Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 34. Tuesday, 11 Feb 1992.
Date: Mon, 10 Feb 1992 16:53:15 -0500 (EST)
From: David Richman <
Subject: Book reviews
[Many thanks to David Richman for submitting the following review.
It will appear in considerably reduced form in a forthcoming
issue of *Renaissance Quarterly*. It will also be available
from the SHAKSPER Fileserver as RICHMAN REVIEW SHAKSPER. -- k.s.]
Associate Professor of Theater University of New Hampshire
Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett.
*Analyzing Shakespeare's Action*; *Scene Versus Sequence*.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
xi + 230 pp. $39.50.
*The Actor in History*; *A Study in Shakespearean Stage Poetry*.
University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
x + 158 pp. $32.50.
Shakespeare is one of the world's great makers of comedies, but his
critics on the whole are rather a serious lot. While he would doubtless
have been alive to the many ironies implicit in the analytical and
evaluative prose his works have inspired, one does not often find those
ironies articulated by the commentators themselves. For example, for
more than two centuries after the death of this eminently successful
actor-playwright, it was universally held that he had cast his great,
albeit uneven, poetry into an unfortunate dramatic form that he had
never really bothered to master. In other words, this quintessential
man of the theater was held by generations of critics who knew little or
nothing about the theater to be a bad dramatist. Richard Moulton and
Harley Granville-Barker eventually began to rehabilitate Shakespeare's
reputation as a dramatic artist. More important, they and their
successors showed that his dramatic artistry was the essential
expression of what their predecessors had most valued in his poetry. To
ignore or undervalue him as a playwright was fundamentally to
misunderstand him as a poet.
In *Analyzing Shakespeare's Action*; *Scene Versus Sequence*,
Charles A. Hallet and Elaine S. Hallett offer a substantial contribution
to our understanding of Shakespeare as dramatic artist. Their book will
prove invaluable to anyone who desires a precise, systematic explanation
of the units of action that Shakespeare used to build his plays. They
persuasively argue (p. 189) that their method of analyzing these units
of action "sharpens the ability of directors to orchestrate or of
viewers to experience the rising and falling rhythms of the play in
performance." Their major premise is that our ability to analyze
Shakespeare's action has long been hampered because most critics
erroneously define the scene, which is a spatial and temporal unit, as a
unit of action. Early in the book, they propose the term "sequence" to
denote Shakespeare's essential unit of action, and they labor to draw as
wide a distinction as possible between the sequence and the scene.
Indeed their text occasionally takes the form of a running debate with
critics--Mark Rose, Emrys Jones, and Jean Howard are most frequently
cited--whose conclusions derive from more conventional methods of scenic
The Halletts define a sequence as "that unit of action in which
Shakespeare raises a single dramatic question and answers it" (p. 7).
The sequence is always an action, propelled in a
discernible direction by the desires, goals, and
objectives of its characters. That action, once
introduced, advances toward a climax, then enters a
stage of decrescence that brings it rapidly to a
conclusion. Because the sequence is structured upon
a single dramatic question, it almost invariably
communicates a sense of completeness, despite the
pulsing energies it shapes and organizes. (p. 5)
A sequence may consist of several scenes. The Halletts demonstrate (pp.
4-5) that the final three scenes of *Macbeth* make up a single
sequence. As often, several sequences may be contained in a single
scene. *Hamlet* 2.2, for example, contains six sequences (p. 5).
Whether a sequence is contained within a scene, or has a scene as
one of its component parts, its complete action can be defined and
articulated by means of the dramatic question it raises and answers.
The Halletts are at their most incisive and convincing when they
articulate the dramatic questions raised in the various sequences they
explore. They argue (pp. 111-112) that the properly formulated question
will identify four things:
(1) the active or propelling character; (2) that
character's objective, toward the fulfillment or
failure of which the entire sequence is moving; (3)
the means he has chosen to pursue that objective;
and (4) the character he is acting upon.
They propose (pp. 120-121) several examples of dramatic questions raised
and answered by Shakespeare's sequences. "Can Brabantio convict Othello
of bewitching Desdemona?" "Will Horatio believe in the Ghost?" Their
analysis of sequences with reference to such precisely formulated
dramatic questions affords their book its genuine usefulness and power.
