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Stages of Play: Shakespeare's Theatrical Energies in Elizabethan Performance.

Stages of Play: Shakespeare's Theatrical Energies in Elizabethan Performance. By MICHAEL W. SHURGOT. Cranbury NJ: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses. 1998. 268 pp. 35 [pounds sterling].

Michael W. Shurgot's Stages of Play sets out to 'examine how the theatrical energies of several Shakespearean plays would have provoked spectators' responses in Elizabethan productions', which, the author admits in his introduction, is an 'extremely risky' venture (p. 13). The book discusses eight plays: The Taming of the Shrew, Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet as scripts that have been designed for the particular theatrical settings of the Theatre and the Globe. Shurgot rightly argues that in Shakespeare's imaginative conception of his plays 'the actual physical shape of the stage in his playhouses, and the actor-audience relationships that this stage created, became increasingly important to his dramaturgy' (p. 15), and that his long association with a stable company, working with actors he knew well in a theatre whose 'physical properties and staging possibilities he must have assimilated thoroughly' is of great importance in his development as a dramatist (p. 19).

Among the staging possibilities the theatre spaces offered to the playing of certain scenes, Shurgot places what he calls the final 'play' of Kate and Petruchio on the Theatre's downstage, unlocalized platea, to argue that this blocking ignites 'the spectators' cooperative insight into their ironic slam at the upstage locus of patriarchical authority', and suggests that possibly the couple leaves the stage through the central doors, to support his reading of their joint condemnation of the 'patriarchical society' (p. 56). Shurgot's reference to the power of a platea position to gain audience sympathy is well judged. This is certainly one way of blocking the scene, as would be an initial placing of Kate downstage centre, right or left, closest to a large part of the audience, facing Petruchio and the guests who are positioned in the upstage locus position before the frons. This would offer a very different reading of the scene and, it might be argued, provides as valid an example of 'Shakespeare's use of the actual physical shape of the stage in his playhouses' as the one Shurgot suggests.

The staging suggestions in the essays are well worth considering: other chapters provide staging possibilities for scenes in Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1 Henry IV, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida, but Shurgot might have strengthened his case by offering a wider range of blocking possibilities for each scene or passage under discussion, to take into account the interpretative possibilities the space affords. The reconstruction of an open amphitheatre with thrust stage on Bankside has begun to demonstrate how an actor's position on stage can make dramaturgical meaning in some unexpected ways. Flexibility of blocking and its implications for interpretative choices will have much to tell us about early modern staging.

Shurgot's chapter on The Merchant of Venice offers a detailed and helpful example of the ways in which the blocking of certain characters can create specific impact through different acts. For example, he suggests that in III.1 Shylock stands downstage left where he quarrelled with Antonio in I.3, and where he stood while ordering his deceiving daughter to lock up his house in II.5 (p. 88). Shurgot rightly, I think, argues that the trial scene would have been 'carefully rehearsed and staged so as to elicit maximum dramatic meaning on the Theatre's thrust stage', and suggests that the Duke and his train would be placed in the upstage locus, Antonio stage right, with Shylock downstage left as in I.3 (pp. 92-93), walking upstage left to exit (p. 98).

Shurgot's suggested staging of the 'Mousetrap' at the Globe places Hamlet not downstage near the stagepost but further upstage or stage right, so that he is close to the thrones of Gertrude and Claudius, which are placed upstage centre. Horatio is placed very far down on stage left, near to the front of the stage and furthest from the thrones (p. 203). Shurgot argues that Styan's blocking, placing Hamlet and Horatio downstage nearly opposite and parallel to each other 'obscures the significant differences in their emotional states and how these differences will be demonstrated during the ensuing moments' (p. 204). Shurgot argues that no one 'place' on stage is finally authoritative, and no one 'place' for the Globe spectators 'would have yielded an authoritative view' (p. 211). However, while there may not be one place that will offer a single position of authority on an early modern stage configuration, certain blocking strategies at certain moments can give specific significance to one character rather than another, can qualify and even undermine the authority of a character who is placed in the 'authority' position. The 'hot spots' at the corners of the stage in front of the pillars can be powerful positions with which a character can get the spectators (even at the sides of the stage) on his or her 'side'. The 'balance of power' then depends on who is speaking and what is being said. Whoever stands (or even sits on a royal throne) in the upstage locus position may need to exert considerable power to maintain an authority position when the other character stands facing towards the frons surrounded by the audience. Placing Hamlet upstage close to the royal authority of the thrones for the 'Mousetrap' is a way of emphasizing the differences between him and his friend, if that is the prime objective of the staging of the scene. If you are more concerned with the staging possibilities of enabling most of your spectators to watch Hamlet watching Claudius, then you would probably choose one of the corner 'hot spots' or centre downstage for the Prince. Shurgot is right to stress the importance of the theatrical settings for Shakespeare's plays but we need also to bear in mind that the physical characteristics of the playhouses offered possibly unlimited and often conflicting interpretative choices.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Kiernan, Pauline
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000
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