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Reflections on "Spenser, Poetry and Performance" at Shakespeare's Globe, 12-13 June 2017
by Jane Grogan, Tiffany Jo Werth; Linda Gregerson, Stephanie Elsky, Patricia Palmer, Deana Rankin, Will Tosh, Nathan Szymanski, Sarah Van der Laan, William N. West

Jump to: Introduction, Linda GregersonStephanie Elsky, Patricia PalmerDeana RankinWill Tosh, Nathan Szymanski, Sarah Van der Laan, William N. West, Programme notes



Stephanie Elsky (Rhodes College), Jane Grogan (University College Dublin) and Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis)

Organisers: Jane Grogan, Tiffany Jo Werth, and Stephanie Elsky (ISS)

Farah Karim-Cooper, Will Tosh, Robin Craig (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Shakespeare, like many other early modern dramatists, was a poet as well as a play-maker (and a performer himself, of course); one part of his practice informed the other. Ten years his elder, Edmund Spenser, was the most admired English poet of his day, ‘fame’s eldest favourite’ (Thomas Nashe) and ‘sage and serious Spenser’ (John Milton), and a rich source of interest and allusion for Christopher Marlowe, himself a ‘tragicall poet’ (Francis Meres) and ‘the Muses darling’ (George Peele). But despite these examples of dramatists and poets crossing generic boundaries, moving between the demands of poetic text and dramatic performance, we rarely study early modern drama as a way of understanding the nature and reach of Spenser’s poetry. Nor do we look to Elizabethan poetry to help us understand the language and literary ambitions of early modern drama. This Research in Action workshop grew out of the question: what do we miss by neglecting the connections, tensions, and mutual influence of these two nearly contemporary writers, and through them, of the traffic between early modern poetry and performance?

We have known for a long time now that Shakespeare knew his Spenser, even if direct allusions can be tricky to pin down.[1] On the other side, we tend to forget that Spenser was a London boy, who got his schooling at Merchant Taylors’ under the innovative schoolmaster Richard Mulcaster, a man who set great store by drama and performance in education. Although Spenser was based in Ireland from 1580 until his death early in 1599, he made regular visits to London, both for his poetry and for his professional service within the English colonial administration. One wonders how much drama he may have seen, and further, while in that speculative vein, whether Shakespeare turned up to his funeral in London early in 1599, paid for by the Earl of Essex, to whom Shakespeare would refer in one of his plays later that year. But biography, and even Spenser’s form of tricksy self-referentiality or ‘auto-fabrication’, can take us only so far.[2] When an exciting opportunity arose to try out Spenser’s poetry on the stage of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, courtesy of Farah Karim-Cooper, head of higher education and research at Shakespeare’s Globe, the moment for exploring these connections through performance-based research seemed irresistible.

Our questions were many: how might these two authors have understood the relationship between poetic and dramatic writing? What did dramatists learn from poetry, and what did poets learn from dramatists? Do they treat language differently? How far do the conditions and values of performance enter into conceptions of early modern poetry, especially given the shared interest in voice, in persuasion, in affect? How might we better conceptualize the relationship between poetic and dramatic writing - and between the consumption of poetry and drama in the period? We have become more accustomed to thinking of early modern playgoers as people who might also go out and buy play-texts, but how important is it to think of these people as also heavy consumers of poetry (especially young men at the Inns of Court, for example)? Do we need to re-evaluate our understanding of ‘intertextuality’ when it involves influences across media, whether from poetry to drama or the other way around? These and other questions propelled our two-day gathering on 12th and 13th June 2017, bringing together in dialogue 90 attendees — poetry scholars, drama scholars, theatre historians, scholars of performance studies, actors, and theatre professionals — from different parts of the world. In a unique collaboration between Shakespeare’s Globe and the International Spenser society, ‘Spenser, Poetry and Performance’ featured a variety of non-traditional discussion formats alongside the Research in Action workshop at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and the critical conversation unfolded both on and off the stage.

In keeping with the exploratory nature of the event, Monday 12 June featured four facilitated discussion panels in the Nancy Knowles Lecture theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe. Rather than the usual set of academic papers, a panel of four experts were given 3-5 minutes each to introduce a set of key points or approaches, illustrated and accompanied by an agreed set of pivot readings from Spenser’s poetry. The readings were performed by ‘on-the-book’ actors Fran Marshall and Matthew Foster, followed by further discussion from the panelists and contributions from the floor. Our four themes for the panels were 1) Poetry, Dialogue and Performance; 2) Performing Lyric/Music’s Poetry; 3) Performing Materiality and the Non/Human; and 4) Rhyme, Line and Lyric. We are delighted to share these sessions, along with the excerpted readings, via podcast here. The findings from these panels ‘were too long to tell’, but some of the greatest payoffs, perhaps, included the stichomythia from ‘August’ (The Shepheardes Calender) which drew hearty laughter and a new appreciation for Spenser’s understanding of performative dialogue (so much for the ‘sage and serious’ Spenser of Milton); the alluring relish of poetic effects (alliteration and assonance in particular) in the description of ‘Gluttony’ from the pageant of the Seven Deadly Sins in Lucifera’s House of Pride; the lyricism of Epithalamion 5 and 6, especially its musical echoing effects; and the chilling intimations of human extinction sounded in one of the most famous sonnets of the Amoretti (75).

Meanwhile, back in the Playhouse, Linda Gregerson, Will West and Will Tosh had the tough but enviable task of workshopping and preparing for performance a selection of extracts from both Spenser and Shakespeare, working together with Irish actor Deirdre Mullins, English actors Dominic Brewer and Philip Bird, and Icelandic musician extraordinaire Arngeir Hauksson. The fruits of their work were revealed to a large crowd of conference attendees and the general public that evening in an unforgettable two-hour Research in Action Workshop. The video recording of this workshop, ‘Performing Elizabethan Poetry: Spenser and Shakespeare’, is available for consultation by scholars visiting the Globe’s Library and Archive. But we share, below, the programme notes for the evening, as well as reflections by the directors, actors and audience members in the pieces that follow. Suffice it to say that the experience was truly transformative of our understanding of a performed and performative Spenser, and a stunning insight into the possibilities of a performance-based approach to early modern poetry at large.

Tuesday 13th June began with a set of comments on the previous evening’s Research in Action workshop and performance, followed by four more traditional academic panels covering subjects such as Spenser’s pageantry, connections with university drama, dramatic voices in Petrarchan lyric poetry, and Shakespeare’s influence on Spenser. The full second day program, with paper titles and abstracts, can be found in the Fall issue of the Spenser Review. The day ended with an energising closing roundtable, which can be heard here. ‘Spenser, Poetry and Performance’ concluded with a lively wine reception and a roomful of exhausted, but exhilarated delegates, inspired by this innovative, exploratory but ultimately celebratory conjunction of performance and poetry, Spenser and Shakespeare. For it, we owe great thanks to all of the participants, to our colleagues in Shakespeare’s Globe, especially Farah Karim-Cooper (who first suggested the idea) and Will Tosh, to our superb directors Linda Gregerson and Will West and to early encouragers such as Kenneth Gross, Bill Oram and Ewan Fernie. We also are grateful for support for the event from Shakespeare’s Globe, the International Spenser Society, University College, Dublin and Simon Fraser University. And we look forward to continuations of the compelling critical conversations launched with such verve at Shakespeare’s Globe last June.



Elizabethan Poetry in Performance: Spenser and Shakespeare
Research in Action Workshop

Linda Gregerson (University of Michigan)

The scene: The beautiful and remarkably intimate space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe

The time: Early afternoon on a Monday in June

The context: A conference on Spenser, Poetry and Performance, organized by Jane Grogan, Tiffany Jo Werth, and Stephanie Elsky

The personae: Will Tosh, Lecturer and Research Fellow at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Coordinator of the Globe Education’s Research in Action program

Arngeir Hauksson, lutenist

Philip Bird, Dominic Brewer, Deirdre Mullins, actors

Linda Gregerson and Will West, here in the guise of Spenser scholars

The question: What can we learn in a performance workshop setting about the relationship of poetry and performance in the work of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare?

