Spectacle was stock-in-trade for Shakespeare and his professional cohorts in 1600. Indeed, the move of Shakespeare's company to the indoor Blackfriars Theater toward the end of his career seems to have inspired ever more extravagant set-pieces like Jupiter's descent in Cymbeline, the coming to life of Hermione's statue in The Winter's Tale, and the wedding masque in The Tempest. To complain, then, about excessive visual effects in modern productions of Shakespeare's plays is not altogether justified. Perhaps if Shakespeare had had access to hydraulic platforms and computerized lighting systems, he would have exploited those resources to the full. Nonetheless there are grounds for suspecting that special effects in stage productions today represent an effort to make theater competitive with films. Another reason is to be found in the concept of "director's theater"—which merges easily into "designer's theater." Setting Othello in a late nineteenth-century outpost of the British empire or The Tempest in a space module can become the occasion for a through-designed spectacle that may well be more impressive than the performances of individual actors. As Sheldon Zitner observes with respect to film and television, actors in such a situation become "expressions of a context rather than its creators": in a word, they become objects in a primarily visual experience (39).

Analyzing spectacle in the theater, whether in Shakespeare's time or now, involves two sorts of problems:

  • the variable of individual spectators and
  • the lack of an agreed system of notation.
Marvin Carlson has addressed the first of these problems in Theatre Semiotics. Theatrical performance, he argues, "occupies a strange, even uncanny position midway between arts of absence, such as the novel or the cinema, and the experience of presence we have in everyday life" (96). Presences in the theater, as in everyday life, are not totally organized in and of themselves. Organization is partly in the eye of the beholder. However carefully designed a production may be in guiding the focus of spectators, an individual within that group is still able to pick and choose what she will attend to at a given moment and how she will piece together what she has noticed into a significant whole. Film and video, by contrast, are much more controlling media. The spectator in the theater constantly has the entire space of performance open to him and can decide where to look and when; the spectator of a film or video has had those choices made for him by a camera.

The problem of notating spectacle in the theater, as Patrice Pavis points out in Languages of the Stage, is similar: how to account for all the multiple elements that might be noted. A survey of various notational systems leads Pavis to the conclusion that "every technique of notation corresponds less to a way of seeing and emphasizing certain elements of performance, than a way of failing to see other elements" (123). Since no system of notation—not even video recording—is ever going to be able to reproduce the spectacle it purports to notate, Pavis takes a cue from Artaud and proposes that analysts of spectacle should "oscillate" between

  • musical transcription—that is, a symbolic, written system, made up of coded and repeatable signs—and
  • code language—which is closer to the myth or the hieroglyph, that is, to motivated signs, capable of a synthesis between the arbitrary and the motivated, the symbolic and the iconic" (125).
A document in the latter language doesn't stand for something else; it becomes a work of art in its own right. Pavis concludes by enumerating five essential elements that have to be accounted for in any notation of a theatrical performance:
  • speech
  • stage space
  • the relationship between stage and audience
  • the relationship between the physical appearance of character and action on the one hand and the analysis of character and action on the other
  • an awareness of the framing devices that are being used to organize different sets of continuous events—movement, lighting, speech, etc.—into meaningful ensembles (128).
Putting Pavis's principles to practical use was one of the primary exercises brought to the seminar by Lois Potter. After seeing Michael Kahn's production of King John at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, participants were asked to produce a one-paragraph review that took a single short section of the play and analyzed it, using a notational system of the reviewer's own devising.

Contributons to this website by seminar participants illustrate a range of the framing devices mentioned by Pavis. Juana Green's summary of her work on "Visualizing the Material Culture of Shakespeare's London" discusses the employment of material objects onstage. Erika Lin's project "Staging the Self: Theatrical Performance and Identity in Early Modern England " is focused on the phenomenology of the physical stage, on the ways in which characters mark out a space for themselves vis--vis the spectators and use that space to find and project identities for themselves. Peter Mortenson's analysis of "Implied Action and Renaissance Play Text" demonstrates how passages in a variety of scripts make complete sense only when fleshed out with body movements. Two participants, Janet Field-Pickering and Gretchen Schulz, offer accounts of their work as theater educators, Field-Pickering at the Folger and Schulz at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. "Of Bears and Chairs and Empty Space" describes some of Field-Pickering's techniques; Schulz shares some of hers in "Sharing Shakespeare: An Academic's Adventures with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company." Peggy Russo's project takes a distinctly political stance to stage imagery. In "Othello after O.J.: A Photonegative Image" Russo explores the changing dynamics of blackness in stagings of Othello.

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

Digital Media/Film & Video/Stage Production/Printed Media