Ballads and Performance: The Multimodal Stage in Early Modern England

"Shakespeare in Snippets: Ballads, Plays, and the Performance of Remediation"

early modern ballads and plays were multimedia phenomena, emerging on hybrid material platforms that included script, print, illustration, objects, bodies, stages, and props. More unusually, ballads and plays were deeply multimodal, inviting performers and listeners to hybrid embodied practices, including but not limited to orality, aurality, visuality, literacy, and movement. Because of both genres spanned so many media and modes, they cannot be constituted fully in any one mediation, but only in a process of remediation. As Natascha Würzbach demonstrated in her landmark structuralist study, The Rise of the English Street Ballad, early modern ballads cycle constantly between printed page and live performance, among modes oral, aural, visual, and literate. Today, the English Broadside Ballad Archive adds digital materiality to the list. We may think of the imperative to remediate as a postmodern obsession, but dramas and ballads, irreducible to any single mediation, were hardwired for remediation.

Ballads and plays are not captured in any one manifestation: at the very least, we need a text and a performance. In the archive, lyrics become legible as a ballad when attested by a surviving broadside, or when provided with a tune (as when Frances Wolfreston wrote “to the tune of Crimson Velvet” next to a poem in her copy of England’s Helicon). Similarly, “early modern plays” cannot be reduced to either page or performance. On one hand, we think of a script, whether manuscript or printed, becoming a play when it is performed by bodies for eyes and ears; on the other, we generally speak of a performance as a play only if some script was recorded before or after the performing. Because no single mediation in print or performance can capture all these modes of address, remediation itself is constitutive of the “play.”

What we casually call “a” play or “a” ballad is, then, a hybrid conceptual and material set, constituted not in a primal mediation but through a process of remediation that invites further remediation. Yet early modern ballads and plays are not just structurally similar in needing remediation; the genres are linked intertextually in further cycles of remediation. In many surviving examples, we find early modern ballads and plays linked in passing, when a ballad is quoted or mentioned in a play (by Ophelia or ‘Poor Tom’). The two genres were also linked more substantively, when early modern dramatic plots were remediated into ballad narratives and vice versa, in a practice that may once have been widely familiar, although we have only a few such ballads extant. In the case of Titus Andronicus, we hypothesize that either the later Titus ballads derived from the play, or that the play’s source must have been a lost earlier ballad. Certainly ballad versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice and Winter’s Tale were anthologized during the Interregnum. I like to think of texts involved in these more substantive overlaps—these plays and ballads on common themes—as cognates, a common idea in different material ‘dialects.’

For performers and audiences, the existence of such cognates must have sharpened awareness of the distinct affordances of print and performance. When play-ballad cognates survive, they show us that any boundaries between professional venues and everyday amateur cultural invention were porous, and that the appropriation of narrative material flowed both to and from the stage. In other words, the ballad-drama cycle of remediation proves that it was not only poets and performers who converted narratives from one mode to another, or who stitched together what Tiffany Stern calls “patchy” texts. Pervasive ballads invited nimble play with multimodality and intermediality: any playgoer who had sung a ballad had experience in remediation that might support comprehension and enrich response.

Teaching ballad-drama cognates has helped me show my students that playful appropriation, adaptation, and recirculation long predate digital culture. A few years ago, I started asking undergraduates to write their own ballad adaptations of Shakespearean drama; much as performing scenes lets them experience collaborative performance, turning drama to ballad lets them experience collaborative remediation. When students transform plays to ballads, they do what dramatists did: remediate narratives not just across genres and historical moments, but, in sophisticated ways, across compound media and compound modes. When students turn plays into ballads, they see what is distinctively multimedial and multimodal about each form.

My contribution to this volume again explores the ballad-drama cycle of remediation via the creativity of students, but graduate students in this case, charging them to theorize the entanglement of multimodality and remediation in their own Shakespearean ballad remediations. The seven members of my Fall 2015 graduate seminar (Print Materiality in Early Modern England) studied the multimodalities of early modern ballads and plays, especially ballad-play cognates, and then re-activated those ties by performing new ballads in their contemporary moment. In performing their own ballad appropriations of Shakespearean plays, they demonstrated that the ballad's unique “speech situation” can still revitalize better-known multimodal sites of performance, from the early modern stage to contemporary social media.

