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British Academy Lectures 2014-15$
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Janet Carsten and Simon Frith

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265987

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265987.001.0001

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Time for Shakespeare: Hourglasses, sundials, clocks, and early modern theatre

Time for Shakespeare: Hourglasses, sundials, clocks, and early modern theatre

Shakespeare Lecture read 21 May 2014

(p.1) Time for Shakespeare: Hourglasses, sundials, clocks, and early modern theatre
British Academy Lectures 2014-15

Tiffany Stern

British Academy

Like other prologues of the early modern period, the prologue to Romeo and Juliet is clear about the length of time its play will take in performance. Two hours. But how literal is that claim? A tendency to take the prologue at face value has resulted in the assumption that Shakespeare’s plays, most of which take longer than two hours to perform, have not survived in their stage form. Instead, goes the argument, we have them in a totally different version: as they were rewritten, at length, for the page. This article will question whether plays ever habitually took two hours to perform. It will look at the lengths of playtexts and will ask when and why the ‘two-hour’ claim was made. But it will also investigate what ‘two hours’ meant in the early modern period. Exploring, in succession, hourglasses, sundials and mechanical clocks, it will consider which chronological gauges were visible or audible in the early modern playhouse, and what hours, minutes and seconds might have meant to an early modern playwright who lacked trustworthy access to any of them. What, it will ask, was time, literally and figuratively, for Shakespeare—and how did chronographia, the rhetorical art of describing time, shape his writing?

Keywords:   Shakespeare, time, hour, minute, hourglass, sundial, clock, chronographia

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