The invitation was irresistible: Would Will West and I be interested in working with Will Tosh and a group of performers in a workshop at Shakespeare’s Globe? Absolutely! But how could we possibly be of use? ‘Ah’, the Organizers assured us, ‘we have every confidence in you’.  So Will West (hereafter Will W) and I set to work on a series of rubrics and parallel passages drawn from hither and yon in those two capacious bodies of work: the writings of William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. In response to which the Organizers expressed continuing gratitude and encouragement and patiently explained that this was not quite what they’d had in mind. Guided by their own wonderfully ambitious outline, we tried again, hampered only by the fact that we would have at our disposal not six months of improv and rehearsal time but a scant five hours. We hope, in the end, they were not too disappointed by our scalings-down. From our perspective, the workshop and the evening’s performance were marvellous opportunities for practical enquiry into the reciprocal dynamics of page and stage. The actors were superb and endlessly resourceful, willing to try anything. A former actor himself as well as a scholar of early modern theatre, Will Tosh (hereafter Will T) deftly kept us all on task and on schedule, leading us safely through every temptation toward Mazy Digression.

The afternoon’s most thrilling investigation, from my perspective, and the one that led to the most surprising results, involved the temptation of Redcrosse Knight by Despair in the Book of Holinesse. Our mandate involved comparative questions about poetry in performance. We were working in the House That Shakespeare Built. What was to be the fate of Spenser’s exquisitely complex poetic achievement in this setting and with these methods? Wouldn’t poetry written chiefly for the page invariably suffer by comparison with poetry written for the stage? It occurred to us to challenge the resilience of the stage by focusing on a passage in The Faerie Queene whose power seems indissolubly tied to the private reading experience: what would happen when such a passage is translated to the materiality of performance? As every reader discovers for herself, Spenser’s personae do and do not function like dramatic characters. Bound in fruitful tension between allegorical and narrative obligations, they are specifically designed to prompt multiple and conflicting modes of apprehension. The reader is required to be mobile, imagining now the multiple figures in a scene of action, now the strenuous encounter of abstract principles, now the speaking partners in dialogue, now the inward divisions of the individual psyche. Augmenting these instabilities are the ambiguous pronouns, sliding modifiers, and occluded speaker attributions that form so distinctive a part of Spenser’s poetic. Consider the last of these alone: again and again the reader is required to hypothesise speaker attribution, only to find this hypothesis unconfirmed or flatly contradicted. This in turn requires a pause, a ‘rewind’, and a second reading, possibly more. Isn’t the cognitive puzzle here, and the cognitive pleasure, peculiar to the reading experience alone? Wouldn’t the clear division of ‘roles’ among actual performers in actual space and time constitute an inevitable diminishment? We decided to try it out.

Many a reader has been momentarily confused by the back and forth between Despair and Redcrosse Knight in Book I, Canto 9. Who is speaking when? Who is deferring to providence? Who is quoting scripture and to what end? Whose argument is wicked? Whose is virtuous? Why does the one seem so easily to morph into the other? In fact, with some painstaking application and a ruthless commitment to clarity, the sorting is quite possible: of the ninety lines in the long temptation scene of TFQ I.ix.38-47, A. C. Hamilton attributes only four to Redcrosse Knight. The beginning of the passage is easily established: ‘The knight much wondred at his suddeine wit, / And sayd … ‘ (I.ix.41.1-2). Far less clear, at least on an early reading, is where the passage ends. ‘Who life did limit by almightie doome,/ (Quoth he) knowes best the termes established’ (I.ix.41.6-7) follows smoothly from the pious sentiment of ‘The souldier may not moue from warchfull sted, / Nor leaue his stand, untill his Captaine bed’ (I.ix.41.4-5), although the reader will soon discover s/he must revise this initial impression of continuity. The new lines (‘Who life did limit’ etc.) lead to others that seriously trouble our understanding of Redcrosse Knight and his narrato-allegorical function (‘The lenger life, I wote the greater sin’ (I.ix.43.1)) and to others (‘Then doe no further goe, no further stray  / But here ly downe, and to thy rest betake’ (I.ix.44.1-2))  that cannot possibly be assigned to him. A series of rereadings and hypothetical reassignments will lead most readers to concur with Hamilton’s assignment of speakers to lines. However, while this parsing may be correct, it fails to capture the actual experience of reading. That is not its business: editorial annotation is meant to spare readers the uncertainties and backtracking of an unassisted encounter with the text. But how might we take uncertainty as central to the meaning of the text? Spenser’s method is one that privileges error and revision: he’s a master of the cognitive stutter. How might we posit these complexities in performance?

That is, how could readerly error be reproduced onstage? Perhaps the temporality of revisionary reading could be translated to the simultaneity of overlapping speakers, we thought. Redcrosse might continue speaking those lines that seem to be a continuation of his pious protest, even as Despair begins to speak himself, Redcrosse dropping away only when the lines could not possibly belong to him. Or her, in this instance, Deirdre Mullins gamely taking on the role of Redcrosse and Philip Bird of Despair. And in a handful of run-throughs, these marvellous performers made of our simple prompt a thing quite rich and strange.

Rather than framing a single passage of uncertain transfer with a set piece of clearly delineated dialogue – a translation manifestly inadequate to Spenser’s haunting portrait of Despair – they made porous boundaries and complicity the governing principle of performance. As Philip spoke in the person of Despair, Deirdre (Redcrosse) would venture a few lines here and there, as though trying on a point of view, or succumbing to hypnosis. Philip would veer toward tyranny one moment and insinuation the next. Ostensible initiative passed back and forth. Clear divisions disappeared. Conscience and hopelessness, piety and doubt confusedly infected one another. And we in the audience began to feel the full force of Spenser’s inside/outside, affective/intellectual, intuitive/doctrinal, individual/collective rendering of Christianity’s foremost deadly sin. We knew it before, or thought we did: it was the premise of the workshop.  But the joy was to discover anew just how powerful an investigative instrument performance really is.


Spenser in Time

Stephanie Elsky (Rhodes College)

Although a co-organiser of ‘Spenser, Poetry, and Performance’ with an interest in the performative aspects of poetry, I confess I was concerned. Would these two days, held in Shakespeare’s Globe, of all places, conclude that Spenser owed an overwhelming debt to drama? Would we be trying to turn Spenser into yet another dramatist? Doesn’t Renaissance drama have enough?, I crankily thought to myself. Does it need to take Spenser too? Reader, I need not have feared. Performance, as an analytical lens and an embodied experience, taught me much more than I could have possibly foreseen about Spenser’s work as a poet. My remarks on the concluding roundtable, which I expand here, sought to articulate an important thread in our two days’ work.

While not often explicitly named as such, temporality (not to mention timing) was an undercurrent running through the whole remarkable event – in the facilitated discussions and panel papers; in the actors’ readings and performance in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre; and in the conversations that took place before, after, and in between. Taken as a whole, the conference shed remarkable light on issues of temporality in Spenser and in performance. I begin with two observations about how our own scholarly temporalities (or conception of what makes for scholarly temporality) were altered by the unusual and remarkable format of this event.

Slow Reading. I think it is fair to say that we academics were universally delighted with how viewing performances of Spenser’s poetry by Globe actors (in the very different spaces of the conference room and Sam Wanamaker Theatre) shaped our understanding of that poetry. A good part of our delight came from the way these performances unsettled our understanding of the time in which scholarly analysis takes place. ‘Slow reading’ is usually associated with the practice of private reading. This is supposed to be when scholarly interpretation happens. Performance, on the other hand, is often deemed to move too quickly to offer a basis upon which to develop a ‘reading’. Yet, ironically, the term ‘slow reading’ was invoked multiple times to describe the experience of watching actors perform. The experience of performance slowed us down in ways we hadn’t anticipated. In our conversation at the conclusion of the first day, Susanne Wofford spoke of performance as an opening up of time, one that allows for different pleasures and interpretations. In his reflection on the Research in Action Workshop the next morning, Bart Van Es similarly referred to the theatrical performances by Philip Bird, Dominic Brewer, Deirdre Mullins, so wonderfully directed by Linda Gregerson, Will Tosh, and Will West, an exercise in ‘slow reading’.