 Bringing a ballad project into a graduate seminar was very much a joint improvisation, and, for the students, a leap of faith. I was asking seven doctoral students, representing literature, history, and information science, to perform as well as write their insights, a challenge that overturned expectations, set a public challenge, and ultimately revealed hidden performative talents. (Tellingly, the students did not commit to public performance until they cast me as a performer, too.) The experiment left us with no doubt that the early modern ballad still powerfully enables creative embodiment.
I gave the class this grounding paragraph (well, a version of it):Early modern ballads and plays were remarkably multimodal communicative forms, proving that multimodal complexity is by no means new to the modern era. Each form, in its historic manifestations, offered multiple affordances, which in situ might include vocal performance, stage spectacle, auditory experience, or textual perusing. When ballads and drama enmesh as intertexts—when ballad story lines are adapted as plays’ plotlines, or when dramatic plots are compressed and circulated in ballad form—one multimodal form becomes another multimodal form, meaning that the process of remediation itself is multimodal. Furthermore, because many of the modes of both playbooks and ballads are highly social, dependent on the mutual awareness of performers and audience, their intertextual ties traverse even more complex social routes. 
We quickly concluded that for ballad and drama, there could be no primary mediation that precedes all remediations. For forms this multimodal, any mediation, even the earliest, would engage some, but not all, of the genre’s given modalities. Ballads, we saw, offer an end-run around the debate that has dogged drama studies: whether page or stage is authoritative. With multimodal forms, any claim for the primacy of a given mediation must be positional. For students of print culture, the primary mediation of a ballad would seem to be the printed version, but a ballad author, singer, or seller might not agree.

From this starting point, we set out to contextualize a half-dozen Shakespeare plays and cognate ballads within specific material practices of circulation, performance, and consumption, with an emphasis on modal hybridity. The students articulated problematics of the early modern ballad that they would explore in devising their own ‘ballads.’ We agreed on our minimal parameters for a ‘ballad’: a current response to a single Shakespeare play, deliberately multimodal, and with some element of live performance but textual media as well. I encouraged experimentation with improvisation, accompanied singing, semi-staged performances, visual art, and digital applications, as well as with working alone and in groups. While each student consulted with me about a proposal theorizing his or her ballad, as well as a research paper for the course, the newly-devised ballads, by some tacit agreement, were held in secret until our first performance. This essay reviews the terms and problematics we articulated, describes our two performance events, and then draws on the students’ written proposals and reflections to contextualize the individual (and sometimes collaborative) ballad artifacts ( linked below as pdfs) and their performances and reflections (in the video links).


From our secondary readings, we devised some further working definitions. "Multimodality," according to Gunther Kress, thought to have coined the term, "deals with all the means we have for making meaningsthe modes of representationand considers their specific way of configuring the world"—to which we would add users' ways of consuming representations. "Multimedia," on the other hand, describes how representations become objects that are preserved, shared, or replicated. We see both modality and mediality as material, with modality directed toward the human body and sensorium, and mediality more closely tied to objects and tools. By these definitions, an early modern broadside ballad would exist in the medium of print, but tap pictorial and textual modalities that would gain further specificity when the ballad was read silently, or read aloud, or sung. We also noted that “intermediality,” the notion that “no single medium (such as print) exists independently of a range of other media,” implied that remediation was a constant process, and we agreed that remediation translated narratives across modes as well as media. Whether illuminations in a manuscript or a web page with video links, each compounding of mediations would highlight changes not only in the material of representation, but also in the senses used for decoding. A conversion of ballad to play or vice versa is likely to remind us of the many ways we can use our eyes and ears, voices and limbs.
Beyond these definitions, our conversations clustered around four paradoxes that we saw in our samples of early modern ballad and plays, and in at least some contemporary practices of remediation. These paradoxes were touchstones as students conceived their ballads, and as we devised the setting for their public presentations.

