Framing Theatricality on the Early Modern Stage

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‘Master Prologue, beginne’. These words are spoken by the figure of the ‘Book-holder’ in the Induction to Ben Jonson’s satire play The Staple of News (first performed in 1625). The action actually begins many lines earlier, with the entry of the ‘Prologue’ and four gossiping women, who distract and interrupt him before he can deliver his speech. The Book-holder and others try to make the women stop talking so that the play can start. Eventually they desist, and the Prologue is heard in full, during which the audience is implored to judge carefully the play they are about to see.

In this example, the Prologue occupies a place on the boundary between the world of the audience and the imaginary world of the play. The Prologue here is both person and speech, and his words and presence mark an important threshold between those on and those off the stage. The Prologue seizes the attention of the audience members, leading them across this boundary into the realm of the play. At the same time, however, the Prologue frames the play as something artificial, reminding the audience that it is a work of fiction, to be seen and heard – and its quality assessed – in the space of the theatre.

Early modern theatrical writing is often at its most self-conscious in framing devices like prologues. It is at these moments, before the main action of the play begins, that we can often find playwrights reflecting on their own art, and on the whole complicated business of writing for playhouse performance in the competitive theatrical market of Elizabethan and Jacobean London.

Framing devices such as prologues can do many different things. As well as outlining the play’s subject matter, setting the scene, and establishing the genre (is it a tragedy, a comedy, a history?), the prologue might speak to the audience with other more complex intentions and motivations. As in The Staple of News, the speaker of the prologue might emphasise the collaborative role the audience members have, inviting them explicitly to ‘judge’ the play. Sometimes, in a gesture of modesty or false modesty, a prologue will draw attention to the deficits of the work about to be performed, begging the audience to be gentle in their response to it, and acknowledging the limitations of the stage. It is often, therefore, in the framing devices of early modern plays that we can find evidence of what people felt about the representational medium of theatre itself, and what it is capable of achieving. This guided exercise will suggest some approaches to one of William Shakespeare’s most well-known theatrical prologues, the 34 lines that begin Henry V, using these as a starting point for thinking about the ways in which Elizabethan and Jacobean drama draws attention to and reflects on its own identity as writing for the stage.

Close-reading is a crucial skill in the study of English literature. There is much to be gained from detailed analysis of the text, paying careful attention to the structures, forms, and strategies at work on the page. In engaging critically with writing for the stage, there are other issues to consider, too. As we read a Shakespearean prologue, we need to think about staging, voice, the sound of the language, and the visual effects of movement and physical gesture. We have to consider the differences between the written and the performed text, and the creative possibilities and limitations of the early modern stage. We need to think about the relationship between the author, actors and the spectators, and the ways in which the experience of the play is a collective and often collaborative one. These issues are addressed and interrogated in many different ways in early modern drama, and the prologue to Henry V offers a rich place to begin thinking about them.

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