Although, sadly, we cannot always have actors on hand (especially those of such skill and calibre!), how can we continue to incorporate the experience of performance into our scholarly practice? How can those who study drama primarily continue to learn from the performance of poetry? It is our hope that the podcasts of the actors’ ‘pivot readings’ during the first day of the conference (emerging from the facilitated discussion panels on Poetry, Dialogue, and Performance; Performing Lyric, Poetry’s Music; Performing Materiality and the Non-Human; and Rhyme, Line, and Lyric in Drama and Poetry) can provide a basis, or inspiration, for this type of work.

Precedence. When participants were charged with the task of considering Spenser’s relationship to performance, they happily took us away from another scholarly temporality, that of origins and precedence. The latter may have led us to make certain assumptions, that Spenser influenced Shakespeare, for example, or that printed playbooks shaped the printing of poetry. Surely, those printed speech prefixes in “August”’s Willye/Perigot stichomythia must have been be taken from early modern playbooks? Yet, Emma Smith offered the intriguing argument that in fact the opposite may have occurred. What, she asked, does Spenser contribute to the printing of performance? Similarly, in his talk, Willy Maley introduced the concept of a ‘latticework of links’ to describe the connections between Shakespeare and Spenser, suggesting that Spenser may have been influenced by Shakespeare rather than vice versa.

Duration. A story that stubbornly persists: performance is ephemeral, while poetry, especially written poetry, is enduring – or at least potentially enduring (since, of course, Spenser himself often questions poetry’s monumentality). The way we came to think about performance as ‘slow reading’ already poses a challenge to that story, but there were other ways in which this happened too. Over and again we saw the temporalities of poetry and performance unexpectedly overlap on a conceptual level through an interplay of what Simon Jackson described in his talk on the echo as a musical effect in Epithalamion as ‘flux and fixity’. Rather than settle on one or another, this echo holds the two in suspense. Joseph Campana invited us to hear in Amoretti 75 not poetic immortality (that is fixity, endurance) but rather its opposite: extinction. Campana characterised the female voice in this sonnet as a performance from a lyric future without humans. In terms of the experiential quality of performance, the actors in the Research in Action workshop pushed us to rethink the stanza as an essentially poetic unit, distinct from drama. They spoke of their experience of its timing, the play of its pauses, as not so different from drama after all. While Performance Studies has begun to push back on temporality as one of the constitutive binaries between performance and writing, Spenser revealed to us how temporality itself could be a place where theatricality and poetry meet. We have long recognised Spenser as a poet who manipulates our sense of time to an astonishing degree – and with profound effects on our understanding and experience of concepts ranging from the self to history. With ‘Spenser, Poetry, and Performance’ we can consider, too, the tantalising possibility that his poetry itself might be a resource for the creation of dramatic time. 



‘Wanton Bardes, and Rymers Impudent’: A Response to ‘Spenser, Poetry, and Performance’

Patricia Palmer (Maynooth University)

By putting Spenser on the stage, the Globe’s Research in Action workshop reminded us what a creature of the page he really is. By making stanzas stand up and walk about, by showing what happens when the silent music of Spenser’s verse assumes voice and directs the motions of acting bodies, the workshop sent us back to the page with new perspectives and different questions. It was no surprise that the staging of extracts from The Faerie Queene, the shorter poems, and A View of the Present State of Ireland didn’t flush out a hitherto unrecognised performance poet. But it was revealing that Spenser’s most ‘theatrical’ moments turned out to be pageants – or pageants masked as masques. As befits an allegorist, Spenser’s stageable possibilities are predominantly dramas of exposition rather than of exploration: the Masque of Cupid’s personifications, for example, lend themselves to being paraded but never dramatised. Even when summoned by the actors’ dramatised reading, ‘Fansy’, ‘Desyre’, ‘Doubt’, and ‘Daunger’ remained creatures of their narrator, subordinate to his damning qualifiers (‘womanlike’, ‘vaine’, ‘ydle’) (FQ.III.xii.7.7, 8.5, 9). Emblems on hind legs, they paraded around ‘in trim array’, never threatening to escape into the autonomy of embodied characters.

Something more disruptive happened, however, when the actors moved from reading narrative descriptions dramatically to treating the words of allegorical figures as though they were speeches in a drama. The actor discovers – invents – autonomous characters and plural voices where, on the page, there are only concepts and assertions in the fancy-dress of allegory. The dramatised reading of Red Crosse Knight’s encounter with Despair, in Book 1, Canto 9, for example, complicated the text’s didactic exchange between tempter and tempted by availing of Spenser’s customary indeterminacy around speech indicators to fold the voices of Despair and Red Crosse Knight together at the point where the latter succumbs to Despair’s persuasions. So, when Despair seductively enjoins ‘Sleepe after toyle’ (I.ix.40.8), the voice of the druggily entranced Red Crosse takes up the tune and joins in. We watch the entrapment happen in slow motion; allegory has become psychology.

The psychological basis of dramatic characterisation, however, turned into something more problematic when A View of the Present State of Ireland was staged as though it were a reasoned discussion between a pair of debonair parliamentarians. Irenius’s argument that the scorched earth policy that had crushed the Desmond ‘Rebellion’ in the early 1580s needed be rolled out again in the mid-1590s to starve O’Neill’s Confederates into submission became more provisional, qualified and humanised when Eudoxus was incarnated as a counterweight interlocutor (rather than a compliant adjunct to Irenius’s assertions), and when the actor playing Irenius allowed his voice to quaver empathetically when remembering the ‘anatomies of death…crying out of theire graves’. [3] This flesh-and-blood Irenius becomes a character who, troubled, conflicted and compassionate, makes his devastating advocacy of famine more in sorrow than in anger: ‘yet sure in all that warre, there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremitie of famine, which they themselves had wrought’ (102). The question this raises about the translatability of page to stage is partly a question of genre: what happens to a Renaissance ‘dialogue’ – more correctly, in the case of A View, a monologue for two voices – when it’s treated as a theatrical debate? But, even more importantly, what happens when we transpose a unitary voice into something more incorrigibly plural? Ideology and a genocidal prescription that would shortly be put into action by Elizabeth I’s generals, Carew, Mountjoy and Chichester, becomes, on the stage, an anguished expression of personality. As the workshop’s audiences’ declarations about ‘feeling moved’ attest, it makes the advocacy of man-made famine available to that most meretricious of political emotions, sentimentality. The natives still must die but now, at least, the perpetrator feels bad about it.

With the poetry, too, this new, stage-play Spenser brought a shift in the political valence of the work. The translation of arguments ‘deepe within the mynd’ (VI.0.5.8) into words delivered by embodied characters on stage entails a translation of the monological and the self-divided into the plural and the dialogic. It turns a poetry of absolutes that are forever being undone, of certainties that unravel, and endings that come unstuck into the more unitary articulations of two-dimensional characters. As they become more psychologically grounded, they also, paradoxically, become more fixed. A poetry of self-division becomes less complex, less internally conflicted, when it is dispersed into multiple characters, each with only a single point of view. 

The spoken verse in the Research in Action Workshop forcefully demonstrated just how well Spenser works orally – but his is the orality of the storyteller, not the playwright. It was strange that, amid so much talk of theatrical genres, the genre of romance was missing from the conversation almost entirely. Yet, the real enchantment of listening to actors reading Spenser was that of listening to a compelling, swift-moving story. Time and again, the Globe actors – telling, for example, the story of Pastorella, the princess raised by the shepherd, Meliboe – brought me, at least, not to the playhouse but to a scene of storytelling. It brought me to Ireland, to Munster and to the great hall of a castle where a professional storyteller, a seanchaidhe, enthralled his audience with precisely such storylines of romance. [4] But the event was strangely amnesiac about Spenser’s 18 years in Ireland, despite Willy Maley’s reminder that Ireland should not be seen solely as a not-London non-lieu, a cultural wasteland where, exiled from the playhouse and the company of university players, his muse was forced into compensatory, untheatrical directions. The wistful narrative of what-ifs – what if Spenser had been able to graduate from university playwriting to the London stage? what if he had regularly seen Marlowe and Shakespeare? – turns its back entirely on the fact that, between 1580 and 1598, Spenser was actually in the midst of a very different world of performance. That world was hidden in plain sight in the final extract, performed without a sidelong glance to that reality. Britomart (sheltering from some very Irish-sounding bad weather), is still marvelling at Ease, the ‘graue personage’ who ‘passioned’ the prologue to the Masque of Cupid, when

                                a ioyous fellowship issewd
  Of Minstrals, making goodly meriment,
  With wanton Bardes, and Rymers impudent,
  All which together sung full chearefully
  A lay of loues delight, with sweet consent (III.xii.3.6,

It is they who lead in the ‘iolly company’ of masquers; the air is filled with a worryingly seductive ‘delitious harmony’ which

  In full straunge notes was sweetly heard to sound,
  That the rare sweetnesse of the melody
  The feeble senses wholly did confound (III.xii.5.8, 6.1-4).

