Re-Examining Light on the Early Modern Stage

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Neil Vallelly writes…

Light was a prominent trope on the early modern stage. In fact, I challenge you to find any edition of an early modern play that does not use light conceptually in some shape or form. We can think of endless examples. Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost (ca.1595), for instance: “Light, seeking, light, doth light of light beguile” (1.1.77). Perhaps, Middleton in The Revenger’s Tragedy (ca.1607): “Yet still the maid like an unlighted taper / Was cold and chaste” (2.2.55-56). Or, John Marston in Antonio’s Revenge (ca.1599): “The bulk of man’s as dark as Erebus, / No branch of reason’s light hangs in his trunk” (1.4.25-26). All of these examples take light as a thing, something that we take to be real and that we experience in the world, and represent it through language.

Light was used in the early modern era to represent a broad range of concepts from divinity to race, from optics to chastity. I am interested less in the meanings of these tropes and more in the cognitive processes involved in how light came to represent such and such. Why and how did light come to represent such a broad range of concepts? What made light such an accessible material for conceptualization? Do modern representations of light differ from historical representations? If so, why?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their work on embodied cognition (Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999) suggest that “our categories of things in the world determine what we take to be real: trees, rocks, animals, people, buildings and so on” and they conclude that “our concepts must characterize the structure of our categories sufficiently well enough for us to function” (21). We can say that the ways in which we have come to conceptualize light in language characterize the ways in which we experience light in the world. That is not to say that this process is diagrammatic or lineal, but rather it is to suggest that the ways in which we represent “light” cannot be separated from the ways in which we categorize light. In effect, I am following Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s expression that “our effective involvement in the world is precisely what has to be understood and made amendable to conceptualisation” (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945: xvi).

So, what does this mean for the study of light on the early modern stage? Well, light was a radically different phenomenon in the early modern world. The stark contrast between day and night, the limited materials of artificial lighting, the lack of uniformed lighting in social spaces, and cosmological and ontological beliefs about light mean that the conditions of thought in the early modern world differ radically from the scientific and twenty-four hour world that we inhabit. Furthermore, the experience of early modern theatre was subjected to lighting conditions far removed from modern theatrical experiences. In modern theatre, light plays a directorial role by suggesting to us where our attention should be directed and has the ability to conveniently alter lighting states in order to indicate whether a scene takes place during the day or at night. In early modern theatre, however, light was less of a concern. Attention was directed more through sound and kinesics. Also, linguistic and material signifiers, such as an actor carrying a lantern, were used to denote the time of day that a scene took place.

What we come to realize is that the early modern individual conceptualized light against a vastly different world than we do. Thus, in order to truly understand what light represented on the stage we must firstly explore the ecologies and materials of light in the early modern world. Secondly, we must investigate how these ecologies and materials were experienced in everyday life. It is through this dynamic interaction of body and world that Shakespeare and his contemporaries conceptualized light.

This entry was posted in Literature, Shakespeare and tagged , , , by MICHAEL COP. Bookmark the permalink.

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