This post is part of a series on theatrical words. For an introduction to the series, see Performing words: introduction to a new thread on theatre and language. This particular post makes available Andy Kesson’s paper for Miranda Fay Thomas and Evelyn Tribble’s Shakespeare Association of America seminar on gesture. Andy would like to thank his seminar organisers for allowing him to publish his paper here.
With the reader’s permission and involvement, I’d like to begin with a practice-as-research experiment. Take out your hands, read the following lines, and gesture as you do so, thinking in particular about where the physical objects are that your lines describe:
When this eternal substance of my soul
Did live imprisoned in my wanton flesh […]
I was a courtier in the Spanish court.
We’re all different, and we won’t all gesture in the same way, but I’m hopeful that these lines will have made you think about time, direction, placement and your body – and about which bits of a text cue you to make decisions about these things. For me at least, the key questions coming out of these lines are: where exactly is ‘this eternal substance of my soul’? And if my soul is in that particular place, then where on earth is ‘my wanton flesh’?
The Spanish Tragedy opens with a somatic and conceptual challenge. Andrea’s soul is onstage and live (in the theatrical as well as the theological sense); it is here; it is ‘this’. Andrea’s body, meanwhile, is offstage, dead and in the past; he ‘was a courtier’; ‘the Spanish court’ is not onstage with him. But the thisness of Andrea’s soul grounds it in the presence of the actor’s body. At the beginning of this play, the actor is asked to gesture at his body to indicate his character’s bodilessness.
The description for our seminar (written by Miranda Fay Thomas and Evelyn Tribble) asks how ‘Shakespeare’s work engage[s] with us beyond words, using the language of the body’, and I hope I’ll be forgiven for answering that question without reference to Shakespeare. This paper attends to the first ten years for which we have extant scripts for plays performed in the London playhouses (c. 1581-91), considering a deictic word that seems to connect spoken and embodied meaning: ‘thus’. As Sylvia Adamson puts it, deictic language such as ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘thus’ have ‘an unusually close relation to performance and stage space’, because ‘their primary use in spoken language is to accompany an act of pointing […] or some other hand gesture […] or some kind of demonstrative activity’. Such language, Adamson suggests, ‘forces its performers to propose some answers if they are not to leave the gestural deictics as nonsense words’ (Adamson 232, 234). My paper asks after this ‘unusually close relation’, this ‘demonstrative activity’ and the idea of a language that ‘forces’ performers into decisions. It asks how such moments of thusness work(ed) in performance, prompting, prescribing or responding to an actor’s bodily decisions, and tries to think through the paradox of using verbal evidence to think ‘beyond words’, of using text to think about non-text. In short, this essay zeroes in on a microhistory of a tiny word in search of a meaning, in order to ask how theatrical language makes or encourages actors’ bodies to move in a period when performers had little rehearsal time and no equivalent of the modern director.
I should start by acknowledging that the word ‘thus’ may not be performative or deictic at all. Promising to mount an argument in Campaspe, Calypho is asked, ‘How?’ ‘Thus’, he replies, before embarking on his proposition. In the only extant early Biblical play staged in a playhouse, David and Bethseba, ‘thus’ frequently introduces the word of the Lord or his prophet Nathan. In these plays, ‘thus’ may simply denote formal stages in argumentation, or root spoken dialogue in the language of the Bible. In both cases, this may tell us more about literary form or tone than it does about performance. In other plays, ‘thus’ may simply be metrically expedient: in an era when Nashe complained that the new vogue for blank verse necessitated lots of unnecessary ‘ands’ and ‘buts’, thuses may have been poetic conveniences. In Love and Fortune, for example, ‘thus’ regularly appears in a line’s fourth syllable immediately after a verbal adjective: ‘Disguised thus’; ‘Forsaken thus’. It was also clearly useful in writing this play’s rhyming couplets, since ‘thus’ is rhymed with ‘us’ and ‘glorious’. Thus ‘thus’ could solve metrical and rhyming challenges, once again serving a literary function rather than a performative one. But I’m struck, even as I write that, that even these thuses, with their non-deictic functions, nevertheless have a secondary and highly deictic effect: Calypho, Nathan and the characters disguised or forsaken ‘thus’ all seem to be calling attention to their physical whereabouts or stance, their social or dramatic status within a scene and their relationship to other characters or the audience. However rhetorical, tonal or poetic these thuses may be, they seem to have an effect on a performer’s performance.
