Through a close reading of Shakespeare’s works, Nigel Wood argues for the power of Shakespeare’s dramatic language to shape the consciousness of the audiences of his time and to play a role in the development of a public sphere in early modern England. He traces the verbal patterning and repetition of a range of keywords across plays, distinguishing between their accepted meaning and the potency of performance to introduce fluid nuances of meaning and significance. It takes seriously therefore the plays’ status as oral performances and the ways in which his language would have resonated with early modern audiences.
Beginning by establishing an approach to Shakespeare’s playtexts from the perspective of an audience witnessing a gradually unfolding action, Wood addresses the power of language to create episodes of shock or revelation. Uniting this with Habermas’s sense of a Public Sphere, he explores the role of the theatre and early modern audiences in contributing to the Public Sphere by challenging pre-set conventions and ideologies. In chapters on the social, the state, notions of kind and gentility, the human and ceremony/ritual, crucial shades of meaning are uncovered with special reference to a wide range of plays: the Histories, including Coriolanus and Henry V; the Tragedies, such as Hamlet and Othello, and the Comedies, including Much Ado About Nothing and The Merchant of Venice. This is a unique exploration of how Shakespeare in dramatizing and so challenging conventions of language, thereby questioned static cultural assumptions about gender, class and racial difference. Deep-seated critical approaches to canonical texts are thereby questioned in the service of re-capturing their initial public validity.
Nigel Wood is Senior Associate Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK.
Specification: Shakespearean Language and the Public Sphere
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