particular order:

  1. The eighteenth-century interest in the connection between actor and dramatist (Garrick being seen as Shakespeare’s double) pulls against what Barton identifies as a tendency in Elizabethan drama to connect dramatist and audience. That said, Prospero is both actor in and dramatist of his own world, proving Shakespeare’s own evolution.
  2. Shakespeare was very unusual amongst his contemporaries for rarely including references to contemporary theatrical conditions. I guess this made him “not for an age, but for all time”…
  3. Many of the plays Elizabeth Montague discusses in her Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare are grouped by Barton as evidence of Shakespeare’s most unique responses to the idea of the play: the player king in the histories, Brutus and Cassius’ descriptions of themselves as actors, and Hamlet’s use of illusion as a weapon.

Points one and three fit into a chapter on dramatic illusion, while point two doesn’t yet have a home unless it be the introduction. Whether I use the material or not, Barton’s book has already taught me a lot.


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