Whatever we make of those examples, the early playhouse corpus does provide us with thuses that point unambiguously and deictically to live, staged embodiment, in other words cuing action, gesture or other kind of movement. Uses of the word ‘thus’ vary widely across the early period, and seem to increase over time, to the point that plays performed in the second half of the 1580s contain on average twice the number of thuses compared to plays performed in the first half of that decade. It is a quirk of the evidence for 1580s drama that plays first performed in the first half of the 1580s can be dated very precisely, whilst plays staged between 1585 and 1592 cannot usually be dated precisely at all (and that’s not just a quirk, but a very interesting, revealing one: see Kesson, ‘Playhouses’ and Pratt, ‘Printed playbooks’ for more). But the overall point is still clear: after 1585 uses of ‘thus’ double. Of the seven plays thought to be first onstage between 1580 and 1585, there is an average of 9.3 thuses per play, though this figure is skewed by the 31 in Love and Fortune. Of the 28 plays likely to be onstage between 1586 and 1590, there is an average of 23.5 thuses per play. Children’s plays dominate our earliest surviving playhouse plays, and use ‘thus’ sparingly, especially in the first half of the decade. Given that the metrically-mixed adult play Three Ladies of London (first onstage in 1581) only has 5 thuses, it may be significant that the sudden outbreak of thuses in late ‘80s children’s theatre coincides with the adoption of blank verse. After all, if the turning point for uses of ‘thus’ occurs around 1585, that is the same time that blank verse makes its explosive entrance on the stage, suggesting something about the confluence of literary form and deictic precision.
Perhaps a better way to get a sense of the range of uses of ‘thus’ in early plays is to compare the zero appearances of the word in Love’s Metamorphosis to the 63 uses in the first print edition of The Spanish Tragedy, often seen as an early and archetypal blank verse play. The Spanish Tragedy has almost twice as many instances of ‘thus’ compared to almost every other pre-1592 play. Even more startlingly, if The Spanish Tragedy appeared towards the start of its potential date spread of 1585-92, then it has between six to ten times more thuses compared to extant plays onstage before 1585 (depending on whether you factor the outlier Love and Fortune into this earlier tally). If The Spanish Tragedy is an early play, then its use of ‘thus’ looks like one of the ways in which it changed playhouse drama.
At roughly 2,800 lines, a character in The Spanish Tragedy might be expected to speak the word ‘thus’ about once every 50 lines. But instead, thuses accumulate and cluster around moments of sexual or violent contact, the former often inciting the latter. ‘Then thus begin our wars, put forth thy hand’ is Horatio’s opening chat-up line. Only twenty lines later, he dies as Lorenzo says to him: ‘Ay, thus, and thus, these are the fruits of love’. The latter line contains three potential deictics: since Horatio is alive at its start but on his way to death at its close, ‘thus’, ‘thus’ and ‘these’ seem to necessitate actions without which the play cannot proceed. But perhaps that is going too far. Individual actors in particular performances, then and now, can choose to ignore or contest such cues, and the words ‘Ay’, ‘fruits’ and ‘love’ may feel far more interesting moments at which to stab Horatio. In addition, Lorenzo may be stabbing as he speaks, or describing the delegated violent acts of his entourage from afar. But it is the line’s deictic language, its unusual repetition of ‘thus’ alongside the confirmatory ‘these’, that seem to call especial attention to the coordination, even syncretisation, of word and gesture, however this comes to pass onstage. Whatever might happen, the text issues a demand that something must happen. This returns us to Adamson’s point that deictics ‘force’ responses from their theatrical speakers, but it also reminds us that deictics do not usually force the nature of that response – unlike, perhaps, stage directions.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Three Ladies of London, which contains only five thuses. Crucially, two of these occur in the play’s first scene and final speech, whilst two more occur within a short single scene. The very particular whereabouts of ‘thus’ in this play look like specialist uses of a specialist word. Love opens the play bemoaning ‘That we poor ladies may sigh to see our states thus turned and tossed’, whereas Judge Nemo closes the play sending Conscience to prison, then saying ‘Thus we make an end/ Knowing that the best of us all may amend’. The shift in subject matter from the stage character Conscience to ‘us all’ is a move from narrative particularity to (non-narrative?) generalisation, and may well indicate the physical shift of the performer from representational to presentational position (on these terms, see Weimann, 98-108). But whatever shift occurs turns on the word ‘Thus’. Certainly, the appearance of the word at the start and end of the play suggests its declarative, introductory or summatory utility.
