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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: January ::
Re: Characters: Lady Macbeth; Portia; Caesar
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, SHK 8.0085.  Monday, 20 January 1997.

(1)     From:   Louis C Swilley <
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        Date:   Saturday, 18 Jan 1997 17:35:18 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0081 Re: Lady Macbeth; Portia; Caesar

(2)     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Saurday, 18 Jan 1997 20:32:01 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 8.0083  Re: Lady Macbeth fainting

(3)     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Monday, 20 Jan 1997 08:01:57 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 8.0067 Re: A Great Caesar

(4)     From:   John Velz <
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        Date:   Sunday, 19 Jan 1997 03:29:36 +0200
        Subj:   Brutus' Portia


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Louis C Swilley <
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Date:           Saturday, 18 Jan 1997 17:35:18 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 8.0081 Re: Lady Macbeth; Portia; Caesar
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0081 Re: Lady Macbeth; Portia; Caesar

>Fans of the nerves-of-steel Lady Macbeth are advised not to read too
>attentively her anxious soliloquy in 2.1: "Hark! Peace, it was the owl that
>shrieked, . . . Alack, I am afraid they have awaked . . . Hark!" etc. Those
>praising her gumption for putting bloody knives in the hands of drugged
>simpletons are better off forgetting how she fumbled her famous ruthlessness in
>the main event and fobbed the real work off on somebody else, more daunted by
>her own hallucination than her husband was by his ("Had he not resembled my
>father as he slept, I had done't").

Mr. Shepherd,

You make an excellent point here.  And you suggest by this that Lady M. does
indeed faint at the point in the play under discussion. But does it make any
difference whether the fainting is pretended or real (and I wonder how an
actress would make that distinction - unless she did something delSartian for
the former)?  The *effect* of the fainting is that the men around her are
distracted from a subject that would make them suspect her husband.  Under this
condition, I think it best to interpret her fainting as pretended, intended.

    L. Swilley

>Louis Swilley raises an interesting point about Brutus and Portia.
>
>I'm not myself so sure that Portia's stabbing herself can be taken as evidence
>of an unbalanced mind. It seems to me perfectly compatible with what else we
>hear of her as a figure inheriting Stoicism both as a philosophy and a family
>tradition (she was Cato's daughter after all). Her stabbing herself to show her
>ability to exercize her will and endure suffering with resolve is consistent
>with Stoic attitudes, though perhaps rather intense as rhetorical proof of
>them. Brutus understands her gesture in that spirit. (One can compare her here
>with Lady Percy in 1H4 who offers to break Hotspur's finger. Portia would
>presumably have offered to break her own!) Her manner of death is also, while
>gruesome, consistent with a kind of maddened Stoicism (we are told she is
>"distract" when she dies). But I don't find the latter an invitation to import
>"distraction" into the earlier scene. I think we have here part of a set of
>questions in the play about the Elizabethan reception of the idea of
>"Romanitas".

Mr. Bishop,

The director who brings this scene to an audience must speak to that audience,
must make us see and feel the character's position as though it were our own.
Shakespeare, above all, has ever shown his ability to transcend temporal
"philosophies", presenting scenes that touch us with a humanity that is
timeless; this has required directors and actors to find the heart of the
character and to present that in such a way that we feel and *understand* why
the character acts as he does.  This must not depend on our appreciation of an
historical circumstance (Stoicism) from outside the play that must be brought
in to it to understand why a character is acting as he or she is.  If Brutus is
a Stoic and this causes him (and Portia) to act and respond in a way that is to
be accepted as proper to a man (or a woman), this Stoicism must be shown to be
such a part of the character(s) as human beings (not merely symbols for a
philosphy) that we see and feel how this act (Portia's stabbing herself) and
the reaction it evokes (Brutus' praise of it).

