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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: June ::
Re: Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0504.  Monday, 6 June 1994.
 
(1)     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 94 13:00:00 BST
        Subj:   SHK 5.0489 Re: Character and Cordelia
 
(2)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 1994 06:56:01 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   character
 
(3)     From:   Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 1994 09:28:05 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
(4)     From:   Martin Mueller <
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        Date:   Monday, 6 Jun 1994 09:32:53 -0500
        Subj:   NO psychology in the role of Richard
 
(5)     From:   Rick Jones <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Jun 94 15:07:40 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 94 13:00:00 BST
Subject: Re: Character and Cordelia
Comment:        SHK 5.0489 Re: Character and Cordelia
 
The fuss which Terry Hawkes' comments on character has provoked is, of course,
entirely predictable so long as Bill Godshalk et al persist in not being able
to tell the difference between life and art.
 
Perhaps the way forward is to think of "character effects" in these texts, that
is to say certain rhetorical devices from which we can make certain meanings.
The real question that arises from this concerns the connection between these
"effects" and an extra-dramatic social formation.  Hawkes' point is that our
perceptions of "character" are anachronistic; universalists such as Godshalk
see them presumably as facets of an unchanging human nature. In this Hawkes is
the more historical. I suppose the additional question might be: what did
Elizabethan auditors think they were seeing when they saw actors on the stage
speaking lines of blank verse? Did they suspend their disbelief? Did they say,
Ah, yes, a "character"? or what?
 
I still think that Terry Hawkes is right to insist that Pamela Bunns asks for
her money back! She's the victim of an educational conspiracy that's too
incompetent to recognize clearly its own politics.
 
Right on El Tel
 
John Drakakis
University of Stirling
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 1994 06:56:01 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        character
 
Jean Peterson writes (June 3):
 
"But if one accepts new historicist arguments that 'subjectivity' in the early
modern period was radically different from what it is now, the picture becomes
vastly more complicated, and the incongruity of using Stanislavskian concepts
of character, motive, interiority, etc., to speak of early-modern characters
becomes apparent.  For many actors, directors, and theater people, this
incongruity seems an insurmountable obstacle--because these ways of thinking
about character are the only ones they know.  Actors are USED TO thinking about
the motives, impulses, disconcerting to be told that these things didn't exist,
not in the forms and ways that they do now."
 
Bernard Williams, in _Shame and Necessity_, shows that Homer's assumptions
about motives impulses, desires, intentions, action and responsibility are a
lot closer to ours than has been commonly supposed by scholars who have been
reading him with their heads full of christian-cartesian dualism and kantian
morality.  To have motives, desires, intentions etc. is to have or be a
character, right?  If expectations about character in the _Iliad_ and _Odyssey_
are not radically different from ours, perhaps we should take another look at
new historicist claims about early modern subjectivity.  Maybe actors who make
common-sense assumptions about the meaning of 'character' are not completely
misguided after all?
 
On another matter.  John Seabrook reports in the last_New Yorker_ (June 6:  "My
First Flame"):  "Everywhere I went in the newsgroups, I found flames, and the
fear of flames.  In the absence of rules, there is a natural tendency toward
anarchy on the net anyway, and in some stretches I'd come upon sites that were
in complete chaos, where people had been flaming each other non-stop,
absolutely scorching everything around them, and driving all civilized people
away.  Sometimes I'd arrive at a dead site long after a flame war broke out; it
was like walking through what was once a forest after a wildfire. Sometimes I
came upon voices that were just howling at the world . . . "  What a remarkably
civilized bunch we are on this list.
 
So cheers, all round.
Piers Lewis
Metropolitan State University
St. Paul, Mn.
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 1994 09:28:05 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
Pamela Bunn's query certainly shows what we do with our vacations: correct each
other's misapprehensions and methods. I have no doubt that Terence Hawkes is
fully aware that actors are made of flesh and blood and also that the plays
were written for performance to be acted out [or perhaps recited mimetically,
which really boils down to the same thing -- the offering of a near illusion in
"current language heightened"] by actors some of whom were aware of the
thematic and emblematic structure.
 
Luc Borot's reply a few days ago was temperate and understanding, as is Gregory
McSweeney's of today, but what surprises me is an almost complete absence of
mention of what CONVEYS the emblems, the characters and feelings associated
with them: dramatic poetry. I do feel that we are making hillocks out of
molehills as we talk around the topic as we are doing. It is undeniable that
actors who bring extratextual personal histories to their roles COULD be doing
the script a disservice and that it is often a felicitous accident if what they
do also conveys the lines as they are written. I oppose those who find the
plays mere "blueprints for production" as much as I oppose those who
dogmatically insist that "it's all there already" (among whose numbers I
sometimes have to count myself), and continue to hold that actors now have to
be trained specifically in responding to a rhetorical script often unlike the
quasi-naturalism to which they have become accustomed. John Barton's advice to
"see and feel the images" comes very close to the ideal of offering an open
reading which is the result of poetic discipline.
 
