Small pricks to their subsequent volumes…

An “overview”, courtesy of a CC-BY-SA search on flickr.
My supervisor asked me to write an overview of my thesis as it currently stands. I thought it would be a useful text to post here, under a title drawn from a rambling speech by Nestor in Troilus and Cressida: “in such indexes, although small pricks / To their subsequent volumes, there is seen / The baby figure of the giant mass / Of things to come at large.”


Much has been written in recent years to show the centrality of the theatre to eighteenth-century society. Part of this work has included some exploration of its cultural impact. This thesis proposes, within this larger field of research, a reflection on the literary critical value of the idea of acting in the period. Such a reflection differs from other studies by bringing a great variety of different sources together, sources written both by people closely associated with the theatre of the period and by those violently opposed to it. The breadth of material is contained by maintaining a strong focus on Shakespeare’s connections to the idea of acting, since, as many have shown already, the eighteenth century is the period in which Shakespeare rose to cultural prominence as a national poet, a paradigm shift with no small ramifications for thinking about the stage. As well as exploring the literary critical value of the idea of acting, however, this thesis should also cast new light on Shakespeare’s position in eighteenth-century theatre culture. Although much work has been done on stage adaptation and the impact of particular actors (notably Garrick), it is rare indeed that Shakespeare’s reception in this period is considered with reference to a wider definition of theatrical discourse. Overall, therefore, I use Shakespeare to focus my enquiry into the literary critical value of the idea of acting in the period, and I use the idea of acting to broaden our current appreciation of Shakespeare’s eighteenth-century theatrical reception. The thesis will be divided into five chapters, each reflecting this double focus. They are: first, editors and actors; second, the art of acting; third, the theatrical illusion; fourth, stage practice; and fifth, the theatrical ambassador.

1. Editors and Actors

The aim of this chapter is to demonstrate the way Shakesepare’s major eighteenth-century editors – Rowe, Pope, Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, Johnson, Steevens, Capell, Reed and Malone – employ the idea of acting when preparing their editions. As this chapter aims to offer an overview of the reception of Shakespeare in the period, it will comment on each editor listed above, with a slight emphasis on Pope, Theobald and Johnson.
Rowe (1709-10): this edition of Shakespeare serves as a foundation for those that follow it. Written by a playwright, it bears many marks of the eighteenth-century stage, from the insertion of act and scene numbers to the stage-business depicted in its plates. On top of this, Rowe’s biography of Shakespeare depicts him as both player and author. While Rowe describes Shakespeare as a better writer than an actor, his mention of Shakespeare the actor creates a topos that both editors and other literary figures in the period respond to. Similarly, Rowe’s use of anecdotal evidence from Betterton and other performers also looks forward to later conjunctions between Shakespeare and performer, such as claims for Garrick’s privileged access to the mind of the national playwright made in the 1760s.
Pope (1725): in marked contrast to Rowe, Pope paints the stage in a very poor light indeed. His focus, admittedly, is the stage and performers of Shakespeare’s time, whom he makes carry the blame for many of the writer’s apparent errors. Such phrases as “interpolation of the players”, instituted by Pope, go on to become commonplaces of many later editors. The idea of acting used here (that of performance as generative of deviation from the author’s vision) is thus useful to Pope as a kind of guarantee to the editor’s authority: if any part of any text by Shakespeare could have been corrupted by an actor (as Pope makes it out to be), then any part of any text by Shakespeare must be scrutinised and potentially altered by an editor. In a way, the editor’s very authority depends upon the status of Shakespeare’s text as something acted.
Theobald (1733): this edition, while loudly correcting many of Pope’s errors, also makes interesting use of the idea of acting. On one hand, there is still some inherited hostility here, particularly as regards the “blunders” of Heminges and Condell when preparing the First Folio. On the other, Theobald occasionally demonstrates a remarkable sense of the imaginative possibilities performance offers. He claims, for instance, in his preface that Shakespeare’s “employment as a player gave him an advantage and habit of fancying himself the very character he meant to delineate”. Elsewhere, Theobald will occasionally justify emendation by imagining how the text would be performed by an actor, arguing for repunctuation in order to facilitate the clear vocal communication of emotion. This balanced approach towards players and player-editors is also perhaps the result of Theobald’s equal attention to the faults of “poet-editors” such as Pope and Rowe. While Pope builds his authority on the errors of players, Theobald employs a similar conceptual move to raise himself above the blunders of poets and players alike, up to a position from which to comment on Shakespeare.
– With Hanmer (1743), acting is conceived along very similar lines to Pope as a source of textual corruption. That said, the engravings to Hanmer’s edition (by Garrick’s friend Hayman) do still bear some traces of stage practice.
Warburton (1747) also follows Pope in his attitude towards actors and acting, although he gives by far the most strident and clearly delineated portrait of the actor. Always anonymised as ‘some actor’, these figures are importers of nonsense and smut, lacking in intelligence and learning, favour sound over sense, and, above all, possess with very little agency indeed. When Warburton comes to analyse the ‘Hecuba’ speech in Hamlet, he does so by thinking of the actor as someone who gives “nature its free workings on all occasions”, an extreme version of the dictum that the best actors were the most feeling (explored in chapter 2) that only confirms Warburton’s hostility.
Johnson (1765)’s preface is of use to me both for its thought on theatrical illusion (chapter 3) and for its ability to erase the need for performance to be taken into consideration. True, he repeats much of what Pope says about player-editors, but Johnson’s real innovation is an inversion of what I might call Theobald’s ‘theatrical imagination’, the capacity to use imagined performance as a guide to editing. Johnson inverts this when he writes, for example, a note about how “in Isabella’s declamation there is something harsh”: this is not to say that the actor playing Isabella should declaim harshly, but that the character herself declaims so. In this and other examples, there is no need for a performer: the play acts itself as it is read, and the actor has been forced from “scenes…occupied by men” (- “Shakespeare has no heroes, his scenes are occupied by men”)
To be continued…