In the middle of the play Conscience enters ‘with brooms at her back singing‘. She breaks off her song, and her first and last spoken words before resuming her song use ‘thus’ to comment on her action:
Thus am I driven to make a virtue of necessity […].
But while I stand reasoning thus I forget my market clean[…]. Sing again
The entirety of Three Ladies of London is self-aware, allegorical and iconographic, but it does seem to me that this scene is differently iconographic in its mediation via song, the broom-selling and the way Conscience refers to these things through the word ‘thus’. Both sentences make sense without this word: I am driven to do this; while I stand talking I forget my job. The double use of the word ‘thus’, at either end of this speech, introduces additional self-consciousness by foregrounding the actor or character in their stage or fictional position and foregrounding their turn to audience address.
Some of these issues become clearer when we turn to Jack Straw, which contains 24 thuses (in a very short and fragmentary play script). These usages allow us to attempt an anatomy of thuses in early plays. In this play, characters use ‘thus’ to refer to past or offstage action, rather than something happening onstage and now. Sometimes ‘thus’ is used instead in order to train a character how to behave during a future event: ‘With speed return to those unnatural men/ And see, Sir John, you greet them thus from us’. Sometimes thuses accompany onstage action, in a way familiar from The Spanish Tragedy: ‘thus I take my conge of your majesty’; ‘What means the king thus to abuse us [spoken in front of the king]’. And sometimes, rather than initiating action, ‘thus’ describes a completed deed. In such cases, the completed deed is also a speech, reminding us that onstage words are physical actions too, not their opposite: ‘thus you know my mind’; ‘thou durst not ask it thus boldly’. In the play’s electrifying first scene, where a tax official searches the body of Straw’s daughter for signs of puberty, ‘thus’ refers both to that particular act and to its wider implications:
For I am sure thy office doth not arm thee with such authority
Thus to abuse the poor people of the country.
But chiefest of all, vile villain as thou art,
To play so unmanly and beastly a part,
As to search my daughter thus in my presence.
In other words, ‘thus’ is used in Jack Straw to define not only live, onstage things (gesture, posture, attitude, tone, political position or choice of words), but also to define past and future actions, some of which take place onstage, some off.
In Fair Em, which has 31 thuses, the word often introduces backstory, including backstory already known to the audience: ‘Thus stands the case: thou knowest […]’; ‘Madam, as thus: it is not unknown to you’; ‘What news with the Denmark ambassador?’ ‘Marry, thus:’; ‘Only thus much I overheard by chance […]’. This is a relatively unusual use of the word, at least in the early corpus, and certainly the frequency of this usage in Fair Em is not mirrored elsewhere in early plays. In Jack Straw and Fair Em, ‘thus’ often refers to something past or future, in contrast to The Spanish Tragedy, where it is more likely to point us towards the vivid liveness of performance.
In two early plays, ‘thus’ is used in the opening line by a supernatural, allegorical woman, introducing both the play and its opening line. In the induction to Mucedorus, Comedy enters ‘joyful, with a garland of bays on her head‘, and immediately asks the audience to reflect on her costume-choice: ‘Why so? Thus do I hope to please:/ Music revives, and mirth is tolerable’. Likewise, in The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London, first staged in 1589 and therefore roughly contemporaneous with Mucedorus:
Enter for the preface a lady very richly attired, representing London, having two angels before her, and two after her with bright rapiers in their hands. London speaketh.
