Entertaining Uncertainty in the Early Modern Theater

Stage Spectacle and Audience Response

Lauren Robertson’s original study shows that the theater of Shakespeare and his contemporaries responded to the crises of knowledge that roiled through early modern England by rendering them spectacular. Revealing the radical, exciting instability of the early modern theater’s representational practices, Robertson uncovers the uncertainty that went to the heart of playgoing experience in this period. Doubt was not merely the purview of Hamlet and other onstage characters, but was in fact constitutive of spectators’ imaginative participation in performance.

Within a culture in the midst of extreme epistemological upheaval, the commercial theater licensed spectators’ suspension among opposed possibilities, transforming dubiety itself into exuberantly enjoyable, spectacular show. Robertson shows that the playhouse was a site for the entertainment of uncertainty in a double sense: its pleasures made the very trial of unknowing possible.


‘Lauren Robertson extends the conversation about early modern staging conventions in provocative new ways. Beyond the practicalities and social functions of staging practices she investigates their psychological dynamics. Within her critical framework, perception in theatrical performance is a matter of expectations on the spectators’ part – expectations that she argues were challenged in commercially successful play scripts, resulting in a state of uncertainty that spectators loved to experience and were willing to pay for again and again. The broad historical sweep of the book turns Caroline drama into a climax rather than an afterthought.’
— Bruce R. Smith, University of Southern California

‘Lauren Robertson gives us an original and brilliantly compelling account of the provocations and pleasures of audience uncertainty in early modern English theatrical culture. Alert to a wide range of philosophical, historical, and performative concerns, she offers fascinating discussions of the evolving interplay between dramatic representation and spectatorial engagement within the commercial repertory from its Elizabethan beginnings with Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare to its Jacobean and Caroline developments in Jonson, Middleton, Ford, and Massinger. Her readings are unfailingly perceptive – often arresting in their acuity and persuasive vigor – and the attention she devotes to the doubts and interpretive challenges faced by playgoers is exhilarating in its imaginative reach. This is a book not only for Shakespeareans and scholars of early modern drama but for all serious students and lovers of theater.’
— William Hamlin, Washington State University

About the author

Lauren Robertson (PhD Washington University in St. Louis, 2016) researches and teaches the literature and culture of early modern England. Her scholarly interests include the plays and playwrights of the London commercial theater, theatrical convention and stagecraft, intellectual history, skepticism, early modern classicism, and translation. 

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