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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: June ::
Re: Character and Cordelia
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0498.  Sunday, 6 June 1994.
 
(1)     From:   Milla Riggio <
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        Date:   Saturday, 04 Jun 1994 17:20:10 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0484  Re: Cordelia and Character
 
(2)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH>
        Date:   Saturday, 04 Jun 1994 20:43:00 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0493  Re: Character, et al.
 
(3)     From:   Gregory McSweeney <
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        Date:   Saturday, 4 Jun 1994 19:10:02 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Baby Cordelia
 
(4)     From:   Adrian Kiernander <
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        Date:   Sunday, 5 Jun 1994 18:50:01 +1000 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0493  Re: Character.
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Milla Riggio <
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Date:           Saturday, 04 Jun 1994 17:20:10 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0484  Re: Cordelia and Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0484  Re: Cordelia and Character
 
I am entering the Cordelia discussion very late since I've been out of town for
a week and found a machine full of crossfires when I returned.  Just one more
point, more or less to reinforce T. Hawkes, with the same full awareness that I
am sure he also has and that others have mentioned of the obvious fact that
real humans must play this role:  I always find it helpful in dealing with
Shakespeare through performance to suggest to students that some characters in
Shakespeare's plays develop "subjectively," as we like to say, and some embody
more or less fixed poles of character against which the changes of others are
registered.  Surely, Cordelia is as fixed a pole as one can find. You can give
her internal motivations if it helps you as an actor.  But before you get
caught up in her internal contradictions, you might find it helpful to realize
that she was created without visible contradictions precisely so that Lear's
confusions and his emotional and moral journey can be played off against her
constancy of character.  Other such pairings and groupings exist throughout the
plays.
 
Best,
Milla Riggio
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <GODSHAWL@UCBEH>
Date:           Saturday, 04 Jun 1994 20:43:00 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0493  Re: Character, et al.
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0493  Re: Character, et al.
 
Jean Peterson is obviously correct when she points out that the individual self
changes over time and because of feedback from the environment. If we didn't
change, we'd still be gurgling babies, and, perhaps to make up for our stasis,
we'd live forever -- or until the sun burnt out.
 
But the harder question to answer concerns the new historicist claim about
"early modern subjectivity." What are the new historicists actually claiming?
Are they claiming that the human brain has evolved radically over the last 400
years? Or are they more simply claiming that a woman in 1600 would think about
herself differently than a woman in 1994? If the latter, then the answer seems
to be an obvious "yes" and not worth arguing about. Borges made this point
years ago. Or are the new historicists arguing (an old argument) that there has
been an historical discontinuity that makes "us" different from "them"? That we
can't genuinely understand the Tudor tyranny of Henry VIII? Or do the answers
to my questions all depend on the new historicist you talk to? Or are the new
historicists making an entirely different point about "subjectivity"?
 
I am genuinely interested. Can these questions be answered without new
historicist jargon?
 
And a philosophical defense of representational art is Kendall Walton's MIMESIS
AS MAKE-BELIEVE (Harvard, 1990). Walton claims that he has changed his thinking
somewhat, but basically his argument is the same. None of us has to apologize
for defending character and character development in a play. We argue from a
firm philosophical basis.
 
Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Gregory McSweeney <
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Date:           Saturday, 4 Jun 1994 19:10:02 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Baby Cordelia
 
I admit freely (though a little defensively) that I study S. primarily as a
literary rather than theatrical artist, so I don't presume to advise an actor
on her approach to Cordelia; I do think, though, that categorical statements on
the uselessness of constructing personal histories for fictional characters
tend to narrow the range of possible readings, and for no reason other than to
encourage a consensual or "closed" interpretation.
 
The Elizabethan expectation of 'Lear' may very well have been emblematic, and
may have been experienced on that level, but the late-twentieth century
audience is simply not interested in recreating a remote, historical dynamic
when they plunk down their thirty bucks. Luckily, the writing is of a calibre
that is almost director-proof: Gloucester's blinding can be either a relatively
symbolic episode or a special effects gore-fest - in either case the veracity
of the text is unimpaired.
 
In 'Lear' especially it seems to me that pre-textual personal histories are not
only permissible, but essential; the "The Fool hath much pined away.." line
instructs us to fabricate an antecedent relationship between that character and
Cordelia, and the interaction of Kent in diguise and Lear is implicitly
contrasted with their shared history that ends with the opening of the play.
The animosity of Regan and Goneril for their sister cannot be accounted for in
the text of the play (though it can, I admit, be surmised), and the exchanges
between Gloucester and Edgar/Poor Tom achieve their effect because of the
father/son history that we as the audience (okay, as readers) must supply.
 
My point is that the fabrication of a pre-textual history is not the sole
province of the actor; surely, in order to allow our emotional investment in a
character's fate to ripen - as well as to simply contextualize certain
characters' motivations - we have no choice but to invent personal histories.
Otherwise, reading is reduced to a sterile examination of theme, structure, and
social history.
 
The single most striking feature of S.'s writing for me is his psychological
realism; to squander that resource on a theatrical reconstruction whose sole
redeeming feature is its historical authenticity is to say to the theatre-going
public, "Stay home, folks. You haven't the anthropological background to
understand the arcane event we are presenting here tonight for other academes
just like ourselves."
 
I'm grateful that my introduction to Shakespeare was through his characters,
and not through his emblems.
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Adrian Kiernander <
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Date:           Sunday, 5 Jun 1994 18:50:01 +1000 (EST)
Subject: 5.0493  Re: Character.
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0493  Re: Character.
 
Thank you Jean Petersen. The attempts to impose twentieth century (or more
probably late nineteenth century) understandings onto early modern play scripts
almost always result in performances which are dreary and predictable. In fact
it's precisely because Pamela Bunn is asking about Cordelia in these terms for
a course called "Performing Shakespeare" that I'm worried. Using psychological
criteria to make decisions about how to play a character in Shakespeare may
very occasionally (and serendipitously) produce interesting theatrical results,
but more often there is a confused and non-theatrical image put onto the stage.
One technique which I sometimes use with students to try to break them of the
habit of psychologism (and that's hard because of the pressures on all of this
from film and television) is to compare some drearily naturalistic moments from
the (typically) naturalistic and dreary BBC Richard II with moments from the
(for me) much more exciting and theatrical Mnouchkine production. Mnouchkine's
approach to that play was that there was NO psychology in the role of Richard,
and no more in the other nobles, and her production was clearly not the product
of a literary mind. I had hoped that the psychological approach to
Shakespearean character study and performance had passed its use-by date, but
alas it still appears to be cluttering up the shelves. But unfortunately the
theatre profession, including its teaching, tends to be conservative, perhaps
because many of the practitioners learn skills rather than techniques for
acquiring skills.
 
Adrian Kiernander 
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naturalistic
 

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