LONDON. Lo, gentles, thus the Lord doth London guard,
Not for my sake, but for his own delight[.]
These are the only two plays to open with a ‘thus’, and it seems important that in both cases the speakers are non-mortal women in highly allegorical situations. One is trying to define London, the other comedy (at a time, I have tried to argue elsewhere, including on this site, that comedy did not yet function as a generic marker). Both characters are thus involved in highly ideological somatic and semantic disputes.
In contrast, two early plays end with a ‘thus’ in their final speech, in each case spoken by a man sitting in judgement over what has just happened onstage. One is Judge Nemo (discussed above). Likewise Arden of Faversham ends with Franklin making a fresh entrance to the stage and saying ‘Thus have you seen the truth of Arden’s death’. Across these various examples we can see that ‘thus’ is a useful way to come onstage, to call attention to the start or end of a play or to a shift in its relationship with the audience, and Three Ladies of London shows us that this can also work even without a conjunction with a new stage entrance. This happens frequently in The Spanish Tragedy, but not at its outset or conclusion, though, as we’ve seen, the play does open with a highly complex use of another deictic word, ‘this’.
There are uses of ‘thus’ we have not had space to consider, particularly in The Spanish Tragedy, where the word refers to a performance decision spelt out more clearly in a stage direction:
She runs lunatic
MAID. Good madam, affright not thus yourself[.]
Or cues not only an action but also describes the content of that action, even when that content is withheld from the audience:
BEL IMPERIA. Hath not my father enquired for me?
LORENZO. Sister, he hath, and thus excused I thee.
He whisperer in her ear
Or sometimes seems to defy the mechanics of performance: perhaps I’m showing my own limitations as a performer, but I think I would find it hard to both deliver and fulfil some of Hieronimo’s lines:
HIERONIMO. Then will I rent and tear them thus and thus,
Shivering their limbs in pieces with my teeth.
Tear the papers
We might also consider the way the word ‘thus’ starts to haunt Hieronimo in particular, so that the double thuses of Horatio’s murder provide the go-to word used to describe his death: ‘I will ere long determine of their deaths/ That causeless thus have murdered my son’. By the play’s conclusions, its several final deaths occur insistently in conjunction with its favourite word.
From around 1595, plays begin more frequently to fix down or notate actors’ performances in increasingly useful or intrusive ways. The word ‘observe’, for example, starts to be used to inaugurate long, detailed speeches about how a character acts on (or sometimes off) stage: Iago describing Desdemona, Antonio describing the Malfi court; Vindice introducing processional characters at the start of The Revenger’s Tragedy. ‘Thus’ looks to me like an earlier tool for playwrights to try this out, to pin down, regulate or control when and how an actor moves. Some early plays, such as Rare Triumphs and Dr Faustus, provide speeches that include ‘etc.’, which look like invitations to extemporise. Does ‘thus’ function in the same way, cuing unscripted action where ‘etc.’ cues unscripted words? Or does ‘thus’ simply cue actions that are scripted, either overtly or implicitly in the text? For examples of other words with similar functions, see the word ‘so’ in The Duchess of Malfi, which forms the entirety of the Cardinal’s first speech, Bosola’s response to Ferdinand’s money, and almost the entirety of Julia’s response to the Cardinal’s bullying (‘So, my lord’), and notates the Duchess’ raising of the kneeling Antonio: ‘Or if you will, my hand to help you: so’. In modern performance, we might compare the words ‘OK’ in The West Wing or ‘really’ in Mad Men: both are often highly performative (‘OK’ in West Wing often means ‘this meeting is over’), but also frequently serve as a way of replying without actually committing to a response. In such instances, these deictic words take meaning only as they are enacted in performance, raising questions about how academics evidence such action, and how actors accept, respond to or resist textual invitations or coercions to gesture or embody. ‘Thus’ demands action, but it also hands over at least some measure of responsibility to the performer. At this point I should thank Maria Aberg’s RSC Malfi company who worked on some of these issues with me, and were already aware of the play’s challenging use of ‘so’.
