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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Writing Performance: How to Elegize Elizabethan Actors


In the second act of Hamlet, after the First Player has delivered his passionate speech of death and mourning, Hamlet says in praise of him that stage-players are ‘the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live’ (2.2.505). Professional players are here described in terms of cultural memory. Their work does for contemporaries what epitaphs do for posterity: they shape a person’s image and show it to the world. The point was not lost on anti-theatricalists either. In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Philip Stubbes railed against players as ‘painted sepulchres’. His emphasis lies clearly on ‘painted’, as a sign of professional hypocrisy, echoing Christ’s words according to St Matthew (23.27). Nevertheless, it is telling that Stubbes’s comment, just like Hamlet’s, serves to associate actors with tombs, monuments and posthumous remains. What does remain, however, of an actor’s art? If theatre performers generally take part in cultural commemorations, we might conversely ask what memorials or abstracts have been written for them after their own deaths. Plays in performance are strictly temporary acts, a mere two-hours’ traffic on the stage. So how can a brief chronicle, an elegy or epitaph ever give us an account of any actor’s true achievement?

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Online ISBN: 9781139052771
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