Henry S. Turner, The English Renaissance Stage

Henry S. Turner, The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580-1630 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 342 pp. £67 hb. ISBN 978-0199287383.

This is a highly readable and substantial contribution to our understanding of early modern English drama. Turner’s project is a convincing challenge to anachronistic views of the separation of the arts and the sciences in early modern intellectual history. It will be no surprise to BSLS members that early modern thinkers inhabited mental (and practical) worlds much more capacious and blended than our late modern “two cultures” common sense would allow. Turner has deepened our understanding of just how imbricated were poetics and the proto-empirical sciences in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Particularly notable is the productive way he reads together the history of science and of literature not only in terms of shared content but also form.

The book is in two parts, each one dedicated to the elements from which the stage and its associated discourse of dramatic poetry was fashioned. Turner concentrates on seven elements (diagram, image, icon, stage, wall, scene, and plot) in seven chapters, but is subtle enough to also show the interrelationships of terms and uses across authors and works. Turner has a knack for lucid exposition while supplying his own precise and effective vocabulary for analysis.

Among the most important and original claims of this book is that the idea of dramatic “plot,” in practice and theory, developed crucial features from outside of literary culture. Marshalling evidence from early surveying manuals, school primers, plays, masques, and still other literary and non-literary documents, Turner shows how such basic elements of dramatic composition as the idea of a plot and the nature of a “scene” were products of cross-disciplinary fertilization. A few illustrations epitomize how strong his case can be: Turner reproduces (as Figure 5.1) a theatrical “platt” from c. 1590 that gives a schematic overview of the action of a play (in this case, The Second Part of The Seven Deadly Sins) based on units derived from player entrances and exits. The document is a spatialized plot summary, a means of demarcating units of space-time, and indebted to methods in geometry as much as to theater practice. Another illustration (which is reproduced as Turner’s frontispiece), is the relatively well-known woodcut from the 1496 Strasbourg edition of Terence’s Andria, showing lines drawn by rule that connect characters in a kind of perspectival plot-web. That early modern drama was built overwhelmingly with a spatial imaginary whose antecedents lie outside poetics proper should no longer be in doubt.

The second chapter, “Practical Knowledge and the Poetics of Geometry,” sets out “the epistemological similarities between prudence, rhetoric, dialectic, and practical geometry” by examining in detail the work of Thomas Blundeville, a relatively unknown London “mathematical practitioner” (in E.G.R. Taylor’s phrase) whose works show similarities when placed in the context of work in poetics by Puttenham and Sidney. In a brilliant series of connections, Turner shows the migration of terminology and concepts (such as plat, plot, forme, and figure) from the workshop to the stage and page over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Sir Philip Sidney is the focus on chapter three, though he (with Ben Jonson) has a marked presence throughout the book. Sidney was perhaps the most sophisticated analyst and author working at the fusion of practical spatial arts and poetics, for as Turner shows, he learned and employed practical arts of geometry and fortifications in order to complete his self-making as a courtier, poet, and soldier. In Sidney’s creative output, spatial arts are a source, but also a beneficiary, of the ferment. In fact, among the most striking claims of this book is that poetics influenced the conceptual development of science. According to Turner, Sidney’s poetics is a “proto-experimental epistemology” (35) often dedicated, like Francis Bacon’s contemporaneous “method,” to paradoxically taking nature out of its course in order to determine what it is like when it is in its course. Sidney is a experimenter, then, in a manner corresponding to the nascent empirical sciences: “[Sidney’s] account of poetic making can be seen as ‘experimental’ in the specific medieval and early-modern sense of the term: artificially constructed conditions in which knowledge might be produced” (109).

The fourth chapter, “Noun, Foot, and Measured Line,” proposes a suggestive reading of spatial form in George Puttenham’s use of diagrams and measured lines to illustrate the metrics of different verse. In the lines, rules, and templates on the page, “Puttenham positions the reader as a kind of poetic artisan who is taught not a set of rules or precepts—not a theory of poetry—but is guided through a set of practical techniques according to the methods of the workshop: diagrammatic illustration, a quantitative imagination, a tool or instrument, a blank page on which to inscribe the figure, and the trained gesture necessary to perform the exercise” (125). Summarizing, he notes that “[b]oth poets and geometers sought to reconcile an artificial, standardized, and quantified measure with a series of heterogeneous objects,” either words or built forms (122). The very abstraction demanded of any theory, poetic or architectural, required the adaptation of new ways of thinking of form itself. Here Turner has the closest thing to a “smoking gun” for his case: not simply a metaphor, or an analogy, of the overlap of practical spatial arts and poetics, but actual use of one field for the constructions of the other. The bulk of the chapter continues with an extended reading of the Magnificent Entertainment for King James, for which Dekker, Jonson, and Inigo Jones contributed work in 1604.

The second part of The English Renaissance Stage will feel more familiar to literary scholars who have not ventured far into the history of science. Its four chapters are above all other things a reinterpretation of Ben Jonson, but they also proposes means to evaluate anew the novel dramaturgy in Shakespeare’s King Lear and other plays from the first decades of the seventeenth century. The fundamental claim, not one original with Turner, of course, is that there occurred in the period around 1600 “a shift from one code of iconic representation to another” (164) in drama, and that it is visible in the growing sophistication and self-reflexivity of stage performances and theory about them. In these decades, Turner argues, early modern performance—here again in tandem with early modern science—created a set of repertoires and theories that shifted from “emblematic iconicity,” where characters and objects represent abstractions and allegorical ideas, to realist modes of iconic presentation for which the form and content of the stage signify actual space and time (and some units for measuring each). Crucial in all of this was the codification of the “scene” as a basic unit of dramaturgy (defined by the uses of on- and offstage space), and the final semantic migration of the word “plot” to its modern usage in literary study. Jonson is the hero of this part of the story, as he is the central architect of the shift whereby dramatists adapted, but then changed, a vocabulary derived from the practical spatial arts. That vocabulary, we now know, would come to have a new home in neoclassical dramatic theory.

John Shanahan, DePaul University, Chicago.