First, we noticed that while ballads, like plays, were performed commercially, they went further than dramas in inviting audience participation. Any ballads we made would have to leave things for our audiences to do. Historically, one of those audience actions would have been purchase. We talked about charging a penny for each ballad performance, to commemorate Bruce R. Smith’s point that ballads and play admission were each things that cost a penny (“Reading”). In the end, we gave out our ballads for free, and asked audience members only for their participation, soliciting involvement by as many means as we could.
Second, in moving among plays, the ballads they cite, and ballads that retell plays, we saw a tendency toward textual fragmentation (most evident in Ophelia and Poor Tom); yet those fragments were knitted into a dense pattern of intertextual allusione No matter how brief or stilted a ballad adaptation might be, its referentiality was rich. This paradox was crucial for Sabrina Y. Lee’s ‘ballad’ for Lavinia, and led to a title for our public performance: “Shakespeare in Snippets.”

Third, we were reminded that while plays and ballads were long-lived genres, individual samples were materially ephemeral. We were very taken with Margaret Spufford’s pungent observation that cheap print “satisfied the very real social need for lavatory paper. (This theme gave our company its moniker, “Blazing Ballads.”) I showed the students the only seventeenth-century popular ballad in the University of Illinois Rare Book Library, ragged fragments of what was once a broadside called “Cupids Revenge,” more readily accessible as EBBA 21038.  

 A fourth paradox was that while our focus on remediation could have emphasized derivativeness in our texts, our readings constantly reminded us of the immediacy of early modern ballads and plays. The influential work of J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin on remediation argues that even as each emerging communicative medium strives for immediacy, its recapitulation of past media calls attention to its own affordances and limitations. Their work spoke powerfully to the ballad-play cycle of remediation, not to mention the unique affordances of EBBA, and again allowed us to question the assumption that remediations were ontologically secondary. Examining “digital media remediat[ing] their predecessors,” Bolter and Grusin find two approaches to immediacy, “the electronic version justif[ying] itself by granting access to the older media” and thus “want[ing] to be transparent,” and digital facsimiles that chose to “emphasize the difference rather than erase it,” as if to “reform” the original, to purify it. Bolter and Grusin represent these two positions as distinct, but we noted that ballads presented on EBBA did some of each. They both reproduced the ‘authentic original,’ making claims for them as unique artifacts of lost performances, and yet also promised significant enhancements, with facsimiles, textual transcription, and musical recordings preserved in orderly array. Neither representation, of course, was wholly true. Even as an interface like EBBA or Early English Books Online offers enhanced modalities, a digital screen’s limited affordances inhibit other ‘authentic’ experiences such as touching or smelling a page or, in some cases, parsing certain letters or images.

 So, too, the material form of our adaptations, whether digital or print, spoken or sung, would enrich some affordances and restrict others. How would our audiences react to those particularities? Would they find our self-conscious ballad remediations more, or less, immediate than a conventional Shakespearean performance? More authentic, or less? Would our latest in what is an extensive series of remediations, in its very self-awareness, diminish the immediacy we sought to commemorate? (To the extent that these questions are answerable, we now extend them to the audience for this digital volume, in yet another self-aware remediation.)

The Ballad Fair

Our first paradox, together with the aims of this volume, militated against ballad performances that would let audiences remain passive. We wanted those who read, heard, and saw our ballads to think about the many levels of remediation, for our audiences to be as self-reflective as our ballad performers. Our project would underline what was strange about not just early modern ballads and drama, but also contemporary modes of circulating narratives. Our hope was that as we remediated seventeenth-century practices of remediation, we might rethink the affordances and limitations of the media characteristic of both past and present. Certainly, we would show that digital remediation is neither a failed attempt to capture the immediacy of analog life, as scholars sometimes suppose, nor another step toward ever more enhanced experiences, as students tend to think, but simply another in a long series of partial shifts into new media and modes that join older media and modes. We wondered whether, as our meta-remediations leapt across centuries, the particularity of the ballad form would remain evident.

 We were eager to share the project with a wide audience, including faculty, graduate students, and staff; undergraduate classes and clubs; asynchronous audiences constituted by digital social media; and, we hoped, passers-by at street performances. Inevitably, audience members would vary in their familiarity with Shakespeare and early modern texts, and would have little familiarity with ballads in the early modern sense. Somehow, we would try to make these audiences reflect and report on their experience. However, as the students completed their ballads in December 2015, we realized that street performance and mass surveying were, to say the least, impractical.