2. Arts of Acting

This chapter argues that Shakespeare’s cultural prominence added a particularly English bent to arts of acting (many of them inspired by French models) written in the eighteenth century. Equally, such arts of acting were also places where the power of Shakespeare’s genius was articulated in new and surprising ways. If the general thrust of chapter one was anti-theatrical, this chapter will look at how such arts of acting use Shakespeare as part of a larger effort to raise the actor’s profile. On top of this, the ramifications of certain theories of acting (such as the belief that actors perform largely from instinct) will also lead us back to Shakespeare’s editors, and some of the assumptions about performance that underwrite their comments about the actor’s influence over the text. The crucial work for this chapter will be John Hill’s The Actor (in both its 1750 and 1755 editions), yet – as arts of acting have rarely been considered in terms of new thinking about Shakespeare’s literary genius – I shall also range more widely, beginning with Gildon’s Life of Betterton and going at least as far forward as Bowell’s articles on ‘The Profession of an Actor’ in the mid-1770s.

3. Theatrical illusion

Many arts of acting give the creation of a convincing theatrical illusion as the performer’s goal. At the same time, several critics of Shakespeare in this period, notably Elizabeth Montagu, argue that Shakesepare’s texts – because of the deep understanding of human nature that underlies his depiction of characters – produce uniquely powerful illusions for the audience. In the first part of this chapter, Montagu’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare will be read as a defence of what she called in her letters the ‘dramatic Shakespeare’ both (overtly) from Voltaire’s aspersions and (covertly) from Johnson’s sweeping claims about stage illusion, called “delusion” in the Preface. This analysis will then lead to a rereading of some of the more unusual writings on Shakespeare from the period, such as Morgann’s On the Dramatic Character of Falstaff and Richardson’s Essay on Shakespeare’s Dramatic Characters. While often taken as texts that sever the characters discussed from their theatrical context, I will show that Morgann and Richardson are both in fact highly concerned with the stage and that their writings represent the culmination of a belief in the power of Shakespeare to create characters that seem real when performed. As part of this, aspersions that Morgann in particular casts on actors who have played Falstaff badly will be connected back to current thinking about the art of acting in order to show that, although in error, the actor nevertheless should theoretically have a privileged position from which to understand Shakespeare’s characters.

4. Stage practice

Each preceding chapter has made some comment on stage practice: editors will often attribute incongruous lines to the accidental inclusion of prompters’ notes; arts of acting include advice on choosing costume as well as training sensibility; and Johnson’s attack on stage “delusion” draws much force from insisting on the physical limitations of performance. This chapter, based partly on the work of Tiffany Stern and Kalman Burnim, will ask to what extent the practical side of performance possessed elements of literary criticism. Can, for example, casting choices be used as an eighteenth-century interpretative framework for Shakespeare’s characters? Polonius, considered a buffoon, was, for instance, a part often given to the lead comic actor. The choices made in adapting Shakespeare will also be considered here, with particular emphasis on what they meant for actors: whether, for example, they were altered to give performers opportunities to demonstrate those skills recommended to them in arts of acting.

5. The theatrical ambassador

This final chapter will build upon the description of practical processes in chapter 4, by considering several moments where the actor played an important role in the transmission of Shakespeare to a non-anglophone audience. To do this, I will compare the experiences of Voltaire (watching English plays during his exile in Britain from 1726 to 1729), Diderot (present when Garrick performed vignettes from Shakespeare during his visits to Paris either side of the Seven Years’ War), and Ducis (who never saw Garrick perform, but both wrote to the actor and gazed at his portrait as he composed his adaptations of Shakespeare from 1769 to 1816). By comparing each of these situations, I intend to bring together the various threads of this thesis, arguing that, when looking through foreign eyes, the close connection between Shakespeare and the idea of acting unearthed in English culture of this period becomes evident. The writings of Diderot and Ducis, stretching as they do beyond the rough date range of my research will also permit me to sketch, by way of conclusion, the evolution of the idea of acting that occurs in the early nineteenth century. Ducis’s melodramatic versions of Hamlet and Macbeth represent French analogues of much of what romantic literary critics in England found distasteful in English productions of Shakespeare, while Diderot’s nuanced description of the cold actor executing a preconceived, ideal version of his part anticipates Hazlitt and Lamb’s emphasis on the ability for imagined performance to far outstrip anything an actor can do.

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