• Email
  • Print

Theatre of the World

In response to:

Magical Mystery Tour from the January 29, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

I am very grateful to Wylie Sypher for his long and helpful survey of my work in the January 29 issue of The New York Review of Books. It is highly gratifying to an author when a reviewer takes trouble to read several of his books, and I very much appreciate this and have enjoyed his intelligent formulations of Renaissance themes which I have studied. I am particularly pleased that he sees my work as clarifying a mode of belief “that made possible Shakespearian drama.”

In view of his sympathetic and understanding interpretations of my earlier works it seems strange that when he comes to my last book, and the one chiefly under review, Theatre of the World, he does not seem to show quite the same grip of its theme. The argument of Theatre of the World is that the design of the theater built by James Burbage, which influenced the later theater movement, including Shakespeare’s Globe, was based on classical theory on the design of the Roman theater as expounded in Vitruvius’s book on architecture. The arguments used in building up this theory emphasize the fact that Vitruvius was known among the artisan class in Elizabethan London through the teaching and writings of John Dee and could therefore have been known to Burbage. Since the geometry of the ground plan of the classical theater was based on cosmology, I further argue that cosmic associations would have been implicit in the Shakespearean theater, and that the “Idea” or meaning of the Globe Theater would have been that of a “theater of the world,” expressive of harmonies between macrocosm and microcosm.

Mr. Sypher would seem to accept the “idea” of a “theater of the world” as embodying Shakespeare’s vision, while dissociating this from the actual “wooden structure of the Globe” which might therefore, presumably, still have been put together in ignorance of classical concepts. Possibly it is this unclassical dissociation of the form of a structure from its idea which enables him to accept my views in a vague way without realizing their implications for the actual structure of the theaters. “Surely it is evident,” he says, “on the basis of Miss Yates’s findings that the Vitruvian open theater contributed to the design of the Elizabethan public playhouse…” This is fine. Yet a few sentences further on he says, “Regardless of its wooden fabric the Globe provided the ‘symbolic geometry’ in which Vitruvian man could see his representation,” and here the confusion raises its head. The geometry would be built into the fabric as its basis and ground plan.

In defense of my advocacy of the engraving of a stage in one of Robert Fludd’s books as throwing light on the stage of a public theater, I would emphasize that this argument was not advanced carelessly, or in an “undisciplined” way, but only after minute examination of the text of the memory system in which the engraving occurs. Mr. Sypher does not refer to, and seems not to have read, my article in Shakespeare Studies III (1967) in which I examine the memory treatise which contains the engraving. Failure to understand the plan which Fludd’s memory treatise follows results in lack of understanding of the theater illustrations, and I would beg any student who intends to work at the Fludd stage in the setting of the memory system to read my article, not necessarily in order to agree with its conclusions, but as a guide to the way material is arranged in a memory treatise in the classical tradition. The article also attempts to explain traditional expressions, such as “real” and “fictitious” memory places, and to analyze the two types of memory system, the “round” and the “square,” which Fludd is using. My own conclusion is that only the stage wall in the theater engraving, with its five entrances, terrace, and upper window or chamber, is to be regarded as reflecting “real places” in a real theater.

Another line of approach to this engraving which I have followed is to study it as presenting a scheme of five entrances onto a stage—the classical number of entrances—in an arrangement which might be an adaptation of the stage of the ancient theater suited to the requirements of actors in a London public theater.

The evidence of this engraving cannot be dismissed as valueless until it has been carefully tested by experiment whether such a scheme of a frons scaenae which we see in it would fit the movements of characters in plays. I suggest that work on this engraving should now switch from argument as to what theater it may or may not represent, or from criticisms of the adaptations of it made in my book (which are not intended to be more than suggestions, others may have better ideas), and should concentrate on experimental work. Let it be tried out experimentally whether the arrangement of upper and lower entrances, terrace, and chamber window, shown in the Fludd engraving, will work with a Shakespearean play known to have been performed at the Globe. I suggest that a start might be made with Hamlet.

There are still many problems awaiting solution in connection with the publication of Fludd’s works in Germany, their illustration, their relation to the general output and aims of the De Bry firm of printers, and to the situation in Germany at that time. I am at present working on a book on these matters which I hope may help to throw further light on why Fludd was interested in theaters, though this is only one aspect of a very complicated problem.

Frances Yates

Warburg Institute


Wylie Sypher replies:

I do not believe my review indicated that the Fludd engraving is “valueless.” Rather, I suggested that in this last book Miss Yates may have over-interpreted the direct relevance of this engraving to the structure of the Globe stage. Her article in Shakespeare Studies III (1967), expanding what she wrote in The New York Review of Books, does not seem to me to resolve the problem entirely because she appears to have used her evidence somewhat arbitrarily. It is easy to agree with her remark in Shakespeare Studies that Fludd is of “the greatest importance, not only for one particular theatre, but for the whole of the theatre movement initiated by Burbage.” Yet in the same volume of Shakespeare Studies Herbert Berry warns against taking the Fludd illustrations as a wholly accurate guide to the actual staging of English plays. In fact, the precise relation of the Fludd engraving to Shakespearian stage design has been differently read by Richard Bernheimer, I. A. Shapiro, Herbert Berry, Glynne Wickham, and Frances Yates, who is clearly a profound student of Fludd. We await her report on the German publication of Fludd’s works. Meanwhile by a stroke of scholarship she has incontestably established the Vitruvian influence on the idea of the Globe theatre as cosmological.

  • Email
  • Print