Special Lecture: Tragedy and Performance in the Time of Shakespeare
by Professor Stern

On 27th of November 2018, Professor Tiffany Stern from the Shakespeare Institute, the University of Birmingham, delivered a lecture under the title of ‘Tragedy and Performance in the Time of Shakespeare’. From the perspective of ‘tragic staging’, ‘tragic walking’ and ‘tragic speaking’, Professor Stern explored the common practice at the theatre where Shakespeare worked more than 400 years ago.

As the table of contents on Shakespeare’s first collective publication, the First Folio from 1623, the works of Shakespeare are generally divided into three categories: histories, comedies and tragedies. Were the tragedies distinctively performed in a different way compared to that of comedies? According to the early modern dictionary, the words ‘tragedian’ and ‘comedian’ are both defined as writers in either of the genre. However, in Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘the tragedians of the city’ to suggest the performers rather than the writer. In Antony and Cleopatra, we may find the word ‘comedian’, once again, implying the actor. From these examples, Professor Stern pointed out that for Shakespeare, being a comedic and tragic writer himself, the performers of these genres had a specific feature that represents their style.

As for tragic staging, it is suggested that the performing area had curtains with black colour indicating that the show, which is to be performed in the theatre, is a tragedy. Shakespeare seems to be experimenting with this custom, and in Henry IV part 1, there is a line ‘Hung be the heavens with black’. This works both literal and metaphorical. Since the ceiling above the stage was called the Heaven, the line proves that the character is referring to the dark atmosphere of the plot, as well as the actual black cloth is placed in the area of Heaven. If the genre of tragedy could be defined by the involvement of the black cloth, it means the audience could tell what they are going to see once they have entered the auditorium. In other words, the indication of the genre was the first thing that the audiences received before the actual words spoken by the actors. This is the effect that would not appear on the printed pages, but it is not certain for which play Shakespeare used this function of the black colour.

By looking at the picture from the same period, the black cloth was also utilized as a backdrop for the tragic performance. There is also a British recognition to relate the black cloth with death. The cloth of the same colour was often used to cover the coffin for the house of the dead, as well as the fabric for the clothing for people who joined the morning procession. From this understanding, the character confirmed to ware black costume, such as Hamlet, becomes a walking symbol of tragedy. Another interesting idea deriving from this recognition is to consider the effect of the character with black in comedies, Olivia in Twelfth Night, for instance.

The reference shows that there were curtains with the death of kings placed as a backdrop for the play that deals with the death of new king. It demonstrates a different function of the prop curtain, which is to imply the course of tragedy rather than vaguely suggesting the conclusion. To heighten the versatility of the curtain, Professor Stern introduced the one which can be called the curtain of comedy. On the right hand side of the drawing of the backdrop, a figure of the love god cupid was visible, aiming at the target on the left. Professor Stern named it as ‘loving romance curtain’.

The record from the early 17th century described that red material was put on stage, unlike those from more primitive plane stages with no decoration in Rome. This also adds another texture to the employment of black cloth, because now we may imagine the black curtains and red staging as the result of the tragic symbolism. However, the question with red staging is how the theatre owners cleaned the colour off for comedies. Professor Stern introduced the common practice in comedic stage with scattered straw and also explained that every now and then during the performance of comedy, the colour of tragedy peaked through from the ground.

The colour symbolism in the Shakespearean stage is not confirmed even after the numerous research, but Professor Stern hinted that there might be a relevance to Japanese Kabuki theatre. Since the custom of using the colour in Kabuki and its meaning have been preserved from the past, it made it clear that some of the theatre practices from the time of Shakespeare are now completely lost.

The talk then moved on to the topic of tragic feet. To start with, Professor Stern showed two types of classical footwear: ‘buskin’ and ‘sock’. ‘Buskin’ is a pair of high-heeled boots and often used in tragic performance in ancient Rome and Greek theatre. On the contrary, the ‘sock’, which is in the shape of the low shoes, was associated with comical acting. Through the references from the early modern period, we may find examples of using the nouns metaphorically and literally, expressing the quality of tragedy and comedy. Ben Jonson who published his Folio in 1616, used the elaborate engraving on the title page of his book to show his classical inheritance. Here, two person symbolizing the tragedy and comedy are wearing ‘buskin’ and ‘sock’, as if Jonson is claiming his connection to the classic crafts.

By examining the description attached to the walk of the character Tamburlaine, the key word ‘stalk’ appeared. On one occasion, the verb is connected with the impression of spider, and thus Professor Stern firstly placed spider’s stalking walk, assisted by the legs elongated with the ‘buskin’, as the tragic movement. Shakespeare also uses the word ‘stalk’ for his character, Ghost in Hamlet for example. Christopher Marlowe was the playwright who created Tamburlaine, the playwright appeared before Shakespeare and the figure Shakespeare was influenced and aimed to excel. Professor Stern then considered the verb is the indication of either imitating marshal and warlike Tamburlaine, or suggesting old-fashion dramatization of a character attached to the image of a dead king. Shakespeare, in Troilus and Cressida, also explains the word ‘stalk’ in relation to peacock. It suggests another pattern of the walk to be the one with long stride.

