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Erika T. Lin, Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). ISBN: 9781137001061, 256 pp. £55.00

Reviewed by Katherine Walker


[1] Navigating among multiple critical paradigms – historical phenomenology, historical formalism, and material text studies – Erika T. Lin’s Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance seeks to understand the cultural attitudes informing not only the semiotics but also the effects and affects of early modern performance. Lin’s point of departure from previous performance studies resides in looking closely at the materiality of immaterial performances. In surveying plays, primarily Shakespearean, which emphasize a shared early modern understanding of the power of performance to influence spectators, Lin seeks to uncover how most early modern playgoers encountered the dramas presented before them: as objects that challenge our modern notions of perception, presentation, representation, and affective responses to dramatic spectacle. Part of Lin’s project, and one of the most valuable aspects of the work, is to redirect attention from representational (and thus material and static) dramatic texts to performance’s role in the period as presentational spectacle. Lin’s analysis often loops back to the imbrication of the material and the immaterial; the repetitive immaterial acts of performance become comprehensible only through cultural attitudes and practices that located these acts as materially influential upon the bodies and perceptions of early modern audiences. In Part I, ‘Performance Effects’, for example, Lin demonstrates that performance in its materiality at once ‘cites particular cultural discourses related to specific semiotic transformations occurring within a play, and […] cites affective and experiential dimensions of social life in its presentational effects’ (pp. 8-9). What is impressive about Lin’s work is the diversity of secondary material she brings into conversation with early modern drama to argue for the dynamism at play between presentation and representation. Dream manuals, medical texts, travel narratives, anti-theatrical treatises, and accounts of wondrous physical feats all support Lin’s analyses of the events of performance as just that – dynamic, unfolding actions informed by early modern ways of thinking about meaning, language and audience participation in spectacle.

[2] After laying the groundwork for her theoretical and analytical framing of performance as an object of study, Lin moves to refashioning Robert Wiemann’s theory of character positioning to demonstrate how representational fiction is informed by spatialized presentations in Chapter One, ‘Theorizing Theatrical Privilege: Rethinking Wiemann’s Concepts of Locus and Platea’. In Wiemann’s Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, the locus is the position of authority or social superiority; the locus is emblematized as a scaffold, throne, or other edifice to delimit distance between character and audience. In turn, the platea is the position of proximity, or intimacy with the audience, and represents the space that clowns, fools, and the socially inferior occupy onstage. Lin repositions platea and locus in terms of early modern conceptions of sight and sound, arguing that by paying close attention to how attune particular characters are to the similitude of what is displayed aurally or visually onstage and what is ‘actually’ represented, the more firmly they are located in the platea. Lin extends this argument to suggest that the more these characters are aware of theatrical conventions or artifice, the more they are in the platea. This reading has implications for how we read actor-audience relationships and, more importantly, allows us to look beyond social privilege in representational drama to the theatrical privilege held by those characters who are aware of the visual, aural, and verbal semiotics of theatrical modes.

[3] Part II, ‘Theatrical Ways of Knowing,’ examines how early modern theatergoers brought particular perceptual and explanatory models of understanding to their experiences of performance. Consequently, Chapter Two, ‘Staging Sight: Visual Paradigms and Perceptual Strategies in Love’s Labor’s Lost,’ looks closely at notions of vision and perception in how audiences might have understood complex moments of staging, particularly the multi-layer spying scene in Shakespeare’s comedy. Lin’s primary aim in this chapter is to overturn assumptions about the need for theatrical verisimilitude in dramatic representation. Lin argues that Italian Renaissance perspectival models arrived in England relatively late and that surface patterning was more recognizable and thus valued by audiences. Chapter Three contextualizes allegory by looking at several texts in the period that suggested both literal and abstract levels of interpretation of entities like demons, ghosts, or dreams. For Lin, allegory in the period ‘was one of the underlying cultural logics that shaped basic theatrical literacy,’ and thus ‘allowed onstage actions to be intelligible as representations’ (p. 72). Through a discussion of visual paradigms, dream manuals, and demonological tracts, Lin argues that the figures of Revenge and Andrea’s Ghost in The Spanish Tragedy represent a much more complex consideration of metatheatricality. She also explains that the drama’s role in signifying particular meanings provided a guide for audiences in terms of negotiating the difficulties posed by theatrical interpretation. Lin concludes this chapter by looking closely at the layers of this mode in the play-within-a-play that Hieronimo stages at the end of The Spanish Tragedy. In claiming that the ‘characters’ must all speak different languages, but then in printing and perhaps performing this scene entirely in English, Lin argues, the performance elevates the embodiment inherent in theatrical language. Rather than seeing this moment of metatheatricality as emblematizing the failure of language, Lin focuses on the tensions between language and performance, arguing instead that this scene ‘gestures toward the fantasy of semiotic resolution as effected through performance’ (p. 103).

[4] The third and final part of Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance, ‘Experiencing Embodied Spectacle,’ seeks to unearth some of the even more inaccessible modes of performance in early modern theater, actions like dancing and dismemberment, whose representations receive little description in extant playbooks. Chapter Four, ‘Dancing and Other Delights: Spectacle and Participation in Doctor Faustus and Macbeth,’ explores the interpretative complexities of dancing in performance, especially by supernatural creatures. Particularly valuable in this chapter is Lin’s careful attention to specific language in the period: Lin demonstrates how words like ‘pleasant,’ ‘delight,’ and ‘ravished’ carried nuanced, not always salutary, meanings. Both the positive and negative valences of the terms are operative in moments when characters or audiences are captivated by the physical strengths or skills exhibited in dancing. For Lin, these terms and other early modern discussions of spectacle all emphasize the active role that the audience or spectator plays in witnessing these performances. In this case, the demons with which Mephistopheles surrounds Faustus when he signs the fateful contract, or the witches who ‘vanish’ after dancing for Macbeth, implicate not only the protagonists – dazzling them with their pleasant shows as they do – but also the audience members, who are at once delighted and seduced. Chapter Five moves from the pleasure in watching dancing to the violence of dismemberment in Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline, and Doctor Faustus. Through early modern drama’s fascination with limbs and penetrable bodies, the actors themselves are both represented characters and material signifiers of embodiment. Lin suggests that this dual position of an actor’s body is repeatedly foregrounded in performance. By concluding on moments of the un-representable (bodies were not literally dismembered onstage), Lin shows how theatrical violence contributed to performance as a material, and thus materially influential, medium of representation.

[5] Shakespeare and the Materiality of Performance powerfully redirects our attention as scholars of early modern drama to the fact that the plays we discuss were performed before audiences carrying specific cultural assumptions about what it meant to engage in watching and listening to theatrical spectacle. This book is of value to scholars interested in performance theory more broadly but will also be useful to historicist scholars seeking to understand the nuances of bodies, actors, and representational drama converging in particular moments upon the early modern stage. While sophisticated in its articulation of theatrical performance’s complexity, Lin’s use of argument by analogy tends to proceed quickly and only develops partially the ways in which other discourses – pre- and post-Reformation paradigms of sight, for example – bear upon how we read particular moments as an early modern audience would. At times, Lin jumps too hurriedly from secondary text to primary drama and it is quite often a unidirectional move. Nonetheless, Lin’s analyses are sharp, provocative, and helpful for scholars seeking to approximate early modern ideological and social conditions of interpretative strategies in theater.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 2014