Elizabethan Theater

This post is a continuation of a summary of Harry Berger’s Second World and Green World article, “Theater, Drama, and the Second World: A Prologue to Shakespeare.”

Berger begins his discussion of the transition from medieval to Elizabethan theater by describing the play-space. By constructing theaters, walled-off arenas that marked off the play of playing from the real world, Elizabethan entrepreneurs and playgoers made it easier to make a self-contained second world. The theaters were obviously artificial–i.e. they didn’t look realistic–but they allowed for audience engagement (the stage apron was designed to allow audience members to get very close to the stage) and also gave the audience a demarcated space to start “make believing” inside. Once audience members paid for their tickets, they were ushered inside the second world.

Berger argues that what makes Shakespeare’s art unique is his ability to funnel theatrical space-time, the world of reality, into his dramatic-space time, the world of the play. He thus gives us a commentary on the apparatuses of theater in his plays. Moreover, if we take Berger’s central observation about why the second world is necessary seriously, then we agree that the Renaissance emphasized this second world as a space for interpreting and coming to grips with the first world. The problem, of course, is that such interpretations are prone to reductive and simplified versions of the first world; that is, the second world can be a way of escaping the first world.

Berger thus reads Shakespeare’s plays as a series of dueling perspectives. Characters are trying to impose their “second world” interpretations on the first world. Part of this reality is the way that the Elizabethan stage cannot accommodate the wealth of scenery and sense of place that Shakespeare gives his plays. The heath in Lear or the “sterile promontory” of Hamlet are examples of locales that emerge as second world interpretations of the first world.

A brief application then: we can read the multiple invocations of the gods in Lear as a way of imposing different worldviews on the play:

Lear – the gods who are directly connected to the earthly monarch

Edmund – the gods who are little else but reality/practicality

Kent – the fates that determine everyone’s actions

Gloucester (after his blinding) – the gods, rather than humans, who are the source of human

Albany – the gods who are the only hope for staving off humanity’s ravenous impulses

Edgar – the gods who are just and who deal with human frailty in specific, vindictive ways

Elizabethan Theater

A Short History of Medieval Theater

This summary is a continuation of a chapter from Harry Berger’s Second World and Green World I started writing about yesterday: “Theater, Drama, and the Second World: A Prologue to Shakespeare.”

Berger follows his introductory distinction between drama and theater by arguing that Shakespeare’s real innovation is his systematic introduction of theater space-time (i.e. the specific medium) into his play’s dramatic space-time (i.e. the time of his artistic work). He made the real theater part of his fictional world, or, to use Berger’s terminology, he represented the first world within his second world.

This opens up the question about where this innovation came from?

Berger outlines a short history of English drama then, and in this article I’ll simply summarize and reflect on his thoughts on medieval drama.

The initial move of Christian drama, which was basically all medieval drama, was to fold drama into the ritual of mass. This was designed to help make the reality the ritual pointed to more efficacious. This was not designed to encourage “make believe.” It was designed to encourage belief. Berger observes that as cathedrals got bigger, the lay people became more and more like an audience for priests who performed their sacred rituals.

Berger argues that eventually this separation became a problem. The priests’ language was more removed, and the highly symbolic content of these sacred rituals was no longer sufficient. As a supplement, the church authorized plays that were outside the church. The content of these plays was sacred (a mystery play involved stories from the Bible) or at the very least spiritual (morality plays were more like allegories). The difference between these plays and the rituals inside the church were that a) the space between audience/performer was collapsed (both through the audience’s proximity to the wagon-stages of these shows and by the fact that the performers were probably neighbors of people in the audience) and b) the symbolic nature of the plays was more imagistic than iconic (that is, audience members were invited to dwell on the dramatic space-time of the production before moving to the moral in a way they would not have in the church).

Next up, the transition from medieval to Elizabethan theater…

A Short History of Medieval Theater