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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Elizabethan theatre as textual community: words as essence, action, and historicization in Hamlet Minton, Gretchen E.


In recent years the study of Renaissance theatre has become an ideological battleground. After so many years of debating the language and themes of Shakespeare's plays, many scholars have begun to examine the social patterns of the world which produced these plays. This emphasis on the patterns and influences which comprise a complex culture has provided many enlightening looks at Shakespeare's world—a world which we desire to reconstruct in order to better understand these plays. However, one troubling factor of this method of criticism (usually associated with the New Historicism) is the gap it leaves between the medieval Christian world which came before it and the Renaissance secular culture of which the theatre was a prominent part. Is there a way to understand the textual composition of the theatre as a continuation of the medieval history which preceded it? More specifically, is there a justification for studying theatre as part of a literary history in particular? The problem of literacy has long concerned scholars of late antiquity and the middle ages. They argue the statistics and the definitions of literacy, especially when considering the transitions between oral and written cultures. Clanchy and Gellrich, among others, have integrated into this study the concept of the book and its central place in the culture of the middle ages. The precise definitions of concepts such as book, work, and text have been questioned, thus creating a problem in understanding what it means to say that Christianity was a "religion of the book". A pioneering study which has allowed for ways to talk about these issues was done by Brian Stock in The Implications of Literacy (1983) and in his more recent Listening for the Text (1990). In these two books, Stock develops the idea of "textual communities", which he defines as "...microsocieties organized around the common understanding of a script" and more specifically as "....group[s] that [arise] somewhere in the interstices between the imposition of the written word and the articulation of a certain type of social organization." Stock's model allows for these groups to be regarded as interpretive communities, but also as social entities. Any group which comes together in order to engage in the process of interpretation around a text, be it written or spoken, may develop into a textual community. The members of this community gradually form a shared understanding of the text through a communal experience. As a result, these communities often combine to form rules, to define moral aims, and to participate in rituals which recall this text. Because of the nature of this project, most of the models of the textual community have been applied to late antique and medieval Christian communities. However, surely an idea as workable as this can be used in other places where people interact around a text and form communities. Shakespearean studies of language and representation abound, but can they be connected to earlier traditions of textual communities? Certainly the theatre is a community (albeit a commercial and often transitory one), and one especially concerned with the interplay between the spoken and the written word. In this thesis, I plan to examine Renaissance theatre in light of what might be called a Stockian model of the textual community. Although there are problems in applying a model developed for an earlier time period to a later one, this approach may in fact contribute to a broader understanding of the way language and community are formed around the representations of the stage in Renaissance plays. This project involves situating Renaissance theatre in relation to the Christian literary history which preceded it and which was still a part of Renaissance culture. A central facet of Christian belief was the concern for the word, and this is a concern which was inherited by the early modern period, and which is evident on the Renaissance stage. Admittedly, the Renaissance theatre was not focused upon the central text of scripture, but the acting companies were nonetheless deeply concerned with words, and with defining themselves in and through a world of words. Stock explains that, "What one believes is shaped by the means of communication by which the content is transmitted." What, then, can we say about the methods by which the theatre presented the content of their plays? What is the nature of this community, and what is its relationship to the text? - Theatre itself can be seen as a sort of text, and within this large body, smaller texts, plays, work within it in order to form a community based on the word. In the case of Hamlet, we witness a play which is fraught with concerns about the word. Using Hamlet as an example, I intend to examine how the textual community of the theatre formed around the interactive play between the written and the spoken word.

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