 I suggested instead that we present the ballads indoors, but in a semi-public space, the much-used central atrium of the English Building basement, with a built-in (but not captive) audience of staff and student users. There, we could approximate the layeredness of ballad remediation by combining all our performances into an intensive, deliberately chaotic “ballad fair,” recalling the sheep-shearing festival at which Autolycus sold his wares.

We would try, too, to collect audience responses, spoken and written, to this experiment in remediation. 
In December 2015, we finished our seminar with a dress rehearsal, performing for one another in a green-screen video studio. Then, on a cold afternoon in January 2016, we presented our ballad fair to a small but enthusiastic public.

The fair’s printed program outlined the format: from a central stage, three primarily aural ballads were performed; at scattered booths, four primarily visual ballads were presented continuously. A refreshment table offered vaguely seventeenth-century snacks (nuts, popcorn, rock-crystal candy, gingerbread), while student actors in period attire encouraged visitors to take our online survey and give photographic permission. Our videographer, Jack Maples, had performed a ballad in my 2012 honors seminar; another former honors student, Zac Fisher of, allowed us to use some of his woodcut memes in the printed program and on our t-shirts.

Other trappings of the fair underscored the materiality of texts. Printouts of seventeenth-century ballads from EBBA were scattered on tables and walls, and wrapped around rolls of toilet paper in tribute to ephemerality. A pasteboard bunting spelled out B-A-L-L-A-D-S. At another table, students could use alphabetic rubber stamps to ‘print’ their own bookmarks. Graduate student Sabrina Y. Lee created ribbon-trimmed bookmarks printed with brief, witty redactions of our ballads, and Michelle M. Chan made corresponding banners to label posterboards for visitor comments.

As we should have anticipated, audiences were more interested in consuming ballads than in analyzing them, and left us with little commentary on our posterboards and surveys. Perhaps being so caught up in the moment was itself a statement about ballad culture. We did see, however, that our spirit of remediation was infectious. Our visitors reappropriated the props of the fair: bookmarks became merit badges for touring the booths, broadsides were rolled up as musical instruments, and rubber stamps inked nametags and temporary tattoos.

The seven different ballad projects were bursting with ideas; I can quote only a few of those ideas from their makers’ initial proposals and final reflections. Our video clips capture each ballads’ performance in the studio or at the fair, or in some cases both. Our performances and discussions in the studio were intense and emotional, as we realized that for all our focus on process and medium, it was the human directness of each ballad that stood out most. At the ballad fair, audience experiences were more varied and diffuse, as they must have been at seventeenth-century performances. Yet the ballads, snippets though they were, clearly offered our guests something more, not less, than plots familiar from Shakespeare, and every balladeer earned moments of thoughtful silence amid the noisy sociability. 

Stacy Wykle, a doctoral student in information science, explored the continuities between the ballad tradition and contemporary social media by creating a Tumblr page themed around Act 4 of The Winter’s Tale, and especially the figure of Autolycus, dubbed “A Wolf in Clown’s Clothing.” The page is available to anyone who wishes to visit, post, or re-blog:

Wykle explains the logic behind her use of tumblr, her assemblage of its components, and the kind of blog reactions she received in tumblr, as well as live reactions at the Ballad Fair in the following video:

Her Tumblr explored how crowdsourcing energies run through the sheep-shearing scene, the ballad tradition, and social media, figured especially in Autolycus, whose name she translates anew as ‘self-generating wolf.” (Her focus on this scene proved even more resonant once we decided to stage our own fair.) Stacy’s Tumblr gathers curios in many media, reassembled on a digital interface that inevitably highlights differences in media and mode: performance and book illustrations of Autolycus, an eighteenth-century ballad retelling, images of sheep-shearing and chronographs that support the playing with time in Act 4. These images, whether appropriated from other digital sources or newly uploaded, become available to the constant reharvesting of other Tumblr users. Stacy’s reflection upon this fact aligns the early modern ballad with two characteristics of Tumblr: the “opacity” of users’ identities, and “the ease with which multi-media content can be shared via “re-blogging,” exploiting the site intensively “without ever uploading any ‘original’ content.” The site demonstrates how playful remediation, which must have been quite novel in the heyday of the ballad, has become a pervasive, indeed self-generating, cultural activity.

