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Find below a selected list of my books and articles:


What is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

This book offers an accessible introduction to England’s sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century playing industry and a fresh account of the architecture, multiple uses, communities, crowds, and proprietors of playhouses.  It builds on recent scholarship and new documentary and archaeological discoveries to answer the questions: what did playhouses do, what did they look like, and how did they function?  The book will accordingly introduce readers to a rich and exciting spectrum of “play” and playhouses, not only in London but also around England.  The detailed but wide-ranging case studies examined here go beyond staged drama to explore early modern sport, gambling, music, drinking, and animal baiting; they recover the crucial influence of female playhouse owners and managers; and they recognise rich provincial performance cultures as well as the burgeoning of London’s theatre industry.  

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama

Callan Davies presents “strangeness” as a fresh critical paradigm for understanding the construction and performance of Jacobean drama—one that would have been deeply familiar to its playwrights and early audiences. This study brings together cultural analysis, philosophical enquiry, and the history of staged special effects to examine how preoccupation with the strange unites the verbal, visual, and philosophical elements of performance in works by Marston, Shakespeare, Middleton, Dekker, Heywood, and Beaumont and Fletcher. 

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama therefore offers an alternative model for understanding this important period of English dramatic history that moves beyond categories such as “Shakespeare’s late plays,” “tragicomedy,” or the home of cynical and bloodthirsty tragedies. 

This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of early modern drama and philosophy, rhetorical studies, and the history of science and technology.

Practices of Ephemera in Early Modern England

Edited with Catherine Richardson and Hannah Lilley

This collection is the first to historicise the term ephemera and its meanings for early modern England and considers its relationship to time, matter, and place. It asks: how do we conceive of ephemera in a period before it was routinely employed (from the eighteenth century) to describe ostensibly disposable print? In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—when objects and texts were rapidly proliferating—the term began to acquire its modern association with transitoriness. But contributors to this volume show how ephemera was also integrally related to wider social and cultural ecosystems. Chapters explore those ecosystems and think about the papers and artefacts that shaped homes, streets, and cities or towns and their attendant preservation, loss, or transformation. The studies here therefore look beyond static records to think about moments of process and transmutation and accordingly get closer to early modern experiences, identities, and practices.

A little about What is a Playhouse?

New introduction for...

The Merry Wives of Windsor

I wrote the accessible, research-informed introduction for the new Oxford World's Classics edition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, published April 2024.

Blogs and Conversations
Select a website logo from the carousel below to explore posts by me and colleagues on theatre history, early modern culture, Shakespeare's animals, and classroom resources, and to see video conversations.

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Selected Articles and Chapters

Bowling Alleys and Playhouses in London, 1560-1590

Recreational and domestic alleys provide a useful paradigm for understanding the construction of long-standing commercial stages in the 1560s and 1570s, and they provide essential and overlooked contexts that situate playhouses within the wider leisure ecology of Elizabethan London. Bowling alleys’ construction, reception, and activity present striking similarities with multipurpose theatre buildings, and they lay down models not only for those managing recreational space but also for those in opposition to it. They help supply the vocabulary of recreational enterprise later attached to theatrical playing spaces and lay foundations—in all senses—for the development of London’s theatre industry itself.

[WINNER of 2 AWARDS: Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society Barbara Palmer Award for the Best New Essay in Early Theatre Studies Using Archival Records 2020]

The Place of Bearwards in Early Modern England

This article recognizes the significance of commercial entertainment producers in early modern England operating outside of London. In doing so, it offers fresh methodological approaches for understanding pre-modern social status. I explore the geographical and social places of independent bearwards – individuals who kept bears for the commercial sport of baiting. Three generations of one family – the Whitestones of Ormskirk in Lancashire (1610s through the 1630s) – leave substantial surviving documentary evidence about their activities, assets, and networks. I use the Whitestones's probate inventories and wills and their and their neighbours’ court depositions and petitions to offer for the first time a holistic appraisal of the material, economic, and cultural circumstances of the bearward. By stepping inside the households and communities of several generations of independent entertainment producers, we can appreciate their complex and variable social status and the role of commercial recreation in social mobility. I finish by considering the human–animal relationships that underpinned the bearward's place in early modern England, offering fresh evidence of bears’ living arrangements and a theoretical framework for discussing their exploitation in the blood sport industry.

London Theatrical Culture, 1560-1590, co-written with Andy Kesson and Lucy Munro

Early modern drama was a product of the new theatrical spaces that began to open from the 1560s onward, multiple venues in and just outside London that played to a significant proportion of Londoners on most afternoons. Revisiting the evidence for this historical moment offers the opportunity to look afresh at the playhouses, plays, and playmakers that drove this new theatrical culture. These three terms include the inns and indoor spaces that regularly hosted plays, alongside the now more familiar outdoor, amphitheatrical venues the Theatre and the Rose; plays onstage, plays in print, and plays that are now lost; and the writers, actors, company managers, and male and female playhouse builders and investors who made the creation and performance of those plays possible. Conventional histories of this period’s theaters have tended to concentrate on the opening of the Theatre in 1576 as the first such playhouse. Scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries shows that this event was not the initiating formative act it has come to seem, and emphasizes instead the multiple decades and kinds of playing space that need to be attended to in understanding the earliest years of the playhouses. Multiple kinds of playing company, too, operated in this period, in particular companies made up of predominantly adult male performers, with boys playing female roles, and companies composed entirely of boy performers.

