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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: December ::
Re: Subtext
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2715  Monday, 3 December 2001

[1]     From:   Sam Small <
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        Date:   Friday, 30 Nov 2001 18:54:24 -0000
        Subj:   Subtext

[2]     From:   John Ciccarelli <
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        Date:   Friday, 30 Nov 2001 16:24:13 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Subtext

[3]     From:   Kelley Costigan <
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        Date:   Saturday, 01 Dec 2001 17:24:42 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2710 Subtext

[4]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Saturday, 1 Dec 2001 12:03:44 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.2710 Subtext


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sam Small <
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Date:           Friday, 30 Nov 2001 18:54:24 -0000
Subject:        Subtext

Gabriel Egan writes, "If my lunch is my lunch, am I in trouble too?"

If Gabriel Egan desisted from his oft-exercised snobbish aggression he
may learn something.  The adage to which I referred has been in the
screenwriting fraternity for at least 70 years.  Perhaps Mr. Egan should
catch up.  It means, if further explanation is necessary to the rest of
the list members, that if a scene's subtext is what the scene's *text*
or action is about then we have a boring scene.  The scene will be one
dimensional; without depth; expositional to the neglect of all else.  If
we take as an example the famous first 40 lines of Richard III, actors
and directors must decide what it is *also* about.  We know that he is
"determined to be a villain".  But what else does he *not* say?  That
his parents didn't love him enough?  That his brother and family used
him as a "packhorse" (he says it later).  That he is depressed about
being sexually unattractive?  That he feels quite alone?  That he missed
his childhood?  There are many others too.  To play the speech as a
piece of devilish tomfoolery is simply not playing Shakespeare at all -
just repeating words.

Gabriel Egan writes, "Alas, I forgot. Which families, Sam? Luckily,
father and son never found
themselves on different sides, I suppose."

This may be a piece of Gabriel Egan humour but its meaning completely
escapes me.  I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about.  But to
answer a question, which I refuse to believe he doesn't know the answer
to, the English Civil War was fought between two families; Roundheads
against Cavaliers; the Protestants against the Catholics; the
Progressives against the Traditionalists; the Parliamentarians against
the Royalists. OK?  And yes father against son, daughter against mother,
cousin against nephew and all, and all.

SAM SMALL

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Ciccarelli <
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Date:           Friday, 30 Nov 2001 16:24:13 -0500
Subject:        Re: Subtext

Jane,

I would agree that a play is not just words and the relational or
conflict element between characters and their situations needs to be
taken into account when digesting any story.  This takes on a special
dimension when dealing with plays.  The same scene can produce opposing
points of view about what's being acted or read.  An actor playing
Hamlet may have a certain take, say on how Hamlet feels during the
nunnery scene.  However, his director, an audience member or someone
reading the scene can all have differing views on the action.

An example of this that I've often found interesting was the emotional
state of Macbeth in Act V, leading up to and including the 'Tomorrow'
speech.  I've read several critiques on this scene that state Macbeth
delivers the speech with a detached indifference, without any true
emotion.  The line "I have supped full of horrors...cannot once start
me", meaning nothing can phase him at all that he's seen, seems to the
set viewpoint that he no longer feels anything.

Having played the role though, this approach to Act V for me doesn't
make any sense.  Macbeth is focused on the imminent attack of his
castle, however, he stops at several points during the act and laments
on his ruined life "My way of life is fallen...",  inquires of his
wife's health and curing her state of mind, wonders about his own state
of mind, etc.  From these conversations that he has with himself and
others, he continually questions his personal situation but then tries
to get his mind back to the battle.  As an actor, I would have to ask if
he is so removed emotionally and is just worried about the attack, why
does he constantly stop war preparations with these asides?  There has
to be something else there that an actor must play.  The "I have supped"
line to me appears more like he is lying himself to forget what's really
on his mind and to psyche himself up for the siege.  Its only upon
hearing of his wife's death that all the pretense is stripped away and
he deals with his pain and states life as being futile.

