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At the biannual International Shakespeare Conference held in Stratfordupon-Avon, August 4-8, 2008, Professor Frank Occhiogrosso led a seminar on close reading of Shakespeare. Papers divided about equally on close reading of texts and close reading of performances. Andrew James Hartley's paper on performances raised some important issues, as the interrogative of his title indicated: "Can we / Should we close-read performance?" He was concerned that, unlike films, stage productions are far more ephemeral insofar as performances may and often do change in the course of a run, sometimes a good deal. As Hartley said, "Performance on stage is fundamentally protean, each performance within a production varying-sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically--according to the particular contingencies of the theatre. People miss cues, light and sound effects don't work properly, doors stick, props malfunction.... Actors act differently from night to night, sometimes deliberately, sometimes in response to what others do, or what the audience does (or doesn't do)."
All this is true and puts stage historians in a serious dilemma, especially when they have to depend on reviews or other accounts of plays produced years earlier, and it becomes impossible to reconcile the various accounts of a production. But what is one to do? Of course, there is sometimes recourse to comparing several accounts by different observers, but what happens when they disagree about a significant moment in a production, such as the way Hamlet delivered his first or third soliloquy? Or Lear's "Look there, look there!" in his final scene?
These problems notwithstanding, we continue to depend on reviews of stage productions, based as they usually are on the press night performance, however different it may turn out to be from subsequent performances, especially late in the run. I see no alternative to this, other than giving up stage history altogether, which is not quite what Hartley suggests, even though he acknowledges the complicating factor of the observer's subjective response to what he or she views. Theater critics will continue to review plays as they have done for decades and centuries past, and stage historian's will continue to depend on their reviews, even as we recognize, as we must, the unfortunately somewhat imprecise nature of the results. Then again, literary scholars and critics are not research scientists, much as some scholars a generation or two ago tried to make us become and to develop an appropriate critical vocabulary.
This is by way of apology or defense for what I am about to say about two productions witnessed about a week apart, one (Hamlet) by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratfordupon-Avon, the other (King Lear) by the company performing at the Globe Theatre in London.
By the time I and others at the ISC conference came to see Hamlet shortly after opening night, the production had already amassed a huge …