It may seem impossible that anything new about Shakespeare or his theater could be discovered at this time of day, yet new light can be thrown on the Globe Theater through the pursuit of a neglected subject, the history of the classical art of memory.
The Roman orators used a mnemonic device to help them to memorize their speeches; the technique is described by Cicero and other ancient writers. The user of the classical art of memory began by memorizing places in a building; on these places he memorized images to remind him of the points of his speech. As he gave his speech the orator moved in imagination through his memory building, inwardly seeing the images on the places. The order of the places ensured him that he kept to the order of his points. The images reminded him of those points. The technique relied on strong powers of visualization and on the laws of association, which were fully understood by the ancients. The authorities say that your own house may be used as a memory system, or streets and public buildings, such as theaters. And if you do not know enough of such real places to imprint on your memory, you may invent imaginary buildings to house the contents of memory. Such imaginary buildings were called fictitious places, to distinguish them from real places, memorized in real buildings.
Like the other arts of antiquity, the classical art of memory was handed down in the European tradition. In the Middle Ages it had its Gothic period, when churches, cathedrals, abbeys, were used as memory systems. In the Renaissance, neo-classical influences pervaded the memory architecture and imagery. One of the most famous memory systems of the Renaissance was the Memory Theater of Giulio Camillo, who set out to imprint on memory the whole cosmos, both the world of nature and the world of man. He formed a universal Memory Theater which was an adaptation of the Roman theater as described by Vitruvius. This remarkable effort, which was connected with tendencies in the Renaissance Hermetic movement, excited great interest in the sixteenth century.
In the early seventeenth century the fashion for theater memory systems reached England.
The cut here reproduced from the Mnemonica of John Willis represents one of a series of what Willis calls Memory Theaters. He divided each of these constructions into a number of memory places, marked on the cut by letters of the alphabet. If the cut is a reflection of any real building, it is of course not a whole theater but a stage—a stage closed at the sides to form a memory room.
Willis’s system is an example of the use of the classical art of memory in a perfectly straightforward way, as a mnemonic technique. But in the following year, 1619, the Hermetic philosopher Robert Fludd published a most elaborate theater memory system in which he aimed, like Giulio Camillo, at a universal memory. This is the curious source from which evidence …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.