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This collection of essays brings together theories of play and game with theatre and performance to produce new understandings of the history and design of early modern English drama. Through literary analysis and embodied practice, an international team of distinguished scholars examines a wide range of games—from dicing to bowling to roleplaying to videogames—to uncover their fascinating ramifications for the stage in Shakespeare's era and our own. Foregrounding ludic elements challenges the traditional view of drama as principally mimesis, or imitation, revealing stageplays to be improvisational experiments and participatory explorations into the motive, means, and value of recreation. Delving into both canonical masterpieces and hidden gems, this innovative volume stakes a claim for play as the crucial link between games and early modern theatre, and for the early modern theatre as a critical site for unraveling the continued cultural significance and performative efficacy of gameplay today.
This introduction expounds the historical and theoretical overlaps between games and theatre by analyzing how playing crucially links these phenomena. The early modern English stage is an ideal locus for exploring that intersection, given its cultural significance as ludic entertainment and its ongoing impact on gaming today. We contextualize these issues by examining scholarship on play, from Huizinga and Caillois to more recent work; by centering aspects of drama beyond mimesis and situating these within theatre and performance studies; and by articulating how theatre challenges games as rule-bound systems. We conclude with an overview of the volume's three sections, respectively on the history of early modern games, the incorporation of games into stageplays, and Shakespearean drama's legacy in contemporary videogames.
In the final scene of Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost, two simultaneous but unequal games are played, one by the Navarrese lords and one by the ladies of France they are wooing. The King of Navarre and his three lords, who have sworn to seclude themselves from society, disguise themselves as Muscovites, aiming to visit the ladies unrecognized so as not to be scorned for breaking their oath. The ladies of France, tipped off, put on masks and trade love tokens so that each of the men unwittingly swears devotion to the wrong woman. The lords are players in the masquing tradition in which men wearing fantastical costumes would court their beloveds in disguise. The ladies, too, become players when they “change […] favors,” a phrase referring simultaneously to exchanging physical badges or markers and to altering their faces by wearing vizards. The men's game of deception is outdone by the women, whose counter-game of misdirection one-ups theirs. At the end of the interlude, after all is revealed, the lords, suitably humiliated, bring on the clownish pageant of the Nine Worthies, for “’tis some policy/ To have one show worse than the King's and his company” (5.2.512–513).
This episode captures some of the myriad fascinations and challenges that lie at the intersection of games and theatre. In Shakespeare's stageplay, the masque of Russians and the ladies’ counteraction are imagined as a kind of competitive recreation.
Shakespeare and his contemporaries regularly staged plays that exhibited feats of physical prowess, such as dancing, acrobatics, and combat. Spectacles of this sort existed in a kind of double space: even as they operated within a play's fictional narrative, they also served as legitimate entertainments in their own right. Jean Alter refers to these complementary aspects of theatre as its “referential” and “performant” functions: theatre as semiotic system, employing both mimetic and nonmimetic forms of representation, and theatre as spectacular show, akin to sports or the circus. My paper analyzes the interplay between these two performance modes in displays of bodily skill in the early modern English theatres. Drawing on a variety of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents concerning foreign travel, sensory perception, physical talent, and popular festivity, I explore the cultural valences of what contemporaries referred to as “feats of activity” that refreshed, or “recreated,” the eye. I pay particular attention to onstage dances. These episodes, I contend, suggest an alternative to post-Benjamin, post-Brecht notions of spectacle as that which dazzles passive viewers. Juxtaposing extratheatrical primary sources with brief snapshots from Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, I reconstruct the historically specific affective experiences generated by early modern displays of physical spectacle. Nonverbal practices, such as dance, were not merely depicted in drama but integrated into the performance medium itself. I argue that the resulting dynamics between representation and presentation situated spectators as active participants in the performance event. In this way, onstage dances reinforced communal identity and contributed to the construction and dissemination of broader cultural discourses.