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Casting Shakespeare's Plays: London Actors and Their Roles.

This is a piece of "old" historicism, valuable for showing how the plays worked in their times, and therefore a very useful addition to the work of Dessen, Gurr, Orrell, Knudson, McMillin and the many others who look at how the surviving documents relate to the ongoing energy known as a play, as opposed to the fascinating but irrelevant intertextual linkages teased out by the "new" historicists.

King uses such materials as the lists of actors from Jonson's Workes, the plot of The Battle of Alcazar, prompt books, places in the old scripts where actors are named instead of roles, the title page of the 1623 Duchess of Malfi, which includes the casts of two productions (Taylor replaces Burbage, after the latter's death in 1619) and many other pre-Restoration documents. The scholarship is meticulous and the results absolutely convincing.

King's conclusions are that fourteen actors - ten men and four boys - could handle all of the principal parts in any play of the period 1580-1650. A principal part consists of 25 or more lines for the men, 10 or more lines for the boys. These actors would account for about 95% of the lines and thus could rehearse before others had to be added to the company, presumably just before the play opened. The others would be playhouse personnel - gatherers, for example - or hired actors. The boys would play only women, or boys, and, in time, would graduate to adult roles, like that of Sebastian in Twelfth Night, a logical "transitional" role on the way to adult parts. Some actors may have been "type cast," but King shows that Taylor and John Lowin played a variety of roles - from hero to villain, as obviously Burbage had done - a fact that helps account for the richness of Shakespeare's characterization and the variety of his characters. He knew that his actors were versatile.

King's book will prove most useful, I think, on the issue of doubling. Principal actors seldom doubled, he proves on the basis of existing evidence. That finding flies in the face of some famous modern choices, like having Theseus and Hippolyta double as Oberon and Titania, as in Brook, 1970 (Alan Howard and Sara Kestelman) or Caird (John Carlisle and Claire Higgins), a doubling that violates, among other things, "the law of re-entry." King suggests that even minor actors who doubled many roles usually had a scene off-stage in which to change costumes and any "actor who doubles in principal parts is off-stage for an interval of at least one full scene between roles" (29). King includes tables of principal and doubled parts for each of Shakespeare's scripts (quartos and Folio), saying that his suggestions about doubling represent "only one set of possibilities for doubling for each play" (20, his emphasis).

King, for example, suggests a doubling for Polonius and First Gravedigger ("Clowne"), one we often see, as in Robert Chetwyn's 1971 production, where James Cairncross took both roles. King also suggests the doubling of Laertes and Player King, roles Tim Pigott-Smith filled in that production, along with Second Gravedigger. King's suggestions, however, would not rule out one of the most exciting doublings I have seen recently, that of Russell Enoch as Ghost and Player King in Ron Daniels' 1989 RSC production. In "Gonzago," Hamlet was seeing his father again and Claudius was unexpectedly encountering his brother, not just an actor playing Gonzago. King suggests a neat thematic contrast that could result from the doubling of Cambridge and Erpingham in Henry V. Terry Hands achieved remarkable resonance in his 1975 production when he doubled Scroop and Williams (Charles Dance) and Gray and Bates (Arthur Whybrow). Barrie Rutter doubled Cambridge and MacMorris in that production. Other useful suggestions include Mardian and Seleucus, Bleeding Captain and First Murderer, Sly and Pedant (F, of course, which does not return to frame), and Bagot and Groom.

King's findings, however, restrain him from doubling Boy and French Queen in Henry V or Weird Sister with Gentlewoman in Macbeth. Apparently they have too many lines, even though no re-entry is violated, as it would be were Lady Macduff to double with a Witch, Boy with Katherine in Henry V, or Jaquenetta with any of the French Ladies. One problem, then, is that some of the plays would have required six boys - Love's Labour's Lost and Richard III, for example. Lady Anne and Prince Edward cannot be doubled, as in the current Sam Mendes production, it seems, because they are "principals." Macbeth, by King's count, would require eight boys. The law of re-entry and the fact that boys did not assume adult roles until they were ready prevent the doubling of Three Sisters and Three Murderers, a scheme I have always entertained but have never seen done. I would also like to see the doubling of Hermione and Time sometime.

This is a book which offers plenty of creative possibilities for those of us who believe that Shakespeare wrote plays. The charts alone will provide a lot of enjoyment, and one seldom can say that about a scholarly book.

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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Coursen, H.R.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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