Doctoral Dissertation Abstract

Shakespearean Contingencies: Repertory Allusion and the Birth of Mass Culture by Bradley Stewart Berens

  • Doctor of Philosophy in English
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • Professor Joel B. Altman, Chair

“Repertory allusion” refers to features of Shakespeare’s plays in performance that solicited a distinct response from part of the original audience. Types of scenes, character names, and turns of phrase recurring from play to play were Shakespeare’s allusions to his previous work. These allusions suggest that Shakespeare deliberately linked performances of different plays in the repertory of the Chamberlain-King’s Men. In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, when Borachio relates that a woman bid him “a thousand times good night” while leaning out a window (3.3.147-48), its echo of the famous line from Romeo and Juliet is no coincidence. Instead, it indicates an extensive, and hitherto unrecognized, relationship between the plays. Haunting the first performances of Much Ado About Nothing, the tragic characters of Romeo and Juliet shadowed their comic counterparts: for original playgoers who had seen both plays, tragic memories continually threatened to overwhelm the comedy. These returning audience members, whom I refer to as “veteran playgoers,” had a more complicated cognitive experience than first-timers.

Repertory allusions reveal Shakespeare’s practice of audience building: he rewarded veteran playgoers with a sophisticated comprehension of performances in their repertory context, an experiential payoff that enticed playgoers to return to see the Chamberlain-King’s men time and again. This understanding of the mental composition of Shakespeare’s audience departs from previous work suggesting that the crucial distinction among Shakespeare’s playgoers is socioeconomic class. Such accounts fail to explain why both groundlings and lords contentedly watched the same plays.

In contrast, this dissertation contends that Shakespeare imagined an audience split between first-time visitors and veteran playgoers whose pleasure was enhanced by each performance. Most theoretical descriptions of performance homogenize the range of playgoing cognition, but critical attention to the different kinds of playgoing experience reveals Shakespeare’s interest in an audience identity emerging through repeated theatrical experiences. His multivalent economic ties to his company made William Shakespeare uniquely well-situated to cultivate his veteran playgoers’ increasing aesthetic fund of experience. This dissertation examines Shakespeare’s playwriting practice as a mass culture phenomenon, arguing that he anticipated, or invented, our modes of experiencing theater, movies, and television today.

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