Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles





Performances at Court in the Age of Shakespeare


Edited by Sophie Chiari and John Mucciolo


Cambridge: University Press, 2019

Hardcover. xvi + 278 pages. ISBN 978-1108486675. £75


Reviewed by Louise Fang

Paris : Université Sorbonne Paris Nord





Performances at Court in the Age of Shakespeare is an engaging volume which reassesses the centrality of court performances following recent developments in the field brought by the works of John H. Astington, Richard Dutton and W.R. Streitberger, who have also contributed to the present collection. Such performances have, until now, attracted less critical attention than commercial theatres of the same period, with the exception of court masques. The four sections of the volume provide valuable insight into the specificities of these court revels as well as the interdependence of courtly and public entertainments in early modern England.

The opening chapters deal with the political and economic aspects of representations at the Elizabethan court. Richard Dutton discusses the 1566 performance of Richard Edwards’s now lost play Palamon and Arcite which took place in the queen’s presence. By confronting three sources which amply describe this event, this study highlights the political dimension such a performance could be endowed with in a courtly context.

The following chapter, by W.R. Streitberger, draws attention to the financial and aesthetic issues at work in the organisation of Elizabethan court revels and explores the reasons that may account for the increasing use of professional companies which gradually superseded the Queen’s Player, and ultimately led to the rise of a theatrical ‘triopoly’ [50] comprised of the King’s Men, the Prince’s Men and Queen Anne’s Men at the Jacobean court.

Roy Eriksen’s contribution asks whether Doctor Faustus – which has until now mainly been studied as a popular commercial play – could have been intended for a court performance in the wake of the anti-Spanish atmosphere of the late 16th century. This reading brings to light echoes and parallels, in the B-text in particular, to contemporary international tensions that might have been ideally suited to a courtly context.

In the next chapter, Janna Segal argues that the mechanicals’ scene at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be read as a critique of the anxieties voiced by antitheatricalists. The study underlines how the courtly patronage the mechanicals benefit from in the last scene of the play is imitative of the theatrical practices of the Elizabethan court and could also constitute a rebuttal to antitheatricalists.

The second part of the volume turns to Jacobean performances and offers new readings of Shakespeare’s plays in light of this specific context. Murat Ögütcü’s studies Henry V’s performance at court during the 1604-1605 season. As the only history play to have been represented at the Jacobean court it may have been part of James I’s diplomatic agenda and designed to gain the support of the nobility through its representation of idealised masculinity.

Jason Lawrence takes a closer look at two other plays by Shakespeare that were also performed at the Jacobean court in 1604: Othello and Measure for Measure. This contribution suggests that plays may have been premiered at court even after very few prior performances on the commercial stage. Othello’s status as a Jacobean play in particular has often been overlooked even though, as Jason Lawrence argues, some of the additions in the play may have been made in order to please the king. Measure for Measure’s performance too seems to suggest that ‘the playwright was actively seeking to engage with royal concerns’ [103].

In the following chapter, David M. Bergeron discusses the way primary sources are used and interpreted through the example of a 1619 letter by Gerrard Herbert about the performance of Pericles in Whitehall that same year. The way the information contained in this primary source was handed down through the centuries through transcriptions and summaries has led to many approximations or, sometimes, mistakes about performances at court. The author therefore proposes his own transcription of the text to verify past assumptions about this specific staging of Pericles.

In chapter 8, Catherine Clifford examines the architectural setting of All is True and its meaning for a court audience. She underlines the symbolic significance of historic places mentioned in plays such as the Tower of London which acts as a ‘memory palace’ [122] and shows how such spaces trigger a dialogue between the audience and its collective remembrance of history, especially as James I was at the time leading his own architectural transformations in order to better symbolise his break from previous Tudor rule.

The third part of this collection provides new thought-provoking perspectives on the Stuart masque. In the opening chapter, Anne Daye argues that dancing was the defining feature of the masque as an ‘elaboration of the court ball’ [138] and shows how its expansion during James’s reign ultimately served the new political regime. Dancing was also instrumental in diplomatic relations with foreign countries as it could serve as ‘an important means of international communication’ [149].

In a comparative study of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Jonson’s The Fortunate Isles, the last masque staged in James I’s reign, Martin Butler discusses the relation of both texts to one another as well as their engagement with the wider courtly festive culture. This analysis leads him to wonder whether Shakespeare’s use of the masque in his play may express a certain ‘scepticism about the form’ [160] itself.

In the next chapter, Leeds Barroll asserts the essentially multi-dimensional nature of courtly masques in reaction to the prevalent view of these performances as literary objects. This literary dimension – which is not as present in French livrets for instance – is, he argues, the result of a conscious strategy of authors who, like Jonson, sought to include masques in their literary canon.

Agnieszka Zukowska’s contribution examines the dehumanisation of noble performers in court masques in which they imitated human statues or self-moving devices that could only be animated by the king in order to symbolise his quasi-divine power. This mechanical appearance, albeit dehumanising, also glorified courtiers as ‘god-made objects’ [183] in performances which consequently deified the entire court itself.

The concluding section of the volume shifts to the material conditions of performances at court. William B. Long explores how commercial plays were adapted to the court from the perspective of early modern players in order to correct anachronistic assumptions about early modern performances. This leads him to reaffirm the dependence of theatrical companies on court performances: ‘without the court, there was no public playing anywhere’ [194].

John H. Astington’s detailed study of the Banqueting House as a performance space before its destruction by fire in 1619 gives an insight into the ways different types of entertainment were staged for the Jacobean court. It provides crucial information about the organisation of space and lighting used on such occasions, hereby showing the unique space offered by this venue for plays such as The Tempest and Bartholomew Fair.

In the next chapter, Chantal Schütz brings to light the great variety of music performances at court and the material conditions in which musicians worked at court. Music performances, she shows, were far from restricted to formal political or diplomatic occasions. In fact they were part and parcel of the courtiers’ and royals’ daily life, in public as well as more private settings, in ways that were emulated in commercial theatre to give the audience a glimpse of courtly habits.

The concluding contribution by Rebecca Olson explores the material conditions of Stuart court performances through their use of painted cloths. These accessories provided for by the Revels Office offered a number of practical advantages for performances, one of them being that they were made quickly and could be easily customised to fit the play and the setting in which it was staged. As ‘a highly paragonal medium’ [246], they also engaged a dialogue with other visual arts.

This stimulating volume, which also includes a very useful index, makes the reader more attuned to the political, economic and material issues at stake in early modern court performances as well as their complex relation to commercial theatre.


Cercles © 2021

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.

Please contact us before using any material on this website.