We need to think harder about these ‘wanton Bardes, and Rymers impudent’ if we are to piece together the full story of Spenser’s performance history. Spenser the colonial official had good raisons d’État to deplore, in A View of the Present State of Ireland and elsewhere, the poetic class which furnished the ideological armour steeling Gaelic and Old English lords’ resistance to colonial incursion. But he was neither unacquainted with their craft nor, as Britomart’s involuntary ‘confound’-ment’ attests, immune to their charms.

A snapshot of Spenser’s neglected performance context is unexpectedly supplied by George Legge’s 1595 map of the Munster Plantation.[5] It depicts Spenser’s castle in Kilcolman – cadmium-orange tower-and-bawn on a moss-green mound – surrounded on all sides by the micro-courts of the Gaelic and Old English lordships. What it can’t show is that many of these were the redoubts of court poets and retinues of musicians and entertainers. Just to the south-east of Kilcolman, Legge shows Roche’s rather grander castle, home to the ‘Book of Fermoy’, one of the most significant manuscript compilations of the period.[6] The ‘Teig Olyve’ in whose towerhouse Spenser ‘lay… one night as he came home from the sessions at Limerick’ is, properly, Tadhg ollamh, Lord Roche’s ollamh or chief poet, probably Tadhg Ó Dalaigh. (So outraged was Lord Roche by his poet’s temerity in entertaining the vexatious planter that he ‘killed a fat beef’ belonging to the overly hospitable Tadhg.)[7] We are left to imagine how the two poets passed their evening together but the fact that they did opens a window on to Spenser’s own conversations with the bards. We know from the View that Spenser ‘caused diuers [bardic poems] to be translated unto me that I might understande them’ (77), and figures like Tadhg ollamh and evenings of recitations and performance formed part of that exchange.

To the west of Kilcolman lay Dúthaigh Ealla, in the overlordship of Domhnall MacCarthaigh Mór, Earl of Clancare, himself a poet who encumbered his estate by hosting ‘sumptuous banquets and magnificent entertainments’ to keep the English sweet.[8] MacCarthaigh Mór’s own ollamh, Aonghus Fionn Ó Dalaigh (c.1548-c.1602), wrote – and conducted an influential bardic school – in Cluain Mín. What’s more, in two towerhouses twenty kilometres apart, poet and ollamh were using identical romance motifs: while Spenser wrote of Ruddymane and Red Crosse Knight’s dalliance with False Una, Ó Dalaigh was writing of a hermit and a succuba, of an infant and a bloody hand, in a series of hymns to the Blessed Virgin.[9] Coincidence doesn’t imply influence, but it does suggest just how much is lost when we bypass Spenser’s exposure to bardic performance. The poet who can envisage Red Crosse Knight, in ‘the commune hall’ of Lucifera’s palace, coming across ‘many Bardes, that to the trembling chord / Can tune their timely voyces cunningly’, is someone who knows about Gaelic performance: here is a perfect description of a reacaire, the poetic reciter, performing the work of the file to the accompaniment of a harpist (cruitire).

Of course, the soundtrack to Spenser’s Irish experience included the ‘bagpipes shrill’ (III.x.43.2) as well as ‘Minstrals’’ merrymaking. If Spenser missed out on the London stage, he got himself a ringside seat at a bloody theatre of execution and war. If students approaching Titus Andronicus require the protection of a trigger warning, what, we must ask, was triggered in Spenser by his spectatorship at scenes of dismemberment and grief:

at the execution of… Murrogh O-brien, I saw an old woman, which was his foster mother, take up his head, whilst he was quartered, and sucked up all the blood runne thereout, saying, that the earth was not worthy to drincke it, and therewith also steeped her face and breast, and tore her haire, crying out and shrieking most terribly (66). [10]  

Spenser uses the word ‘performance’ three times in A View, always in the sense of executing a task that is, in two of those cases, a military task. The Irish are to be stripped of their clan identity and trained up to the ‘performance’ of a trade (148). The ‘performance’ of the Chief Governor should include, euphemistically, having ‘an uncontrouled power to doe any thing, that he… should thinke meete to be done’ (159-60). And Irenius holds up Lord Grey’s ‘performance’ in ‘dispeopling and driving away all the [native] inhabitants’ from the lordship of Fiachaidh Mac Aodha Ó Broin as a model for bringing the whole country to ‘eternall quietnesse’ (115) – the quiet of depopulation. 

The musician Arngeir Hauksson provided a beguiling accompaniment to the workshop performances, switching between lute, theorbo, and gittern. To recreate the full backing track to Spenser’s experience of performance, however, we need to add the ‘dainty musicke’ (IV.xi.23.2) of the harp, as well as the ‘shrill trompets’ (III.xii.6.6) of war and its ‘bagpipes shrill, / And shrieking Hububs’ (III.x.43.2-3). I look forward to seeing that in Shakespeare’s Globe. 



Of Women, Actors and Bards

Deana Rankin (Royal Holloway, University of London)

I start with a confession: I missed most of the first day of ‘Spenser, Poetry, and Performance’, arriving just in time for the evening Research in Action Workshop. I missed it – this is relevant – because I was leading a very different performance-based workshop just along the Southbank at the National Theatre on ‘Acts of Violence and Yaël Farber’s Salomé’. I rushed into the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, then, with my head (and my heart) still full of images, sounds, and thoughts: of the politics and poetics of silencing women on stage; of the transformation of Oscar Wilde’s Irish Iokonaan enacted by two alternating performers, one of whom spoke Hebrew, the other Arabic. These thoughts, images, and sounds all found resonance in the evening’s Spenser/Shakespeare performance. I offer here three traces of this resonance which, some six months on, continue to haunt my reading – and teaching – of Spenser:

Of women: It came as a shock to find that there were no female characters voiced in the Wanamaker that evening. Deirdre Mullins was, of course, on-stage, but when she played women, they were either dancing or watching plays. Rather than being given voice, the women in the workshop (actors and characters alike) seem to have been silently conjured into the kind of absent presence we know from Epithilamion. For those of us who think of Spenser as a creator of Amazons – I was due to deliver a paper on his ‘Monstrous Regiment’ the next day – this felt, initially very wrong. But in fact it served as a reminder that – for instance — when Britomart gazes out to sea, makes complex calculations, muses on the pain and futility of love, fights fearsome battles, she does so for the most part silently. Spenser’s fighting women are less voluble than we might wish to imagine them.

Of actors: The Globe cast was terrific: their readiness to take on – and openly admit to — the discomforts of performing Spenser’s poetry was admirable. The tendency to recycle ‘hey nonny nonny’ repertoire moments of shepherd comedy rankled at times; yet such self-parodic pastoral also produced moments of haunted insecurity – when Redcrosse and Despair discuss death, for example. The View has, of course, been performed before: indeed Spenser and Shakespeare both voiced whole swathes of it in Frank McGuinness’s Mutabilitie (NT, 1997). The choice to pair Spenser’s dialogue here with Henry V, the first Shakespearean text in play that evening, seemed deliberately controversial. Certainly, the actors’ response to the challenge of voicing these two texts alongside each other proved instructive: standing far apart from each other, the performers seemed to be moving well beyond their comfort zone, with oddly stilted, distant declamation of a text which can also be delivered as a chillingly intimate plan for systematic genocide; this was followed by the sheer relief of the familiar, the comforting sentimental nationalism of Henry’s fearful ‘happy few’.

