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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: February ::
Re: Shakespeare and Sex
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0594  Thursday, 28 February 2002

[1]     From:   Brandon Toropov <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 11:44:03 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[2]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 17:45:51 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Thursday, 28 Feb 2002 09:16:43 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

[4]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Thursday, 28 Feb 2002 07:21:45 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brandon Toropov <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 11:44:03 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

   W. L. Godshalk quotes my post...

> >This is an extremely important point, one well
> worth bearing in mind
> >whenever we are tempted to analyze theatrical
> characters as though they
> >were flesh-and-blood individuals on the therapist's
> couch.  They are,
> >instead, hypothetical creations designed for the
> express purpose of
> >eliciting an emotional response from an audience
> (when properly
> >performed).

... and then writes:

> Yes, of course, dramatic figures do not have sex --
> really, but we
> certainly pretend that they do. Ophelia is pregnant
> when she commits
> suicide. Cassio has actually slept with Desdemona;
> that's why she's so
> anxious to have him back in the service (so to
> speak). Claudius has had
> a thirty year affair with Gertrude.
>
> All of these things have been suggested. And who are
> we to say no?
>
> But it is nice to have a little bit of textual
> evidence to support our
> make believe.

I think there's been a bit of a misunderstanding. I'm not suggesting
that we should waste our time trading fantasias that float gaily and
independently above the text. It's entertaining to do so, of course, but
it doesn't serve any practical purpose.

I *am* suggesting that, if we had WS in a room, cornered, and asked him:
"Straighten us out, please: By whom did Lady Macbeth have children? And
while we're on the subject, was Macbeth her first love? If so, what
first attracted her to him? Was Cassio married or not? How long,
precisely, was Hamlet away at Wittenberg, and why did he choose that
university in particular?" (etc.) -- if we had Will cornered, and
peppered him with these kinds of get-to-the-bottom-of-it-all questions
(some of which people spend an _awful_ lot of time debating), he might
just give us an odd look, chuckle, and refuse to answer.

He might conclude we had forgotten that his theatrical creations were
bound by the laws of the theatre, rather than the laws of logic. He
might even suspect that we didn't fully understand that he wrote the
plays in order to make a living by entertaining people -- not to provide
"biographies" with definitive narratives that we could analyze in the
abstract.

I really think it's too easy for academics to forget that there's a very
pragmatic standard of character analysis to consider, something much
more practical and direct than treating the characters as though they
were historical figures or psychological case studies.  This standard of
analysis can be summed up in three words: "Does it work?"

If we're mounting a show, we generally ask ourselves questions about a
character *for a specific purpose*: in order to determine whether a
moment, or a series of moments, "works" theatrically . When we ask these
kinds of questions, the ultimate standard for the answers we come up
with has to be whether or not the answers will help us to move an
audience in the way we wish to move them. Two different actors may have
totally different "backstories" explaining the events leading up to a
particular scene -- and yet that very scene may be incredibly effective
when played before an audience by those two actors!

So: if we've got a specific theory about a character's motivation or
history, we should certainly be prepared to back it up with the text.
But *why* do we pose such a theory in the first place? Surely the whole
exercise has to connect, at least in theory, to the theatre.  Why?
Because these are theatrical works of art that we're discussing!

There comes a point at which we have to acknowledge that a given line of
intricate character analysis has little or nothing to do with what an
audience will actually experience during a performance. Questions about
Cassio's marital status (for instance) seem to me to fall into this
category. The individual actor may feel compelled to resolve the
contradiction logically -- then again, he may not. (Remember the
Desdemona I mentioned who had no idea of the existence of the time
inconsistencies within OTHELLO.)

Many playwrights use ambiguity as a theatrical resource, and Shakespeare
certainly deserves to be counted within this group. Sometimes this very
ambiguity is what makes his creations seem most "human," don't you
think?

Brandon

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 27 Feb 2002 17:45:51 -0500
Subject: 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Sorry for a late reply--I missed a day.

