Re-Examining Light on the Early Modern Stage

Monday, August 27th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments

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.

Notes and Announcements

Monday, June 4th, 2012 | MICHAEL COP | No Comments


The Shakespeare Institute, the University of Warwick, and The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have launched Year of Shakespeare, a “digital project that will include reviews of each of the productions [from the World Shakespeare Festival]; special features from academics, artists, and educators involved in the festivities.”


Saturday, 15 September 2012 at Queen Mary, University of London there will an interdisciplinary conference “Text and Trade: Book History Perspectives on Eighteenth Century Literature.”  Keynote Speakers will be Professor James McLaverty (English Department, Keele University) and Dr. John Hinks (Chair of the Printing Historical Society and Honorary Fellow at the Centre of Urban History, University of Leicester).  To submit proposals (deadline: 15 June) or to make informal inquiries please contact the conference organizers, Dr. Jenn Chenkin and Dr. Tessa Whitehouse at


On 8 September 2012 Leeds Trinity University College will have the Northern Renaissance Seminar, ‘Disability and the Renaissance.’  Proposals for 20-minute papers are invited on the ways in which disability can be conceptualised in/through/by the Renaissance (deadline: 30 June).  Please send your proposals or any queries to Susan Anderson:

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?