For the Halletts, a sequence is a unit of action that can and
should be subdivided into smaller units that the Halletts call "beats."
The beat is defined (p. 31) as a
group of lines joined together by a common purpose
(generally to introduce, intensify, sustain, or
conclude an action) and thereby distinguishable from
other beats with which it is grouped. In each beat
a single character is usually given the active or
propelling role, this of course being differentiated
from the secondary or responding role. The
structure of the beat derives from the motive of
that propelling character.
During the first half of the book, the Halletts engage in a painstaking
exploration of the various kinds of beats. They strongly enforce their
conclusion (pp. 9-10) that discernment of these hidden motivational
units and their functions, and identification of the propelling
characters and their motives, are necessary first steps both for
directors and performers who are mounting productions, and for readers
and viewers who are pursuing a full realization of the plays' dramatic
Particularly illuminating are their many discussions of beats that
create a reversal, one of Shakespeare's most invariably powerful
dramatic effects. A reversal is brought about when a character seems
bent on a certain action, but is moved by the play's circumstances to
take a different action. " . . . when a character is to be turned round
during the course of a sequence, Shakespeare's introductory beat
normally records the radically opposing position from which that
character will be starting" (pp. 60-61). Such a beat is Macbeth's
soliloquy, 1.7.1-28, in which he all but talks himself out of Duncan's
murder, only to be talked back into it by his wife. The Hallets
convincingly refute (pp. 59-61) such critics as Styan and Beckerman, who
argue for a separation of Macbeth's soliloquy from the action that
follows it. Their argument is never more valuable than when it corrects
against the tendency of many commentators to detach the soliloquies in
the plays from the actions to which they always contribute.
Yet the Halletts very reliance on the term "beat" may point to a
fundamental weakness in their argument. They freely admit (p. 210) that
they have borrowed the term from American theatrical usage because they
could not find "formal substitutes." The absence of formal language for
the sort of analysis the Halletts are undertaking provides further
evidence that such analysis is greatly needed. Yet the Halletts contend
that, in Shakespeare, such divisions as the beats demarcate are
objective, not subjective. Throughout their study, they claim an
objectivity and precision for terms which are in their natures imprecise
and subjective. Reasonable people, making use of the Halletts'
analytical tools, can disagree about the nature and function of
particular beats or sequences, and can disagree further about whether a
given passage is in fact a beat or a sequence.
For example, the Halletts describe a brief beat in *Hamlet*
(2.2.54-58) in which Claudius tells Gertrude that Polonius thinks he has
discovered the cause of Hamlet's apparent madness. In the beat
immediately preceding, Polonius had announced his discovery to Claudius.
Claudius repeats the main subject of the sequence because "it appears
that Shakespeare has compressed so much material into the introductory
beat that he fears that slower members of the audience might miss the
main point" (p. 56). Yet the Halletts' insistence on the beat's
function to repeat the sequence's main subject causes them to overlook
enriching possibilities for staging that the very fact of repetition
suggests. One such possibility is for Polonius to draw Claudius away
from Gertrude and whisper the news of Hamlet's madness to the king's
private ear. Gertrude's attention, meanwhile, can be distracted by
attendants. After Polonius's exit, Claudius might draw Gertrude away
from those same attendants and tell her confidentially about Polonius's
discovery. Staged in such a way, this "interval beat" is not mere
repetition but dramatic expansion. It can help create the air of
whispering intrigue that pervades the court at Elsinore.
Continuing to claim precision and objectivity for their terms, the
Halletts argue (p. 125) that Hamlet's soliloquies are never sequences.
Even the "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy
constitutes an indispensable unit of a particular
action. A director who through his blocking and
pacing concludes the player's sequence at line 549
(before Hamlet's soliloquy) rather than at line 605
(after it) has not understood Shakespeare's way with
units. (pp. 126-127)
" . . . there is no propelling dramatic question, but rather a review of
what has gone before, with that 'hook into the future' that is so
characteristic of concluding beats" (p. 127). But could it not be
argued, using the Halletts' own methods, that Hamlet himself is at once
the propelling and resisting character here? Could not the dramatic
question be formulated as follows: Can Hamlet overcome his own rage and
self-loathing, and allow himself to take useful action by employing what
he has learned from the players? Would not a soliloquy driven in
production by such a question prove more urgent, more intensely
dramatic, than a soliloquy that is largely a "review of what has gone
Too great a claim to objectivity and precision can limit the
utility of the Halletts' genuinely useful tools of dramatic analysis.
