Theater of Enigma in Shakespeare’s England

Michael West

Theater of Enigma in Shakespeare’s England
West, Michael
Thesis Advisor(s):
Howard, Jean
Ph.D., Columbia University
English and Comparative Literature
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Theater of Enigma in Shakespeare’s England demonstrates the cognitive, affective, and social import of enigmatic theatrical moments. While the presence of other playgoers obviously shapes the experience of attending a play, I argue that deliberately induced moments of audience ignorance are occasions for audience members to be especially aware of their relations to others who may or may not share their bafflement. I explore the character of states of knowing and not-knowing among audience members and the relations that obtain among playgoers who inhabit these states. Further, I trace the range of performance techniques whereby playgoers are positioned in a cognitive no-man's land, lying somewhere between full understanding and utter ignorance—techniques that I collectively term “enigmatic theater.” I argue that moments of enigmatic theater were a dynamic agent in the formation of collectives in early modern playhouses. I use here the term “collective” to denote the temporary, occasional, and fleeting quality of these groupings, which occur during performance but are dissipated afterwards. Sometimes, this collective resembles what Victor Turner terms communitas, in which the normal societal divisions are suspended and the playgoers become a unified collectivity. At other times, however, plays solicit the formation of multiple collectives defined by their differing degrees of knowledge about a seeming enigma. In either case, I show that a core achievement of early modern theater of enigma was to link issues of knowledge with issues of belonging—even when that pleasurable sense of belonging is as transient as the occasion of performance.
English literature
Theater audiences
Ignorance (Theory of knowledge) in literature
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616
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Suggested Citation:
Michael West, , Theater of Enigma in Shakespeare’s England, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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