Shakespeare’s Common Players


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0465  Thursday, 22 November 2012


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Thursday, November 22, 2012

Subject:     Shakespeare’s Common Players


[Editor’s Note: The following review appeared in today’s Washington Post. –Hardy]




Shakespeare’s Common Prayers

By Michael Dirda


While this is a brilliant book, it’s not quite the one its subtitle leads the reader to expect. “The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age” seems to suggest a history of the making and reception of the English Prayer Book, starting with its creation by Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and going up to, say, its temporary suppression in the mid-17th century by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarians. In fact, Daniel Swift — who teaches at Skidmore College — has produced a subtle and illuminating study of how Shakespeare’s plays reflect and reconfigure the Prayer Book’s language and theological tensions.


The result is a distinctly scholarly work, but one written with impressive stylishness. Perhaps it’s not by accident that Swift’s biographical note also describes him as a literary journalist. If you have any interest at all in Shakespeare, especially “Macbeth,” or in the beautiful Anglican liturgy, you’re in for a dazzling, if sometimes demanding, intellectual adventure.


First off, Swift reminds us that “The Book of Common Prayer” was never a static work. Though first published as a compendium of the Anglican rituals of morning prayer, baptism, marriage, Communion and the burial of the dead, it constantly underwent alteration. It was “the devotional centerpiece of an age that was passionately religious, and its fluidity is the sign of its cultural centrality.” In 1603, for instance, the Hampton Court Conference, held under the aegis of the new King James, reconsidered remnants of Catholic ritual still embedded in the text. The more austere Puritans objected to anything hinting at a sacrament other than baptism and Communion. As Swift writes, the Prayer Book embraces “a history of passionately contested revision and of manic sensitivity to a verb or a turn of phrase.”


It is also, as everyone should know, a treasury of memorable prose-poetry, especially in its earlier iterations. “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live. . . . Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways, like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”


However, the Prayer Book is also a kind of theatrical work, detailing the interactions of minister, congregation and God during moments of high drama. In fact, as Swift says, “The prayer book struggled, throughout this period, with its twin and rival, the commercial theater. Plays were the other great common work of the age, both written collaboratively and performed before crowds. It was against the theater that the Book of Common Prayer sought to define itself.”


From here, Swift argues that Renaissance drama was “troublingly liturgical,” even though playwrights were prohibited from reproducing precisely the language of the Prayer Book, lest there be any hint of mockery. But a genius like Shakespeare might still imbue his works with repeated words or situations that would call to mind their sacerdotal origins. Swift dissects, for example, the use of the word “walk” in “Macbeth,” rich with multiple scriptural echoes of walking in the ways of the Lord.


In the course of his analyses, Swift passes along many of those odd bits and anecdotes that make cultural history so much fun to read. A bishop named Edmund Bonner referred to married sex as “carnal multiplication.” One-
quarter of the men of Queen Elizabeth’s time were named William. Providentialism, we are reminded, leads logically to a refusal to mourn the dead, who are presumably blessedly happy in God’s bosom.


Swift also stresses — nothing new here — that Shakespeare’s plays are obsessed with marriage, though not just the comedies. “Romeo and Juliet” concerns “a civilly disobedient couple who perform a liturgically correct marriage.” Among many other things, “Hamlet” is “a meditation upon marital propriety.” In the so-called problem plays — such as “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Measure for Measure” — Shakespeare focuses on various obstructions to the usual smooth narrative of consent, vow and consummation in the marriage ceremony. “Othello” depicts “what it might take to divide a married couple; it tests the weak points in the structure asserted by the rite.”


In his reading of the gruesome “Titus Andronicus,” Swift points to a breakdown in liturgical propriety: The characters “know not quite what to do in the occasions of grief and mourning.” When the ghost in “Hamlet” intones “Remember me,” Swift illuminates the phrase’s significance by probing churchly injunctions concerning remembrance of the dead. He notes, too, as others have before him, the echoes of Communion, the Lord’s Supper, that ring throughout the play: Polonius, says Hamlet after having accidentally killed him, is “at supper,” but “not where he eats but where he is eaten.”