Ed Taft says that Shakespeare could treat a literally adulterous
Gertrude sympathetically. I would agree that it is possible to treat an
adulteress sympathetically. Gertrude is treated this way, for example,
in Updike's Gertrude and Claudius. But Updike isn't Shakespeare. Neither
is Cleopatra quite like Gertrude. I believe that the feeling of
reconciliation between Hamlet and Gertrude at the end shows a change in
Hamlet's attitude--even in his character. Or I should say it is one
indication of the change. You could say that this might be possible even
if Gertrude had literally committed adultery. Without being able to
prove it conclusively, I would argue that if this were so, Shakespeare
would have Gertrude show a more explicit repentance for what would be a
serious sin.

That Hamlet can take the attitude he does at the end is one indication
that the original charge may not be true. There are others. I believe
Shakespeare is showing an excessive, puritanical self-righteousness in
both Hamlet and the ghost. Hamlet mainly grows out of that by the end,
though he still does not show complete "maturity". Immaturity can be
sympathetic too--a youthful energy to be expected and desired in young
men. I would cite, for example, his friendly taunting of Laertes in the
fencing match, though not his killing of R&G. My point is that
Shakespeare makes Hamlet a character who changes--who grows--in a good
way, toward greater maturity, which includes a greater tolerance for
human frailty, including his own. For him to change, Shakespeare has to
show him beginning in a place different from where he ends. One marker
of the change is the anti-lust, anti-sex, anti-second marriage hysteria
which Hamlet shows and which is then reinforced by the ghost.

Gertrude's discovery of the "black and grained spots" when Hamlet turns
her eyes "into my very soul" might be taken as repentance for adultery.
But adultery is such an obvious sin that I don't think she'd have to
look so deeply to find it: another indication it's not there. I think
the suggestion is that under the pressure of Hamlet's puritanical rage,
at this moment, Gertrude can feel guilt for having moved with a kind of
culpable ease from her first husband to her second. But there was
something too ideal about that first husband, wasn't there? He of the
"thin and wholesome blood"?  Gertrude can give in to Hamlet's
puritanical idealism--there were precedents for thinking, like the
player-queen, that second marriage alone was a sin--but then return,
like Hamlet, to a calmer, gentler view, like that of the player-king.
Again, the failure of Hamlet or the ghost to make a clear distinction
between adultery and remarriage is one sign of their extremism.  I think
the hints that they are overdoing it help to indicate that Gertrude's
innocence of literal adultery, though unprovable, forms a significant
part of Shakespeare's design. It's also impossible to prove she didn't
help kill her husband: you have to judge from the rest of the play that
"As kill a king?" is an innocent question.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Thursday, 28 Feb 2002 09:16:43 -0500
Subject: Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        SHK 13.0582 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Bill Godshalk writes,

' . . .  it is nice to have a little bit of textual evidence to support
our make believe.

Stone me. In the text, on the page, in black and white, and before our
very eyes, Claudius clearly refers to Hamlet as  'my son'. Yet, as we
discovered on this list a few months ago,  the 'textual evidence' police
will queue up to insist that what he really means is 'my step-son'.

T. Hawkes

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Thursday, 28 Feb 2002 07:21:45 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0565 Re: Shakespeare and Sex

Martin Steward writes, "Sam Small rightly chides me for preferring one
adultery over several. I guess I just wanted to humanize poor old Will,
rather than offering 'quaint justification'.  More substantially, Sam
writes of the "second best bed": "the bed in question was not a
referring to Shakespeare's preference for his mistress over his wife but
that the bed was a certain piece of furniture, rather like a best guest
bed, put in a certain room."

I have read, I forget where, that the adjective "best" was a misreading
of the text of Shakespeare's will, and he actually wrote "brown."
Anyone know?  Has anyone looked at the _actual_ will, and have any
Shakespearean scholars made their determinations?  If so, it would seem
to defuse a lot of the negative interpretation about Shakespeare's
morality, agreed?

Bill Arnold

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