Make a Donation

Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER.

Subscribe to Our Feeds

Current Postings RSS

Announcements RSS

Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Senile Dementia
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1106  Monday, 29 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Carol Barton <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:28:35 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

[2]     From:   L. Swilley <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 11:36:09 -0500
        Subj:   Remember: Polonius Is the First Minister of State

[3]     From:   Larry Weiss <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 14:16:21 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

[4]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Sunday, 28 May 2000 04:59:13 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

[5]     From:   Lois Potter <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 20:53:10 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

[6]     From:   David Shenk <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
        Date:   Saturday, 27 May 2000 23:15:40 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 09:28:35 -0400
Subject: 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

As I said some time in January, I think, the Folger production played
Polonius "straight," as a uniformed officer whose son was also military,
a butt-kissing bureaucrat, but certainly not senile or in any other way
not in full possession of his faculties. They underscored his windbag
officiousness by having Laertes and Ophelia finish his lines for him,
eyes rolling, voices sing-song, in that infuriating "YES, Daddy!" manner
that teenagers sometimes adopt: (He) -- "Neither a borrower nor a lender
be -- (They) --"[YES, Daddy!] 'for borrowing dulls the edge of
husbandry,'" and so on. It was very funny. (And it illustrates that who
Polonius is dictated by who is playing him, and how, just as the Lear
Fool takes on different dimensions when played as an old man himself, as
he was by the RSC.)

What we see in Lear is, I think, not entirely senile dementia either,
but the reaction of an octogenarian spoiled brat to the world not going
according to his plan. Lear is used to "commanding" the microcosm of his
kingdom to do his bidding, as king and supreme dictator, all the world
and everyone in it his loyal subjects and servants, he second in power
only to God. Suddenly, after the division of his crown, he is stripped
of all power and influence, even that of a father (his kids don't listen
to him either, not even Cordelia, who is quite obviously "Daddy's little
girl").  The entire basis of his wonted epistemology is yanked out from
under him, and, like Oz discovered, he is left with nothing but the puny
manhood with which he was born, stripped politically, socially, and
psychologically as bare as Poor Tom at that point -- and just as mad.

I think I might be a little imbalanced, in his shoes, too.

Best to all,
Carol Barton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           L. Swilley <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 11:36:09 -0500
Subject:        Remember: Polonius Is the First Minister of State

Hardy Cook wrote,

I agree heartily with Peter Groves's statement: "Why Shakespeare did it
must, of course, remain an open question, but what it means in the
theatre is a matter of performance-choice."

The question is not does Polonius suffer from dementia, but how was
Polonius portrayed by X in Y's production of *Hamlet* (for theatrical
productions, add at the performance I saw.)

Characteristics found in the text are transformed in performance;
Polonius exists as a character on the page and on the stage.


and let us not forget that as a First Minister of State, Polonius need
not be bothered to  remember details; he has secretaries for that.  I
see a Polonius snapping his fingers at underlings, demanding, "What did
I say?" And he'd better get an answer, or heads will roll.

Olivier's and others' interpretation of Polonius as a doddering old fool
seriously  and wrongly questions the competence of Claudius to be King
and a man  in charge - the which he of course he very much is.  Part of
the tragedy is that Claudius would have made an excellent king, had he
come properly to the throne.  One cannot imagine such a man keeping
Olivier's Polonius around in a position of authority, certainly not a
man who would be talked into the arras event by such a Polonius.

Yet, in spite of the many interpretations I have seen that have
attempted to show Polonius to be crafty, none has ever convinced me that
Claudius could be persuaded to such parlor games, nor that a man of
Polonius' experience would suggest them.  (- But wait! On the other
hand, are they both quite drunk at the time? That might help.  I
remember Patrick Stewart's Enobarbus dying on stage of  a "heart
problem" - in Stewart's interpretation, he died of acute alcoholism.  It
made sense of an otherwise incredible event.)

L. Swilley

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 14:16:21 -0400
Subject: 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

My post about the clinical features of Alzheimer's dementia was
intended, as most members figured out, to be mildly sarcastic.  I was
trying to make much the same point that was made by respondents who
pointed out, in one way or another, the slipperiness of clinical
diagnoses of literary characters.

On the other hand, I do not agree wholeheartedly with Peter Groves and
Hardy, who emphasize "performance-choice."  I suppose one could choose
to play Polonius as a virile young man (or even a virile young woman)
but that would wrench the text past the breaking point.  It seems to be
that WS intended -- sorry Terrence--  to show us an old politician who
has lost much of his skill to the ravages of time.  Of course, this is
not a clinical case study of Alzheimer's, but WS probably knew people
who developed signs of memory loss, aphasia, etc., in advanced years,
and it was not too difficult for him to show us a character who
exhibited those symptoms, just as other characters may be said to be
proud, ambitious, dim-witted, etc.

I believe that Polonius is to be understood as having formerly been a
brilliant and successful statesman, and perhaps a warrior.  (See my
observations on the significance of his name.)  He still shows a rote
ability to replicate and explain somewhat sophisticated political
techniques, as in the scene with Reynaldo, but his insight and judgment
are gone.   Perhaps WS was making a comment on the dismal human
condition, akin to Alexander's dust stopping a bung hole or a king
progressing through the guts of a beggar.

By the way, I think Terrence Hawkes makes an interesting point.  The
first two or three times I heard Camillo say "I know not what to say" I
really thought the actor should just have said "line" sotto voce.  I
never had the same reaction to Polonius' digression in II.i.

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Graham Bradshaw <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Sunday, 28 May 2000 04:59:13 +0900
Subject: 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

My God, I'm getting frightened! For some months now, I've been agreeing
with Terence Hawkes's letters to SHAKSPER, including this latest. Is
this an early stage of senile dementia?

Graham Bradshaw

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Lois Potter <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 20:53:10 -0400
Subject: 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

I agree with Terry Hawkes' point:  Polonius's apparent lapse of memory
can make the audience think that the actor really has forgotten his
lines.  This happened once in my experience; a number of people around
me were audibly upset when they thought that a much-loved older actor
(Michael Bryant, at the National Theatre in 1989) was cracking up before
their eyes.  On the other hand, it doesn't usually happen: Polonius
plays the moment with enough control, and often enough comedy, to make
it clear that we are watching something happen inside rather than
outside the play -- especially since actors don't normally tell other
characters that they've dried. Reynaldo's reaction is perhaps even more
crucial; however embarrassed or superior he may look, most people can
tell that he is reacting as Reynaldo, not as a junior actor wondering
how he can salvage the situation.

But it might have been different for the audience that saw Shakespeare's
actors, who probably needed the prompter more frequently.  And maybe, if
an older actor was playing Polonius, he was already well known for
memory lapses.  And maybe the implicit and explicit references to actors
forgetting lines, which are pretty common in Shakespeare and elsewhere,
are either a propiation of the gods of memory or a way of defusing
everyone's anxiety on a subject which, by all accounts, is an obsession
with both actors and audience.

Lois Potter
University of Delaware

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Shenk <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 23:15:40 -0500
Subject: 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1097 Re: Senile Dementia

I agree almost entirely with Melissa Aaron. Any specific notion of
"disease" is specific to that culture. I have no interest in arguing
definitively whether Lear, or for that matter Annesley, had "Alzheimer's
disease." I'm simply interested in the long and winding cultural history
of dementia.

That said, it's pretty clear that what we now call Alzheimer's disease
has existed for many thousands of years. I have no illusions that
Shakespeare ever focused solely on the issue of senile dementia, but
given his importance, whatever he did say is pretty important to any
comprehensive history of the disease.
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.