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Home :: Archive :: 1992 :: April ::
Charles Hallett on Scene vs. Sequence
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 77. Sunday, 5 Apr 1992.
 
 
Date:    	Sun, 29 Mar 1992 23:33:36 -0500 (EST)
From: 		Luis Games, Fordham University, New York City
		
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Subject: 	Charles Hallett on Scene v. Sequence
 
                                I
The posting of David Richman's review of my book Analyzing
Shakespeare's Action: Scene Versus Sequence (SHK 3.0034, 11 Feb
92) sparked an interesting comment from Michael Dobson about the
responses of Rowe, Dryden, Dennis, Theobald & Co. to the theatri-
cal elements in Shakespeare's plays.  Because one of the assump-
tions of that book is that our understanding of Shakespeare's
action -- in particular of his scenes -- remains hampered by
practices that were begun in the 18th century, I would like to
add a word on the subject.
 
     Like David Richman, I have not had an opportunity to see
Michael Dobson's book, and I too look forward to reading it,
because I am sure the fact that the early editors of Shakespeare
were indeed "fellow-playwrights" has in many ways influenced
their editions of the plays, and I am eager to learn what Dobson
has to say on this subject.
 
     Yet insofar as their knowledge and experience in the theater
affected their editions of Shakespeare, it seems to me more
accurate to speak of them as men of "their" theater -- the
theater of the proscenium arch -- complete with scenery "to
allure the eye."  Ironically, it may in fact be this very famil-
iarity with their own theater and not any anti-theatrical per-
spective that caused them to, may I say, "distort" Shakespeare,
not only in their adaptations but in their editions.
 
     Let it be said immediately that we are highly indebted to
the early editors of Shakespeare.  Gratitude, however, should not
blind us -- as I believe it unfortunately has -- to the serious
shortcomings in their work.  The specific shortcoming that draws
me into this debate is the distorted emphasis of these editors on
the structural importance of the scene in Shakespeare.   In the
theater that they knew, where the rendering of time and place
made the stage designer rival the playwright in importance, the
scene -- inevitably defined by scenery -- had great significance.
On the proscenium stage the setting or stage picture of each
scene had an impact on the sensibilities of the audience that had
to be acknowledged by all theater practitioners, including those
playwrights whom we remember today less as dramatists than as the
earliest editors of Shakespeare.
 
     But this emphasis on the scene as a dramatic unit -- natural
to the proscenium stage and therefore assumed by Shakespeare's
18th-century editors as natural to drama in general -- was alien
to the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage and particularly to Shake-
speare.  In Shakespeare the clearing of the stage most often
signals a change in time and/or place; in other words, the scene
is not a unit of action but a unit of place.  And these tempo-
ral/spatial units were not for Shakespeare the all-important
dramatic units they would become for his later editors -- and for
everyone since the 18th century.  When constructing an action,
Shakespeare almost invariably thinks in "sequences," rising
actions like those in which Iago tempts Othello to press him to
reveal his thoughts (sequence 3.3.93-279) or in which Othello
challenges Iago to prove his accusations against Desdemona
(sequence 3.3.333-480).  Because these actions, or sequences, are
often embedded within scenes, their importance as separate and
distinct rising actions that have to be articulated as such in
production has long been obscured.
 
     When in the early part of this century Poel and Granville-
Barker hauled Shakespeare out from under the clutter of 19th-
century realism, they liberated Shakespearean productions from
the tyranny of the proscenium stage.   With the scenery gone, the
action could begin to flow again.  However, what remained behind
of the tradition proved as crippling as what was disposed of.  We
freed ourselves from scenery but not from the idolatry of the
scene.  The encumbered stage which was frequently accented by the
raising and lowering of the curtain fixed the scene as
Shakespeare's primary dramatic unit in the minds of generations
of his admirers.  To break through the distorting effect of this
mindset is to see Shakespeare working as a playwright in a way
that his 18th-century editors, playwrights thought they were and
closer to him in time, apparently failed to detect.
 
                               II
 
What authors would not feel especially blessed to have their work
so thoroughly explained and so well appreciated as ours was by
David Richman!  For this, much thanks!  What especially pleased
us was that Richman engages our presentation in the very area in
which we had hoped to encourage debate.  Acknowledging, for
example, that beat 2.2.54-58 (where Claudius repeats Polonius's
theory to Gertrude) is indeed the beat unit we claim it is, he
suggests enriching ways of staging the unit.  And, in another
case, questioning whether Hamlet's "rogue and peasant slave"
soliloquy functions as a concluding beat to sequence 2.2.380-605
or whether it is itself a sequence, he asks, "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 questions 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 before'?"
It's an intriguing question.  I would only gloss this word
"review" as an "intensely emotional reflection" upon what Hamlet
has just witnessed, and then ask, have any of the book's readers
taken a position on this (or related) questions?
 

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