But at the same time, these moments are fascinating precisely because an actor need not accept the terms of regulation. If ‘thus’ is an example of a writer trying to get inside an actor’s performance, then it may be no accident that it coincides with the introduction of blank verse as the regular way to write stage dialogue. Though we often valorise that introduction, we might also ask what blank verse does to an actor’s performance that earlier forms of prose or metrical variety didn’t do. Fourteeners and rhetorically self-aware prose may have offered as much, if not more, opportunity for actors to play. Blank verse, like the deictic language of ‘thus’, may have been a strategy by which writers justified their existence and asserted their presence, broadening their control of performance and performance decisions.
If I’ve managed to persuade my readers that the word ‘thus’ is a cue to perform, and therefore constitutes helpful evidence about performance, then I would want to put it forward only as one such sign of theatricality. Because our profession is more familiar with the plays of the 1590s and 1600s, and such plays fully embrace the experiments we have traced here with ways to notate and initiate stage action, we tend to equate these writerly techniques with performativity itself. But Love’s Metamorphosis is no less theatrical or performative because it contains no thuses: it simply mediated and recorded its theatricality in different ways. And so if there is a history to be traced in the increasing use of the deictic ‘thus’ across early playhouse plays, it is emphatically not a history of increasing performativity or performance-self-consciousness (call it what you will). It is instead, I think, a history of changes in the notation of such performativity and/or of changes in the relationship of writer or text to performance.
Farah Karim-Cooper tells us that ‘All we have to rely on when it comes to the performance of a gesture in early modern theatre is how a witness to that gesture interprets and reports it’ (108). But Karim-Cooper also points us towards three kinds of ‘cues for the performance of gestures’: stage directions; explicit dialogue description; ‘implied, alluded’ gestural cues ‘often characterized by demonstrative pronouns such as “this”, “that”, “there”, “yon”, “thus”’ (79). Karim-Cooper’s language of the ‘implicit’ nature of deictic language echoes James Thomas’ reference to ‘indigenous blocking’ (that is, textually-implicit movement), which functioned for an early modern player who, as Evelyn Tribble puts it, ‘was not simply uploading and repeating words’ but ‘using the cue script as a complex guide to personation’ (Thomas 42, their italics; Tribble, 85). I’d like to end with two questions then: 1) if witness report is our only kind of evidence for the performance of gesture, what is the evidential value of deictic language? In what ways are textual cues not evidence? when we think about ‘the performance of a gesture’, are we simply trying to reconstruct what actually happened, or might there be value in attending instead to what the text is trying to make happen – whether it did or not? 2) if deictic cues have the function we’ve explored here, what does it mean to call them implicit? Might they seem implicit to us, now, as modern readers, whilst functioning in their own time as entirely explicit, obvious markers of the need to move, enact or gesture? A stage direction may well look more explicit to modern eyes, but a stage direction is highly negotiable: it may not even have been available to an early modern player (indeed, a printed stage direction may record a player’s independent gestural decision rather than a playwright’s intention), and even where a player sees a stage direction they or their company can choose to resist, reinterpret, ignore or cut it. The same may be true of deictic language, of course, but less readily, I suspect, especially in a verse rhythm context that depends on these monosyllabic cues. For this reason, deictic language is far more likely to be the product of a playwright’s authoring than a player’s performance. Deixis may not always demand particular actions, as a stage direction does, but it does seem to force an active decision onto a performer. It’s not clear to me that such an effect is merely implicit, and it seems to carry a greater force (to return to Adamson’s terminology) than a conventional stage direction.
To put it another way, deictic cues are stage directions – they direct you to do things onstage. They are every bit as explicit, and may well exert a greater coercive power over an actor’s performance, than stage directions as usually conceived. In the accumulation of thuses around sex and violence in The Spanish Tragedy, together with what looks like a marked increase of this word in early modern plays, might we be looking at an explicit, overt takeover on the part of playwrights of the ability to choose when and how to perform?