Kyle R. Johnston created the other digital “ballad” at our fair, a program with the grand title of “Balladmonger 5000” that recasts the ballad qualities of piecemeal assemblage and ephemerality.

Balladmonger 5000 is a Python program that generates Markov chains from a corpus of twenty-six English-language texts, ranging from editions of Shakespeare’s King Lear through intertexts by Austen, Balzac, Kurosawa, and Smiley. Each visit to the Balladmonger site produces a unique ballad, complete with a randomly-assigned woodcut; once that ballad is read or printed, it disappears forever. As Kyle explained, this “ephemeralizing behavior” empowers the reader alone to decide whether a poem will be discarded or preserved in some further remediation, such as a printout. The project also queries the “perceived ‘immediacy,’ ‘presence,’ and singularity of watching a performance” by relocating those qualities in a “digital, web-native object.” Also queried is the ontological status of a “text”; is each of these ballads a single text, or a stanza in the never-ending “Ballad of King Lear together with several NEW Histories, assembled for the first time, by a TRUE computer of words, for the delight and vse of all Readers”? Randomly generated though they be, these “ballads” are no more disjointed than the King’s soliloquys or the feigned babblings of Edgar in his disguise as the beggar Poor Tom. Who “performs” this poem: the Python program, the hardware that ran the code and displayed the poem, Kyle who wrote the code, the reader who decides to preserve the poem in some form?

Michael J. Ruiz, a first-year graduate student in history, extended those questions by performing “Balladsinger 5000,” live vocal/guitar renditions of ballad texts newly generated by Balladmonger 5000. Drawing on the conventions of early modern ballad performance and of contemporary singer-songwriter acts, Michael did a cold sing of ballad lyrics newly generated by Balladmonger 5000, accompanied by his own guitar improvisations.

Such improvisation might seem to fall short of the controlled logic of “Balladmonger,” but the perceived authenticity of the singer/song(not)writer instead added meaning to these randomly generated texts. Especially in our studio session, Balladsinger 5000 found plangent emotion in random lyrics, again suggesting that the meanings of a performance reside as much in the situation as in the text, and that even nonsense performed with conviction can be felt as authentic. Kyle drily noted that Michael’s performance served “as an excellent proof of concept.” Later, Michael mused that while the Balladmonger 5000 ballads were “seemingly without meaning,” the performative situation can in a way create meaning, or at least direct the audience’s interpretation/creation of meaning. . . . [A]s I was playing through these random ballads, I was sort of making up a meaning based on the text. And since I didn’t even read all the words before starting the performance, I was making up the meaning which was informing the performance while also influencing the creation of that meaning. It’s [often] at the heart of performing that you’re faking it, even if ideally that’s not the case, so these ballads are sort of a purified form of that “performative” part of a performance. If Michael lost control of the song, he risked not just a technical flub, but the very coherence of the performance as a ballad.  

As Sabrina noticed, “four of our ballads focus on telling an untold story” (5), a concern inherent not in the ballad form but in our investigation of the forgotten uses of the form. Through that common theme she notes, “our ballad project has become self-reflexive . . . in ways other than remediating remediation” (Lee 5). Hilary J. Gross wrote a comic prose dialogue about Bottom composing a ballad about his night in the forest, as he promises to do in Act 4 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The ballad mentioned in the play thus leads into another play. Hillary drew here on the contemporary practice of fanfiction, which “functions to give a specific character a backstory, or a future, or to examine an aspect of the story the canon plot doesn’t get to explore.” As she noted, fanfiction complements actors’ table work, “developing a backstory for a character in the rehearsal process.” 

In the new play, “The Writing of Bottom’s Dream,” Hillary played a slightly humbled Bottom, and Lori played Peter Quince, from whom he seeks literary advice on the very conventions of ballad form that the seminar had studied. Lines from Shakespeare’s play appear as “Easter eggs” throughout the nested texts of “The Writing of Bottom’s Dream” (the conversation) and “Bottom’s Dream” (the ballad they composed). 