Of Bards: The actors slipped into Shakespeare like a favourite old cardigan. Their evident comfort with the tenor of Shakespeare as voiced in the Globe nonetheless made me wonder: what if other performers, perhaps unschooled in the ‘original conditions’ of English early modern stage delivery, had experimented with Spenser/Shakespeare’s lines; in Hebrew, or in Arabic, for instance… Or what if we had heard Irish voices that evening? Arngeir Hauksson’s extraordinary musical interventions brought an unexpected depth and colour to Spenser’s poetry in performance; his at once impassioned and informative explanation of his craft brought the art of story-telling into close connection with the instruments themselves. And yet these very qualities – historical research conjugated with performance history — also drew attention to elements of the early-modern sound-scape otherwise strikingly absent that evening: the rhythms, themes, and cadences of the Irish language and of the Bardic poetry which surrounded Spenser in his Munster tower.   



Performing Elizabethan Poetry: Spenser and Shakespeare

Will Tosh (Shakespeare’s Globe)

Photo credit: Pete Le May

With the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014, Shakespeare’s Globe developed a new sort of public research event. The Research in Action format is designed to allow scholars and practitioners to test the capacities of our archetypal early modern theatre in the intimate candle-lit conditions of indoor Tudor and Stuart performance. From the outset, the workshops were intended to draw on the observations and insights of the three key groups in practice-as-research methodologies: academics, artists and audiences. The principles of the format are simple: scholars and practitioners gather on the morning of the event to spend the day exploring and experimenting with a prepared script in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. At six o’clock, a public audience joins in and the scenes or vignettes are performed in front of a crowd, who contribute ideas to the subsequent energetic discussion, re-staging and debate. 

‘Elizabethan Poetry in Performance: Spenser and Shakespeare’, coordinated by Shakespeare’s Globe and the International Spenser Society, was our first attempt to extend this approach to literary texts that are not designedly dramatic. With Linda Gregerson and Will West I helped to devise a workshop script using extracts from Spenser’s works and Shakespeare’s plays that would help us to think about the points of contact between the two writers. Necessarily concise – Research in Action workshops last just over two hours – the selection was not intended to offer a ‘greatest hits’ of late Elizabethan verse and prose, but to give us scope to explore the ways in which the writers were influenced by the conventions and practices of oral poetry, dialogue, musical performance and what we might now call the craft of storytelling. As Linda Gregerson puts it in her contribution to this issue, our objective was to interrogate the ‘reciprocal dynamics of page and stage’, on the well-founded hunch that Spenser and Shakespeare were unlikely to have framed their art within the rigid generic boundaries of modern literary scholarship: if early modern writers thought across poetry and drama, so can we.

After much painful cutting and streamlining, Linda, Will and I produced a script that encompassed the deployment of performance as a literary motif, the blurred boundaries between narration and dramatic dialogue, lyricism in text and music, the pastoral form, and literary representations of war and conquest, and drew on The Faerie Queene (Book 1, Canto 9; Book 3, Canto 12; Book 6, Canto 9), Amoretti, The Shepheardes Calendar, A View of the Present State of Ireland as well as Henry V and As You Like It. These extracts were given life by a foursome of experienced and knowledgeable artists: actors Philip Bird, Dominic Brewer and Deirdre Mullins, and musician Arngeir Hauksson, who played a variety of early modern plucked string instruments (lute, bandora and cittern). Deirdre and Philip supplied written accounts from a performer’s perspective after the event, excerpts of which I include here; the workshop was filmed and the recording is available for consultation at Shakespeare’s Globe.

One of the central purposes of a Research in Action workshop is to incorporate into the processes of scholarly research the particular close-reading skills practised by actors, both in their rehearsal and in the moments of performance. The close multi-directional reading of a scholar, alive to the structural weave of a text, is different to that of an actor, whose prime purpose is to live the moment of their character’s life: an actor may know as much as an academic about the text’s historical or critical context, but their job is to offer a deliberately partial view of a single character’s experiences. As Deirdre puts it, ‘you jump with [the character] off that cliff of experience, you defend their perspective above all others and live and die with them’. The forward motion of this sort of reading, articulated in performance, distinguishes it from the forensic study of the literary critic or, indeed, the leisurely absorption of the private reader.                      

As Linda has revealed in her reflective essay, this produced a disruptively interesting reading of the Despayre and Redcrosse Knight exchange in The Faerie Queene (Book 1, Canto 9), as Spenser’s  ambiguous speaker attribution posed a challenge to the performers: Philip explained to the workshop audience that ‘our starting point was to work out who was talking’, and Dominic Brewer admitted that ‘only later do you realise who is speaking’ – after-the-event wisdom which is effective as a literary technique (connaissance d’escalier?) but a fundamental obstruction to theatrical delivery. The performers’ decision to overlap the voices of the narrator and the characters was driven by the need for clarity, but it also produced a welcome dramatic effect. As Deirdre described it, the ‘actors lent a physical and raw emotional impact’ to a scene in which ‘the audience saw a person, in the same space as themselves, bullied to death’. The experience, she argued, carried ‘exciting implications’ in its extension of complicity to a watching audience (‘should they or could they have reached out and intervened?’) which was made all the more effective by the investment of the narrator in the action of the scene: ‘[Philip, playing the narrator] played it as if he were compelled to take over dialogue from the characters, and thus wound himself into the central and agonising conclusion of the scene’, becoming an ‘active, goading punisher’.

The actors found the task of narration to be a curious one, from a performance point of view. Deirdre pointed out that an actor experiences a ‘distancing effect’ when recounting a narrative, because ‘nothing [is] at stake for the narrator and the story has already happened.’ The things an actor wants most – jeopardy, conflict – are largely absent from the role. The extracts that demanded a quasi-authorial narration, particularly the Masque of Cupid sequence in The Faerie Queen (Book 3, Canto 12), raised questions about the nature of the Spenserian narrator: ‘is he a character, as Dickens can be in his works, or a (supposedly) dispassionate observer?’ asked Philip. If he or she is understood to be a character, are Spenser’s often allegorical dramatic figures ‘fully rounded, or are we only seeing a key, emblematic aspect of them?’ For Deirdre, the complexity arose from Spenser’s ambiguous authorial voice. The Spenserian narrator is ‘not neutral, but many-sided’, and readers are able to ‘decide for themselves … what Spenser “intended”’. But an actor has to make decisive choices about ‘tone and attitude’: ‘ambiguity is impossible to play,’ wrote Deirdre, ‘even if you want your audience to [be able to] make their own minds up’. Complexity and ambivalence are estimable dramatic results, but they are disastrous performance decisions: ‘neutrality is unplayable.’ As a narrator in the Meliboe and Calidore exchange (The Faerie Queene, Book 6, Canto 9), Deirdre had to make a decision as to ‘how much to lean on [Calidore’s] roaming eye, eager for “double ravishment”’ of Meliboe’s daughter Pastorella. Her interpretation determined whether the audience would find it ‘charming, funny or uncomfortably pervy’, a decisiveness that heightened the drama of the scene at the expense of its multivalency. As Deirdre argued, in private reading the ‘written word has great advantages in terms of [the conveyance of] complexity and multi-tonality’, but public performance brought out dramatic scenarios which were latent in the text.

Philip reflected that the day raised many issues to do with ‘the processes of reading, hearing and watching’, and he was left with over-arching questions about the relationship between the early modern and contemporary reading experiences: ‘do we read with less imagination now, as we tend to receive stories via visual images and performance? Or at least, do we read with less patience?’ For the audience, he wondered whether ‘hearing the words rather than reading them add[ed] anything?’ ‘Are the words,’ he asked, ‘crying out to be recited?’ Answers might well lie in a better understanding of the early modern performance culture of Spenser’s works (something we know little about): was there a convention of domestic or small-scale performance of Spenser’s poetry, in manuscript or print? Were many of his early ‘readers’ actually listeners? In applying the practice-as-research methods of a Research in Action workshop to these questions, Shakespeare’s Globe and the International Spenser Society helped to open up a new and unfamiliar way of thinking about Spenser’s verse and prose.   



