Category Archives: Teaching

The Lion

One reason why this blog has become a bit less regular of late is that I am supervising this term. That said, supervising students this term is also one reason for me to discover and rediscover a lot of new material for this blog. Hence this post, which is born out of a little seminar I did on Addison’s contributions to The Spectator. As undergraduates here in Cambridge are all absurdly busy, I felt that I could only set nine essays, eventually settling on numbers 1 (Mr Spectator), 9 (Clubs), 13 (The Lion), 16 (Charging whole armies only), 19 (The Envious Man), 25 (Letter from a Valetudinarian), 57 (Political Zeal in Women), and 93 (Filling the Empty Spaces of Life). There are some big holes here, notably the sequence on the ‘Pleasures of the Imagination’ (numbers 411-421), so do feel free to post comments on any of your favourites I also left out. I’m sure there’s much I’m still to find.

A real stage lion, uploaded by a brave Flickr user.
This post, as its title indicates, is about Spectator number 13, published Thursday 15th March, 1711 with the epigraph from Martial: “Dic mihi si fueras tu Leo qualis eris?” – ‘Tell me, if you were a lion what kind would you be?’ The article tells the story behind a scene in the opera L’Idapse fedele which had come to fascinate the town by portraying a battle between the work’s hero and a lion. Despite the (no doubt profitable) rumours, the performer Mr Nicolini was not going toe-to-toe with a real lion, but rather someone in a lion’s outfit. Mr Spectator then relates that three different people played the lion. First, a “candle-snuffer, who being a fellow of a testy, cholerick temper over-did his part, and would not suffer himself to be killed so easily as he ought to have done.” Unsurprisingly, this man was soon replaced with a tailor, who “was too sheepish”, and even if “he once gave [his adversary] a rip in his flesh-coloured doublet, … this was only to make work for himself in his private character of tailor.” The final lion is a “country gentleman” who, completely disinterested, “indulges an innocent pleasure” by participating in the opera and has “drawn greater audiences than have been known in the memory of man.”

There’s much to comment on in this article about the stage-lion, not least the emphasis that it, like many Spectator essays, puts on the benefits of disinterestedness. What I want to pick out, though, is the peculiar belief that the character or temper of these actors becomes evident when they play the part of the lion. Surely the tailor could have made more of an effort, the gentleman grown frustrated or the candle-snuffer controlled himself. But they don’t, nor is it suggested that they might. Rather, each of the three men performs according to their own temperament, and so playing the role of the lion allows the clear-eyed Mr Spectator an opportunity to observe the nature of each man’s emotional constitution. This leads to a larger point. If actors act according to their own character (what this story, and much other writing from the period implies), then putting on a role is not so much a disguise as a moment of revealing what you are like. The country gentleman does not stop being gentlemanly as a lion, and indeed his gentlemanly disinterestedness shines through all the more when he is on the stage and concerned with doing simply what is right for the performance.

The idea that playing a role reveals something about who you are is not too counter-logical once you start to question the limits of dramatic illusion in the wider experience of the theatre. After all, our instincts tend to lead us this way anyway. I was shocked to learn, many years ago, that David Tennant was Scottish, having only seen him perform roles in RP; and Matt Damon’s performance as an anxious father in Contagion made me question what his other action-hero parts had given me as a mental image of his ‘real’ character. But all this confusion between an actor’s ‘public face’ (the aggregate of all their roles and other appearances in the public eye) and their ‘private face’ (how they are amongst intimates) is a bit beyond the scope of Addison’s essay, which is making the simpler claim that any actor who acts on feeling must necessarily reveal some of that feeling on the stage.

There’s no clear modern parallel to that. I like to think, though, that an actor, late in his or her career might relish the opportunity to look back over all the roles they’ve played and trace amongst the vagaries of casting decisions the contours of their changing self. To quote T.S. Eliot, some might even realise that:

I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…

Marian Hobson-Jeanneret and My Thesis

The first page of the book in question.
The first page of the book in question.

Following on from my post on Anne Barton (née Righter), this post is dedicated to Marian Hobson-Jeanneret (née Hobson), and, more particularly, her book The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France, published in 1982. Like Barton’s Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play, this book grew out of Hobson-Jeanneret’s thesis, so I’ll also be trying to work out, as I write, what I can learn from it for my thesis. For the most part, these will be different conclusions from those drawn the last time I did this, as this book is – for want of a better word – much more ‘theoretical’ than Barton’s.

