A few thoughts on early modern skill

Monday, August 20th, 2012 | EVELYN TRIBBLE | No Comments

One of my favourite accounts of skill comes from Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus: or the Art of Shooting. Writing in 1545 to promote the ancient English art of shooting with the longbow, Ascham describes the tight connection between expert performance and the pleasures associated with watching skilled action.

For this I am sure, in learning all other matters, nothing is brought to the most profitable use, which is not handled after the most comely fashion. As masters of fence have no stroke fit either to hit another, or else to defend himself, which is not joined with a wonderful comeliness. A cook cannot chop his herbs neither quickly nor handsomely, except he keep such a measure with his chopping-knives as would delight a man both to see him and hear him. Every handcraftman that works best for his own profit, works most seemly to other men’s sight. Again, in building a house, in making a ship, every part, the more handsomely they be joined for profit and last, the more comely they be fashioned to every man’s sight and eye.

The key word for Ascham here is ‘comeliness,’ a word which conveys the union of beauty, grace, and utility. He seems to be reaching for the same concepts that Olympic commentators invoke when they say of  a pole vaulter, a diver, or a weightlifter that ‘she makes it look easy.’ Fluid rhythms, economy of movement, efficiency of technique –the actions that are the most pleasing to the eye are also those that produce the greatest utility. In archery, Ascham admires the almost seamless integration of the instrument with the skilled body of the archer (one wonders what he would have made of technology of modern bows).

Our colloquium next week on Practical Knowledge and Skill in Early Modern England will look at skill and practical knowledge in domains as diverse as science, natural philosophy, religion, and theatre. Will we find a common vocabulary for discussing skill across these fields?

Happy birthday, William Shakespeare!

Monday, April 23rd, 2012 | EVELYN TRIBBLE | 1 Comment

I’ve been celebrating William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday this week by reading Lois Potter’s new book: The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography, just out from Blackwell’s. This book was flying off the publisher’s table at the Shakespeare Association of America meeting in Boston over Easter, and with good reason: it is compelling account of Shakespeare as a writer and a man of the theatre.

The figure of Shakespeare that emerges from Potter’s biography is above all of a craftsman. Her Shakespeare is meticulous, hard-working, with a good ear, a capacious memory, and keen alertness to potential material, both through the books available to him and through the thriving theatrical scene in which he worked. Potter emphasizes his developing skill in poetic language, pacing, plotting, and creating opportunities for his actors.

Two examples of Shakespeare’s craftsmanship stood out for me: Potter discusses Shakespeare’s apparent revision to Romeo’s death speech, as preserved, probably accidentally, in the second Quarto of the play. That text prints two versions of the speech: one the relatively short version of Quarto 1, the other a much more prolonged scene that shows “Shakespeare’s developing awareness of the importance of taking time over certain passages” (196), providing the “audience an agonizing prolongation of the hope that Juliet will wake in time to prevent him from drinking the poison” (197).

The other is the more speculative but extremely intriguing suggestion that Shakespeare may have reworked an old version of Hamlet, probably by Thomas Kyd, to provide Richard Burbage with an acting vehicle that would stand up against the revival of The Spanish Tragedy performed by Edward Alleyn upon his return to the stage in 1600. Here Potter shows insight into one of the secrets of Shakespeare’s success: his ability to write plays that showcased actors’ talents: “Above all, perhaps, Hamlet is a composite of everything that Burbage did best, which is why he is everything that an actor wants to play, and everything than an audience wants an actor to be” (281).

The final chapter – “Myth and ‘Genius'”– discusses the tendency of discussions of Shakespeare to polarize around inflated claims of Shakespeare’s greatness and iconoclastic debunkings of such myths. Shakespeare’s much-lauded enormous vocabulary turns out to be a result primarily of his longevity as a writer and the number of different subjects upon which he wrote (Holger Syme’s blog has a good summary of the issue).  Yet in an era in which many of his contemporaries died young of violence, illness, and penury or otherwise sank into oblivion, this productivity over many years is itself extraordinary. Potter concludes by suggesting that in the end it is  Shakespeare’s “theatrical instinct”  that distinguishes him: his plays show his expertise in “how to use suspense and surprise, how to orchestrate vivid characterizations and styles of speech, how to give the actors their opportunities” (439).

Skill, then, becomes the mediating term between “myth”and “genius.” This is not to underestimate the skill of other dramatists;  Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist is perhaps the most brilliantly plotted and executed play in the period, and Gary Taylor has been lobbying hard for Thomas Middleton. And as Potter points out, placing Shakespeare more firmly within the context of such other writers effectively deflates many of the spurious claims that Shakespeare could not have written the plays attributed to him.

What are you doing to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday?