Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition

For our reading group on 16th November we talked to Dr Sophie Duncan (University of Oxford) about Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition. The prompt question were prepared by Anouska Lester.

You can read about other past reading groups here.

We ask everyone to read chapter four of Sophie’s book: Babies and Corpses (pp.146-94). If you’re short on time, focus on the opening and closing sections (pp.146-51 and pp.164-86). While you’re reading, you could think about the following prompt questions (prepared by Anouska Lester):

  • How does Sophie’s discussion of babies and corpses as props and characters affect your understanding of the meaning of “prop”?

  • How does this chapter impact your understanding of verisimilitude and theatricality in early modern performance? Is verisimilitude (or lack thereof) significant in any of the plays in your own research?

  • Sophie’s work is very sensitive to the use of language in all kinds of theatrical documents, from the complex meanings of the statement “I am dead” in early modern play-texts (pp.167-71) to the “Blackamoor child” in an RSC props list (pp.177-8). In your own work, how does language reinforce or conflict with the idea of performance as material and embodied?

  • Sophie writes about this prop bond used in Henry Irving’s Merchant of Venice (1879) and calls it an “archive” of performance and conservation (p.60). How might the categorisation of bodies and props as “archives” be useful in your own work?
Prop bond used by Henry Irving in The Merchant of Venice (1879)
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London, S.815-1981
  • This chapter makes me think of Nashe’s famous description of how performance reanimates the corpse of Talbot.

    How would it haue ioyd braue Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his Toomb, he should triumph againe on the Stage, and haue his bones new embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least, (at seuerall times) who in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding…there is no immortalitie can be giuen a man on earth like vnto Playes. (Pierce Penilesse, 1592, (F3r-v))

    How do props and bodies trigger, or even embody, memory? How do documents trigger memories of props and bodies?

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