Used with a certain latitude of interpretation, and with that discretion
which is no small part of theatrical talent, the beats and sequences as
the Halletts describe them can serve as needful indicators of
Shakespeare's ever varying moods and rhythms. The book's usefulness
would also be strengthened by a few extended examples drawn from the
theater. The Halletts frequently prescribe how sequences must or must
not be staged, but such prescriptions are rarely illustrated by
One especially misses descriptions of actual staging in the book's
final chapter. This chapter argues that, just as beats combine to form
a sequence, so sequences combine to form a larger and more complex unit
that the Halletts call a "frame." The frame is defined (p. 188) as a
"designed group of consecutive sequences" or as an action "constructed
of already complete actions." But where five chapters are devoted to
the beat and five to the sequence, the frame receives only one
compressed chapter at the book's end, and one suspects that much useful
material is either rushed through or left out. An extended theatrical
example might do much to clarify the Halletts' argument in this chapter.
We are told, for example, (p. 201) that while Lear's banishment of
Cordelia is a key sequence, the subsequent banishment of Kent is the
"climactic point of the frame."
It helps to be aware of Shakespeare's use of this
sustained intensification for, in some situations,
the power of the frame's key sequence seems so much
greater than that of the subsidiary but climactic
sequence that the climactic function of the latter
may be missed. It is vital that in the staging this
seemingly subsidiary sequence be given due weight.
This passage would be strengthened and clarified, and the chapter as a
whole would derive enormous benefit, were we given an example of a
staging that indeed gives due weight to the frame's climax. I would
also be grateful for the counterexample of a staging that does not give
due weight to Kent's banishment.
Despite my objections and quibbles, I believe that *Analyzing
Shakespeare's Action* is useful and valuable. Charles A. Hallett and
Elaine S. Hallett set forth the fundamental truth that Shakespeare's
plays are best understood and produced if directors and performers,
viewers and readers, seek out and use the units of action embedded in
the acts and scenes.
The Halletts recognize (pp. 82-83) that their book must perforce be
limited to an exploration of basic dramatic units.
Were there space, this book would include a chapter
on . . . the way the narrative structure of an
action gives rise to and often determines meaning.
But thematic concerns remain outside our scope, for
we are approaching drama at that preliminary point
at which narrative or story is transformed into play
and are therefore dealing with the elementary
organization of events.
The complex points of intersection between action and meaning are
the province of David Grene's *The Actor in History*; *A Study in
Shakespearean Stage Poetry*. Grene, a renowned translator and critic
of the Greek tragedians, characterizes himself (p. 11) as "a strayed
classicist, with a lifelong interest in theater from Aeschylus to Ibsen
and Synge." Eschewing the mantle of the professional Shakespearean, he
dedicates this book "solely to the uses of the intelligent general
reader." The book consists of discrete essays on *Antony and
Cleopatra*, *Richard II*, 1 and 2 *Henry IV*, *Julius Caesar*,
*Coriolanus* and *Measure for Measure*. Though Grene's musings
range widely, they are united by a common theme: the relation of "the
supreme world of Elizabethan and Jacobean reality" to the "poetry of the
theater" (p. 1).
Grene observes that
the poetry starting from a more shadowy
identification of the character with his position in
the story begins to substitute its independent or
nearly independent values--its power to charm and to
threaten and expand the "meaning" of the actor
vis-a-vis his role. (p. 1)
The play carries the actor to a point at which his histrionic power, his
virtuosity as a performer, begins to merge with a histrionic power
inherent in the character he is portraying. At that point, often a
supreme moment in the play, both character and actor escape beyond the
mere imitation of reality to a deeper and more complex area of the
imagination that Grene characterizes as "the histrionic." For Grene,
"the histrionic is a representation of the reality of emotion as
definite and valid as impressionism is of the visual truth of the
external world" (p. 2). Grene's analogy between the histrionic and the
impressionistic is important, because his treatment of this difficult
area is necessarily subjective and impressionistic. His book's peculiar
territory is what T.S. Eliot refers to as that "fringe of feeling of
indefinite extent" which is adequately described only by dramatic poetry
at its moments of greatest intensity. Thus the emotional and
imaginative areas toward which Shakespeare is reaching are difficult for
Grene, or anyone else, to describe in discursive prose.