In the last part of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers,” Swift parses the language and action of “Macbeth” with the kind of detail that recalls William Empson in “The Structure of Complex Words.” As he says, “Macbeth even more than Hamlet is the great drama of uncertain presence. Is it a dagger or not? A ghost or not?” For instance, he shows how that key phrase “man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery” finds echoes throughout this most ritualistic of plays, notably in the witches’ prophecy that no man of woman born can harm Macbeth.


Swift stresses that the tragedy is drenched in the imagery of baptism, and not only in the Macbeth couple’s obsession with washing the blood from their hands. Speaking of the famous knocking at the gate that follows King Duncan’s murder, Swift reminds us that during baptism the minister says, “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you” and “Open the gate unto us that knock; that these infants may enjoy the everlasting benediction of thy heavenly washing.” When Lady Macbeth wails, “Out, damned spot,” Swift directs us again to baptism, which speaks of cleansing every “spot or wrinkle,” and to a passage in the Communion for the Sick, which reads: “Whensoever his soul shall depart from the body, it may be without spot presented unto thee.”


Swift ends his book with “Macbeth” because, he maintains, Shakespeare’s later works retreat from the rich poetry and web of associations offered by the Prayer Book. Afterward, the playwright turns to “the drama and consequences of fading marriages, not their union, and to growing old.” In his last plays, he breaks with “elaborate formality,” and when he writes of grief, it will “slip from set expression.” Perhaps, but this seems more assertion than proof.


As I said at the beginning, Swift’s excellent book demands but also rewards close attention. At the very least, it deepens our appreciation of how some of the greatest works of Renaissance theater are suffused with imagery and patterns drawn from the era’s liturgical masterpiece, The Book of Common Prayer.


Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer in the Elizabethan Age By Daniel Swift Oxford Univ. 289 pp. $27.95

Play Length


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0464  Monday, 20 November 2012


[1] From:        Dom Saliani <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         November 19, 2012 5:57:18 PM EST

     Subject:     RE: Play Length 


[2] From:        Michael Luskin <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         November 19, 2012 10:22:59 PM EST

     Subject:     On Play Length 




From:        Dom Saliani <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 19, 2012 5:57:18 PM EST

Subject:     RE: Play Length


Thanks to Extrapolitzing Steve for his comments and compliment.


I have not been described as being “jaunty” for a long time, but I kinda like it.


Steve is worried that our jaunting “may crash splat into disagreeable data or into contrary opinions held with equal enthusiasm” and I appreciate his concern but I need to declare that I am a fierce supporter of T.S. Eliot’s licensing of such jaunting when he says that “About anyone so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that from time to time we should change our way of being wrong.”


Now there is a challenge for all of us.


Steve should also be assured that I do NOT wonder “if Shakespeare would actually write extended material that would have to be presented to intellectually incapable groundlings.”


Of course he would – but his shadows (who were fearful of offending groundlings who were challenged by anything more than “dumb shows and noise”) would have presented on stage – as stated in so many prologues and on title pages – far less than what was printed – especially in the cases of Romeo and Hamlet.


I applaud Steve for admiring the stamina and patience of Elizabethan audiences in the theatres and cathedrals and we are definitely in agreement that for audience members, a day at the theatre would have been four or so hours long. But this would have included pre- and post- entertainment (balladeers, jugglers, bergomask dancers, etc.) besides the featured drama. It does not boggle the imagination to accept that the pre- and post- diversions could take anywhere from a half hour to an hour and thus the feature play would, if my math is correct, be somewhere between two and three hours.


I enjoyed reading many of Steve’s comments but I did take exception when he claimed that “Dom Salieri talks about cutting plays to ‘an endurable length.’”


Be assured that neither I nor any of my ancestors had anything to do with the murder of Amadeus.