‘This is really funny’ or Performing Edmund Spenser

Nathan Szymanski (Simon Fraser University)

‘Delight hath a joy in it either permanent or present. Laughter hath onely a scornfull tickling … But I speake to this purpose, that all the end of Comicall part, bee not uppon suche scornefull matters as stirre laughter onelie, but mixe with it, that delightfull teaching whiche is the end of Poesie.”                              (Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy)    

I admit that I was surprised that the staged reading event at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was such a resounding success. Like many others in attendance, I expected it to be ‘interesting’ or ‘provocative’ or whichever descriptor people invoke to talk about performances that are discussion-worthy or important but that are not entertaining for the layperson. To use Sir Philip Sidney’s terminology, I was expecting to experience ‘delightfull teaching’ but not to feel much in the way of ‘scornfull tickling’. Yet what became quickly and surprisingly clear was that selections of Spenser’s poetry work so well in front of a crowd that one cannot help but wonder if they were written with performance in mind. What I would like to do here is reflect on a comment I heard often that evening, and that encapsulates one of the most illuminating aspects of seeing Spenser performed on stage: ‘This is really funny’.

In my experience, reading Spenser alone and in silence rarely provokes out-loud laughter, although critics including Rachel Hile, William Oram, and Frances McNeely Leonard have provided different possibilities for understanding Spenserian humour, including his use of satire, laughter, and comedy.[11] While there are some critics who suspect that Spenser might not be taking himself quite so seriously, much criticism in recent years supports John Milton’s aphoristic characterisation of the ‘sage and serious Poet Spencer [sic]. Thus, the event at the playhouse afforded an excellent opportunity to properly shine a (candle-) light on a side of Spenser we rarely consider.

Perigot and Willye’s roundelay, in the ‘August’ eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, provided a perfect example of seeing an old passage with fresh eyes, or, to use a more appropriate cliché, of hearing it for the first time. ‘August’, one of the ‘recreative’ eclogues that E.K. skips over in his introduction, may not have the intellectual heft found elsewhere in Calender, though the actors brought the roundelay to life by singing it alongside the accompaniment of an early modern stringed instrument and by acting out its farce. Here is a short, representative snippet of Perigot complaining about his love for the ‘bouncing Bellibone’ (l. 61):

Per.   Hating to raunch the arrow out,
Wil.     hey ho Perigot,
Per.   I left the head in my hart roote:
Wil.     it was a desperate shot.
Per.   There it ranckleth ay more and more,
Wil.     hey ho the arrowe (ll. 97-102)

In my reading of the eclogue prior to the event, the roundelay served as a prolonged preamble to Colin’s more austere sestina, which Cuddie relates in full near the eclogue’s close. But after hearing the roundelay sung aloud, I think that the humour of the roundelay splits the focus of the eclogue between a mirthful beginning and a melancholic ending. I am reminded of William Oram’s suggestion that ‘[t]he other side of laughter is melancholy’ and that the ‘quick slippage between laughter and melancholy is a trademark of Spenser’s imagination’.[12] It is entirely possible that Spenser is not only showcasing Colin’s song in ‘August’ but is carefully weighing its austerity (and textuality) against the rambunctiousness (and orality) of the roundelay.

I will forego explaining why the roundelay was so funny, which never works, but I will take a risk by suggesting how it might have been performed in an even funnier way. Attendees of the event will recall that the roundelay was performed by actors largely unfamiliar with the text, and, most importantly, that the context of the excerpted roundelay was missing. I pose two questions: what if there was one more actor onstage to perform the role of the judge, Cuddie, who is given the responsibility of picking a winner out of the two roundelay singers, but who ultimately declares it a draw? What if, after the singing contest, ‘Hey ho’ Willye were to persist in asking, in spite of Cuddie’s draw, ‘who has the victorye’ (l. 130)? Cuddie’s response to the contest subtly ridicules both the lead voice (Perigot) and its undersong (Willye): ‘Little lacketh Perigot of the best’ (l. 126), Cuddie says, and then he continues, ‘Willye is not greatly ouergone’ (l. 127). Using classical terms, one might say that Cuddie subverts the rhetorical figure of a litotes to highlight Willye’s and Perigot’s mediocrity or, in simple modern terms, that Cuddie speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Either way, it is a funny and appropriate response to the preceding song.        

In all likelihood, Spenser first learned about eclogues in grammar school, where eclogue collections by both Virgil and Mantuan were ubiquitous and later registered as ‘English stock’ titles in the Stationers’ Register. Of why he taught eclogues, Thomas Elyot said that the ‘pratty controversies’ of the eclogues are particularly well suited to children, which supports the idea that there were many theatrical elements included in the everyday workings of an early modern schoolroom (a phenomenon upon which both Lynn Enterline and Jeff Dolven have elaborated).[13] Spenser may have encountered eclogues in the third form at Merchant Taylors’ School, in exercises of rudimentary translation, though he may also have viewed eclogues as poems to be read aloud, or akin to the staged disputations presented during the upper years of grammar school. My point is that the classical poems that ‘August’ is based on, Virgil’s third and seventh eclogues, were likely performed in part or in full in grammar schools. By attending specifically to the form of the eclogue, a word that Abraham Fleming translates as a ‘talking together’, one gets a better sense of how performance undergirds some of the Calender’s conventions. Ultimately, the eclogue form merges pedagogy and performance, providing further evidence of what Judith Owens has called the ‘emotional community’ of the early modern schoolroom.[14]

This brings us hastily back to the Sam Wanamaker event, where comedic elements that may have once signalled an affiliation with puerile schoolboys in grammar school were staged in a London theatre for a company of academics. Admittedly some moments of laughter were testaments to the actors’ comic timing, but there were also many moments that demonstrated how well Spenser was able to, as one actor so eloquently put it, ‘listen to an audience and what they … find funny’. I am in no way suggesting that The Shepheardes Calender, with its ornate typography and extensive glosses, was ever intended to be performed in full. Rather, I want to ask whether the eclogue may not signal performance more often than is generally thought, which might explain why ‘August’ is so funny, and which might help scholars revisit eclogues by Spenser and by other early modern writers. I will finish this short reflective piece with another passage by Sidney, spoken by Rombus, the ‘substantiall schoole-master’ who judges the eclogues in The Lady of May. Following the first singing contest, Rombus provides his own ideas about ‘delightfull teaching’—or is it ‘scornfull tickling’?—when he exclaims, ‘Attend and throw your eares to mee, for I am grauitated with child, till I haue endoctrinated your plumbeous cerebrosities’. 



Spenser, Poet and Performer? An Italian Analogue 

Sarah Van der Laan (Indiana University)

From the moment Fran Marshall launched into a rollicking performance of Gluttony’s entry in TFQ I.iv.21, I realized something that should have been obvious all along: Spenser’s poetry (at least some of it) was intended for performance. Not the kind of performance we usually think of when we talk about performance in Elizabethan England—a staged presentation by a company of professional actors—but the kind of performance that Spenser himself is often said to have given for Elizabeth: a reading by the poet in front of a patron and a gathering of courtiers. While this particular story may be apocryphal, as Andrew Hadfield notes, Renaissance courtier-poets did perform their work, for pensions and for other benefits too.[15]

We can glimpse the conditions and the stakes of such performances through the memories of Spenser’s fellow heroic poet, Torquato Tasso. Like his son, Tasso’s father, Bernardo Tasso, was a courtier-poet; his principal work, Amadigi, retold the adventures of Amadis of Gaul across 100 cantos of ottava rima. And like his son, the elder Tasso struggled with the irreconcilable demands of critics and cognoscenti who insisted that heroic poems observe Aristotle’s unity of action, and of courtly and popular audiences accustomed to the interlaced plots and digressions of Ariosto, Boiardo, and chivalric romance. In his Apologia for his own Gerusalemme liberata, the younger Tasso defends the Amadigi (and, implicitly, the Liberata) against criticism of its supposed lack of unity by describing his father’s experience in the service of Ferrante Sanseverino, Prince of Salerno:

Leggeua alcuni suoi canti al Principe suo padrone, & quando egli cominciò à leggere erano le camere piene di Gentil’huomini ascoltatori, ma nel fine, tutti erano spariti, dalla qual cosa egli prese argumento, che l’unità dell’attione fosse poco diletteuole per sua natura, non per difetto d’arte che egli hauesse, perciòche egli l’haueua trattata in modo, che l’arte non poteua riprendersi, & di questo non s’ingannaua punto.

