Alan C. Dessen. Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xiv + 283 pp.
Review by,
W.L. Godshalk
University of Cincinnati

Godshalk, W. L. "Review of Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary. Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 9.1-9 <URL:

  1. In this study of Renaissance English acting and staging, Dessen sets out to explore three major questions: First, to what staging and to what theatrical business were Renaissance playgoers reacting and responding? Second, how can a twentieth century interpreter know what a Renaissance auditor was responding to? Third and finally, what difference would such information make in twentieth century interpretations of Renaissance plays? Using the metaphor of language, Dessen sees the theatrical strategy and techniques of Shakespeare's time as analogous to nouns, verbs and prepositions that are "alien to our literary and theatrical ways of thinking today and hence likely to be blurred or filtered out by editors, readers, and theatrical professionals." The evidence that has survived may seem anomalous or inaccurate to us, and thus Shakespeare's "theatrical vocabulary" may be changed or even ignored in our editions. At Shakespeare's Globe, the playwright, players, and playgoers would have shared this theatrical vocabulary, and when we read any early printed playtext, we enter into the middle of a conversation, which we only partly understand, between the playwright and the actors, a conversation that was completed in a performance no longer recoverable, and of which there is little evidence about technique or style.

  2. Since we lack knowledge of the process that moved a production from script to performance, Dessen is forced to accept the extant playtexts as useable primary evidence about theatrical vocabulary. Such an acceptance is fraught with pitfalls, and Dessen acknowledges the possibility that some anomalies may be compositorial rather than authorial. Nevertheless, he holds fast to the concept of "authorial agency." The fact that many playwrights, working for various theatres over five or six decades, appear to be using the same theatrical language, strikes Dessen as important. Dessen's goal is to present "exemplary readings that can demonstrate the implications of [his] findings or hypotheses for any interpretation of a given play." Of course, his own "exemplary readings" are interpretations of the extant data, and he acknowledges that his tastes and assumptions--especially his "minimalism" and his emphasis on the playgoer's imagination in constructing the theatrical experience--have governed what he presents here. Nevertheless, he has examined "the stage directions in every English professional play from the 1400s through the early 1600s" (roughly 600 plays and manuscripts), "as well as a large batch of Restoration plays as a control group," and his generalizations are backed up by a host of illustrations from these scripts.

  3. Dessen examines a series of problems confronting the interpreter or editor of Renaissance plays: "lost or blurred [theatrical] signifiers"; the dictionary method of defining stage directions; theatrical juxtapositions, including entrances; sick chairs (i.e., an early version of the sedan chair, used to transport sick people) and sick thrones (i.e., a metaphor for monarchs who in one way or another are in political or ethical trouble); "theatrical italics"; the implications of "as," "as if," "as from," "as out of," "as in" in certain stage directions; the tomb at the end of Romeo and Juliet; the way place or locale was indicated; and the difference "between (1) onstage effects that would have been accepted as verisimilar by the original playgoers, and (2) . . . effects that would have been accepted as 'real' by figures onstage but . . . realized fully only by means of the imaginative participation of playgoers."

  4. Unlike Dessen, however, I am not convinced that "our post-Ibsen theatrical vocabulary" conditions the way in which we understand Renaissance theatrical practices. Those of us who came of age at mid-century, or are old enough to have grown up on radio drama, know that theatre can exist where there are only words spoken by an actor and the imagination of the auditor. Many of us first experienced live theatre as theatre-in-the-round where the proscenium arch is gone, scenery is nonexistent, and actors mingle with the audience; saw our first professional productions of Shakespeare's plays done without scenery; and welcomed the Absurdists who eschewed dramatic realism altogether. Dessen seems wrong to stress that editors, actors, and auditors in the second half of the twentieth century are held captive by theatrical realism. If anything, Dessen's own allegiance to minimalism is conditioned by the less restrictive, more imaginative, theatre of this period. Nevertheless, Dessen recurrently faults the "realist" editors, arguing that they are influenced by current ideas of dramatic reality. For example, in Twelfth Night and All's Well orders are given to call on stage a figure who immediately appears. "Today's editor may feel the need to allow two or more lines to accommodate "call him hither," but Shakespeare and his colleagues apparently could manage without such a hiatus." This crux is easily solved. The figure to be called "hither" is conveniently waiting at a door and need only to be gestured on to the stage. This is not a matter of "minimalism" versus "realism," but of acting economy.

  5. Turning to Dessen's discussion of theatrical juxtapositions, we may agree that early entrances have many dramatic uses. But since exits are often not marked in early editions, Dessen's discussion of "late exits" is problematic. As to overlapping images, Dessen supposes that "a potentially meaningful image may have been generated by leaving onstage a distinctive property," e.g., Caliban's wood pile. But this discussion seems especially weak since it relies so heavily on possibility and supposition.

  6. To locate "theatrical italics," we are directed to look for extreme moments that "do not fit "our" ways of thinking," with the assumption (perhaps unfounded) that these extreme moments did fit Renaissance modes of thought. However, if these moments did fit Renaissance ways of thought, would the moments have been italicized for a Renaissance auditor? Probably not. At the same time, since we do not have direct access to Renaissance modes of thinking, we must use twentieth century interpretations to understand these extreme moments. And, as far as I can see, Dessen uses precisely this procedure, bringing modern and/or postmodern thought to solve questions raised by Renaissance scripts.

  7. Dessen uses Richard Hosley's distinction between theatrical and fictional staging signals, theatrical signals referring to the staging of the play; fictional ones, to the play's narrative. For example, "Antiochus--ready: under the stage" is a theatrical signal; and "The King suddenly enters having determined what to do" is fictional. Dessen feels that fictional directions "often tell us little about what the playgoers saw." However, the director Ralph Cohen has suggested to me that this may not be the case. What Dessen takes to be "fictional" is, for Cohen, the playwright's instructing the actors as to what the audience should see, even if that seeing is in the mind's eye. So stage directions such as "The King suddenly enters having determined what to do" direct the actor to give the audience the impression that he has made up his mind.

  8. Defining the stage direction "enter with a halter," Dessen writes that it means "enter prepared to commit suicide" or "enter in an abject position as if to say "my life is in your hands"." He seems to forget the definition, "enter as to execution," which is the meaning of "Enter . . . with halters about their necks" in Ford's Perkin Warbeck (5.3.188). Similarly, Dessen questions why "tapers" rather than "torches" are used in the "monument" scene of Much Ado (5.3), arguing that tapers are used inside houses while torches are for outside, perhaps forgetting that in Sir Thomas More torches seem to be used for indoor lighting (see 3.2.38-41, 91; [Revels Edition] Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori, eds., Manchester: Manchester UP, 1990).

  9. But I quibble, this book is a rich and generous study, filled with important information for theatre historian and interpreter both. It is an excellent addition to the Dessen oeuvre which includes such important studies as Elizabethan Drama and the Viewer's Eye (1977), Elizabethan Stage Conventions and Modern Interpreters (1984), and Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays (1986). The present work is the fullest and most penetrating consideration of late Renaissance English stage directions and their theatrical implications, and it belongs in every college and university library, as well as on the shelf of anyone who seriously studies the drama of this period.
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(RGS, rev. 2 March 1998)