Because our roles mirrored the student/teacher dynamic, the scene also recapitulated our collective process of devising. 

The other three live performances were ballads from the viewpoints of female Shakespearean characters, which used ballad multimodality to access unwritten experiences and to expose the play’s silencing forces. Michelle M. Chan, noticing Hermione’s reluctance to speak to Leontes in the final scene of The Winter’s Tale, even after decades of silence, and drawing on Bruce R. Smith’s concept of ballads as “documents” of “subjective memory” of performance, imagined a “silent ballad” to be offered by the reanimated queen.

This lyric account of her trials, written collaboratively by Michelle and Sabrina using language drawn from the play, was neither spoken nor sung. Instead, the installation projected the ballad over a photo of a familiar heroic mother: the stature of Alma Mater, beloved symbol of the Illinois campus.

This monumental refusal of speech recalled both the statue scene and the inscription on Hermione’s supposed tomb in Act 3, while its many layers of mediation emphasized the effort required to see and hear the play from Hermione’s perspective. In her reflection, Michelle explored “the discomfort that a presentation of silence actually invokes within the audience” and within the authors themselves, left standing awkwardly before silent readers, as well as the further discomfort when audience members break that silence.

Sabrina Lee also produced a silent artwork, using a dense web of visual signifiers to replace the vocal mode that Titus Andronicus rips away from Lavinia. Sabrina asked, “What if Lavinia had her own ballad? What would she say?” Would she even know whether she wanted to “tell her story” or “be left alone”? Sabrina wrote “Lavinia’s ballad” as a patchwork of quotations in different fonts that resisted “coherence.”

She cut the ballad into strips (leaving some strips blank) and tied the strips with bits of pretty ribbon to artificial dismembered limbs, as if unforgettable trauma would require memory aids.

Sabrina reflected that “these pinned-on lines indicate that my ballad is only one attempt to give voice to Lavinia’s story,” not a “permanent method of inscribing Lavinia’s ballad onto her wounds.” These grotesquely beautiful artifacts, Pinterest projects of unspeakable grief, asked, “Do we need to remediate bodies through our previous experiences—literal, literary, or otherwise—in order to make sense of them at all?”

“Lavinia’s Lament” was the last presentation in our studio session, eliciting powerful reactions of horror, pity, and fascination.

Kathryn E. O’Toole worried that her “Ophelia’s Last Good Night” might strike musicians as a pastiche, “a modern version of an early modern play set with guitar accompaniment to the tune of an a cappella traditional Irish ballad which has roots in an early modern broadside ballad.” Katie’s composition weaves lines from the ballads echoed by Ophelia and from other seventeenth-century criminal repentance ballads, together with the tune and lyrics of the eighteenth-century Irish song The Parting Glass, today often performed to close a concert of Irish music.

In Katie's nuanced performance, the song vindicates Ophelia’s citation of ballads: generic convention, not just madness, elides loss of love and loss of life, and attaches both, heartbreakingly, to self-blame. Yet Katie reflected that making this song strengthened not only Ophelia’s voice, but also her own, and retracted her earlier concern that
my remediations were not authentic. Many of them were deliberate and conscious, rather than organic, . . but there were unconscious remediations alongside these deliberate ones. . . . I myself was functioning as a remediation of Ophelia, . . . in order to give her a voice that she is not granted in the text of Hamlet.
Katie concluded, “The ballad tradition is far from being something in the past; it is a living tradition, and being able to enter into that tradition and embody it was truly powerful.” Even through a complex process of remediation, Katie’s reflections locate immediacy where any stage actor would locate it: in total commitment to the media and modes available. The difference is that what Katie experienced was refracted by many unique, unpredictable interactions: months of sometimes hesitant invention, the surprising intensity of our first studio session, the giddy overstimulation of the ballad fair. In both forms of intense sociality, these new Shakespeare ballad-cognates, deliberately composed as fragmentary or derivative, acquired surprising authenticity and urgency. These balladeers’ experiences will be refracted yet again when you, dear reader-viewers, do whatever you do with the modes and media of this contribution.


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