Thank you, Andrew Gurr…

for pointing out that poets have been using the hackneyed “poet/know it” rhyme for over 370 years.  Gurr records Thos. Heywood’s cynical use of the rhyme in his 1635 The Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels: “How comes it (ere he know it) / A puny shall assume the name of poet”.

I’ve finished Gurr’s The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642.  Like his Playgoing, it’s a fun read, thought a bit of an odd one.  Gurr oscillates between writing that is anecdotal and speculative, and heavy in economic figures and lists of dates.  While he offers interpretations of both his economic stats and the plays, poetry and pamphlets he uses as historical documents,  he often backs away from drawing conclusions on what his historical narrative means for the plays and poetry themselves.  He notes, for example, the parallels and  differences between contemporary theatrical audiences and the “crowds” of sport arenas, and the spectators of the Shakespearean stage:

Without realising what we were doing [when rebuilding the Globe theatre for a contemporary audience] we had returned theatre audiences into the role of crowds, and the effect was hugely popular.  A crowd is unique in the way it shares the excitement of the experience.  Being in a crowd enhances the feeling and makes it a collective, not an individual, pleasure. (259)

Gurr does not consider at length how these different audiences might affect the performative interpretation of a play (beyond that “Nut-crackers” were occasionally disruptive and not well-liked by the dramatists of the period, 279-280).  The absence of such considerations is, in part, reflective of Gurr’s scholary ends: his book is more a historical narrative than a piece of literary critcism.

His approach also returns me to the question with which I began the book: how does Gurr’s methodology differ from Greenblatt’s (as he appears to claim in the preface), and, more generally, what is the use of historicism as a tool of literary criticism?

Gurr’s method seems a more sceptical brand of material historicism than Greenblatt’s, which accounts for another reason his text shies away from offering general conclusions about the ways in which historical conditions interact with texts.  Frequently, Gurr points to the variability and incompleteness of historical evidence:

In 1608, John Fletcher wrote a careful and ambitious work, The Faithful Shepherdess, essentially an Arcadian pastoral drama of a type played previously only before Court and university audiences.  It did not take on its first commercial appearance. […]  Like Dekker’s gulls, the audience that received Fletcher’s play with such lower-class expectation was at the Blackfriars watching a boy company.  Shortly afterwards [a year later in 1609], the King’s Men took over the theatre and performed Beaumont and Fletcher’s Philaster, a modified version of the same kind of play which had an enormous success and created a fashion for tragicomedy to outlast the Stuart reign.  Such apparent fickleness and inconsistency on the part of the Blackfriar’s audience is clear warning about the danger of us making too absolute a distinction between the audiences at one kind of playhouse and another. (282)

Gurr repeatedly reminds readers of the impermanence of theatrical performances: audiences, play companies and theatrical conditions constantly mutate, and any number of known (and unknown) material conditions might affect a play’s reception.  Neither comparing the two play texts, nor the performances themselves, can adequately account for the failure of one Fletcher text and the success of another text similar in genre and style.  Gurr further points to the problems of using textual evidence as a means of reading history; he observes throughout that anti-theatricalists, poets, Lord Mayors, and even bookkeepers tend to exaggerate, while tourists have faulty recollections.  Any attempt to historicise, then, must be made cautiously, and on a play-by-play basis.

Not that historicism isn’t useful.  Gurr’s observation that around 1630, and owing partly to Henrietta Maria’s attendance at public theatre, along with readings of some of the prologues and epilogues of the Caroline plays, suggests that it became common for court ladies to attend public theatre, perhaps accounts for the sudden appearance of women on Jonson’s Caroline stage, as well as for the  some of the odd generic developments of that time…

Finally, I do appreciate that, despite the title, Gurr draws as much from non-Shakespearean examples as he does from Shakespearean texts.  This decision, too, derives from his refusal to generalise.  Financially solvent, and never imprisoned for debt, slander, or libel, one gets the sense that the iconic Shakespeare was a bit of an anomaly among the dramatists of the time, and that other, censored or charged, play texts reveal more about legal and court history than some of Shakespeare’s works.

Works Cited.

Gurr, Andrew.  The Shakespearean Stage 1754-1642. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

22 July 2009 ~ St. Catharines


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