Robert Henke

​Professor of Drama and Comparative Literature
PhD, University of California, Berkeley
research interests:
  • Ancient and Renaissance Theater and Performance
  • Comparative Literature
  • Dramatic Theory
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contact info:

office hours:

  • ​By appointment

mailing address:

  • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
  • CB 1108
  • ONE BROOKINGS DR.
  • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
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Professor Henke is presently working on three projects: a study of Shakespeare and Italian plays, scenarios and novellas; an examination of international early modern theatrical networks; and a performance-centered source book of commedia dell’arte and related popular piazza literature.

Robert Henke has published three single-authored books: Pastoral Transformations: Italian Tragicomedy and Shakespeare’s Late Plays (University of Delaware Press, 1997); Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell’Arte (Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance (University of Iowa Press, 2015).  

With Eric Nicholson, he has coedited two essay collections published by Ashgate and issuing from the “Theater Without Borders” research collective, of which he is a founding member: Transnational Exchange in Early Modern Theater (2008) and Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater (2014). He has edited, with M.A. Katritzky, European Theatrical Performance Practice, 1580-1750 (Ashgate, 2014).  He is editing the early modern volume of A Cultural History of Western Theatre (Bloomsbury Academic). 

He is presently working on three projects: a study of Shakespeare and Italian plays, scenarios and novellas; an examination of international early modern theatrical networks (especially those of humanists and traveling players); and a performance-centered source book of commedia dell’arte and related popular piazza literature.     

With Margeret Garb, he is the Codirector of the Washington University Prison Education Project, a program that provides liberal arts college courses to inmates and staff at the  Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific, Missouri.  

Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte

Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte

The actors of the commedia dell'arte (the sixteenth-century Italian professional theater) usually did not perform from scripted drama. They improvised their performances from a shared plot and thorough knowledge of individual character roles. Robert Henke analyzes commedia dell'arte texts to demonstrate how the spoken word and written literature were combined in performance. Henke examines primary sources including performance accounts, actors' contracts, letters and other documents.

Other studies have concentrated on either the oral or literature aspects of the commedia dell'arte, but have not considered how they might have worked together

Provides close readings of many commedia dell'arte texts: performance accounts, actors' contracts, letters, popular poems, memorials of deceased actors, scenarios, etc., many never before analysed

Supplies detailed historical and cultural contexts for the commedia dell'arte

Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance

Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance

Whereas previous studies of poverty and early modern theatre have concentrated on England and the criminal rogue, Poverty and Charity in Early Modern Theater and Performance takes a transnational approach, which reveals a greater range of attitudes and charitable practices regarding the poor than state poor laws and rogue books suggest. Close study of German and Latin beggar catalogues, popular songs performed in Italian piazzas, the Paduan actor-playwright Ruzante, the commedia dell’arte in both Italy and France, and Shakespeare demonstrate how early modern theatre and performance could reveal the gap between official policy and actual practices regarding the poor. The actor-based theatre and performance traditions examined in this study, which persistently explore felt connections between the itinerant actor and the vagabond beggar, evoke the poor through complex and variegated forms of imagination, thought, and feeling. Early modern theatre does not simply reflect the social ills of hunger, poverty, and degradation, but works them through the forms of poverty, involving displacement, condensation, exaggeration, projection, fictionalization, and marginalization. As the critical mass of medieval charity was put into question, the beggar-almsgiver encounter became more like a performance. But it was not a performance whose script was prewritten as the inevitable exposure of the dissembling beggar. Just as people’s attitudes toward the poor could rapidly change from skepticism to sympathy during famines and times of acute need, fictions of performance such as Edgar’s dazzling impersonation of a mad beggar in Shakespeare’s King Lear could prompt responses of sympathy and even radical calls for economic redistribution.

Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater

Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater

Robert Henke and Eric Nicholson

The essays in this volume investigate English, Italian, Spanish, German, and Czech early modern theater, placing Shakespeare and his English contemporaries in the theatrical contexts of both western and central Europe. Contributors explore the mobility of theatrical units, genres, performance practices, iconographic images, and dramatic texts across geo-linguistic borders in early modern Europe. Combining "distant" and "close" reading, a systemic and structural approach identifies common theatrical units, or "theatergrams" as departure points for specifying the particular translations of theatrical cultures across national boundaries. The essays engage both "dramatic" approaches (e.g. genre, plot, action, and the dramatic text) and "theatrical" perspectives (e.g. costume, the body and gender of the actor). Following recent work in "mobility studies," mobility is examined from both material and symbolic angles, revealing a tension between transnational movement and resistance to border-crossing. Four final essays attend to the practical and theoretical dimensions of theatrical translation and adaptation, and contribute to the book's overall inquiry into the ways in which values, properties, and identities are lost, transformed, or gained in movement across geo-linguistic borders.

A Cultural History of Theatre in the Early Modern Age

A Cultural History of Theatre in the Early Modern Age

A Cultural History of Theatre presents an authoritative survey from ancient times to the present. The set of six volumes covers a span of 2,500 years, tracing the complexity of the interactions between theatre and culture.

1. A Cultural History of Theatre in Antiquity (500 BCE-1000CE), 2. A Cultural History of Theatre in the Middle Ages (1000-1400), 3. A Cultural History of Theatre in the Early Modern Age (1400-1650), 4. A Cultural History of Theatre in the Age of Enlightenment (1650-1800), 5. A Cultural History of Theatre in the Age of Empire (1800-1920), 6. A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age (1920-2000+)

This structure offers readers a broad overview of a period within each volume or the opportunity to follow a theme through history by reading the relevant chapter across volumes.
Generously illustrated, the full six-volume set combines to present the most authoritative and comprehensive survey available on theatre in history.