"Done Like a Frenchman": Henry VI, the Tyranny of the Audience and Spect-Actorial Adaptations
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In early modern theatre, there are many examples of audiences recognising themselves in performances that they watch. It is this recognition which creates comedy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the young married aristocrats comment on how absurdly the rude mechanicals perform a story of thwarted love which exactly mirrors the potential play which Dream so nearly becomes. The same idea is the source of dramatic tension in Hamlet, when Hamlet’s adaptation of The Mousetrap is performed as a trap to “catch the conscience of the king”; Hamlet’s commentary is a diversionary tactic, for Hamlet is not watching the play at all, he is watching the King’s reactions to it and it is when the King apparently recognises himself and stops the play that Hamlet believes his trap has worked. In the so-called bad quarto The Taming of a Shrew, Christopher Sly sees in the story of Petruchio and Katherina a taming fantasy of male dominance, but in the play’s final scene he is chased offstage by his shrewish wife. Sometimes, when recognising themselves in the play, audiences can change the play as well. Arguably, this already happens in Dream, where tragedy is made into a comedy and in Hamlet, where the play cannot continue once the King has recognised himself in the play.
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