Playgoing, Pleasure and Judgement in Early Modern England, 1594-1642

In this project, awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (2014-17), Simon Smith is developing a new account of playhouse engagements with the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries before 1642.

The project explores two contrasting modes of engagement prevalent in early modern discussions of playgoing: pleasure and judgement. Early modern subjects refer to both concepts regularly when describing responses to dramatic performance. In playbooks of the period, printed prologues and epilogues describe audience censure, invoking ideas of both aesthetic and legal judgement that seem to imply a degree of detachment from the performance itself. Yet in contrast, Feste’s closing words in Twelfth Night, ‘we’ll strive to please you every day’ (5.1.404), seem to anticipate a relationship between audience and playgoer that is less about detached assessment, and more about imaginative engagement, fantasy and ‘play’. In exploring these two modes of response, the investigation pursues new perspectives on early modern dramatic performance and cultures of playgoing. It also seeks a more evidence-based account of how far the emergent concept of the ‘literary’ shaped playhouse engagements with dramatic performance, echoing – or perhaps rather challenging – the nascent textual category of ‘literary drama’.

Related publications include a series of articles due to appear from 2017 onward, and a monograph, currently in preparation, provisionally entitled Playgoing, Pleasure and Judgement in Early Modern England, 1594-1642.

Simon regularly presents work from the project, for example at the Shakespeare Association of America (2015), the World Shakespeare Congress (2016), the University of Cambridge (2016), King’s College London (2016), and the University of Oxford (2017). As part of the project, Simon is also collaborating with Emma Whipday (UCL) on an international conference and planned collection of essays examining Playing and Playgoing in Shakespeare’s England.