The book’s aim is a large one: to trace the development of theories of illusion in eighteenth-century France across four major domains, the novel, the theatre, poetry and music. Needless to say, the breadth of knowledge demonstrated by such a book is breathtaking: the book’s bibliography exceeds thirty pages of very small print, and the index contains pretty much anyone you could think of as relevant to this topic. At the same time as being wide-ranging, however, Hobson-Jeanneret is also focussed on the topic of illusion, and manages, by the end of the text, to give a convincing account of how this concept evolved, just as Barton, by focussing on ‘the idea of the play’ is at once wide-ranging and specifically deep.

The introduction to The Object of Art contains a table, laying out some of the conceptual framework Hobson-Jeanneret has created for the discussion of illusion. I’ll reproduce it here:

S1: simulation
making itself like something which is not there
A1: seeming
the work seems (to be) (like) – it is not really
Contrary of Adequatio
S2: dissimulation
hides itself by some diversionary behaviour
Contrary of Aletheia
A2: appearing
shows itself, and points to something beyond

This framework, elaborated with the help of Gombrich, Hamon, Derrida and Plato, demands study. I can only get a grip on it by setting one side against the other: S1 vs A1 shows the importance of “it is not really”, and S2 vs A2 the importance of a direct relation to aletheia. The important S1 vs A2 (adequatio vs aletheia) distinction is explained by Hobson-Jeanneret as follows: “our attention is relayed by the appearance towards what is pointed at” in aletheia, while “adequatio, on the contrary, seeks a replica, a simulation, it excludes what is not truth, it presents the alternatives”. Such distinctions, and other new concepts introduced here (like papillotage), become clearer as the book dives into the worlds of writing around novels, plays, music and poetry, but this way of beginning a book is, I find, quite remarkable. It asks a lot of the reader, but does provide the tools the reader will learn to use better as they go on with the text. On top of this, such an interpretative grid, established before really entering into the eighteenth-century material, claims the potential for being extracted and used in other debates over ‘illusion’. Ultimately, therefore, as well as having a broad corpus of texts, Hobson-Jeanneret’s tight focus on illusion is, from the outset, itself aiming at broader applications.

With regard to my own work, I don’t know whether such a thing would be possible. At the moment, I don’t really have a single concept open to such anatomisation as Hobson-Jeanneret performs. I suppose I could obtain one by taking the concept of ‘performance’ and then breaking down the various ways of understanding it in the period, ranging from the ‘execution’ of a task to the mere appearance of doing something (doing it / feeling as though you’re doing it // not doing it / not feeling it). I suspect that if I took this road, the concept of ‘performance’ would become the limiting factor, the tight focus of my thesis, and so replace Shakespeare’s reception. Studying the concept of ‘performance’ in the eighteenth-century reception of Shakespeare would only provide me with a body of texts both too small and too unrepresentative to work with.

I’ve just been using The Object of Art to help me prepare my paper for Yale. Upon returning to the book, I noticed a few other things about the way it is written that might come in handy for my own work. The first of these is the density of Hobson-Jeanneret’s text, which is not so much the result of her style, but rather the sheer inter-connectedness of her way of writing. Individual points are hard to extract as each point grows out of another. This means that she is very hard to argue against, as each point justifies and is justified by another, with the whole ensemble serving as the foundation for her choice of subject. If I can get anywhere near such interrelation with my own writing, I will be very happy indeed. To be more precise, though, what is specifically striking is not so much the creation of a network, with lots of cross-references (although this is also present), but rather the linear way each point leads to the next, and this new topic then drives us forward into another. To be able to do this demands more than a grasp of a wide range of material, but a powerful logical approach to them as well.

My second main observation, and the last I will detail in this post, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s flair for neat and memorable expression. The chapter on plays (in the section on illusion and the theatre) concludes with a memorable use of the word ‘ogle’ in the summary of how perceptions of what plays should be evolved (from aletheia to adequatio, as defined above):

Conventional tragedy refers away from what it is: it ogles a meaning which is not within it; like certain scurrilous novels it is often à clé; it clearly accepts theatrical convention and sharpens it to an extreme of artificiality; its defenders use the theory of voluntary illusion. The reform of drama, on the contrary, tries to make meaning and play coincide: signs are to be eliminated in favour of the thing signified.

Another example, and one I’m currently quoting in a draft of the NEASECS 2013 paper, is Hobson-Jeanneret’s description of Garrick’s role in Diderot’s thought about the theatre:

Just as Chardin’s [i.e. a painter’s] work and talk may have forced Diderot to recognise the role of technique in creation, so it is round the figure of Garrick that the recognition that the art object is imaginary crystallises

Overall then, whether it encourages me to think of my research in more abstract terms, or provides an example of powerful and memorable argumentation, The Object of Art has been pretty useful for my thesis. This is, of course, without even really mentioning the many detailed and clear observations it makes on eighteenth-century material that have been extremely useful for my general understanding of this area. I suspect that I may have portrayed Hobson-Jeanneret as too theoretical here, and so it’s important to note in this final sentence that, like all good concept-heavy approaches, this one also has deep textual roots.

