Visiting early modern London: ‘The Purpose of Playing’

Written by
Sarah Malone, Department of English
Jan. 18, 2024

On the afternoon of Oct. 16, 2023 — cool but sunny in London — students in the seminar “The Purpose of Playing” stepped out onto the open-air thrust stage of Shakespeare's Globe theater.

Bearing in hand pages of lines from plays they’d read in the course, they performed their selections to the theater’s open central yard and three tiers of wooden bench seating, a theatrical space designed drawing on archival and archaeological research to recreate the scale, sound (unamplified), ambience and sonic signature (English oak and open air) in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries’ plays were performed (in the Globe, by adult male companies) when newly written.

“As Hamlet explains in an often-quoted speech,” noted Bailey Sincox, Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows and lecturer in the Humanities Council, English and humanistic studies, “‘the purpose of playing’ is ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature, to show […] the very age and body of the time his form and pressure”’ (Hamlet F 3.2.15-32).

Hamlet’s advice to the traveling players is in some ways universal, Sincox said — theater then as now is a representational art form — however it also stresses the particular, which prompts the question, Sincox said, “What was the ‘age and body’ of Hamlet’s time, and what sort of ‘playing’ was imagined to mirror it?”

Reading Shakespeare's Contemporaries

Up to and after fall break, weekly readings took the students through plays written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and occasional collaborators or antagonists, from Christopher Marlowe’s 1590 Doctor Faustus to Elizabeth Cary’s 1613 The Tragedy of Mariam. The students read plays performed at public amphitheaters and in private halls, by adult male actors, by children’s companies and by royalty. Each week’s dramatic primary source was paired with related secondary readings from later scholarship, from studies of the playhouses and stages of Elizabethan popular theater to studies of acting techniques, props, costumes, scenery, and dramaturgy, and the interconnected network of playwrights who tailored their scripts to diverse theaters and the audiences that frequented them.

The course’s fall break trip to London, supported by a Humanities Council Magic Grant, enabled the students to exercise the critical eye developed in classroom discussion in direct encounters with cultural sites designed to preserve Shakespeare (and, occasionally, his contemporaries) for the public.

At Shakespeare's Globe

At Shakespeare's Globe, the students received a backstage tour and participated in a performance workshop, following attending a Globe performance of As You Like It the night before as “groundlings” standing in the yard below the stage.

Class of 2025 member Alejna Kolenovic noted how the workshop helped “all of the subsequent texts we read in class to come to life. While reading, I became more conscious of how space impacts scene.”

Throughout the trip, Zoha Khan, a member of the Class of 2026, connected “The Purpose of Playing” and a concurrent fall 2023 English department course, “Bodies and Belonging in Milton's Epic Tradition,” taught by Nigel Smith, the William and Annie S. Paton Foundation Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature and professor of English, and graduate instructor Pasquale Toscano. The connection became particularly vivid looking at the Globe through a disability studies lens.

Attending As You Like It in the open yard, Khan said, required standing for the entirety of the show, “and to constantly shift to see the performance.”

From the galleries, “especially the upper galleries,” the structure of the theater and people within the crowd itself could obstruct the view of the play, Khan said. “Reaching the upper galleries proved especially difficult with its narrow, winding stairs that could limit many from sitting there.”

In “The Purpose of Playing,” Khan noted, “we learned about how different classes were ‘supposed’ to sit in specific parts of the theater, segregating viewing perspectives. Even in the seemingly egalitarian theater, “space could be both a disabling and limiting experience.”

Experiencing the teachings of the two courses “come to life in England,” Khan said, “showed me that in both the structure of the theatre and beyond, we must be aware of how we treat and occupy space, and ensure that it is available for all to enjoy the show.”

Beyond the Globe

In the next days, the students visited the nearby archaeological sites of the original Globe and the Rose Theater for talks on how recent findings have informed scholarship on public playhouse practices. They visited Whitehall Banqueting House and halls at Christ Church College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, among the venues where private performance emerged and flourished in the early 1600s. At Corpus Christi, they collaborated with Oxford English students in a workshop in which they handled early printed editions of Ben Jonson's works, an anti-theatrical polemic by John Rainolds, and an eyewitness account of Shakespeare’s Othello, among other items from the college’s special collections. In a visit to the archives of the British Library, they learned about its unique early modern dramatic manuscripts, including the “book” of Sir Thomas More, which bears traces of collaborative authorship.

“I had never been a theater kid,” Class of 2025 member Savannah Woellert said, but “engaging with these spaces and academic experts” was “transformative,” “personally and academically.”

“This trip gave me a renewed sense of engaged, hands-on-learning,” Woellert said. “Beyond topics in early modern theater, this trip and its professors helped me realize the extent to which my research at Princeton can expand, and just how many opportunities and resources are available.”

Returning to Princeton, the students began preparation for production of individual original, historical-informed performances as their final projects. Each student chose a scene or scenes from a play read during the semester, sketched plans for the scenes in a “director’s notebook,” and wrote an accompanying essay. Performances could be live or recorded, performed or directed by the student, or, with instructor approval, presented in an alternative format.

“Puppets? Animation?” Sincox suggested. “The sky’s the limit…”