In short, it's all there but watch how you do it. Or how you hear it. Very
often we see performances in which there's less here than meets the ear
precisely because the actor felt that there was more here than met the eye.
 
I cannot understand how I can look through my saved files on the
Cordelia/character interchange, so fortuitously started by Pamela Bunn, and
find so little on the petic solution.
 
A final word: Arthur Koestler in "The Act of Creation" makes satisfyingly clear
that a perfect response to such theatrical art is that where the mind is
constantly vacillating between two matrices: believing that the actor is a
character and knowing that he is an actor, surrendering to an illusion and
admiring the skill. Stanislavski's seldom quoted statement that "the chief
secret of our art is in producing the desired emotion at the advertised hour"
hinges on what is meant by "desired". That meaning is what is likely causing
what strikes me as our confusion.
 
PS: And another thing...
 
As a student just remarked to me when he had recovered from his dismay and
amazement on reading the Cordelia/character exchange:
 
"I don't know why people are talking about acting as presenting emotions.
Acting is not about presenting emotions, not even one emotion, let alone two or
three in conflict. Acting is about physical actions, saying lines,looking or
moving here or there for particular reasons. Emotions in acting are the results
of actions. Actors should not concern themselves with the emotions their
characters are experiencing in a given moment or scene. When they do, they
become mannered." (Paul Hawkins)
 
Indeed. And the audience is deprived of THEIR emotions when the actor is
"feeling" away to herself. We have paid to come and cry, not simply witness
tears. The WORDS and their referents are what affect us.
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Mueller <
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Date:           Monday, 6 Jun 1994 09:32:53 -0500
Subject:        NO psychology in the role of Richard
 
There is a lot of practical wisdom in cautioning students against assuming that
the psychological conventions of the realistic novel are identical with human
nature and always appropriate to the interpretation of any Shakespearean
character. But the assumption that there is No psychology in the role of
Richard II and that by implication we would be better off kissing psychology
good-bye runs against elementary facts of the texts. The plays include cases of
psychological explanation that require very little translation to fit
twentieth-century clinical diagnoses. Richard III tells you in so many words
that he will be a bully because he has been a victim, and the little son of
Coriolanus is meant to tell you a lot about a family environment that turned
Coriolanus into the kind of man we see on the stage. What these and similar
cases show is that there are substantial areas of overlap in which the
contemporaries of Plutarch, Shakespeare, and we talk about character.
 
If the idea of character development seems inappropriate to Cordelia, it is not
because that idea is never applicable to Shakespearean drama, but because
Cordelia is a character who does not develop. That is, as it were, the point of
her "character," as point that is perfectly intelligible to a reader of the
Antigone, where there is a long history of critical disagreement about her
"character" or "ethos." Hegel thought she ws the embodiment of ancient
undivided ethos as opposed to modern divided character, but Bernard Knox showed
in a wonderful essay about "Second thoughts in Greek tragedy," that the corpus
of Greek tragedy is full of characters who reason and act in ways that are all
too recognizably like ours.
 
Martin Mueller     Professor of English and Classics
Department of English  Northwestern University   Evanston IL 60208

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(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Jones <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Jun 94 15:07:40 EDT
Subject: 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0498  Re: Character and Cordelia
 
I confess myself a little bewildered by Adrian Kiernander's recent remarks. I
certainly grant that my profession (teaching theatre) is considerably more
conservative than it fancies itself, but beyond that, I'm baffled.
 
Is the point that:
 
-- modern conceptions of character, theme, etc. are utterly irrelevant to
appreciating Shakespeare?  So much for his ability to speak to us through the
ages if we're not allowed to approach his work even marginally through our
own experiences!
 
-- or that we should abandon late-19th century modes in favor of late 20th
century modes which are, apparently by definition, correct?
 
-- or that criticism is allowed to adapt with the times but production isn't?
 
-- or that it's OK to say that the greatest playwright ever lived 400 years
ago in England, but not that the greatest acting theorist ever lived 100
years ago in Russia?
 
-- or that because post-Stanislavskian acting theory contains/allows some,
perhaps even many, excesses, that both post-Stanislavskian and indeed
Stanislavskian theory (which is considerably different!) ought to be
discarded in their entirety?
 
-- or that bad productions of Shakespeare are all attributable to a quest for
naturalism?  and good ones are all anti-naturalistic?  A little reductive,
don't you think?
 
-- or is this simply another version of the prevalent motif in certain areas
of academe that the reason some of us act or direct is that we're too stupid
to write articles?
 
Grumpily, defensively, but I hope not paranoidly yours...
 
Rick Jones

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