Scenes and plot unite to claim centre stage

The English Renaissance Stage
August 25, 2006

Henry Turner's book is ambitious. The author aims to present one stage in the historical formation of "literature" and "science" as disciplines, and to do so by examining the pre-modern social and intellectual structures from which both emerged. The stage of historical formation presented is characterised by the emergence of English drama as "a distinct domain of professional activity" controlled by the critic as well as the author: this development is due to the adoption by poets and playwrights of "habits of thought" characteristic of contemporary technology.

The book touches also on print history as a distinct technology and raises broader questions of historical pedagogy, of literacy and numeracy, and of "interpretative practices that involve graphic as well as linguistic modes of representation".

With questions of literature and science, critic and author, print and performance, literacy and numeracy in play, Turner devotes many pages to bringing his reader up to speed in these fields. Two chapters of eight present the history of mathematics and early scientific thought in the context of English humanism; two more discuss the history of urbanisation and semiotics. The fascinating material introduces the reader to a distinctively English "practical knowledge" that drew on classical intellectual categories but could be used in geometry, measurement and spatial representation, and then in discussions of literature.

The reader is treated to elegant plates of diagrams from Renaissance books, but the book's title indicates a focus on theatre, and by halfway through the reader whose primary interest is theatrical may be feeling frustrated. For Turner, the theatre is his focus because it "provides a particularly clear example" of the influence of social formation on the early-modern literary domain. But even then two chapters are devoted to Sir Philip Sidney and George Puttenham, who were not professional playwrights but who provide "crucial evidence" for the influence of mathematics on Renaissance ideas about mimesis and semiosis.

Turner's real interest is in the history of ideas, defined as the history of the relationship between institutions, social structures and the forms in which ideas circulate: the book will thus be appreciated principally by highly specialised Renaissance scholars. Because of Turner's claims for the breadth of implication of his material, the reader will not always be convinced that the English Renaissance stage is central to his book.

Two rewarding chapters discuss the "mapping" of London's streets onto the stage in the city comedies. In Ben Jonson, Turner finds the culmination of the development of "scene" and "plot" as theatrical terms drawn from the practical spatial arts: fascinating insights into this development have been scattered throughout Turner's book and could perhaps usefully have been made more central to the book's structure. Jonson's classicism is seen as a theoretical voice "superimposed" on the contemporary theatrical conventions that his plays exploit.

Shakespeare makes a brief but powerful appearance. King Lear is illuminated by Turner's reading of spatial significance in the scene of kingdom division, and of Edgar and Gloucester at "Dover". Turner's discussion of the storm scene is magnificent. Lear, excluded from one fictional place and then another, occupies the stage but refuses to designate his location or even to recognise the characters who come to him from the world of the play. Kent's repeated plea that Lear go into the hovel, that he "enter here", is an actor's cue Lear ignores. Theatre's fundamental distinction between on-stage and off-stage space is collapsing. Lear's madness is shown to be constructed using the unique spatial qualities of the theatre, and it is heady stuff.

Elisabeth Dutton is a research fellow of Worcester College, Oxford.

The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical. Spatial Arts 1580-1630

Author - Henry S. Turner
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 326
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 19 928738 4

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