This is part of a new, weekly series here at TSS: Early Modern and Open Access will regularly showcase peer reviewed articles (or other resources) of interest to early modernists that are freely available in open-access formats.Falstaff and his Page by Adolf Schrödter.Originally Found on Sir John Falstaff’s Wikipedia Page Also Found in Wikimedia Commons
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We still have much to learn from contemporary commentators about the original practices of Renaissance English stage clowns. A case in point is the colorful satire Virgidemiarum (1597; reprinted 1598 and 1599) by the Cambridge Calvinist and neoclassical critic Joseph Hall, who used the evocative term “self-resembled show” to describe the popular clown who “laughs, and grins, and frames his mimic face …. And show[s] his teeth in double rotten row, / For laughter at his self-resembled show” (ll. 34, 43-44). Hall’s term points to ways in which these modes of Renaissance performance sometimes clash with then-emergent and subsequent opposing notions of theatrical representation, particularly those associated with movements from neoclassicism through modern theatrical naturalism. As a neoclassicist, Hall of course viewed comic scenes as inherently low, and he necessarily rejected humorous violations of decorum in the mingling of clowns and kings, calling them “A Goodly hotch-potch! when vile Russetings / Are match’t with monarchs, and with mighty kings” (ll. 39-40). More importantly for this examination, however, he also could not abide the clown’s breaches of neoclassicism’s ideals of representation and verisimilitude. Hall’s aesthetic outrage is thus potentially quite useful in underscoring early clowning practices that have long been overlooked and therefore under-utilized. Indeed, what modern actors might learn from these references to a lost art, especially when performance is attentive to both theatre history and the conventions of “original practices” theatres, is the subject of this essay.