[He read some of his cantos to his patron the Prince, and when he began to read the chambers were full of gentleman listeners, but by the end, all had disappeared, from which he drew the lesson that the unity of action was not very pleasing by its nature, and not through any defect of his art, for he had treated it in such a manner that his art was beyond reproach, and in this he did not deceive himself at all.][16]

As Tasso’s comments make clear, the performance of selections from a heroic poem was not only an important aspect of courtiership for a court poet, but an important testing ground for the poetics of a poem in progress. Performance offered a poet access to an audience whose response to the experience of the spoken text—not the written—could determine fundamental aspects of the poem’s composition, and whose verdict could override even classical theoretical precepts. A passage, a phrase, an approach that did not please in spoken performance might not survive to be circulated or printed for reading in written form.

The elder Tasso’s experience reinforces the argument Julian Lethbridge made in drawing the first day to a conclusion: The Faerie Queene ‘is written in spoken language’: ‘language written to be read aloud’.[17] As he reminded us, Spenser would have expected The Faerie Queene, like much other Elizabethan literature, to be encountered by many of its ‘readers’ as spoken language: read aloud, whether by a non-silent reader or by someone else. Marshall’s delightful performance—all the performances given by five committed actors over the full first day of the conference—and Lethbridge’s comments should prompt us to understand The Faerie Queene and much other Renaissance poetry as composed in part to appeal to the ear of an audience with fairly sophisticated dramatic tastes and expectations. We should, therefore, look for dramatic poetics in these poems usually assumed to have little to do with the theatre – especially in the set-pieces that poets may well have built into their poems for performance, by themselves or by others. And we should consider the whole range of ways in which practices of reading aloud may have bled into performance.

Some of those practices sprang to mind as I sat in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on the first evening of the conference, watching a breathtaking staging of Redcrosse’s temptation by Despair. In such evocative surroundings, it was easy to imagine a household circle or a group of Cambridge undergraduates reading the poem aloud. Casting Deirdre Mullins as Redcrosse reminds us that assigning readers to parts might throw unexpected light on the poem’s language, ethics, characterisations, supplementing or challenging the assumptions the written text seems to invite. Having Mullins and Philip Bird as the narrator read together, or trade off, passages in which the narrator presents Redcrosse’s thoughts invites us to imagine readers navigating the ambiguous places in which it isn’t clear which character speaks or is referred to, and to wonder how might these ambiguities have popped more sharply, or have become the point rather than a crux to be resolved. And the sheer emotional punch of Mullins’s descent into despair, juxtaposed with the laugh-out-loud funny setting of the ‘August’ eclogue from The Shepheardes Calendar, reveals that Spenser in performance reveals himself to be deeply comic and deeply moving in ways that—for all my love of Spenser—I had never previously imagined. We should perform Spenser more often.



Acting Writing

William N. West (Northwestern University)

Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to participate in a Research in Action Workshop on Spenser and Performance at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in Shakespeare’s Globe, in the company of Linda Gregerson, Will Tosh, players Philip Bird, Dominic Brewer, and Deirdre Mullins, and musician Arngeir Haukkson? And I had a confident hypothesis: performing Spenser’s poetry would clarify what distinguishes its capacities and resources from those of early modern performance, illuminating playing as if from its other side. It wasn’t that I thought Spenser’s verse wouldn’t play—far from it, for what is more theatrical, in one sense of the word, than the Britomart transfixed by the masque of Cupid or Guyon tearing into the Bower of Bliss? It’s that I thought what made passages like these both Spenserian and theatrical somehow stood opposite what made texts like those of Shakespeare or Marlowe performative. Spenser’s texts seemed to me to display, those composed for the playhouses to embody. Getting Spenser’s verse up on its feet them might help tease apart those different aspects of the experience of theatre, observation and enactment (or to frame it contentiously in the language of the event, research and action).

What I learned, when Linda and I walked into the Sam Wanamaker Theatre with the passages we had selected, to meet Will Tosh and the performers who would embody those passages, was that my assumptions about Spenser’s poetics were not wrong, exactly, but not right in the way I had expected, either. I had imagined that performing Spenser’s poetry, and searching through it for moments amenable to performance, would sharpen my intuition that its resources were distinct from those of performance and show me how. Instead, I found that Spenser’s poetry worked brilliantly and illuminatingly as performance (and performance, especially with the performers we had, worked brilliantly upon it); and that its performance forced me to rethink both what it means to perform and what I had thought of Spenser’s poetry as doing.

Spenser’s poetry has always seemed to me engaged in an undertaking that is self-consciously graphic, very different from that of performance. It was composed, transmitted, and received in writing rather than orally. It calls attention to the historical contingencies of its writtenness, its printedness, and its bookishness in its physical layout, its archaizing spelling, its alignment with traditions of written poetry that represent themselves as performed or sung, from bardic epic to the singing shepherds of pastoral. It is graphic as well in the vernacular sense of vivid and explicit. 

But Spenser’s poetry also seems to me graphic in a more figurative way, something like a grammatological sense. It is monumental, mediated, archivable, as the conclusion of Book VI of The Faerie Queene signals, ‘writs’ and ‘threasure’ that may outlast the fickleness of ‘wicked tongues’ that ‘endite’ against it. It is replete, filling and overfilling its readers’ interpretations, in contrast to the spareness of many performance texts that seem to ask to be acted in order to be understood. It is open-ended rather than decisive: it doesn’t often demand that writer or reader choose among possible senses, but rather that they be aware of the array of possible commitments to meaning or choice that could be made. It is expansive: the narrative requires readers to recover threads that seemed long lost and holds out promise that suspended ones may still return. It continually demands recursion and reflection, requiring that interpretive choices be revisited and reappraised as the narrative proceeds. Finally, it feels oriented towards moments remote—the past (from which the present emerges, even if the past is unknown), the future (which mortal providence anticipates and which present choices will produce), and the eternal (which is the opposite of the eventual, serial quality often associated with performance)—rather than the relentlessly transitory present of performance. Of course graphic and enacted are not the only centres of gravity in literature and orature, but they are surely among the most marked orientations we have in those fields. 

As a reader, I had imagined Spenser as a subtle and insightful guide to reflecting on action, rendering it as writing. In the playful, practical work of the workshop actors, as alert to the texts’ openness as the most adroit and careful reader, the multiplicities, ambiguities, ambivalences of Spenser’s text were realized as actions. A performance sometimes feels as if it fleshes out the theatrical text that it enacts. Watching Spenser’s poetry put into action, I became aware as we worked of how the needs of performing continually forced us to let go of some interpretative possibilities. Scenes narrowed, but sharpened. We tried things out, discovered things that worked and things that didn’t, and at each moment were reminded as readers rarely are that action is both an opportunity for invention and a kind of bottleneck that exchanges breadth for a focusing intensity. Perhaps this is a difference between the immersion of a reader, whose consideration surveys and reconsiders, and that of an actor, whose body commits and launches. The particular texture of Spenser’s allegory did not disappear, but it changed. Commitment replaced reflection; activity shifted back into the hands of the actors and characters from those of the reader, which is how I had expected to experience Spenser. Some years ago, Harry Berger proposed an approach to Shakespeare’s plays that he called ‘imaginary audition’, combining the reader’s focused precision with the spectator’s corporeal sensitivity.[18] The Research in Action workshop did something that was almost its inverse. Acting was reading, and writing.

I recall in particular how the actors enrolled the narrator among the characters, as when a look from Philip and Dominic as Calidore and Meliboe (VI.9) transformed Deirdre, at the foot of the stage as overseeing narrator, into Pastorella as the object of desire; or how, as Linda relates in her discussion, Philip’s narrator took sides with Dominic’s Despair against Deirdre’s Redcrosse. Spenser’s narrator has never seemed neutral to, but its script did seem to address judgements and biases to the reader. Here I saw a new way the narrator could be drawn into the narrative and narrative itself become a kind of action. But perhaps the greatest revelation of the workshop came during the day when we all worked together on these passages, trying out choices, discarding them, refining them, and finally deciding on them. I am less sure that any of this working-out was visible in the evening performance, when there could be no more rehearsal and little experimentation, but only the outcomes of that work in decisive enactments. I only wish everyone at the conference could have spent the day working with us – although I wonder then if the workshop would have lost some of the name of ‘action’.

