"In this show let me an actor be": Joining in with Doctor Faustus


Mark Scott


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Theatre is a fundamentally collaborative artform. Any successful live performance depends upon the participation of—and cooperation between—actors and spectators. On the Elizabethan stage, this axiom was most famously pronounced by the Chorus in William Shakespeare's Henry V. The Chorus begins the play by making an apology that doubles as an appeal for help. Because the company doesn't have a real "kingdom for a stage, princes to act,/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene," the Chorus begs spectators not only to forgive "The flat unraised spirits that hath dared/On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth/So great an object" as the triumph at Agincourt, but also to assist the performers by imaginatively bridging the gap between illusion and reality: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."1 While it is the job of the actors to "work" on the "imaginary forces" of spectators by staging the play, spectators in turn must work with the actors: "For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (Prologue.18–28). Yet as much as the Chorus unites actors and spectators in a collaborative endeavour, he also draws clear boundaries between their respective contributions ("your thoughts"; "our kings"). Where the actors' job is to physically create the theatrical illusion, the spectators' labor is mental: "Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege" (3.0.25). Where the actors play their parts onstage, the role of the spectator is confined to the mind—"the quick forge and working-house of thought" (5.0.23). Actors pretend; spectators believe.


1. William Shakespeare, King Henry V, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. T.W. Craik (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1995), Prologue.3–23. Subsequent quotations from the play will be cited parenthetically by act, scene, and line number.

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