Meanwhile back at the Extrapolitzing Ranch, to me it seems rather obvious, self evident and redundantly intuitive that a four hour tryst with Romeo’s Juliet or a four to five hour all-talk (21 lines per minute) marathon with a melancholy Dane would not have been many people’s cup of tea. Did they sip tea in those days?


Steve dismisses Alfred Hart’s listing of a dozen mentions of “two hours” as “fictive apology” but I fear that such an opinion would have elicited the following from any self-respecting Amazon: 


But all the story . . . told over,

And all their minds transfigured so together,

More witnesseth than fancy’s images

And grows to something of great constancy;

But, howsoever, strange and admirable.


In Steve’s “land of Extrapolis,” I suspect that many of its citizens would agree that the numerous notices that printed plays had been augmented and contained more than was performed serves as clear evidence that the author was interested in sharing more than just a play script.


Who could argue with the sentiment that Hamlet “read by candle light, yields many good sentences”?


And this harkens me back to my original point. Shakespeare wanted his works to be read and not just seen.


His augmented and improved quartos and Folio versions read extremely well – obviously because great care was taken to include in them much more than was performed during the “two hours traffic” upon the stage.


I’d like to end by suggesting that Hamlet (Q2 or F) reads more like a versified novel intended to be read, It is far from a faithful transcript of a stage play. The same applies to his R. and J., Lear and Antony and Cleopatra to name a few.


But there I go again – expressing the obvious.


Dom Saliani



From:        Michael Luskin <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 19, 2012 10:22:59 PM EST

Subject:     On Play Length


The question has become intertwined with the difficulty of understanding the language.  If the words and the gist are intelligible, it is much less difficult, much less tedious, to understand the play.  If not, one loses patience.  English changes over time.  Perhaps what is difficult language, even to the expert, would have been much closer to what the groundlings and everybody else spoke day to day.


I thought of this:  When my grandparents came to America in 1912, a scarlet fever epidemic broke out in steerage.  My grandmother went almost completely deaf.  Though she was a bright woman, spoke three languages, and read two more, she never learned English naturally.  She learned it from books and newspapers and dictionaries.  Her favorite authors were Trollope and Dickens, and she spoke like they wrote.  l remember her saying things, in an amazing accent, she never heard how English was supposed to be pronounced, like:  “If you were ever again to enter this abode with mud beflecked boots, it would be none other than I who would most severely chastise you.”  I think that is an accurate quote.  We were used to it, but my friends thought she was nuts.  She always thought that she was speaking perfectly good English that the person in the street would think quite natural and easy to understand.  


So it seems to me that if the groundlings heard what they thought was natural English, they would have been able to stand still and listen patiently for a longer period of time than if they thought that they were listening to arcane, “poetic” English.  It is one thing to listen to T. S. Eliot, another to listen to Walt Whitman.  


Michal B. Luskin

Play Length


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0462  Monday, 19 November 2012


From:        Steve Urkowitz <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 16, 2012 10:16:05 PM EST

Subject:     SHAKSPER: Play Length and Commonplaces of Humility?   


More about play length?    


I do like Dom Saliani’s jaunty confidence; I just find that (like some of my own jaunts into speculative scholarship) they may crash splat into disagreeable data or into contrary opinions held with equal enthusiasm.  


From the top: he wonders if Shakespeare would actually write extended material that would have to be presented to intellectually incapable groundlings. My own life as a groundling convinces me that even twenty minutes of b-o-r-i-n-g presentation is over my limit, two hours would be stretching civility, and three a form of cruel incarceration. But Shakespeare’s playhouses weren’t filled with hostile or resistant audiences.  They weren’t school-groups on a theater-outing.  People self-selected their entertainments, especially those that they paid for. If you didn’t want to hear a Shakespeare play, then you patronized another playhouse.    


