The Theatre of the Closed Book

May 10, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory.

Frances Yates had this theory, okay? And it seems to have been a bee in her bonnet. I can imagine her attempting to explain it, in the necessary deep detail, to acquaintances at cocktail parties, who’ve shown a polite interest in her esoteric project. It involves Shakespeare in a tangential way, so of course it’s interesting. But like so many other attempted reconstructions of his life and times, it is wildly circumstantial, a theory built on great stretches of the imagination and wild postulations of four-hundred-years dead peoples’ associations, readings, motivations. It’s cool, but kind of unbelievable.

As Yates herself says, to take this theory out of the context of her book on the development of the art of memory from classical rhetorical skill to occult Renaissance ritual for approaching divinity is to make it seem… kind of incomprehensible. But here are the basics. The English philosopher and mystic Robert Fludd developed a memory system, building on the systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo. Actually, Fludd describes two arts of memory: the “round art,” similar to Bruno’s occult use of astrology and images symbolizing the zodiac, and the “square art,” more like the medieval system of using images of “corporeal things” like men and animals placed in memory rooms.

Like much of the discussion in this book on the Hermetic Renaissance philosophers, Yates’s discussion of Fludd is based somewhat on conjecture, because so much of what they wrote seems (to us, at least) willfully obscure, as if withholding a secret or writing only for the initiated, a secret cabal. But she seems right in saying that Fludd proposes to combine these two arts, and to do so in rooms which Fludd calls “theatres.” Engravings of such theatres are included in the second volume of his gigantic work Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris… (1619). Fludd does seem to say, at one point, that he intends his art to be done using “real” places, not imaginary ones (like the grand imagined cathedrals of medieval memory I speculated on in an earlier post).

Therefore, Yates believes Fludd’s theatre engravings are based on actual theatres — or, to be more specific, the stages of actual theatres. Through a torturous series of associations, she convinces herself that Fludd has given us an image of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I don’t really buy it, although it’s a really cool theory and you can tell how excited she was by the idea. At least the theatre-rooms Fludd included in his work do seem to give us some sense of how an Elizabethan and Jacobean stage might have looked (assuming the engraver, probably a German, was given adequate instructions).

But the really fascinating part of Yates’s argument is what she extrapolates from the physical layout of Fludd’s book. On two facing pages there are engravings of the zodiac symbols and spheres of the planets (a round image), and Fludd’s main theatre-room (thought by Yates to be an image of the Globe). (See both images here, figs. 25 and 26, a little over halfway down the page. Sorry, I struck out looking for a better image of the full pages.) If you know your Elizabethan stage history, you know that the ceiling covering the rear part of the stage is thought to have been painted with an image of the night sky, or other representations of the stars, and was called “the heavens.” Drawing on this tradition, Yates speculates that the position of the two engravings is meaningful: when the book is closed, the round image of the heavens will cover or be on top of the square image of the stage, just as the heavens of the stage cover the lower realm where most of the action took place. The round and square arts of memory are thereby combined, just as the position at which some scenes took place in Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful and symbolic — think of Prospero in the Tempest, appearing ‘above’ in one scene: the magus, his superior knowledge keeping him above the fray of human foibles.

I can’t remember seeing the position of text and image in a work used in this way before. That the position of the text when unread could be important! Great idea, and I love the symbolism, and it is certainly tempting to think about the influences the Hermetic ideas going around in England at the time might have had on Shakespeare and the Kings’ Men and James I himself (to whom Fludd dedicated the first part of his book). Speculation, but fun speculation.

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