I do not want the director and actor to merely tell me that Brutus is a Stoic
and therefore he will find his wife's self-mutilation admirable.  The fact is
that when I see Portia report her wound, I expect any Brutus I have ever seen
portrayed earlier in that production to react now with concern for her sanity.
There has been nothing except *talk* of Stoicism, earlier in the written play,
to warrant any other response. That he reacts differently - and to my disbelief
and horror - suggests to me that the character has not been presented earlier
in a way to allow me to accept such a patently inhuman response of unfeigned
praise for her deed.

We cannot change the play to accomodate this reasonable demand; it is the task
of directors and actors to show us how the characters can be interpreted to
make everything fit, make them "feel right." (As an example of what I mean
here, I return to my memory of Gielgud as Caesar: Gielgud and the director of
that production showed us, although but briefly, a Caesar of whose greatness we
were given a glimpse when he leaned back vulnerably on the fountain edge and
addressed *directly to Cassius who stood meekly before him* the speech, "Yon
Cassius hath a lean and hungry look, etc." With this, I *saw* a formidable,
powerful Caesar - not the fretting, superstitious bully who otherwise infests
productions of this play, and who, notwithstanding those presentations, we are
urged to believe to be a great man.)

Surely Shakespeare speaks to every age; he does so because he presents
constants in human nature that transcend philosophical vogues, or historical
dispositions of mind.  An audience of whatever time must not be expected to
understand the "Elizabethan mind" (or "Romanitas") in order to appreciate the
significant moment of his works.  It is the proper work of the directors and
actors to find and present our deepest, constant selves in the characters they
realize on the stage.

I am still convinced that Shakespeare is presenting Portia as unbalanced.  Her
extraordinary and surely unnecessary demonstration of her ability to keep a
secret, her confusion in her scene with the Soothsayer, and the report of her
gruesome means of suicide, all told show Shakespeare's intention.  The writer
chose to present these things when they could have been either suppressed
altogether or modified to suggest something other than one inclined to madness.

>Brutus' feigning not to have heard of her death is another puzzle. To me it
>seems to be connected to the play's concern with what one knows and what one
>shows. Brutus' ruse here functions as an opportunity to show his generals how
>imperturbable he really is, how resolved, how like his father-in-law (as he
>will be in death also). But the play shows us this as a facade mounted for
>rhetorical purposes in the midst of a life and death struggle for control of
>the Roman state. Brutus is, in a way, "Antonized" into policy here, perhaps by
>the urgent desperation of the moment. An actor has many choices at such a
>moment. I note that Cassius backs the strategy up here, though there might well
> be several kinds of irony playing within his lines.

I very much appreciate your reading here.  Again, I think the scene needs some
stagework to emphasize the points you want it to make.

        L. Swilley

>The word 'soliloquy' had no currency in the drama in the period. Subsequent
>interpreters have invented this category of speech, and they might be mistaken
>about its conventions.
>
>The actor playing Antony might be addressing the corpse. He might be addressing
>the audience. Or, as you say, he might be talking to himself.

Mr. Egan,

I am baffled by your remarks, here.  A character, alone on the stage (or
speaking to a *corpse*, which is the same thing), must be talking to himself
and delivering his true feelings, call the speech a soliloquy or whatever you
like.  Is it your contention that the audience watching the play can be
interpreted as a character *in* the play -, as perhaps a crowd of Romans?
Surely not at this point in this play.

        L. Swilley

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Saurday, 18 Jan 1997 20:32:01 -0500
Subject: 8.0083  Re: Lady Macbeth fainting
Comment:        Re: SHK 8.0083  Re: Lady Macbeth fainting

Jimmy Jung asks:

"And could Terence Hawkes please explain the fainting thing, so I can laugh
with him?"

Let me play Hastings to Hawkes' Richard.  Terence recurrently asks this
question because he has the firm belief that fictional characters do not think.
Fictional characters are not real people, so they don't really do anything. To
ask if Lady Macbeth "really" faints is thus a joke.  Get it?

Terence does not read books on art theory, or, if he does, he seems to reject
theories of "seeing in" and "making believe."  When he looks at a painting by
Titian all he sees is paint on canvass.

