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Spectatorial Risk: Performing Uncertainty in Early Modern Europe


Spectatorial Risk explores the triangulation of performance, spectatorship, and risk. The project develops a new critical lens through which to read and analyze the spectator’s relationship to risky materials presented on the stage and unpacks the diverse ways that risk is understood, internalized, and managed. This proximate and reciprocal relationship between performed risk and the audience—what I have termed spectatorial risk—attempts to dissect how the spectator interacts with theatre’s unknowability. It not only encompasses the pleasures and dangers that attract audience members to performances of risk but also helps articulate the possible ways they might respond to that risk. After constructing a new critical lens to read the spectator’s and theatre-maker’s engagement with risk, this project explores performances of and responses to risk in Early Modern Europe. The project not only argues that this period was a particularly innovative moment of theatre history in which the negotiations of risks between theatre-makers and spectators were especially salient but also draws attention to distinct patterns of significant spectatorial risk produced by disparate theatre traditions. This project, therefore, offers interventions into the fields of both audience response and Early Modern theatre historiography.

The chapters of this work are organized along parallel tracks of increasing risks to the spectator and distinct forms of Early Modern performance. It begins with the spectatorial risk to theatrical form through an interrogation of English children’s companies, drawing heavily from new analyses of John Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge and Ben Jonson’s Epicene to frame the children as sites by which anything might happen. Next, it inspects the spectatorial risk to morality through exploring the salacious improvisation of Italy’s commedia dell’arte. Here, the works of Tristano Martinelli and Flaminio Scala demonstrate how an air of unpredictability consciously fostered a risk to moral norms. Finally, this project explores the spectatorial risk to self through performances of witchcraft in which audiences became complicit with forbidden and damning practices. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the collaboratively written The Witch of Edmonton are spotlighted as examples that implicated spectators in the sacrilegious world of witchcraft.

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