The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1855  Thursday, 10 November 2005

From: 		Bill Lloyd <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Wednesday, 9 Nov 2005 21:45:17 EST
Subject: 16.1844 Railed Stage
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1844 Railed Stage

Gabriel Egan wrote of the stage-railed Roxana and Messalina vignettes:

 >Both pictures are derivative of other works and should be regarded as
 >very weak evidence for anything about early theatre. So says John H
 >Astington in "The origins of the Roxana and Messalina illustrations"
 >Shakespeare Survey 43 (1990) pages 149-169.

Quite true. And though I have the article in my files it slipped my mind 
and the easy tendency to just reach for a general reference book 
(Illustrations of the English Stage) took over and led to my sloppy answer.

However, the stage-railings are one of the few features of these 
engravings to which Prof. Astington affords a bit of mercy. He shows 
that most features of the Roxana title page are derivative of other 
engravings, and that many features of the stage vignette itself are 
derived from engraved representations of Terentian drama, but then says

      "...one important feature of the Roxana picture remains: the stage 
railings, which are occassionally referred to in plays but for which we 
have no other pictorial evidence. Was Payne here at least relying on his 
memory of visits to the playhouse? Judging by the weight of evidence 
here assembled we might be hesitant to say so. There is at least no 
known earlier picture of a railed stage which he might have copied." [p. 

And in two footnotes to this passage he writes

"They [stage railings] are shown in plan, but not in elevation, in both 
of Inigo Jones's theatre projects."


"Professor Alan Nelson has pointed out to me that a railed platform and 
an audience seated behind the stage were both features of Cambridge 
college stages. It is possible, therefore, that Payne was following 
Alabaster's directions in showing these details. Although Rawlins 
retains these details in the Messalina picture, his elimination of human 
figures doesn't allow one to argue that he is depicting a London 
playhouse rather than a Cambridge college."

... though in relation to Rawlin's engraving of Messalina he also writes

"Yet Rawlins knew theatres, actors and playwrights in a way that Payne, 
so far as we can tell, did not, and there seems to me every reason to 
think that his adaptations to Payne's [Roxana] design were made to match 
what he knew of the playhouse, or at least what he expected of it. By 
this I mean that the staging requirements of [Rawlins' own play] The 
Rebellion and of Roxana [does he mean Messalina?] are similar in a 
number of respects: both, for instance, use the trap and the acting 
level over the stage, and it is precisely these features that Rawlins 
adds or adapts in his version of Payne's engraving" [p. 168]

Although Rawlins changed a number of features of the Roxana picture, he 
retained the stage-railings. Then, to sum up better:

For railings: Middleton's reference (Paul's?); possible Shakespeare 
reference? (Henry VIII); Hector of Germany (Curtain/Red Bull?); Inigo 
Jones's plans; used in Cambridge academic drama; Roxana picture didn't 
derive them from earlier examples?; Messalina engraver retained them 
when he eliminated other features?

Against railings: not in Fortune or Hope contract; not shown in Swan 
sketch (although a spooky SHAKSPER correspondent reminds me that the 
Swan drawing is only a second-hand copy of someone else's sketch and is 
problematic in a number of ways); references are not numerous.

So, some playhouses and stages did have railings-- they were not 
unknown. It seems likely that many/most stages did not have them, and 
that Richard Southern's generalization that "the Elizabethan open stage 
was railed" goes too far.

Bill "Let's Qualify That Statement" Lloyd

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