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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: June ::
Re: Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0512.  Wednesday, 8 June 1994.
 
(1)     From:   David Scott Wilson-Okamura <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Jun 94 12:14:17 CDT
        Subj:   Character; Freud and Modern Psychiatry as 20C Humor Theories
 
(2)     From:   Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
        Date:   Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 16:39:52 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 5.0506  Re: Character
 
(3)     From:   David M Richman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 21:11:08 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   character redux
 
(4)     From:   Christine M Gordon <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 21:25:15 -0500 (CDT)
        Subj:   barkis, oberon, character
 
(5)     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 8 Jun 94 14:13 BST
        Subj:   RE: SHK 5.0506 Re: Character
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Scott Wilson-Okamura <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Jun 94 12:14:17 CDT
Subject:        Character; Freud and Modern Psychiatry as 20C Humor Theories
 
> I'm not coming to this issue from a New Historicist standpoint, but I do
> think it is important to recognize that the Elizabethan sense of the self
> was very different from our own.  Our semi-serious adage "You are what
> you eat" was taken much more literally by thinkers during the Renaissance.
> The process of digestion was not just physical.  According to the theory of
> the four humors, physiological imbalances could lead to psychological im-
> balances--to dominant character traits, based on which humor was dominant.
> This strong link between the physical and temperamental meant that the self
> was not seen as distinct from its surrounding environment as we tend to
> think.
>
> The notion of the uniqueness and the originality of the self were also less
> pronounced during the Renaissance . . .
 
Leslie, at least in this instance I don't see that the Renaissance was very
different from the twentieth century.  Does it really matter that we say
"repression" where they said "too much black bile"?  And has there ever been
an epoch that did *not* attribute psychological imbalances (at least in part)
to a bad diet?  Indeed, I would argue that modern psychiatry (read, "drug
therapy) *is* nothing more than a more sophisticated version of the old humor
theory (and literal, as well, where Freud's was only metaphorical).
 
Let's also not leave out of our accounts of "early modern subjectivity"
Edmund's speech in LEAR:
 
                This is the excellent foppery of the world, that
        when we are sick in fortune (often the surfeits of our own
        behavior) we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon,
        and stars, as if we were villains on necessity; fools by
        heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spher-
        ical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an en-
        forced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil
        in, by a divine thrusting on.  An admirable evasion of whore-
        master man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a
        star!  My father compounded with my mother under the Dragon's
        tail, and my nativity was under Ursa Major, so that it follows
        I am rough and lecherous.  I should have been what I am, had the
        maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing . . .
                                                (_King Lear_, I.ii)
 
At least someone in the Renaissance (id est, Shakespeare) thought like an
essentialist . . .
 
                                        Yours faithfully,
                                                David Wilson-Okamura
                                                
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(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Harry Hill <HILHAR@CONU2.BITNET>
Date:           Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 16:39:52 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 5.0506  Re: Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 5.0506  Re: Character
 
I'm sure there will be gladness here and there that as we near the end of this
discussion I find breath poor and speech unable. I hope you may permit my
student/colleague/friend these words:
 
`That acting is about action may not, as Rick Jones indicates in his recent
posting, be news to anyone in the theatre.  But in practice, in theatre
departments and the professional theatre, the notion is often overlooked.
 
This is particularly true in Shakespearean performance.  Who has not countless
times seen actors' truthless miming of emotion in productions of Shakespeare's
plays?  In an earlier posting on this issue, Kurt Daw mentions that when actors
play emblems, they "are apt to appear wooden."  But when actors play
"characters," and those characters' emotions and impulses, they out-herod
Herod.
 
Stanislavskian insistence on *physical action* is thus intensely relevant to
the present discussion of character (Cary Mazer seems to deny this).
"Character" and its constituent parts ("impulse," "emotion,"
"motivation")--even if they exist--remain enigmatic, as Jim Schaefer notes (he
further suggests the application of this notion to naturalistic as well as to
pre-naturalistic texts), and unplayable for an actor, as Rick Jones rightly
insists.
 
Only the elimination of the words "character," "emotion," "impulse," --and
perhaps even "motivation" (since it, too, is another vague abstraction) --from
actors', directors', and scholars' working vocabularies when examining or
producing Shakespeare's plays--is this not more or less what Terence Hawkes is
advising?--and a consideration of action, whether emblematic or mimetic, will
permit the recurrent revelation of the meaning-in-process that these plays can
offer, in the study or on the stage.
 
This discussion began with Pamela Bunn's having been asked to describe the
emotions Cordelia is feeling in the first scene of *Lear*.  She should ask for
her money back, but not because her instructors have overlooked Hawkes's
"important issues" ("duty, deference, the nature of kingship, etc.").  She has
been asked to treat an unanswerable question (what is Cordelia feeling?) as if
it were answerable.
 
