BRADBROOK, MC: Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1969)
The Boar’s Head Bookshelf uses Isaac Newton‘s famous ‘standing on the shoulders of giants‘ quotation to acknowledge the part that every book I read has in shaping my ideas about Shakespeare. Occasionally, I read a book where the ideas are camouflaged by a ponderous, lecturing (in the worst sense of the word) style, and this is one of them. (A shout-out to the massively disappointing Frank Kermode on this point, too) When I read authors like David Crystal, his – pardon the pun – brilliant style makes the ideas shiny, fresh, exciting. Kermode and Bradbrook are similarly huge beasts, but their home is the Jurassic period, not the 21st Century. I’m slightly taken aback by that statement, given I devote myself to a writer who has been dead for over 400 years: oh, the irony, I hear you say …
Anyway, Bradbrook HAS got something interesting to say when she’s not hectoring us or making massive assumptions about our knowledge:
‘the Elizabethan dramatists could hardly have fitted all the ingredients of their play into a strict logical framework of events. They were expected to supply so much more than a contemporary writer, and to incorporate so much non-dramatic material into their plays. There would have to be a certain amount of song and dancing, if the play were for the boys; a certain amount of swordplay and general fighting, if it were for the men’s theatres. In addition, there might be some costumes or properties to be worked into the play […] or a special part for an actor with a definite “line”, like the quick-change artist; finally, most intractable of all, there was the bawdry and the clowning. At the same time the text had to be filled with “Sentences” for the discerning courtier and the sober citizen; jests for the gull and the prentice; a strict moral code and as many topical allusions as the writer could fit in.’
I feel exhausted just reading the demands which jostled plot and characterisation for a place in the script: it’s a wonder anything got written at all! My respect for the Elizabethan dramatists increases, and I’m more likely to forgive the small errors and inconsistencies that make others point their fingers and laugh at the sea journeys between land-locked city states in Two Gentlemen … give the poor sods a break, people!