Sylvia Adamson, ‘Understanding Shakespeare’s grammar: studies in small words’, in Adamson, Sylvia, Lynette Hunter, Lynne Magnusson, Ann Thompson and Katie Wales (ed.), Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language (London: Arden, 2000)
Karim-Cooper, Farah, The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment (London: Arden, 2016)
Kesson, Andy, ‘Generic excitement’ (2017), beforeshakespeare.com (accessed 01.02.18)
Kesson, Andy, ‘Playhouses, plays and theater history: rethinking the 1580s’, in Shakespeare Studies 45 (2017)
Kesson, Andy, ‘Was comedy a genre in English early modern drama?’, British Journal of Aesthetics 54.2 (2014), 213-225
Pratt, Aaron, ‘Printed playbooks, performance and the 1580s lag’, Shakespeare Studies 45 (2017)
Thomas, James, Script Analysis for Actors, Directors and Designers, 2nd ed. (1992; Oxford: Focal Press, 1999).
Tribble, Evelyn, Early Modern Actors and Shakespeare’s Theatre: Thinking with the Body (London: Arden, 2016)
Robert Weimann, Author’s Pen and Actor’s Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare’s Theatre, ed. Helen Higbee and William N. West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)
 My dates are based on Martin Wiggins’ best estimate: see British Drama: A Catalogue.
 Campaspe, The Arraignment of Paris, Sappho and Phao, Gallathea, Endymion, Mother Bombie and Midas each have a maximum of 6 thuses. On the other hand, three children’s plays have quite a few more: Fedele and Fortunio has 13, and the late ‘80s plays Dido, Queen of Carthage has 15 (not including Dido’s two uses of ‘sic’ at her death) and The Woman in the Moon 32.
 Only The Jew of Malta and The True Tragedy of Richard III come close to this figure, at 57 and 40 respectively. Of the 32 remaining plays that Wiggins tentatively dates as onstage by 1591, only Love and Fortune, The Woman in the Moon and Fair Em have more than 30. In other words, The Spanish Tragedy contains over twice as many thuses as almost all other plays performed in the London playhouses before 1591.
 I say ‘gesture’ here, but I’m aware that we may want to tease out the differences between action and gesture. If someone stabbed me to death, I’d be pretty annoyed if that action was described as just a gesture.
 Jack Straw ‘thus favours the communality’; the king’s people ‘rise against us thus in mutinies’ and ‘thus do rise against their anointed king’; ‘Twas thus’, says Newton, before giving an onstage narration of offstage events.
 ‘thus I take my conge of your majesty’; ‘What means the king thus to abuse us?’
 It may be worth adding Love in Three Ladies of London to this list, though Love is, in this play at least, not a supernatural character.
 See Kesson, ‘Was comedy a genre?’ and ‘Generic excitement’.
 The play is full of examples of characters turning out of their narrative moment to speak to the audience: Villipo seems to turn aside from his fellow characters and towards the audience: ‘Thus have I with an envious forged tale,/ Deceived the king, betrayed mine enemy’. Likewise Bel Imperia, in soliloquy, asks ‘Why am I thus sequestered from the court?’, Lorenzo, also in soliloquy, says that ‘Thus must we work that will avoid distrust,/ Thus must we practice to prevent mishap,/ And thus one ill another must expulse’, and Hieronimo, entering with the deputy, nevertheless seems to speak only to the audience when he says that ‘Thus must we toil in other men’s extremes’.
HIERONIMO. Erasto, Soliman saluteth thee
And lets thee wit by me his highness’ will:
Which is, thou shouldst be thus imployed. Stab him
BEL IMPERIA. But were she able, thus she would revenge
Thy treacheries on thee, ignoble prince. Stab him
And on herself she would be thus revenged. Stab herself
 For the purposes of this paper, I’ve focused only on the relationship between text and performer, but these questions can also be posed from the point of view of the audience: what does ‘thus’ do to audience reception? I’ve also avoided asking how ‘thus’ works in plays written before 1580 or after 1591, and for non-playhouse performance venues.