Russell West. Spatial Representations and the Jacobean Stage: From Shakespeare to Webster. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 276pp. ISBN 0 333 97373 9.

Peter Sillitoe
University of Sheffield

Sillitoe, Peter. Review of Spatial Representations and the Jacobean Stage: From Shakespeare to Webster. Early Modern Literary Studies 10.3 (January, 2005) 5.1-9<URL:>.

  1. This brilliant, theoretically complex book is a welcome addition to the growing body of Renaissance critical discourse on social space and its relationship to the literary and cultural environment of the early modern period.  West relates the spatial dynamics of onstage activity and staging at the Jacobean theatre to the changes and cultural dislocations encountered and experienced by many in the early seventeenth century, including enclosure and social mobility.  Although historical and literary sources from the period are utilised throughout the study, West’s focus on the theatrical representation of various social spaces enables him to draw on a range of familiar and important spatial theorists, including Henri Lefebvre and Michel Foucault.

  2. The rather brief introduction on “staging space” makes it clear that the work will emphasise performative aspects as well as the contextual framework of various literary texts, and as West puts it himself, he channels the reader’s attention towards the Jacobean theatre “as an ostentatiously spatial art-form” that “interacts with the contexts of early modern society” (p. 3).  In the introduction, however, West argues persuasively for the growing importance of spatial enquiry in early modern studies, though it is puzzling that the work does not make better use of Janette Dillon’s excellent study on specific civic and courtly spaces in Renaissance England, Theatre, Court and City, 1595-1610: Drama and Social Space in London.  This untypical oversight of modern critical work seems particularly odd when we realise that one of West’s own chapters deals with the space of the Jacobean court and early Stuart masquing culture, though it is again important to stress that West employs other recent ideas on space – a movement he usefully labels the “‘spatial turn’ in contemporary culture” (4) – in order to voice his own intelligent and coherent perspective on theatrical texts and societal contexts. 

  3. West proceeds to apply theoretical notions of space to various aspects of life in the period, including mobility and changes in intellectual thought, yet the book’s greatest strength is perhaps the way in which relatively unexpected modes of enquiry into these intellectual spaces are read alongside more predictable spatial environments such as the court and the theatrical market, all expertly reined in under the central aim of investigating theatrical production.  The critic quite rightly wants “to do justice to the variety of human existence and its representation on the early modern stage, rather than locking that variety into the restricted bounds of a narrow definition” (5).  This important point should permit access to the book for researchers not familiar with work on space, as West has compiled an interesting study of more general early modern culture, and this wide-ranging approach perhaps explains the limit imposed by West in terms of the Jacobean emphasis, with the Elizabethan stage only touched upon. 

  4. Those seeking a clearer focus for the book other than context and performance issues will obviously find this in the matter of social space itself, and West’s first chapter on the staging of spaces is particularly good at articulating Jacobean ideas on space, lending an important emphasis to the ways in which language and thought were    seen as spatial realms by many writers in the period, an element the critic then links to issues of rank and identity.  Indeed, chapter one successfully positions several Renaissance dramatic texts as clear examples of the spatial dynamics inherent in the period’s processes and conceptualisations of thought, language and rhetoric, and West’s own close-reading skills are demonstrated as he offers sensitive explorations of passages of dramatic writing. 

  5. The second chapter deals with the Jacobean court and the performance of the masques.  This important study can now be read alongside West’s more recent work on perspective in the masque, published in The Seventeenth Century.  In the book’s second chapter, though, West is particularly good at bringing out some quite precise intricacies of various masque texts, demonstrating how the literary works often foreground various spaces before the court spectators, and may even transform perceptions through the act of performance.  In light of this, West offers a very interesting discussion of the anti-masque world while also indicating the overall importance of the King as a visual signifier of authority.

  6. The chapter on money and mobility cleverly links the concept of material and cultural exchange to Lefebvre’s influential work on the “production” of space, and, although this may appear to be something of an imaginative leap, the piece works very well, as West is able to show how “physical space became increasingly commodified” during the period (83), and how, rather unsurprisingly, the dramatists can be located amongst the emerging capitalist enterprises of Jacobean England.  Yet West’s apparent gift for pointing out fascinating material in a concise and readable style allows him to stress a link between money and a certain fluidity in terms of exchange, as “[i]t is not by chance that money is referred to by the term ‘liquid’, with its capacity to move from one place to another in ways that goods can not” (87).  Typically, West proceeds to prove this observation by giving detailed close readings of texts, including The Alchemist, Volpone, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Merchant of Venice, linking drama to economic exchange in a way that never loses sight of the spatial dynamics that are of central importance.

  7. The fourth chapter, on social mobility, is another piece that is surprising in terms of the central and binding topic of space, yet West manages to link aspects of the theatre to issues of land and mobility through readings of plays, various printed sources from the period, and the work of modern historians, in order to illustrate the complex dynamics of social change and mobility.  The discussion touches upon aristocratic hospitality and housing and the role of the family, neatly tracing these features in drama, including an enjoyable and informative passage on Romeo and Juliet.  However, it is testament to the sheer range and depth of West’s important book that he still manages to turn the reader’s attention to costume and dress in a brilliant passage that points up the changing social life of Jacobean England.     

  8. “Demographic mobility” is the focal point for another ambitious chapter, as West adds to the growing body of work on the mapping of spatial realms in the English Renaissance with another sharp observation.  As West puts it:  “[M]apping simultaneously represented an increasing knowledge about and thus accessibility of the regions of England, and conversely, a mode of regional self-knowledge signifying increasing resistance to absolute monarchical rule” (149).  It is this dual stress on the regional and the national, micro and macro worlds that consolidates the truly spatial nature of West’s project, a feature the author takes to a logical conclusion by focusing, in chapter six, on dramatic writing about travel and enterprise at the London theatres, including a discussion of some rather neglected texts, such as The Travels of the Three English Brothers and The Sea Voyage.  Indeed, it is another pleasing feature of the book’s scope that although the title prioritises familiar figures such as Shakespeare and Webster, West manages to look beyond these to other writers from the Jacobean stage, and this chapter is no exception as the plays are explored with an understanding of the limits of early-Stuart expansionist foreign policy.  However, one of the chapter’s most interesting concerns is the coupling together of two related points, in that West shows how theatrical discourse helped to define the self-image of the English people by staging what they were not in the travel plays, while, at the same time, the author traces challenges to the formation of Englishness in the surviving drama.  Likewise, there is some important work here on the relationship between the theatrical, imagined spaces of Antony and Cleopatra, identity, and the physicality of the actual theatres in Jacobean London, as well as a persuasive account of how The Tempest deploys aspects of space in terms of power and authority.      

  9. The book’s final chapter is astonishingly original and will hopefully point the way ahead for other Renaissance scholarship into space and literature, as West expands the spatial theme in order to incorporate what he terms “intellectual mobility”.  In actuality, this refers to a focus upon changing approaches to subjectivity and selfhood in the period, though it should be clear by now that West is not interested in merely reworking old theoretical ground.  Rather, a fresh perspective is permitted once more, and this section, like other approaches in the book, is given impetus by West’s determination to constantly renegotiate the terms of spatial inquiry in this highly impressive work.  

Works cited

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© 2005-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).