And, though comments by anti-populists might protest otherwise, it seems that lots of people in London LIKED long, linguistically complex presentations. For instance, Paul’s Cross, in a courtyard outside of St Paul’s Cathedral, would pack in standees in all kinds of weather (though sometimes adjourning back into the cathedral) for sermons that ran two hours of a single voice’s talk from the pulpit plus another hour for an opening procession and time for psalm singing. This doesn’t mean that two hours sermoning necessarily should be extrapolated into an even longer length for plays, but we should consider that although the “normal” sermon ran one hour, the star-turn sermons at Paul’s Cross were twice as long. So if you’re vaulting into the land of Extrapolis with me, let’s hold hands and IMAGINE that the “normal” two hour play-length could be stretched to three hours if it’s one of those fabulous Shakespeare plays.  


Dom Salieri talks about cutting plays to “an endurable length.” Stephen Orgel’s “Authentic Shakespeare” essay makes the same point. Orgel cites as his prime example the Dering manuscript that deeply cuts Henry IV parts 1 and 2 for presentation as a single play.  But (as I point out in my “Did Shakespeare’s Company Cut Down his Plays . . . .” essay in the most recent SHAKESPEARE BULLETIN), the script they ended up with was not an “endurably short” thing but rather a full 3100+ lines of  drama.  (My essay offers some other examples of similar cutting that leaves a l-o-n-g residual play. And I show also that the instances of cutting where we have documentary evidence of how much was begun with and how much left after the barbering gives numbers like 6 % or 9 % or maybe 11% reductions. King Lear? Three or four hundred lines cut from Q1, maybe 10%, but 100 lines added fresh appearing for the first time in F. But chopping 30% of Q2 Romeo & Juliet to get to the length of Q1 Romeo and Juliet? That’s three times the degree of trimming. 


If you can’t endure an uncut Romeo and Juliet in its Q2 form, then let me suggest that you try producing it in close-to-original practices. No lighting changes to distract from the actors saying what is happening to the imagined light. No slow sets moving in for the ball-scene or the bedroom or the tomb. Actors alert as all get-out listening for their cues, primed to cut in with their next speech without knowing where their cue will come from. (Think as a modern analogy a basketball player or ice-hockey player who knows so much of what he has to do, anticipating but not really knowing where the next pass is coming from. They JUMP at opportunities. Sorry, but I’m still a groundling, happier at a good ballgame than at a sluggish production of even Shakespeare.) 


As for the “two hours” mentioned in various places. I finally did a count in one of Alfred Hart’s essays. He lists about a dozen over a fifty-plus year period, almost all in prologues and epilogues.  


I’d like to propose that the fictional character reciting the prologue or epilogue is doing something quite UNLIKE testifying at a court of law. A Prologue or Epilogue rather than a testimony of accuracy instead is a fictive apology, like, “Aw, shucks. I’m really sorry about this poor thing we botched up out of our dismal incapacities, and from your indulgence you won’t whip us, and besides we have a dance prepared to ease us back into your favor.” So a reference to the “two hours” could/should/would be seen as part of the pro-forma apologia.  


Meredith Skura’s brilliant monograph, Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing, opens with the image of Marlene Deitrich taking a magnificent bow, displaying at once a total command over her audience and an absolute vulnerability while appealing for their approving applause. Maybe that’s how Shakespeare is using his reference to two short hours of what is to come in R&J or Henry VIII, a modesty commonplace, like “Please excuse the disorder of my house” intoned humbly at the threshold of a polished and exquisite home. Like us, the Early Moderns exulted in these kinds of ironic-and-sincere roles and postures, gracefully assumed, easily doffed. We can see it in their giddily inventive and often absurdly posturing writings. Could they have been INSINCERE about how long a play might take? Ye gads, I think they may have been ! Come on, Dom. Don’t take those old guys so seriously. Some day we might be old ourselves.  


I offer these suggestions again in the hopes that we are expanding the discourse of how we imagine those thrilling days of yesteryear, just as we try to expand our imagination of what is possible in these thrilling days of today.