What is Cordelia feeling? An actor playing the part will discover *one* answer
(and her audience other answers) if her actions, among them the fluent and
graceful speaking of the verse, are right--born of a practical understanding of
the action of a scene and its lines, performed with a discipline that eschews
mannered emoting.  Bravo, Terence Hawkes.  Cordelias have no characters.
 
        Paul Hawkins
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David M Richman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 7 Jun 1994 21:11:08 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        character redux
 
   What would he doe,
   Had he the Motive and the Cue for passion
   That I have? He would drowne the Stage with teares,
   And cleave the generall eare with horrid speech:
   Make mad the guilty, and apale the free,
   Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed,
   The very faculty of Eyes and Eares. Yet I,
   A dull and muddy metled Rascall, peake
   Like John a dreames, unpregnant of my cause,
   And can say nothing:
 
Actors who speak this speech so as to catch and hold an audience's attention
will immerse themselves in the verse's rhetorical and rhythmical qualities.
They will note the alliteration and the near-spondee (two strongly stressed
syllables) at "make mad". They will note a long line (six iams instead of five)
ending with "I", and they will note that the line immediately following ends
with a verb.  They will note that subject and verb are separated by nine
syllables.  Such attention to verse rhythm and structure will help them reach
decisions about pacing, pitch, stress, timbre, and modulation.
 
However, this speech explores the complex connections among motive, passion,
and action.  The speaker probes his inability to speak or act, holding the
passionate player up as a sort of contrasting mirror.
 
My point is that concern with the connection between motive and action did not
originate with Stanislavsky.  Hamlet's would-be performer will do well to
comprehend the words, and to apprehend what might compel the speaker to speak
those words.
 
Stanislavsky, a great actor who grew tired of stock gestures and speeches
learned by rote, tried in his several books to encourage performers to seek the
emotional truth of their roles.  What does your character want to accomplish?
he asked again and again.  Such analysis has been vulgarized by an
over-dependence on pop psychology, but Stanislavsky's "psycho-physical
technique," temperately employed, can be quite useful to performers of
Shakespeare.
 
To my mind and ear, even the dreariest of bourgeois naturalism is less
deadening than impeccably spoken verse uttered by speakers who have no sense of
what compels them to speak.  The result is a sort of effete chant.  The best
dramatic speech is possessed of urgency, immediacy, and I would argue that
urgency can be achieved only by performers who understand how and why their
characters are impelled--who have grasped the "motive and cue" for passion.
 
I am not a Stanislavskyan.  On the spectrum of opinions expressed in this
discussion, I am probably closest to Mr. Hill and Mr. Kiernander.  Meticulous
attention to rhythm and verse structure is at the center of my approach to
performing Shakespeare, and I am skeptical of a hot pursuit of naturalism.  but
I am even more skeptical of speech without urgency, and Stanislavsky provides a
useful tool for performers who want to achieve urgency.  Is Stanislavsky
historically and culturally foreign to Shakespeare?  Of course.  Shakespeare's
company, so far as we know, didn't use electric light either.  I wouldn't drown
my productions in Stanislavsky, but I would no sooner abandon him than I would
abandon electric light.
 
What a useful and stimulating discussion!
 
David Richman
University of New Hampshire
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Christine M Gordon <
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Date:           Tuesday, 07 Jun 1994 21:25:15 -0500 (CDT)
Subject:        barkis, oberon, character
 
First of all, thanks to everyone who's been in on the character discussion; it
really has been wonderful. I feel privileged to have studied Shakespeare over
the years with both literary and theater people and have learned much from
both; I try to pass along as much as I can to my students. We just had a
wonderful time this term discussing (in a class on "Techniques of Literary
Study"), Will Shakespeare's *1 Henry IV* and Gus Van Sant's *My Own Private
Idaho.*
 
To Jim Schaeffer: "Barkis is willing" is from Dickens's *David Copperfield.*
 
To Lonnie Durham: I've always thought Oberon had some sort of designs on the
Indian boy; perhaps "merely" paternal, but I think in this world the erotic
possibilities also come into play.
 
And, on a totally unrelated topic, but one I've always wondered about, to my
colleagues in the southern hemisphere: are there any holidays indigenous to the
south that fall at approximately your winter solstice that are intended to
"bring back the light" along the lines of Christmas, Chanukah, winter solstice
celebrations up here in the northland?
 
Chris Gordon
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Wednesday, 8 Jun 94 14:13 BST
Subject: 5.0506 Re: Character
Comment:        RE: SHK 5.0506 Re: Character
 
Dear Bill Godshalk,
 
The question 'Did Lady Macbeth really faint?' is one of the issues memorably
addressed by A.C. Bradley in his infamous SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY of 1904. Other
gems in the same volume include a discussion of 'Events before the opening of
the action in Hamlet', strenuous ponderings on such questions as 'Where was
Hamlet at the time of his father's death?' and 'Did Emilia suspect Iago?' and
musings on the matter of Macbeth's children. I'm sorry, Bill. I assumed you'd
have a copy of this by your bedside. I know I do.
 
T. Hawkes
 

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