In the wake of the workshop, the question of whether or not Spenser is performative, or graphic, or more one than the other, seems to bewhat needs reconsideration. Genevieve Love has suggested that performance criticism is not a method or a discipline, but an affective, even corporeal orientation towards what we are studying.[19] It now seems to me that the workshop was not about any quality of Spenser’s poetry, but the orientations through which we approach it. His poetry is in some way our performances of it. Spenser changes with what questions we ask – how we see Spenser or even how we do Spenser. The graphic features of Spenser’s poetry have in common with those of performance that they are instantiated by particular kinds of encounter between observer and object. As yet I think a good syntax for appreciating this kind of writing as performance is still wanting. But I also think that projects like this one may help us devise one and perhaps enact it, fashioning ourselves according to its virtuous and noble discipline.

[1] One point of reference is Shakespeare and Spenser: Attractive Opposites edited by Julian Lethbridge (Manchester University Press, 2008), but we are thinking, too, of important work by Kenneth Gross, Anne Lake Prescott, and others.

[2] Introduction to Richard McCabe (ed.), Edmund Spenser: The Shorter Poems (Penguin, 1999), p. xvii.

[3] Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 101; subsequent references are given parenthetically in the text.

[4] A door onto this world was pushed open long ago by Ronald M. Smith in ‘The Irish Background to Spenser’s View’, Journal of English and German Philology 42 (1943), 499-515, and ‘Spenser, Holinshed, and the Leabar Gabhála’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 43 (1944), 390-401.

[5] Maritime Museum Greenwich MS P/49(27).

[7] Willy Maley, A Spenser Chronology (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), 52.

[8] Philip O’Sullivan Beare, Ireland under Elizabeth: Chapters towards a History of Ireland in the Reign of Elizabeth, ed. Matthew J. Byrne (Dublin: Sealy Bryers, 1903), 59.

[9] Lambert McKenna ed. and trans., Dánta do chum Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh (Dublin: Maunsel and Co., 1919. The MACMORRIS project which I am developing, with David Baker and Willy Maley, proposes to fill in Spenser’s complete Irish context as part of its commitment to mapping the cultural and linguistic complexity of early modern Ireland.

[11] Rachel E. Hile, Spenserian Satire: A Tradition of Indirection (Manchester University Press, 2016); William Oram, ‘Human Limitation and Spenserian Laughter’, Spenser Studies 30 (2015): 35-56, eds. Ayesha Ramachandran and Melissa Sanchez; and Frances McNeely Leonard, Laughter in the Courts of Love: Comedy in Allegory, from Chaucer to Spenser (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1981), especially 133-67. Ayesha Ramachandran also hosted a roundtable on “Comic Spenser” at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference in Puerto Rico in 2013, with papers by Brett Foster, Rachel Hile, David Lee Miller, and Kimberly Reigle.

[12] See Oram, ‘Human Limitation’, 52.

[13] See Lynn Enterline, Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and Jeff Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

[14] From her current project, tentatively titled ‘Instructional Settings: Early Modern Pedagogical Culture and Literature’.

[15] Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 235–6.

[16] Torquato Tasso, Apologia…in difesa della sua Gerusalemme liberata (Ferrara: Giulio Cesare Cagnacini, 1585), A4v.

[17] Quote from recapitulation of remarks sent by Julian Lethbridge to Nathan Szymanski (private correspondence).

[18] Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[19] Genevieve Love, ‘Performance Criticism Without Performance: The Study of Non_Shakespearean Drama’ , in New Directions in Renaissance Drama and Performance Studies, ed. Sarah Werner (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 131-46 (134).




PROGRAMME NOTES: ‘Elizabethan Poetry in Performance: Spenser and Shakespeare’ Research in Action Workshop

Monday 12 June 2017, 6.30-8.30pm

Led by Will Tosh, Linda Gregerson and Will West

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

In January 2014 the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened for its first season. Years of research and debate went into its design, which draws together what we know about the historical Blackfriars, Cockpit, Whitefriars and Salisbury Court playhouses to produce an archetype of a Jacobean indoor theatre. Our Research in Action workshops help us to ask questions about the nature of performance and spectatorship in early modern England. Using extracts from well-known and unfamiliar texts, we explore the opportunities these scenes afford in terms of the staging, music and lighting capacities of our indoor Jacobean theatre.

Early modern poets and playwrights were rarely far from each other’s practice. Although we appreciate the poetic qualities of Shakespeare’s lines, rarely do we consider the performance value of early modern poetry. What was the relationship between poetry and drama? How did early modern drama affect or connect with the extraordinary poetry written in the same period? How important was Shakespeare for Spenser, or Spenser for Shakespeare?

This Research in Action workshop will address and test these questions by staging poetry written by the most admired Elizabethan poet: Edmund Spenser, ‘the Prince of Poets in his tyme’.

This event is a collaboration between Globe Education, the International Spenser Society, University College Dublin and Simon Fraser University.

Texts performed:

Spenser, Amoretti (1595), Sonnet 54

Spenser’s ‘Sonnet 54’ takes the image of the theatre centrally to describe the courtship of his beloved.

Spenser, The Faerie Queene (1590), Book 3 Canto 12

Britomart has vowed to rescue Scudamore’s wife from the castle of an evil sorcerer named Busirane, where she is being held captive. As Britomart wanders the castle alone at nightfall, a storm rages and a masque is played out before her. 

Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1 Canto 9

The Redcrosse Knight discusses death with Despair, and finds his own views called into question.

Spenser, Epithalamion (written 1594)

Spenser wrote Epithalamion in celebration of his marriage to Elizabeth Boyle. Here at the poem’s opening, the speaker calls muses to help him praise his bride.

Spenser, Shepheardes Calender (1579), ‘August’

The Shepheardes Calender depicts twelve months in the life of a shepherd through twelve ecologues (short, pastoral poems). In ‘August’, Perigot praises his love, and the satirical Willy answers his every verse.

Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland (written c.1596)

Eudoxus and Irenius discuss the end of the Nine Years War in Ireland. 

Shakespeare, Henry V

On the eve of Agincourt, Henry’s soldiers discuss the coming battle.

Shakespeare, As You Like It (1623), Act 3 Scene 3

Touchstone, court jester to Duke Frederick, and Corin, an elderly shepherd, compare life at court with rural living.

Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 6 Canto 9

Sir Calidore’s pursuit of the Blatant Beast has brought him to the countryside. There he encounters a company of shepherds, and is invited into one of their homes.


Philip Bird

Dominic Brewer

Deirdre Mullins

Arngeir Hauksson


  • tree removal wellington 10 months, 1 week ago

    Unpleasant spoken performance may prevent a piece, phrase, or approach from being circulated or reproduced for written reading.

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  • why someone might open a bank account in your name 7 months ago

    The exploration of the connections between Shakespeare's dramatic works and Spenser's poetry at the Shakespeare's Globe workshop is a commendable endeavor. It sheds light on the intricate relationship between these two influential figures, highlighting how their practices informed each other and enriched the landscape of early modern literature and performance. It's essential to bridge the gap between these seemingly distinct genres to gain a deeper understanding of their shared influences and creative dynamics.

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  • learn first what Lomi lomi massage is 7 months ago

    The "Spenser, Poetry, and Performance" workshop at Shakespeare's Globe in 2017 was a fascinating exploration of the interconnectedness of early modern drama and poetry. It highlighted the often-overlooked influence and mutual inspiration between Shakespeare and Spenser, shedding light on the rich tapestry of literary and theatrical history. Such interdisciplinary investigations are essential for a deeper understanding of this era's artistic achievements.

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Cite as:

Jane Grogan, Tiffany Jo Werth; Linda Gregerson, Stephanie Elsky, Patricia Palmer, Deana Rankin, Will Tosh, Nathan Szymanski, Sarah Van der Laan, William N. West, "Reflections on "Spenser, Poetry and Performance" at Shakespeare's Globe, 12-13 June 2017," Spenser Review 48.1.2 (Winter 2018). Accessed April 15th, 2024.
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