Date of this Version
Renaissance Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3, Fall 2006, pp. 965-967
In The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts, Henry Turner argues that English stage practice emerged out of practical geometry and related mechanical arts. The book is part of a new critical attention to the interconnections between literature and science, one that depends on the recognition that art involved the creation not just of aesthetic objects but also of knowledge itself. Stage practice drew from geometry to develop the concepts of plat-plot and to define its use of scenes as both spatial divisions and dramatic structures. Drama also provided audiences with forms of practical knowledge and prospective intelligence that came to be associated with the mechanical arts. The concepts of geometry were developed and used by surveyors, navigators, mapmakers, engineers, builders, and, most importantly for Turner, playwrights.
Turner’s argument is sweeping; the scholarship and analysis that support it are of a very high caliber. The English Renaissance Stage impressively brings a range of scientific and philosophical resources to bear on its account of the knowledge arts of the early modern theater. Some readers may ask how necessary geometry was to the creation of the imagined spaces of the Renaissance stage. Since Sidney did not pursue his proposed studies in geometry, how significant are his evocations of geometry? Is it only Jonson’s highly self-conscious stage that depends on the geometric arts? Can the theory (whether Aristotle, Vitruvius, or Robert Recorde) make sense of an often improvisational set of practices? Turner’s work ultimately suggests that when making, doing, and knowing become entangled with one another, even those who do not know geometry take part in its lessons. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be taken from this book is not the argument that early modern theater is a product of new knowledge practices, but the corollary conclusion that theater became valued as a site of knowledge production. Turner’s work offers a powerful revision to how we understand early modern stage practice. At its best, The English Renaissance Stage allows us to see into the intellectual toolkit that created the “golden world” of Renaissance drama.