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.

Diderot and Shakespeare’s Performability

This is the text of a five-minute presentation I recently gave as a training exercise at Cambridge. Since it was for a non-specialist audience, and had to be kept both short and clear, I thought it would make a great blog post. Enjoy.


Two observations. The performances of the eighteenth-century actor David Garrick were praised as a “commentary” on Shakespeare’s playtext; however, thirty years after Garrick’s retirement, romantic critics such as Hazlitt and Lamb wrote that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”.

Today, I’m going to offer an explanation for this reversal, which might also further our understanding about the relative strength of categories like ‘drama’ and ‘poetry’ at the end of the eighteenth century.

This work is drawn from one chapter of my PhD. In this short version, I will begin with a sketch of eighteenth-century writing about Shakespeare in performance, then show how the ideas Denis Diderot and James Boswell had about acting offer a connection to romantic claims about Shakespeare’s ‘unperformability’, concluding that Hazlitt and Lamb’s claims actually have clear roots in the French and English Enlightenment thought they appear to repudiate.

1. Shakespeare in and of the theatre

Shakespeare was frequently performed on the stages of eighteenth-century London. Because of this, and because of his availability in print, works that discuss the theatre from this period frequently use Shakespeare’s works and hypotheses about the writer himself to support their arguments. However, in so doing, they also paint a specific portrait of Shakespeare, one inextricable from the workings of the theatre. They do this in the following ways:

  •  By using quotations from Shakespeare to illustrate points of acting technique. An actor must “stiffen the sinews” to show anger (just as Shakespeare wrote in Henry V); or show the dignity that Shakespeare has Hamlet find in a portrait of his dead father.
  •  By imagining Shakespeare’s own involvement with the theatre, either as an actor, playing the ghost of Old Hamlet, or as a master of theatrical effect, as shown by the stage directions to The Tempest.
  •  By reproducing or subverting the link Garrick claimed between himself and Shakespeare. This is done positively, for example, in paintings showing Garrick wrapping a brotherly arm around a statue of Shakespeare; on the other hand, one also finds imaginative accounts of Garrick in the underworld, listening to Shakespeare condemn his acting skills.

Overall, through quotation, re-imagination and the influence of Garrick … the understanding of Shakespeare as an author, as well as the study of his works, appears deeply connected to the theatre in the eighteenth century.

2. New theories of acting

Denis Diderot (1713-1784)

Because of the connection between Shakespeare and the stage, it is reasonable to presume that new ways of thinking about acting might have a bearing on new ways of thinking about Shakespeare. The largest debate about performance in this period involved the question of whether actors feel what they are acting whilst they are acting it: does Garrick, for example, feel sadness when he plays a grieving King Lear? For the most part, the answer to this is yes; moreover, Shakespeare is himself imagined as having the same delicacy of feeling, something which only becomes fully apparent in performance of his works. In the face of this orthodoxy, two writers, James Boswell in England and Denis Diderot in France, argue that the actor takes some distance from his emotions when he is performing. This, I believe, impacts ways of thinking about Shakespeare.

  • Boswell, in 1770, argued that the actor has ‘two chambers’ in his head, one which is filled with all the emotion of the role, and one ‘inner chamber’ which remains cold and calculating, directing the performer’s movements according to a prepared script.
  • Diderot, at around the same time, argued that the actor feels nothing when acting but rather, prior to performance, has imagined the entirety of their role. When acting, the performer then attempts to correspond to the ideal image of the part that they have in their head.
James Boswell (1740-1795)
James Boswell (1740-1795)

What is striking about both these theories is that they displace the work of the performer from the stage to the period of preparation before going in front of an audience. This is crucial, because it means that ideas originally articulated with relation to what happens on stage can now be applied in all sorts of different arenas: to barristers (for Boswell), to prostitutes (for Diderot), and, more generally, to authors such as Shakespeare, who can have a dramatic genius but be separate from the stage. Shakespeare can be ‘unperformable’ and yet retain something of the actor, because, in the eyes of Diderot and Boswell, the real work of the actor occurs prior to the performance.


We have now seen how eighteenth-century claims about the importance of the theatre to understanding Shakespeare give rise to Lamb and Hazlitt’s claims that Shakespeare’s works were “impossible to perform”. This shift is facilitated by a new wave of acting theory that detaches the actor’s work from the stage, instead placing the emphasis on the actor’s preparation, preparation which can serve as a model for poetic creation.