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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: March ::
Re: Black Characters; Macbeth; Hero
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0207.  Tuesday, 14 March 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Don Foster <
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        Date:   Monday, 13 Mar 1995 10:00:33 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: Black *Hamlet*
 
(2)     From:   G. I. Egan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Mar 1995 00:48:41 +0000 (GMT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0195 Re: Black Characters on Shakespeare's Stage
 
(3)     From:   Don Foster <
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        Date:   Monday, 13 Mar 1995 12:52:04 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: *Macbeth*: Prophecies and Duncan's Murder
 
(4)     From:   Dale Lyles <
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        Date:   Sunday, 12 Mar 1995 22:05:03 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0199 Q: The Problem of Hero
 
(5)     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Monday, 13 Mar 1995 17:45:24 GMT
        Subj:   The problem of Hero
 
(6)     From:   Kenneth Meaney <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 14 Mar 1995 09:34:30 +0200
        Subj:   Re: Hero
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Foster <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Mar 1995 10:00:33 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Re: Black *Hamlet*
 
To: Andre G. Bourassa:
RE: About your 1883 *Hamlet*:
 
G.W.H. Griffin wrote a parody called "Hamlet the Dainty: An Ethiopian Burlesque
on Shakespeare's Hamlet" (NY: Happy Hours Co., n.d.).  It was performed by
Griffin and Christy's Minstrels, and may be the comedy sketch featured in your
1883 photograph from *Harper's Weekly," which I have not seen. (I can't
remember offhand when Christy's Minstrels were active; 1883 may be too early.)
Griffin's parody begins with Hamlet and Horatio conversing just before the
Ghost enters:
 
        HAM.  The air bites shrewdly--it is very cold.
        HOR.  I never saw a darky half so bold.
 
The Ghost appears, "his face perfectly white with flour; he is smoking a long
segar, and reading a newspaper. They fall against each other, then on the stage
rolling over and doing all sorts of cominc bus."  After which Hamlet remarks,
"He's from the South! Oh, grace defend us!"  The sketch ends with a genocidal
jest by Gertrude: "It's now too late--I took too many swigs--/ He put the
poison in, to kill off all you nigs."
 
For a travesty that still has a certain charm, you might have a look at John
Poole, "Hamlet Travestie in Three Acts with Burlesque Annotations after the
Manner of Dr. Johnson and Geo. Steevens [etc.] (London: Sherwood, 1817).
Hamlet's dying speech is fairly representative of the general tone:  "HAM. You
that look pale, and quiver, quirk, and quake, / And scarce know what of this
sad scene to make-- / O, I could tell--for there's a great deal in it-- / I'm
dead--at least, I shall be in a minute-- / But promise me, before I wish good
night, / Horatio, that you'll tell my story right. / HOR. "No, I'll die
too--here's poison in the cup-- / I'll play the Roman, and I'll drink it up. /
HAM.  "Give me the cup; you shall not have a drop-- / For here you must a
little longer stop. / If e'er you loved me--live--my tale to tell.--/ And
then--I care not if you go--to hell. / That last cross-buttock dish'd
me--Oh!--I can't get on-- / Here goes, Horatio!--going--going--gone! [Dies]."
But race isn't at issue here as in Griffin's parody.
 
Somewhere I've got a half-written essay on these and other Hamlet parodies, an
essay that I may never get back to, but they're an interesting cultural
phenomenon in any case.
 
Don Foster
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           G. I. Egan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 14 Mar 1995 00:48:41 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: 6.0195 Re: Black Characters on Shakespeare's Stage
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0195 Re: Black Characters on Shakespeare's Stage
 
>Gabriel Egan claims to be confident that there were no black actors on the
>sixteenth century English stage. May I ask why? Assuming there were no black
>sharers, is it impossible that there were no black hired actors? (There were
>black cowboys!)
>
>How confident can we be about the color barrier in, say, the 1590s?
>
>Yours, Bill Godshalk
 
I think there were very few black people in London at the time. Does anyone
have some evidence to substantiate/refute this? If think also that only a small
percentage of the population ever worked as a player. Putting these two
probabilities together gives me the confidence I expressed. I did not express
any confidence about a color barrier, and when I think about it I don't believe
the term 'barrier' has any meaning for really tiny minorities since others have
to have knowledge of a group's existence as a group in order to erect a barrier
against them. My feeling is that the black population was so small that the
averaging of their experiences (which is what we are doing if we try of talk of
them collectively) is impossible.
 
