Four hundred years ago, Hamlet urged his players, Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But in expressing the passions of the play, he advised, Let discretion be your guide. Ever since, the tensions between faithfulness to the text on one hand, and expressive freedom on the other, have kept Shakespeare productions in a state of constant flux.
From the radical alterations and improvements of the late seventeenth century, to the startling dislocations in setting, dress, and political context of the twentieth, from the extravagant sets of the Victorians to the stark minimalism of Londons 1970s fringe theatre, Shakespeares plays have lent themselves to an astonishing variety of incarnations. Written by a team of distinguished scholars, under the editorship of Jonathan Bate and Russell Jackson, Shakespeare An Illustrated Stage History offers an elegantly designed and compellingly readable account of four centuries of Shakepearean productions. The book is consistently illuminating.
Of the theatre of Shakespeares own day, for instance, we learn not only what the plays would have looked like but also how changing conditions affected their compositionhow, in 1604, the Act to Restrain Abuses of Players, which forbid the utterance of Christian oaths on stage, drove Shakespeare to set his plays in antiquity for the next five years. Likewise, when the Kings Men moved indoors from the Globe to the Blackfriars theatre for the winter season, Shakespeare was forced to compose his plays in five distinct acts, separated by musical intervals, because the candles lighting the stage would burn down and need to be replaced. We also learn of the vehement Puritan antipathy to the theatre, an antipathy so great that at the outset of the civil war, in 1642, Parliament passed the Stephens Act, outlawing all stage performancesto avoid the high provocation of Gods wrathand formally declaring players to be rogues, subject to public whippings and even the death penalty.
Though the theatre has never since been considered quite so dangerous, the contributors clearly show how politically powerful Shakespeare performances have remained, and how variable, with both the establishment and the opposition enlisting the Bard in their causes. The book is equally engaging on the great actors, from eighteenth-century giant David Garrick to modern figures such as Ralph Fiennes, John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, and Peter Brook (the book includes a fascinating piece by actress Judi Dench that provides a performers view of Shakespeare). What emerges most significantly from the book is a vivid sense of the enormous malleability of Shakespeares work, responsive not only to changing political, economic, and social conditions, but also to the widest range of imaginative impulses in staging, direction, and interpretation.
An invaluable and delightful book for anyone interested in Shakespeare or the stage, this superb volume gives readers a much clearer knowledge of the forces that have shaped Shakespeare productions. Indeed, they will feel as if theyve been given backstage passes to the best performances of the past four centuries.