Peter Mortenson

Implied action in Renaissance texts focuses issues of staging and interpretation. The Q1604 and the expanded Q1616 versions of the Alexander-conjuring episode in Faustus, along with the 1618 titlepage illustration, handily exemplify in the classroom Elizabethan use of stage space and business, costumes, props and spectacle. Performance demonstrates the need for visually rendering what is unscripted. In the Benedick eavesdropping scene (II. iii) of Much Ado about Nothing, the first seven lines provide a case in point. The dynamics of the scene are characteristic of the play in several ways. The boy is conspicuously irritated at being sent to retrace his steps and fetch a book; dramatic logic guarantees the boy's return. This implicit guarantee forces an array of questions: How does the return function in the comic dynamics of the gulled Benedick remaining "undiscovered"? How far should the scene press the transparency of Benedick's self-delusion? (i.e. at what point should he return; how many times; how and by whom will his return be "aborted"?).

In the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play at the Barbican in 1989, the stage agencies of Benedick's concealment were first a transparent cheesecloth scrim with outline shrub shapes that necessarily hid nothing and later the folding card-tables chairs used by Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio which concealed even less. Benedick's self-deception was thus foregrounded. The boy returned not once but three times, waved off first by Benedick but ultimately by Leonato. The scene closed with the vexed boy's return to pitch the book at Benedick's head as he exits the cleared stage. This pushes implied action about as far as it can go, and it made for a brilliant scene and a sharply defined set of dramatic issues on eavesdropping, gulling, and self-delusion. Malvolio's letter-discovery scene at the 1998 Washington Shakespeare Theater production of Twelfth Night raised similar questions about text and action.

Knight of the Burning Pestle's contest of plots plays extensively with the relation between language and action. Humphry's random, compulsive, rhyming language ("Help me, O Muses nine!") creates two horses, one "blind" (I. iv. 120-4). In the competing plot, Rafe's chivalric language machine also creates an array of props (II. ii) including a horse (II. Iii) implicit in stage business. These creations prompt a startling elaboration of eight more horses and equine actions in a running visual joke at the center of the text's playful exploration of class antagonism, "language," theater, and reality.

Exploring the visual element of stage performance raises fundamental questions about what is "in" the text, and how the visual complicates meaning. It also bears on whether Elizabethan plays could have been acted from prompt copies without rehearsal.

Of Bears and Chairs and Empty Space
Visualizing the Material Culture of Shakespeare's London
Staging the Self: Theatrical Performance and Identity in Early Modern England
Implied Action and Renaissance Play Text
Othello After O.J.: A Photo Negative Image
Sharing Shakespeare: An Academic's Adventures with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company

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