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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: December ::
Re: Subtext
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2717  Monday, 3 December 2001

From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Friday, 30 Nov 2001 18:04:06 -0000
Subject: 12.2710 Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2710 Subtext

Jane Brody's comment that a textualizing detachment "is not affective in
bringing characters to life" constitutes a rather brilliant pun. But it
does not argue away the dangers of becoming too "affected" by dramatic
characters. We are assured that "subtext is predicated upon the
essential conflict between the characters which may theoretically
precede the day [upon] which the conflict of the play begins". This may
make sense in psychological terms, but it scarcely makes sense in
dramatico-critical terms. Ms. Brody's example actually serves to
illustrate the mistake in herent in assuming anything "esential" about
dramatic characters at all: "For instance, when Hamlet tells Ophelia to
go to the nunnery, he is responding not only to his anger at her in the
moment, but also to the essential problem he has always had with her
(the faithfulness or trustworthiness of women) which precedes the
momentary plot of the play".  How on earth do we know this? Because
Hamlet has mentioned women's "frailty" etc. DURING the course of the
play we are reading / watching. It is there in the text. Tom Stoppard's
play illustrates just how yawningly empty the world outside this play
can be. And the notion that drama must present us with fully-rounded
characters who SEEM to have a personal history is, if not simply common
sense, at least Aristotelian. Ms. Brody is right to say that "subtext is
a frequently misunderstood concept". I'm damned if I know what it's
supposed to mean. I'm pretty sure I can identify what it isn't, though:
"On the literal level, 'Get the to a nunnery' means 'Leave my sight.'
On the 'relational' level it could have many meanings [e.g.] 'I am so
disapointed in you,' 'I wish to kill you,' 'I beg you to forgive me.'" I
think that, as a drama teacher, Ms. Brody is interested in the different
ways in which this line might be acted, which is not really the same as
"subtext" (although "subtext" is involved, of course). On the literal
level, surely "get thee to a nunnery" means "get thee to a nunnery". To
read it as "Leave my sight" is already to bring a "subtextual"
interpretation to bear (like Ms. Brody's following suggestions), i.e.,
one that says that Hamlet cannot stand to see Ophelia, rather than one
that simply assumes that he thinks she should go to a nunnery. In the
case of Shakespeare, with his sources, suppose the dictum needs
qualification, but still, we need to remember il n'y a rien pas hors du
texte.

Cyberspatio-deconstructively yours,
M

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