Shakespeare’s contemporary, Thomas Dekker, uses the word ‘jet’ to describe the mannerism of the tragedians with the reference to the black staging. Since ‘jet’ is also associated with the tragic colour, Professor Stern claimed that this is another tragic walk being involved in the play alongside ‘stalking’. When it comes to Shakespeare, he mentions that the character is ‘jetting’ like a ‘turkey cock’ in Twelfth Night. Up till this point, Professor Stern gathered relevant words for the tragic walking and had collected ‘stalk’, ‘spider’ ‘peacock’ ‘jet’ and ‘turkey cock’, but since they are all exaggerated ways of explaining the walk, it is still unclear to actually imagine the movement. The last word that had been mentioned in the talk was ‘strutting’. Especially by focusing on the line ‘strutting player whose conceit / Lies in his hamstring’ in Troilus and Cressida, Professor Stern suggested that the actor with the strutting way of walking carried their vanity in their legs, as if it is leaking through their walk.

Professor Stern then showed the only drawing of the stage deriving from Shakespeare’s time, and pointed out a strange shaped person walking in a long stride. Professor Stern claimed that this seeming actor is representing the tragic walk, either stalking, jetting, strutting or all three of them at the same time. In contrast, by looking at Portia’s words from The Merchant of Venice, it is suggested that females had the ‘mincing steps’, whereas males ‘stride’ to show their masculinity. This idea is related to the shape of women’s skirts which prevented them from opening their legs very wide. As a result, in a sense, women could not properly perform the tragic walk. Intriguingly, it might even suggest that the female character in those days could not become a tragic figure as the male character does. Many references showed various possibilities of distinctive tragic walk. They are surely represented with the elongated legs with ‘buskin’. It is easy to imagine that with the involvement of high-heeled boots, the tragic characters were also making a stumping noise while being on stage.

Tragic talking, again from several remarks in the early modern plays, is connected with the word ‘tone’ or ‘key’, which we normally use to describe music. It can be said, that the actors of those days were speaking in the tonal way, and Professor Stern saw the similarity with Kabuki style of delivery. Unlike Japanese theatre tradition, the proof for actual movement and speaking are extremely difficult to trace back, but Professor Stern introduced the oldest remaining record of the acting from 1775. It shows how ‘To be or not to be’ speech sounded like, when enacted by the famous actor of the time, David Garrick. Since there was still no technology of sound recording, it is preserved in the form of music sheet, which confirmed that the actors’ artificial delivery was still, similar to Shakespeare’s time, connected to the understanding of the musical sound.

In modern day acting, the performers have the tendency of aiming for a naturalistic way of speaking the words. On the contrary, it can be understood that in the old days, the lines were expressed in more heightened artificial delivery. This may lead to the consideration of the audience, especially those who were literate, were hoping to receive something from a performance of tragedy apart from witnessing the embodiment of the story. By introducing a booklet called tablebook, Professor Stern claimed that those audiences with the tablebook came to the theatre to note down words and phrases they fancied, and later re-examine whether they should keep the notes. Then, those words should be written with more permanent medium for the future use. There were some playwright who enjoyed the fashion, and some did not. Hamlet for instance, is described as a character similar to the audiences with the tablebook in their hands. Professor Stern questioned that when Hamlet mentions the tablebook, does it encourage the audiences to take out their tablebooks, does it embarrass them, or does it align those audiences with the main character of the tragedy?

It is also interesting to find that the tablebook audiences were noting down the new words they here in the theatre. It means that Shakespeare’s and coinages by other dramatists were the things, which attracted the literature audiences, and also they are the things often putting off modern students from experiencing early modern drama. However, Professor Stern emphasized that those words are the gifts from the author to the tabelbook audience, as well as the readers in the modern world.

Finally, Professor Stern introduced the praise that is given to Richard Burbage, the leading actor at Shakespeare’s company. The description tells that Burbage ‘weighed every words’, suggesting that he enunciated perfectly, and ‘measured every pace’, implying that he walked significantly well on stage. As a result, it is said, that his presence was ‘Beauty to the eye, and music to the ear’. This admiration towards one of the most dominant actors of the time, indicates that the criteria for great performer were their ability of musical deliberation of lines, and their majestic walking. Professor Stern lastly reflected the situation of Japanese classical theatre which preserves all the forms and habit surrounding the stage business, and added that the understanding of the Japanese theatre environment might be the key to understand the common practice of the early modern drama in Britain.

The talk was followed by an enthusiastic session of questions and answers where many audience commented on Professor Stern’s lecture. The venue was occupied by about 40 participants including guests from England, academics from Waseda University, various students and ordinary audiences. Professor Stern’s talk not only explored the original practice in the time of Shakespeare from the perspectives of stage, walk, and speak, but it also hinted the future prospect of a collaborative work between England and Japan.

Event Overview

  • Date: 27th November 2019
  • Time: 9:30-10:30
  • Venue: Room 303-305, 3F, Building 8, Waseda Campus
  • Languages: English
  • Lecturer: Professor Tiffany Stern(Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham)
  • Moderator: Assistant Professor Yu Umemiya (Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University)

Related Links:

■Japanese Kyogen actor Mansai Nomura joins universities’ Shakespeare symposium


■Event report – International Symposium ‘Adapting Shakespeare for the Stage Today’