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Anston Bosman

"Theatrical Mobility"

Anston Bosman, Amherst College


How does translation redraw the intellectual geography of early modern theatre?  Recent scholarship has revealed the life of early English drama outside the London playhouses: a network of traveling players performing entertainments for diverse audiences in a variety of spaces.  But the roads, waterways, commerce and communications that made theatrical mobility possible extended beyond England onto the Continent, where players and texts were displaced, ideas exchanged, meanings modified, and forms renewed.  European playwrights plundered the repertoire of the visiting players and writers in order to craft plays that blended local didactic literature with the condensed casts, tight dramatic structure, exaggerated language and sensational plots popularized by the travelers.


This historical situation resembles the fictional one conjured by Shakespeare in Hamlet, a play full of journeys and metamorphoses that has from its inception been endlessly packaged, disseminated and transformed.  The First Quarto of Hamlet describes the play as acted in London, Cambridge and Oxford, and “elsewhere,” and among the other places at its sources and destinations none is more important than the cultural system around the western coast of Europe, including the English Channel, the North Sea, and the Baltic.  Based on a Nordic tale retold in French, Hamlet crisscrosses the continent from Helsingør to Paris to Wittenberg to Vienna; at its center a German-educated Danish prince rewrites an Italian play in the repertoire of a traveling company and, for this dramaturgical intervention, is punished with a diplomatic mission to England.  In reality, the impresarios of Shakespeare’s age managed a reverse flow of actors and dramas whose texts and performances may be reconstructed via a range of intertexts such as the anonymous German Hamlet play Der bestrafte Brudermord.


Yet despite Hamlet’s early migration—it was performed in 1607 on board a ship off the coast of Africa—it took some time for Shakespeare’s tragedy to become what is arguably the most mobile of all dramas composed in Renaissance England.  In fact, the supremely restless plays of the period were Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and Dekker’s Old Fortunatus, all three of which appeared in Dutch and German versions in the seventeenth century.  The latter two were links in a transcultural and intermedial chain of earlier dramatizations and Volksbücher.  Such cultural translations deploy formal strategies of framing, generic grafting, code-mixing and clowning to ironize sources and sharpen targets, and in the process dissolve the boundaries between local repertoires as well as national archives.  Moreover, because the history of drama does not progress evenly across cultures, plays that compound elements from different places also compress layers of time, so that transcultural works are inevitably polychronic.  Surveying the operations of nostalgia, pastiche, parody or burlesque in continental transformations is one way of grasping the space-time of early modern theatre—an extension beyond the “two hours’ traffic” of London stages into contact zones that no play survived unchanged.


Anston Bosman is Associate Professor and Director of Studies in the English Department at Amherst College.  Recent publications related to the conference theme include the chapter on "Shakespeare and Globalization" in The New Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare (2010) and an essay on Renaissance transformations of Terence, “‘Best Play with Mardian’: Eunuch and Blackamoor as Imperial Culturegram,” in Shakespeare Studies 34 (2006).   He is completing a book on transnational theater in the early modern Germanic world and a collaborative project on "Intertheatricality" with Gina Bloom (UC Davis) and Will West (Northwestern).


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