Performing words #6: matter

what’s the matter?

This post follows up some of the points raised by Andy in his discussion of “story” and early modern theatre as part of his Performing Words series. Here, I suggest that the term “matter” might afford a more historically nuanced—and appropriate—vocabulary for thinking about the intersection of “story,” words, and performance.

the matter that you read…

The term “matter” draws in (like related terms “device,” “engine,” or “plot”) a wide range of material, textual, and conceptual meanings that make it a useful intersection of theatre’s various different “media.” It represents in the period the different forms of construction involved in playmaking: rhetorical, physical, and of course narrative-istic.

The word’s slipperiness in early modern England pervades Hamlet, for instance, not least when Polonius enquires about what the young prince is reading:

HAMLET. Words, words, words.

POLONIUS. What is the matter, my lord?

HAMLET. Between who?

POLONIUS. I mean the matter that you read, my lord. (2.2.189-92)

Hamlet appears (or pretends) to believe Polonius is enquiring about a legal contention between two individuals (a “matter” to be tried…), before Polonius clarifies that he means the rhetorical sense of matter: the subject of a book or speech.

things true or things likely

This rhetorical sense speaks to matter’s place at the heart of early modern rhetorical construction (the art of creating an “oration” for legal or artistic purposes—essentially, the crafting of words). The term is sometimes synonymous with “subject,” and George Puttenham’s influential text on poetic composition talks about the “matter or subject of poesy” (The Art of English Poesy, 1589: E1v). This usage is in turn present in all rhetorical handbooks that address the different stages of oratory, and the first is always the “invention of matter.” Thomas Wilson (in the period’s most popular rhetorical manual) describes this first stage as the “finding out of apt matter,” also called “Invention”: a “searching out of things true, or things likely, the which may reasonably set forth a matter, and make it appear probable” (The Art of Rhetoric, 1553 [much reprinted]; A3v).

Wilson puts “matter” at the centre of different interpretations of invention: a term that connotes in rhetoric the gathering of possible forms of potentially persuasive (true or otherwise) evidence. Yet invention also indicates novelty and inventiveness—precisely its use in technological writing, such as William Bourne’s Inventions or devices (1590). The term is similarly used to indicate artistic creativity and fabrication—as when George Abbott talks of “things of his own invention” in discussing controversial religious doctrines (E1v).

Matter and its centrality to “invention” therefore underscore the different possible types of “content” (or perhaps “story”) that might be used in plays—or, indeed, in prose, legal cases, histories, or conversations: those that are “true”; those that are “likely”; and those that are new, strange, unusual, or entirely fictional.

we stayed not the matter

Matter is also sometimes used synonymously with the term “play” across the period. John Lyly skirts this in Campaspe (1583) where he claims to be concerned about offending in “matter and patience” (A3v): that is, in content—words and storyline—and in duration. The prologue to The Two Merry Milkmaids (1619) promises “Sence and Words / Fitting the Matter that the Scene affords” (A4v). Here, matter indicates both the plot content—what is presented in a scene—as well as the wider sense of the “scene” of performance, and hence of its physical “matter” too: the materials, spaces, and technologies of its staging. Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller (c.1627) promises “Some Mirth, some Matter, and perhaps some Wit” (A3v) (I’m grateful to Harry Newman for directing me to this example of “matter” in a theatrical prologue).

The equation of “matter” with story is not limited to stylised prologues. In 1582, Richard Madox uses it as a stand-in for both “play” and “plot” (in the sense of storyline):

[We] went to the Theatre to see a scurvy play set out all by one virgin, which there proved a freemartin without voice, so that we stayed not the matter. (EPT 268)

Madox’s brief theatre review captures the relationship between “matter,” rhetoric, and narrative; the play is “set out” by a “virgin” (a curiously gendered term that could refer to a boy but has been suggested as possible proof of a female performer on a commercial stage), whose “voice” was inadequate. “Voice” signifies vocal performance—“utterance,” in rhetorical terms—as well, perhaps, as the play’s wider rhetorical construction. Madox’s comments indicate that “matter” was used in casual and vernacular speech and writing in critiques of performance and to describe a performance event itself: to stay not the matter means not to watch the play/performance.

taking the matter heinously

The clown Richard Tarlton’s extemporising and improvisational exchanges with audience members also suggest that “matter” has a flexibility that can make it appropriate to the content of performance events more widely conceived. In one instance, related in Tarlton’s Jests (“How Tarlton and one in the Gallery fell out”), he riles an audience member by holding two fingers up to him;

[T]he captious fellow, jealous of his wife (for he was married) and because a Player did it, took the matter more heinously, and asked him why he made horns at him [. . .]. This matter grew so, that the more he meddled, the more it was for his disgrace. (pub. 1613, B2v)

These usages refer to the sense in which Hamlet obtusely interprets Polonius’s remarks: a contention or dispute. Yet in centering on the entire “jest” as a “matter,” the text suggests that the performance relationship between clown, audience, and “subject” might be understood in the terms of a “contention” or “trial,” while drawing on related meanings of “matter” as subject, narrative, “play,” and invention and creation. Tarlton’s Matters?

with less art

“Matter” is sometimes contrasted with artful or stylistic constructions—overly ornamental rhetoric—in the sense of “style vs substance.” Again in Hamlet—a play preoccupied with the relationship between words and matter—Gertrude implores Polonius during his pontificating, “More matter with less art” (2.2.95). Francis Bacon likewise suggests that, because of post-Reformation preaching practices that increase the centrality of sermons and necessitate entertaining delivery styles, “Men began to hunt more after words than matter.” Writing styles more generally, Bacon suggests, therefore began to fall into line with a humanist interest in (over-the-top) “eloquence” of speech (Advancement of Learning, 1605; E3r). His comments are one of a number of contemporary concerns about “ornamental” writing dressing up the rather “lenten fare” beneath…

Such complaints provide an early modern parallel to critical questions of “plot,” language, and clarity like those raised in Andy’s post: what do we do with plays that have little “matter,” that prioritise either linguistic or theatrical “style” above storyline? Or with drama that prioritises forms of “matter” beyond the rhetorically-inflected sense of potentially-persuasive “facts,” “events,” “topics,” or “content”?  Does the vocubulary of “matter” and its wide-ranging contexts and connotations give us a way to conceive and explore these questions—and do so in terms used by early modern audiences, players, and playwrights?

to hear and see the matter

Beyond these plot and language focused meanings, “matter” gains currency in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in proto-scientific discussions—including, for instance, in anatomy, where it signals the physical facts of the human body. As indicated above, it is also employed in technological writing, which merges its associations with “inventiveness” with the physical sense of “material” creation.

These varied uses connect the many plays of early modern England that ask the question, “what’s the matter?”, and suggest that this might be a self-conscious interrogation of different forms of theatrical construction: language; “scene,” scenery, and stage technology; and storyline. As Polonius, that habitual matter-botherer, reminds us, one might not only “read” matter but might go “To hear and see the matter” (3.1.30).

Perhaps this should encourage us, like Andy’s post, to rethink plot, narrative, or story—and to think in particular about their inseparability from the other elements of performance: technology, acting, and words, words, words.

I am grateful to Sarah Dustagheer and Harry Newman for their invaluable feedback on an article on “Matter-Theatre” for a special issue of Shakespeare Bulletin, which planted the seeds for this blog post. Their special issue, “Metatheatre,” provides a timely revisiting of the theory and historicity of “metatheatre” and its place in studies of early modern drama; it’s out shortly this spring.


Callan Davies

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