In concentrating on those points at which the histrionic transcends
history, Grene perhaps gives too little attention to the dialectic
between political and imaginative realities which is so often the
subject of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies. Describing Richard
II's apotheosis in martyrdom, Grene writes, "No convincing dramatic link
is made in the play between the ruin and the hesitations, weaknesses,
ill-doing, which we know from the king's conduct at the beginning of the
story" (p. 84). But Gaunt and Northumberland are both left out of
Grene's account, and it is in their scenes, especially in Gaunt's famous
vision of a leased-out England, that the convincing dramatic link is
forged. *Antony and Cleopatra* is in Grene's view largely a play of
imaginative exaltation. He observes of the play's amorous protagonists
(p. 4) that fantasy, the power created in them by their mutual passion,
will dominate. Though passion and transcendence loom large in this
play, Enobarbus does not allow the audience to forget about the
diminution in Antony's brain, and Antony's own searing speeches of
self-contempt create the play's never-ceasing tension between exaltation
Of the scene in which the dying Antony is heaved aloft to
Cleopatra's monument, Grene writes (p. 33)
The suggestion to the mind of the reader and
onlooker is of a world created before him where
human dignity, defeated by the physical need to lift
the weight and by the need to be lifted, like a
baby, joins absurdity and grotesqueness to its own
quality, and emerges totally master of our minds and
our love. Henceforth Antony's dramatic greatness is
free of decisive humiliation in the story; for he
has survived the deliberate humiliation of the
observed action as the actor presented it.
Yet is it not possible for the spectators to laugh and wince at the
grotesque spectacle of Antony being heaved up to the monument, even as
they thrill to Cleopatra's words? Does not fantasy coexist with
Though the book's putative subject is "stage poetry," Grene
occasionally responds more strongly to the power of words than to the
effects the theater can achieve when it marries word to action. He is
skeptical (pp. 137-138) of Isabella's plea on Angelo's behalf at the
conclusion of *Measure for Measure*.
. . . does her moral status improve in our eyes
when she pleads for Angelo on the legal grounds that
he only thought that he committed the crime whereas
her brother actually did so? Of course not. Here
is our old friend Isabella, with exactly the same
mentality she showed earlier.
This is true, but it is only part of the truth. Isabella's act of
kneeling with Mariana to the duke can create in the theater, as it did
in Peter Brook's famous production, an electrifying moment in which the
abstract idea of mercy suddenly becomes concrete for the audience.
Grene is most rewarding in his discussions of *Julius Caesar* and
*Coriolanus*. He is alive to these plays' Hobbesian politics, and to
the disparities in both plays between actor and role. In a brilliantly
illuminating essay on *Coriolanus*, Grene argues (pp. 116-119) that
though the great soldier craves a theater, a drama to give his emotion
proper expression, his limitations are limitations of acting: "Like a
dull actor now, / I have forgot my part." Coriolanus "is not performing
as the true actor would, by yielding himself to the personality which he
is projecting. Therefore it can be upset at any moment" (p. 119). In
one of the book's most arresting passages, (p. 154) Grene compares
Coriolanus, unwilling to exploit his wounds, to the actor Ralph
Richardson, who did exploit his own infirmity in his performance in
Pinter's *No Man's Land*.
The necessary subjectivity of Grene's essays will probably cause
many readers to disagree with some of his observations and conclusions.
I myself take issue with him at many points. Yet reading him, one feels
oneself to be in the presence of a humane teacher, wide of mind and vast
of learning. And one is often rewarded by startling insights. At their
best, David Grene, as well as Charles A. Hallett and Elaine S. Hallett,
shed needed light on Shakespeare's work--a work that retains its hold on
the imagination because Shakespeare made the fullest use of his chosen
medium, the theater.