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Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion

Playhouses and Playgoers in Elizabethan England

A new account of playgoing in Elizabethan England, in which audiences participated as much as performers.

What if going to a play in Elizabethan England was more like attending a football match than a Broadway show—or playing in one? In Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion, William N. West proposes a new account of the kind of participatory entertainment expected by the actors and the audience during the careers of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. West finds surprising descriptions of these theatrical experiences in the figurative language of early modern players and playgoers—including understanding, confusion, occupation, eating, and fighting. Such words and ways of speaking are still in use today, but their earlier meanings, like that of theater itself, are subtly, importantly different from our own. Playing was not confined to the actors on the stage but filled the playhouse, embracing audiences and performers in collaborative experiences that did not belong to any one alone but to the assembled, various crowd.  What emerged in playing was a kind of thinking and feeling distributed across persons and times that were otherwise distinct. Thrown apples, smashed bottles of beer, and lumbering bears—these and more gave verbal shape to the physical interactions between players and playgoers, creating circuits of exchange, production, and consumption.  

312 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2021

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: Dramatic Works


"West’s learned, innovative study offers a cultural anthropology of the Elizabethan stage—of the language in play texts and contemporaneous discussions of theater. West does not provide extended readings of individual plays, though he comments briefly on many. Rather, he focuses on the intertwining of confusions and conclusions—a favorite rhyme of the playwrights—in a theater where 'performances' embodied 'provocations toward meaning rather than representations of a meaning.' . . . Summing Up: Highly recommended."


“This exhilarating book reveals, in vivid detail, what early modern theater was like as an experience. By investigating not playing itself, but metaphors about it, West shows how theater was viewed at the time—as a place of fear or wonder, described in terms of chaos, fighting, being in a siege, eating, dancing. Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion enables us to understand, as never before, the edginess, thrill, and danger of plays and performance in the time of Shakespeare.”

Tiffany Stern, author of Documents of Performance in Early Modern England

“A dazzling account of how early modern playgoers experienced theater in the decades between 1575 and 1610, Common Understandings, Poetic Confusion links theatrical knowing and feeling to shared corporeal events and bodily sensations. Theoretically rich and brimming with telling examples, West’s book shows how the habitus of early modern playgoing was created by collective acts as simple as eating, drinking, and remembering within the bounded space of the theater.”

Jean E. Howard, Columbia University

Table of Contents

A Note on Textual and Other Performances

   There Is Not Agreement of Opinion
   All the World’s a Stage
   Every Like Is Not the Same
1: Playing
   Merely Players
   What Learn You By That?
   But Mark This Show
2: Occupatio
   An Excellent Good Word Before It Was Ill Sorted
   Looking Well to Borders
   So Curious in New Fangles
3: Understanders
   Deep in Understanding
   Plain and Easy to Be Understanden
   All Readers to Be Understanders
   Feelingly Perceive
4: Confusion
   Nothing but Confusion and Errors
   Babylonical Confusion
   What More Fitter Occasion?
   Diverse Men of Diverse Minds
   Commons Knowledge
Interlude. Playing, Thinking
5: Supposes
   Valedictions to Sense
   Brokers of Another’s Wit
   A Stalking-Stamping Player
   Authors of All the Content
6: Eating
   Between Meals
   Some Hungry Scenes
   Playing with Food
7: Non Plus
   I’ll Have a Challenge, Too
   Fencers, Bearwards, Common Players
   Non Plus
Trying Conclusions


New York University Dept. of English: Joe A. Callaway Prize

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