Returning to Shakespeare

It feels like time to reconfigure this sad little dormant blog as a space for expanding my professional writing and research areas of interest into their more informal corners. From now on it is going to be a space where I will tease out, or keep a record of, ideas that relate to Shakespeare, theatre and drama pedagogy that are not of the kind best worked into an academic article. Practical resources for the classroom or rehearsal space, random observations and food for thought will end up here.

I will begin with a cross-post of something I wrote for Hoyden About Town some time ago: my list of things I have noticed Shakespeare does repeatedly. I am not focusing on literary techniques (you can look up hendiadys anywhere), but on what appear to be thematic preoccupations. What are the things that he found either intriguing or theatrically effective enough to return to again and again? I have thrown in a few theatrical devices when they seem distinctive enough, and when they blur into thematic issues, as they sometimes do. Anyone is welcome to add ideas and responses in the comments.

– Doubles/mirror images. This is probably his number one thing. We are constantly being shown characters and incidents reflected back with a twist.

– Pairs of brothers who mirror each other. Comedy of Errors (two sets of twins), Titus Andronicus (no fewer than four pairs of brothers, believe it or not), Hamlet (good king/bad king).

– Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters. It has been noted that there is as much a shortage of mothers in Shakespeare as in Disney. There are a few mothers, here and there, but the playwright gets a lot more mileage digging into the relationships of fathers with their children.

– Fathers needing to cope with intelligent, independent-minded daughters who are newly women. This is particularly true of the late plays. Miranda, Perdita, Marina, Cordelia, Innogen. Note, too, that each of these young heroines has a name that tells us something key about her (admirable, lost, of the sea, lionheart, innocent).

– Vulnerability of children to murder. Edmund of York, Edward of Lancaster, Edward & Richard in Richard III, Arthur in King John, Macduff’s children; also the children of Aaron, Banquo, Hermione and Pericles are threatened with murder. The pathos of a threatened child is the one point where Shakespeare feels uncharacteristically Victorian. I bet Dickens adored King John.

– The supposedly dead turning out to be alive. (Also, reunions of family long separated; drowning or supposed drowning.) This is the other big one. If Ben Jonson was the city comedy guy, and John Webster was the sex-and-murder guy, Shakespeare would have had a reputation among his theatre goers as the resurrection guy. Then he did Lear and more-or-less said, “tricked you!”

– Seeming, seemers. People being deceived by externals. The idea of a mismatch between someone’s presented face and their true self is at the core of many of the plays, along with the question of who has the skill to see through the mask.

– Men falsely believing infidelity of their women. This is the central plot point in five of Shakespeare’s plays (or six if you think that is what is going on in Troilus and Cressida). The women never are unfaithful, the men are completely doing it to themselves.

– Insufficiently repentant men being rewarded with great women.

– Puritans being taken down a peg.

– Young women gaining access to the world by dressing as men.

– Marginalised figures as the truthspeakers of the play, particularly in situations of speaking truth to power: fools, bastards, (presumed) lunatics, and shrews tend to be the characters who make the cynical commentary, see through the seemers, or call out the tyrants on their faults. I have a strong instinct to connect this to Shakespeare’s sense of his role as an actor making him just such a figure in his own society.

Now the more ‘theatrical device’ examples:

– The 180 degree turn. When someone completely reverses their position, after being persuaded by a really good display of rhetorical fireworks from an antagonist. Shakespeare Geek has a roundup of several examples, and in addition there is Hector in Troilus and Cressida, and Joan of Arc persuading Burgundy to change sides in 1 Henry VI, after which she ‘asides’, “Done like a Frenchman, turn and turn again.”

– Asking the same question over and over, very quickly. When a character in Shakespeare has to make a sudden, drastic reassessment of what someone is capable of, they often ask for the bad news to be re-confirmed several times in a short space: MacDuff hearing that Macbeth has murdered his family, Emilia hearing that it was her husband who slandered Desdemona, Albany hearing that Gloucester’s eyes were put out, Cleopatra told that Antony has married Octavia, Cressida seeing that Troilus is going to let her be sent to the Greeks. In each case that character then, abruptly and completely, revises their strategy for negotiating the world.

– Metatheatre. Plays within plays, layers of observers, references to acting, and to the actors being actors.

– People addressing inanimate objects (skull, mirror, phantom dagger).

– Freaky double time frame. There are several plays which technically seem to occur over the space of only a couple of days, but simultaneously give the impression that several months has passed. It doth mess with one’s head. Romeo and JulietTitus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida are all culprits. However the most awkward is Othello, because if you follow the ‘short’ time frame it’s obvious that Desdemona has never had the time to cheat on Othello with Cassio at all.

– Putting comedy in tragedy and the reverse. Shakespeare was much criticised for this by his contemporaries. Nowadays it’s one of the things we love the most.

I have noticed over the years that the more I learn about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and the period in which he worked, the more I find that things I thought were ‘Shakespeare things’ have turned out to be ‘Elizabethan/Jacobean things’. This is not to suggest that Shakespeare doesn’t have a distinct style, or exceptional manner of execution, but it does help in keeping a secure perspective on his place as one in the midst of a working, thriving, busy artistic culture, bolstered by the work of many other skilled and creative people.

Puppet Shakespeare surrounded by skull, bear, doll dressed as Scottish king and other props.

Still from “Next” by Barry Purves

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