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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: August ::
Re: Generic Expectations
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0656.  Friday, 5 August 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
        Date:   Thursday, 04 Aug 1994 10:36:37 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
 
(2)     From:   Gareth Euridge <
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        Date:   Thursday, 4 Aug 1994 13:12:52 CST
        Subj:   RE: SHK 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
 
(3)     From:   Rick Jones <
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        Date:   Thursday, 04 Aug 94 14:22:01 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0652  Generic Expectations
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date:           Thursday, 04 Aug 1994 10:36:37 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
 
Bill Godshalk asks how a playwright deals with the experiential heterogeneity
of the audience. In much the same way as an actor deals with it, perhaps.
 
I worked years ago in Scottish satirical revue with a director whose stellar
ability was his excellence in getting scriptwriters and actors to provide what
he called "levels".
 
"It's verra funny," he would say in his Aberdeen accent, "but you need mair
levels. We've got fishwives an' bank managers comin' tae this show, as weel as
lecturers an' students frae the university, an' the sketch disnae get onto all
their levels. An' Margaret isnae playin' the sketch tae a'o' them folks. When
she takes the pie oot o' her oven, I want tae see how mony times afore this
she's done the same boring thing. That'll get a laugh oot o' the fishwives an'
an appreciation oot o' the students, most o' whom have mithers who make pies.
The bank managers might be a bittie mair polite tae their wives, as weel. Noo,
we can dae a'this withoot rewritin' the sketch, I think. If we rewrite it, it
wid be affa *obvious*, an' we dinna want that. We want levels withoot havin'
tae bang them ower their heids. So we dinna need mair writin the noo, just mair
levels in the actin'."
 
      [ A glossary should not be necessary. ]
 
      Harry Hill
      Montreal
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gareth Euridge <
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Date:           Thursday, 4 Aug 1994 13:12:52 CST
Subject: 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
Comment:        RE: SHK 5.0654  Re: Generic Expectations
 
On the subject of generic expectation/assumption.  I am currently teaching
*Othello* and a particularly bright and potentially embarrassing student
asked me about why Iago, Othello, switch so readily from prose to blank
verse . . . in a discussion of *The Tempest* I had, cavalierly I fear, simply
established the distinction between major characters and "low" characters.
Could it simply be that in the epilepsy scene, say, Othello forgets to speak
"poetically"?  Do the other characters speak prose to Iago (mainly) because
they consider him little more than a bluff (though terribly honest) soldier
"little blest with the set phrase"?
 
Ultimately, could anyone out there tell me precisely, or even vaguely, what we
can assume when characters speak in verse or prose because it was with an
inward cringe that I realized that my explanation to my student didn't really
pass muster.
 
Gareth Euridge

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(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Jones <
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Date:           Thursday, 04 Aug 94 14:22:01 EDT
Subject: 5.0652  Generic Expectations
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0652  Generic Expectations
 
Noel Chevalier's contemplations of the nature of genre are interesting and
cogent.  I would add only (and I mention this advisedly) that generic
definitions change with the times.
 
I have come to believe that in pre-Restoration (or at least pre-Jonsonian)
England, the term tragedy meant simply "somebody [important] dies"; comedy,
"somebody [important] gets married" (or, as in _Shrew_), affirm their
marriage).  Are these over-simplifications?  Sure.  But they're also pretty
accurate.  No one denies that _Hamlet_ is a tragedy, despite several comic
scenes and characters (oops... I mean "roles").  And many if not most of the
comedies provide scenes that are very serious indeed.
 
But neo-Classical ideals about katharsis and anagnorisis and decorum and
purity of form had not yet infiltrated the mindset of playwrights, and
generic distinctions seem to have been based on plot alone at least until the
1610's or '20s.  Hence we can smile at the full title of _Cambyses_ (_A
lamentable Tragedie mixed full of plesant mirth..._), but the play is
ultimately termed a tragedy simply because the title character dies ("by Gods
Iustice appointed").
 
Subsequent definitions of tragedy have changed the terms of the discussion:
to structure, to the dramatis personae, to characterization, to whether the
audience laughs, etc.  So modern critics term _The Seagull_, _The Playboy of
the Western World_, and _Crimes of the Heart_ comedies, although none is
universally funny and none ends in marriage (_Playboy_ in fact ends in its
negation).
 
Finally, one is tempted to wonder whether anyone in Shakespeare's original
audience really cared how a play was classified.  Although I have my doubts
about the romantic view that Shakespeare's audience represented a
cross-section of the London population, I do suspect that the general
audience response to any play might have been like that of Godshalk the
Younger, devoid of any consideration of classifications.  And of course to
treat any audience as a monolithic entity is to invite Big Trouble.
 
I am not suggesting here that questions of genre ought to be abandoned by
modern scholars, or that the original audience ought to be the only
determinant of a play's intentions and/or expectations.  But I am uneasy at
the thought of concentrating on Shakespeare, whether in terms of genre or
socio-political attitudes or whatever, in relation to definitions which did
not exist in his own day.  In other words, it is reasonable to write feminist
criticism of Shakespeare, but not to suggest that he had a feminist or
anti-feminist agenda.  Similarly, I don't see Shakespeare as either radical
or reactionary on the subject of genre.  He wrote plays; somebody slapped
labels on them; those labels may not be in complete accord with our own
understanding of the terms.  So?
 
Rick Jones

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