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Shakespeare by Stages: An Historical Introduction.

Shakespeare by Stages: An Historical Introduction. By ARTHUR F. KINNEY. Oxford: Blackwell. 2003. xii+180 pp. 50 [pounds sterling] (pbk 12.99 [pounds sterling]). ISBN 0-631-22468-8 (pbk 0-631-22469-6).

In the preface to Kinney's excellent book, the author claims to have at least two primary aims. Firstly, he underlines the collaborative nature of a playscript; Shakespeare's audience is invited to share imaginatively with the author's language and staging and similarly the author relies extensively on his actors' talents and skills. Secondly, Kinney examines how the conditions of playing and playgoing both inspired and restricted Shakespeare; the obvious limitations of the bare stage are off set by the actors' use of gesture and the way in which costumes signified meaning: not only the role of the characters wearing them, but their social class as well.

It is worth noting how, during the course of analysing the five selected areas--the stage, players, playgoers, equipment, and reactions--Kinney keeps to Shakespeare as his principal source of illustration, thus avoiding the temptation of other theatre historians, who often refer to relatively obscure Elizabethan or Jacobean plays simply because they happen to illustrate the point they are making. A further pleasing feature of the book's method of analysis is how Kinney concludes each chapter by concentrating on a single Shakespeare play, summarizing and illustrating the main conclusions to be drawn.

Kinney draws on the research already undertaken by such pioneering theatre historians as E. K. Chambers (The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923)), Alfred Harbage (Shakespeare's Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961)), and M. C. Bradbrook (Elizabethan Stage Conditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968)) and the more recent work of Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa (Staging in Shakespeare's Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)), J. L. Styan (Perspectives on Shakespeare in Performance (New York: Peter Lang, 2000)), and John D. Cox and David Kastan (eds.) (A New History of Early English Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997)). The author ties together the prevailing arguments to give the reader a cohesive and well documented account of the different aspects of a performance on Shakespeare's stage. What is particularly noteworthy is Kinney's sensitivity to the way in which the language of the plays is regularly reinforced by visual representations in the staging. One of many examples cited is how Lady Macbeth's increasing isolation in the second half of the play could be visually demonstrated by her exit through a different door from that used by Macbeth himself; her isolation is further reinforced by her physical separation from the doctor and the gentlewoman in v. 1.

Occasionally, one might quibble with some of the details in the proposed staging. For example, the suggestion that signs were used to establish the setting on a bare stage is without foundation; they may have been used in Olivier's film version of Henry V, but to my knowledge no theatre historian has come up with evidence to substantiate such a proposal. Similarly, to have Fortinbras in Hamlet entering with his army across the upper stage would be almost totally impractical, because of its confined space; Kinney's proposal is presumably based on the stage direction 'over the stage' in Q2, but this is not confirmed by either Q1 or the Folio and would seem to be contradicted in the performance of that scene when the Captain of the army stays to converse with Hamlet. Other areas of discussion which are only touched upon, yet might have been followed through in more detail, are the changes in theatre practice in the twenty to thirty years of Shakespeare's career--how the later theatres, for instance, created more opportunities for more sophisticated spectacle, which is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare's late romances.

But such details aside, it is still an excellent analysis and should prove an invaluable introduction to undergraduates wishing to learn more about Shakespeare's stage.


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Author:Olive, David
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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