Matter-Theatre: Cymbeline and Conspicuous Construction

This article concentrates on the various “materials” of theatre—rhetoric, technology, narrative—and situates discussion of “self-conscious theatre” away from twentieth- and twenty-first-century vocabularies to concentrate instead on how such materials and media were articulated and understood by early seventeenth-century playwrights, actors, and spectators.  The article argues not only for moments of or metaphors indicating metatheatricality, but to a more fundamental concern with dramatic construction that pervades a play: in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, theatrical recognition and self-awareness work both theoretically—through early modern understandings of “matter”—and at the level of narrative, verse, and dramaturgy.  Shakespeare’s verbal inventiveness in Cymbeline is particularly conspicuous. The circuitous syntax of Shakespeare’s so-called “late style” shows the play’s speech to be especially contrived. The noticeable rhetorical “matter” encourages spectators and readers to appreciate that Cymbeline’s rhetorical constructions are not hidden or elided but are conspicuously present. Verbal invention is also complemented by material invention through the play’s elaborate stagecraft.  Characters’ puzzlement at the narrative and visual surprises of the play—“what’s the matter?”—reflect the term’s verbal and material importance.  The play’s verbal and visual “matteriality” contributes to its fragile and reflexive self-awareness, a characteristic that is structurally present in Shakespeare’s continual delight in delaying and frustrating the answer to the question, “what’s the matter?”. 

The Woolfes of Wine Street: Middling Culture and Community in Bristol, 1600-1620

This article provides an in-depth cultural study of England’s urban middling sort—those in-between wage labourers and the gentry—at the beginning of the seventeenth century, concentrating on one community in a major street in Bristol. Wine Street was home to goldsmiths’ standings and shops, instrument-makers, inn-holding widows, aldermen, mayors, and one of the longest-running playhouses in early modern England outside of London—a venue run by Nicholas and Margaret Woolfe. This study seeks to understand more about the everyday lives of this crucial demographic through a holistic micro-history of one particular community.  More widely, this group of Wine Street tradespeople, artisans and proprietors lived in a location that was in large part distinguished by forms of ‘play’, the elastic early modern term used here to refer to various forms of commercial recreation, from drama to inn-going to luxury shopping. I establish how, in such urban environments, middling status can be distinctly recognised in the imbrication of play with cultural and commercial identity.

Elizabethan Commercial Playing at St Paul's

This chapter reconsiders the commercial culture and playing spaces in which children and scholars performed in Elizabethan London. It situates Paul’s playhouse as one among a network of commercial playing spaces for children’s performance in the 1560s and 1570s, drawing comparisons with the Blackfriars, Merchant Taylors’ School, Trinity Hall, and the Dutton brothers. It focuses on the profitable side of children’s performance, counterbalancing court-orientated discussion of the early boy companies in scholarship. In considering Paul’s seriously as one of London’s earliest playhouses, the chapter explores surrounding social and economic pressures. City Corporation records show that Sebastian Westcote’s tenure at the playhouse coincided with a range of precepts and restrictions aimed at regulating and limiting public assemblies at ‘shows’ while simultaneously seeking to benefit from profit-making recreational activity. The chapter concludes by revisiting London authorities’ disapproval of Westcote keeping ‘plays and resort of the people to great gain and peril.’

Shakespeare and the New Palace of Westminster (1834–1927)

This article explores how the art and architecture of the New Palace of Westminster (home to the UK’s Houses of Parliament) evoke a theatrical experience underpinned by ‘Shakespearean’ aesthetics. Over a series of artistic commissions from the 1840s to the 1920s, artists instrumentalised Shakespeare both explicitly and implicitly as part of the wider schemes within which they worked. Doing so, they visualised and even theatricalised the political and artistic aims of their commissioners and sought to project a unified sense of national history and contemporary aesthetic taste. The three case studies from within the Palace discussed here therefore offer a concentrated reception history of Shakespeare. This reading of the Palace’s visual arts thereby sharpens our understanding of Shakespeare’s developing roles in British national conception. It brings together print, theatrical, and art history with attention to architecture and design, as well as archival details, to offer an interdisciplinary analysis of Shakespeare’s role in constitutional expressions of British identity – not least during a major period of imperial activity and at the very seat of parliamentary power.

Seeing Speech as Spectacle in The White Devil

This article argues that, in the early seventeenth century, rhetorical devices and stage devices overlap. There has been much critical interest in the materiality of theatres like the Blackfriars, the Globe, and the Red Bull. Recent work in early modern theatre studies has made some broad gestures to the way in which poetic and verbal effects are linked with the practical theatrical work of the playhouse. Rhetoric and rhetorical styles have also been subject to renewed scholarly interest, with some suggesting the imminence of an “aesthetic turn” or “New Formalism.” Yet these two critical approaches often remain distinct. Attention to the interaction between speech and spectacle can unite ostensibly different angles of literary analysis and deliver further attention to the visual, philosophical, and intellectual complexity of seventeenth-century playhouse spectacle. I begin by exploring some important terms in early modern English that point to rhetoric's participation in the material world and that suggest these two approaches, when considered from an historical perspective, are complementary. I then attend to the dumb shows and to light and darkness in John Webster's The White Devil (1612) to argue for a critical approach to early modern theatre studies that combines historically minded close reading with recent revisionist considerations of spectacle and that sees rhetorical style as part of the visual and material world of the playhouse.

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