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

by Tiffany Stern

14 Apr 2016
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Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 3, pp. 1-33.

Abstract: Like a number of 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? 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 hours' assertion 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 (rather than any real timepiece), shape his writing?

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

Shakespeare Lecture, read 21 May 2014 (audio recording with presentation slides)

Text printed 2016 in British Academy Lectures 2014-15

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