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Monday, 20 Jan 1997 08:01:57 -0500
Subject: Re: A Great Caesar
Comment:        SHK 8.0067 Re: A Great Caesar

Dear Mr. Swilley: Yes, I think I see. But how far can we trust a man who goes
around 'speaking to no-one but himself' as you so rightly put it? And in blank
verse? Do you think such a person can really have genuine access to his own
'true feelings', even though he believes he does? We need to probe more deeply
than that.  You properly observe that Lady Macbeth is not 'the fainting kind'
(ah! sic transit etc, but let that go), yet this poor creature, who plainly
doesn't know whether she has any children or not, is surely one for whom the
swoon might offer welcome, even regular refuge from the realities her husband
chooses to bring home. I am assured by experts that 'she' is in any case male.
The strain of prolonged deception has long been known to provoke seizure.
Macbeth, for his own reasons, elects to ignore this state of affairs. Perhaps
we haven't yet taken sufficient account of how disturbed these people are?
Maybe it is time (if you'll pardon the expression) to act?

Terence Hawkes

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Velz <
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Date:           Sunday, 19 Jan 1997 03:29:36 +0200
Subject:        Brutus' Portia

Louis C. Swilley asked recently about staging Portia, including her
self-inflicted wound.  I directed a university production of *JC* in 1971 using
period costume, which meant dressing Calphurnia and Portia in the same
to-the-floor gown, Portia's in pastel blue (the color for all of Brutus'
family) and Calphurnia's in gold.  Both women were undergraduate drama majors.
The moment we rehearsed the scene in costume late in the rehearsal schedule, I
realized that it would be positively obscene to have Portia lift her hem thigh
high to show the wound as the text clearly demands:-- "I have given myself a
wound, here in the thigh."  Right then and there I emended to "I have given
myself a wound, here in the leg" and we used makeup to paint a sizable and
angry-looking gash on the fleshy part of Portia's calf."  When we had this all
arranged I remembered having seen an eighteenth-century theatrical edition of
the play which read "I have given myself a wound here in the arm".  I had at
the time laughed out loud at the prudishness of this emendation on the
eighteenth-century stage; but now, several years later  I was wise enough to
take my laughter back.  If you garb Portia in a traditional mater familias's
floor-length dress, you just can't stage the scene as written without getting
unwanted laughter or gasps of disapproval from the audience. Our more decorous
slight lifting of the long skirt to show the calf never elicited anything but
sympathy and respect for Portia of a kind I think Shakespeare wanted his
audience to feel.  Yet Shakespeare, a man of the theater, wrote the line with
full awareness that his Roman women would be wearing floor lenth full-skirted
dresses. Even if he dressed Portia as an Elizabethan matron, the same staging
problem would obtain. One wonders how the Lord Chamberlain's Men handled this
line and its staging problem.

I know you want more than this, Louis, but this is all I have for you at this
moment.  I once published an article called "'Nothing Undervalu'd to Cato's
Daughter': Plutarch's Porcia in the Shakespeare Canon" in *Comparative Drama*,
1978, I think; since reprinted. The article shows that Shakespeare had a
special interest in Porcia as she is portrayed in Plutarch and he puts aspects
of her character and situation into three plays and a poem besides *Julius
Caesar*.  We ought to go slow before condemning the Portia motif in JC since
Sh. himself was obviously deeply committed to it, working it into five art
objects--including *The Merchant of Venice* where Shakespeare has Bassanio tell
us where he Shakespeare got the name of his heroine from:

                In Belmont is a lady richly left;
                And she is fair and fairer than that word;
                Of wondrous virtues.  Nothing undervalu'd
                To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia.
                                                 (MV 1.1)

These lines were written three years before he wrote *JC*.  [The other works
discussed in this article were *The Rape of Lucrece*,  *Henry IV Part I*, and
*Macbeth*].

All best to you.
John
 

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