Steve Extrapolitz

CFE: Shakespeare Quarterly


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0463  Monday, 20 November 2012


From:        Christina C. LeMaster <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 20, 2012 9:05:10 AM EST

Subject:     CFE: Shakespeare Quarterly


“Not Shakespeare”


Call for essays for a special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly


We are seeking essays on Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline drama by theater-poets other than Shakespeare for a special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly entitled “Not Shakespeare,” edited by Lars Engle and David Schalkwyk, which will appear in summer 2014.  To be considered for this issue, all essays must be received by 1 September 2013.


Submission guidelines are available here, or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

A Word about Pre-Formatting


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0461  Thursday, 15 November 2012


From:        Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Thursday, November 15, 2012

Subject:     A Word about Pre-Formatting


Dear SHAKSPER Subscribers,


Thanks to all the contributors in the “Play Length” thread; it is proving, except for my smart aleck remarks, to be an interesting discussion. (NB: I really cannot stand for a long time, and I was not trying to impose my view of the present with that of Elizabethans and Jacobeans: I was trying to be funny.) 


I would like to pause for a note about pre-formatting on the new platform I am using for SHAKSPER and for mounting and preparing postings for digests. 


Under the old system (1990 to April-May 2011), I could only use the basic ASCII character set. Now, using Joomla, I can provide posting with most symbols (like £), characters [in English or in other languages if appropriate, including italic, bold, underlining], and other formatting. 


Part of my job in preparing postings under LISTSERV© (old system) was to make sure that I was distributing posts using only the basic ASCII characters. With Joomla (new system), I find myself including italics, bolding, and other formatting features. However, I do try to preserve formatting, as well as spelling (such as formating, colour, favour, labour, neighbor, and generalise) and punctuation (Dr) from those using British conventions, and I DO use the “Oxford/Cambridge” comma in a series. (I learned most of what I know about formatting, punctuation, and usage from “Strunk and White” and the EDITOR program.)


If your e-mail client can provide italics, bolding, underling please do so and save me some time. If you e-mail client does not allow formatting options, there are several other pre-formatting tasks you can do to ease my load. 


If you want to use italics, for example, you can use the underscoring convention: _italic_ . If you wish to have bold, you can do this: *bold* . I can easily convert these.


Other formatting options I employ are “smart quotation marks” rather then "straight quotation marks"; superscripts (1st) rather than ordinals (1st); fraction characters (½) rather than straight factions (1/2); symbol characters (—) rather than symbols (--); and I try to provide ‘live’ hyperlinks http://shaksper.net rather than shaksper.net. I keep paragraphs single-spaced and flush with the left margin with a space between paragraphs rather than using indentation. I also word-wrap paragraphs rather than have hard returns at the end of each line.


Finally, from the Netiquette page:

  • If your name does not appear in the FROM line or does not appear correctly (i.e., account is in the name of a spouse, partner, companion, alias, etc.), sign your name at the bottom so that I can cut and paste it next to your e-mail address. You may include your title, academic affiliation, geographical location, or similar information, but signatures should be kept to a maximum of three lines.
  • Do not copy and re-send the message to which you are replying or automatically include the entire original post or digest. Quote, paraphrase, copy and paste, or cite your correspondent by name; give as much of the context as you can to clarify the nature of your reply.
  • If you “cut and paste” information from another Internet or electronic source, which often results in irregularly spaced lines of text, then pre-format that text to be sure that the information is word wrapped and does not require me to spend extra time re-formatting the text for distribution.
  • Avoid the temptation of simply cutting and pasting entire online articles and reviews and forwarding them directly to the list. Posters should judiciously quote and summarize and then provide the URL.


These little steps on your part will enable me to provide professionally looking digests for you and for the web site, which currently gets 150 to 300 visits a day, usually from new visitors to the site.


One other thing I would like to remind you of is that I can now also, on occasion, include attachments for distribution. This ability is particularly useful when you are sending in an announcement with a flyer. Announcements are made available on the web site under the ANNOUNCEMENTS tab as well as under the CURRENT POSTINGS tab.


I deeply appreciate the support I receive from subscribers and wish everyone well during this New Year’s celebration in many parts of the world.




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