However, the "I have supped" line is looked upon by some as if he is
stating a literal truth.  His wife's death comes and he delivers a
detached speech rather one coming from deep pain and loss.  So you can
come away from the same act with two different interpretations.  This is
perhaps one of the more important components that keeps Shakespeare
fresh and vital is that the works can spark a variety of interpretations
and proves that subtext is often very subjective.

John

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kelley Costigan <
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Date:           Saturday, 01 Dec 2001 17:24:42 +0000
Subject: 12.2710 Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2710 Subtext

As a professional actor who has spent a great deal of time working on
the plays of Shakespeare, I'd like to point out that you cannot apply
'modern' theatrical and acting theory to these plays.

When Shakespeare wrote them, there were no 'acting schools' as such, but
there was coaching and a kind of teaching in the way there were
apprentices to other professions.  The plays as written contain clues
which help the actor tell the story, find a characterisation, and
develop relationships between these characters.  What you refer to as
'subtext' is no more than the underlying drive of a particular line.  A
character has a thought, he gives it breath and that breath is words
which are supplied by the playwright.  In the modern theatre as taught
by a large majority of schools, there is a tendency to give these words
colours or  'play them' with certain meanings which do not necessarily
gel with what the words themselves mean.

Shakespeare gives you all sorts of hints how to say the lines -
aspiration, alliteration, punctuation (although some editors with cringe
when I write this), and so on.  Characters call each other by their
names (far more than people do in normal conversation) in order to get
through to the audience their identities and relationships.  'Get thee
to a nunnery' means far more than Jane Drake Brody posits.  Not only
does it mean the literal 'go and join a convent', a nunnery was also a
bawdy house which meaning plays upon the themes he is discussing about
the faithlessness of women and 'breeding of sinners'.

I'm sorry if this is rather rambling or even confusing (if anyone wants
to ask me more, I'd be happy to try to clarify), but I don't think that
Jane Drake Brody is oversimplifying when she says that the characters
'mean something'.

Kelley Costigan

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Saturday, 1 Dec 2001 12:03:44 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 12.2710 Subtext
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2710 Subtext

I think that the issue of subtext is crucial to many issues that have
been popping up here lately. Subtext can be a broad topic. Technically,
subtext is a theatrical issue, although the most skilled writers make
the subtext of a character clear.

In plays with devious schemers (i.e. Richard III and Iago), the subtext
of their words are quite clear because Shakespeare, and the character,
tell us through direct address what their subtext is. Richard III: "I am
determined to play a villain". Iago: "I hate the Moor". These comments
color their words and actions throughout the play so that we know (wink,
wink, nod, nod) that the character means and intends something entirely
opposite to what he is saying and doing onstage.

However, when an actor prepares for a role, subtext becomes a much more
personal, sometimes hidden thing.  In this context, an actor writes
their own subtext in their head. Whenever an actor does not have a line,
he or she is thinking and responding to other actors onstage. That
extra-textual responding is subtext.  This subtext is informed by the
choices that a director and the actor have made concerning
interpretation of a role.

Where "Get thee to a nunnery" may mean anger and dismissal for most
Hamlets, a great example of a different choice is Simon Russell Beale's
recent Hamlet. In John Caird's deeply religious interpretation, his
nunnery line was a pleading with Ophelia as well as a dismissal. This
particular subtext, as Benedict Nightingale pointed out in his review,
was Hamlet's attempt to save Ophelia from the vices of Denmark. To
protect her from the corruption that their "fathers" offstage are
subjecting them to.  Quite a remarkable and legitimate choice for
subtext.

Subtext however can also be absolutely unindicated in the text of the
play. Hence, the discussion about Goneril's suicide. If the actor and
the director make the choice, Edmund could indicate through delivery of
his lines and his behavior onstage that perhaps it is not suicide but a
murder. Subtext is critical to an actor's performance. The most deeply
intelligent interpretations have omnipresent subtext. It is a broad
concept which can be influenced by many factors: the author's skillfully
written implication of motivation, a director's choice, an actor's
choice, and even an audience's reception (correctly or incorrectly
perceived) of what is occurring in the minds of the characters onstage
before them.

Brian Willis

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