Gabriel Egan
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Foster <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Mar 1995 12:52:04 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Re: *Macbeth*: Prophecies and Duncan's Murder
 
On Macbeth and his determination to be king:
 
One SHAKSPERian writes that "Macbeth never assumes that killing Duncan will
mean sure-fire coronation for himself. He... gets lucky and the remaining
impediments remove themselves (temporarily)." Another writes that "It would be
nice if the kingship would fall on his plate, to use Jennie Johnson's phrase,
with the inevitability (in a society committed to primogenitural succession)
that the thaneship of Glamis has already fallen....perhaps the inevitability of
the first step, his inheriting of Glamis, encourages him to think of the next
steps as inevitable as well, part of a 'natural' progression."  Another
remarks, "Macbeth considers just this possibility--'If chance will have me
King, why, chance may crown me without my stir--' (1.3.143-4).  But it just
won't happen fast enough for that 'vaulting ambition' that the prediction has
set in motion!"  All such responses assume that Macbeth wouldn't work/kill for
a living if he can sit back and win the lottery: Thus, "if I'm going to be
king, it's better to let time do it for (or to) me than take action to *make*
myself king." But is this Macbeth's view? Macbeth's horror, as I read it, is
not that he's terrified of sticking a knife in the king's body but that the
witches have intimated that Macbeth may be no more than a seed of time, a kind
of twig afloat on the river of Nature. To be made king is nothing if the
masculine fantasy of self-fashioning is thereby nullified. For Macbeth to be
made King without his stir would not answer his question, first raised by the
witches, concerning whether or not he is merely Time's slave.  Lady Macbeth
says more than she knows when she quips that when neither time nor place
adheres, Macbeth "would make both," but when "they have made themselves," their
very fitness doth "unmake him."  Macbeth is nothing afeard of what he makes
himself (1.3.96), but only of what makes *him*. His high-faluting' soliquies on
the way to Duncan's chamber are usually read as the voice of conscience--but
they may also be understood as a kind of spur:  Macbeth needs to convince
himself that his crime is unprecedented, that his deed will have cosmic
significance.
 
If this perverse reading suits your fancy, see "*Macbeth*'s War on Time," *ELR*
16.2 (1986): 319-42, by D.Foster (Pardon me--I seem to be in a self-promotional
mode this morning).  I wrote the *ELR* piece on *Macbeth* as a graduate
student, and it's terribly long-winded--the essay suffers a student's
compulsion to quote every pertinent fragment of the text; but there are a few
good moments along the way.  Page 322 should read, "In the end, of course, all
poets, all [texts], do belie life" and not "all tests" [sic] (which may also be
true, but it's not what I had intended).  Don Foster.
 
(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Dale Lyles <
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Date:           Sunday, 12 Mar 1995 22:05:03 -0500
Subject: 6.0199 Q: The Problem of Hero
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0199 Q: The Problem of Hero
 
We played Hero exactly "as written," i.e., so totally pure and innocent that
she simply swooned in the face of the horrors of IV.1.  Then, as her father's
rage continued the calumny, the outrage became so palpable that the audience
quite agreed with Beatrice's fury.  Sean Lawrence is right about getting
Claudio to overact to distract the audience; fortunately (?) the scene gives
plenty of scope for that.
 
Dale Lyles
Newnan Community Theatre Co.
 
(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Monday, 13 Mar 1995 17:45:24 GMT
Subject:        The problem of Hero
 
But Hero DOES defend herself, and with considerable force. The fact that she
doesn't use words to do so, indeed that, in consequence, her defence requires
careful 'noting',  is the central point of the Friar's observations (1V, i,
155-70). Since it's precisely the absence of that kind of 'noting' which
generates so much ado, (Shakespeare's pun, not mine) you might say it's the
plight of women, torn between loquacity and silence in Messina, that
constitutes one of the play's central concerns. But back to the consolations of
character-analysis...
 
Terence Hawkes
 
(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Meaney <
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Date:           Tuesday, 14 Mar 1995 09:34:30 +0200
Subject:        Re: Hero
 
Melissa Aaron's comments on Hero's silence might well be of help to the actor
who is playing the part, but I think that the "problem" of Hero's silence is of
our making and based on the assumption that everything in a Shakespeare play
requires explaining in naturalistic terms. But Shakespeare didn't write
naturalistic drama and I think that here he is simply using the convention that
the calumniated is unable to clear his/her reputation. A conventional inability
to say the few words that would clear everything up has been the linchpin of
many a movie and soap opera depends on it. Provided Hero looks suitably
appalled at her chastity being called in question (and perhaps here lies our
real problem now) I don't think the audience worries about why she was alone
that one night or why she is incapable of defending herself.
 
Ken Meaney
University of Joensuu, Finland.
 

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