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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: December ::
Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.2430  Wednesday, 18 December 2002

[1]     From:   Sherri Fillingham <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 10:44:44 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play

[2]     From:   Michael Shurgot <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 10:06:52 -0800
        Subj:   RE: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play

[3]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 15:09:06 -0500
        Subj:   Cordelia: A Question of Character

[4]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 22:25:24 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sherri Fillingham <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 10:44:44 EST
Subject: 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play

Tom, as part of an interesting post, said this:

>During G & R's fawning speeches, Lear preens, and his dutiful
>court smile and murmur approvingly.  It is his crowd, his little show,
>and he is in control.

I will take exception with this.  The court's reactions don't have to be
to smile and murmur approvingly.  In the two most recent productions
I've seen (Washington DC's Shakespeare Theatre and Stratford (Ont.)),
the court is uncomfortable, worried, and clearly not happy at this way
of handling things.  In fact, in the Stratford production where Lear
couldn't even remember Burgundy's name, it was quite clear that Lear
wasn't in control (at least of his own facilities), and the court
appeared suitably concerned.

Sherri

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Michael Shurgot <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 10:06:52 -0800
Subject: 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play
Comment:        RE: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play

Dear Colleagues:

Professor Barton would have us believe that Shakespearean characters are
"not the two-dimensional creatures of the morality play, nor the
semi-allegorical stick figures of the fairy tale, but real, living,
breathing, conflicted and conflicting human beings who shock us with
their similarity to people 400 years their (supposed)
"betters"---because more technically advanced, more thoroughly and
broadly educated, and more morally and psychologically evolved---we
suppose." Surely she is right that Shakespearean characters invite
complex analysis by readers and (especially) actors because WS created
complex though (I would argue) usually recognizably archetypal
circumstances in which they function. But surely this is an
over-romanticized view of "character"; characters are not "real, living,
breathing, conflicted and conflicting human beings." Characters are
words on a page, sounds in an actor's voice, movements in an actor's
body; we know of them only what the playwright chooses to tell us, and
s/he tells us just enough to engage us in the theatrical circumstances
in which actors encounter other actors playing other characters.

I am editing a book of interviews of American Shakespearean actors, and
in the lead interview James Earl Jones remarks that @ 95% of what
academic scribes write about Shakespeare's characters is useless to an
actor. (And I gather from his interview that he has read a lot of
criticism.) While I agree that this is a bit overstated, surely his
point is that for the actor the ideas that matter--including those of
motive--are those that s/he can grasp and work with mentally and
emotionally on stage. I have talked to actors who have played Cordelia,
and they speak of working very hard at focusing on why Cordelia rejects
her father's absurd game and being able to communicate that clear idea
both vocally and physically, so that the inner conviction that she is
right and her great fear of speaking what she believes to be true and
honest are communicated to spectators. What Cordelia says and does in
the words Shakespeare gave her is complex enough without trying to
create some "pre-text," a pre-walking-out-on-stage-with-daddy-in 1.1
subtext that simply does not exist. This is  the point that I tried (and
I gather failed) to communicate in what I have admitted was a hastily
and poorly written note several days ago. The actors I have known who
have played Cordelia would not have had time to worry about some of the
finer points of Cordelia's motivation that were so laboriously discussed
in several previous posts. One can surely invent and then discuss such
fine points if one wishes to; I wished only to ask if such deliberations
were worthwhile, given all else that Shakespeare gives us in this huge
play that can so profoundly engage our imagination, as well as our guts.

This final point, which I offer as only one of many possible positions,
raises an obviously larger question that is endlessly debated. I
recognize that Shakespeare is studied and analyzed endlessly by literary
critics; like most of my colleagues, I studied the plays in a graduate
English program, not a theatre program. I value what I learned in my
graduate literary studies, but my interest in performance scholarship in
the last 25+ years, including spending a lot of time hanging around with
damn good actors and theatre profs such as Ivan Fuller at NEH Seminars
(esp. Ralph Cohen's CRASS Institute in 1994) has convinced me that much
Shakespeare criticism (I have an office full of this stuff) spins
endless webs that might catch nuances of character or history while
missing the larger, more vital questions that actors and directors must
face constantly: e.g., how the hell are we going to communicate this
batch of words to spectators? What works, what probably won't? Why?
Where are you standing now? Why? Is Feste angry now, or just sad? Why?
ETC!

Characters are only words and gestures in an actor's body; some
characters demand more words and more gestures than others. Thus we have
many, many Lears, Cordelias, Festes, Macbeths, etc. "Most wonderful," as
Olivia remarks; may it be ever so. What fascinates me, and what I try to
communicate to my students, is the wondrous complexity of what lies
there on the page before us, waiting for an actor (including my
students, to whom I offer a performance final option) to bring to life.
And tell me again, how many children had Lady Macbeth?

I shall sign off later today, so this is my final post before Twelfth
Night. My first resolution for next year is that if I send any more of
these posts, they shall be shorter!

Many holiday cheers!
-Michael Shurgot

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 15:09:06 -0500
Subject:        Cordelia: A Question of Character

[Dear List: Originally, I wrote this e-mail to Terry.  He suggested that
I send it to the list. I gulped hard, made a few revisions, and here it
is:]

Terry,

You may be surprised to learn that I agree with you -- at least in
principle. You wrote:

"Moreover, one of the most important components of any play is always
supplied by the huge, unvoiced contribution -confidently ignored by Mr.
Evett and others- made to it by the audience.  Its unspoken awareness of
events outside the theatre inevitably colours and covertly completes the
performances within it."

How could it be otherwise? The real truth, which I think you will
willingly grant, is that we always interpret literature from the point
of view of the present. How could we NOT do so? And while we think we
are getting at the real meaning of the work, in truth, we are actually
getting at the real meaning the work has for us NOW.

This is a tricky business: on the one hand, I don't know how to read or
study a play without thinking that I'm getting at what Shakespeare
wanted to say. On the other hand, I know damn well that I'm really
getting at what Shakespeare seems to say to me NOW.

But you know all this, and you've said it better than I -- and on more
than one occasion. You may be right that the division of the kingdom is
what makes _King Lear_ relevant to us and our present-day condition. I
won't argue against that. But I think you are dead wrong to exclude
"character analysis," as if to engage in such study somehow cheapens the
play.  Why? What we think characters think (even if they really don't
think) is an important part of a good argument. And it mirrors how we
react to a performance or how we think about characters as we read.  And
we also note what they do and try to figure out why they do it. That's
the way the human brain works, and the way we make sense out of just
about everything human or human-like.

It's true enough that there's lots of other stuff going on in this
play.  For example, the role of SOUND in _Lear_ is very important, and
it is emphasized at the very start of the play as Kent and Gloucester
stage-whisper their lines while waiting for the king to appear. Then
there's the map -- "WHOMP!" -- as Lear lays himself bare before his
astonished daughters and proceeds to cut himself into three pieces. That
map is him, Terry; he IS Britain, and he is reenacting in public what he
has done privately in the past to his daughters: expose himself and ask
for a completely illegitimate and inappropriate expression of love.
Moreover, he's also punishing himself for what he has done in the past
and is doing now. The punishment is the slicing up of the realm. The
tragedy is that he is not the only one to pay the price for what he has
done and is doing.

In other words, this is a play about the abuse of power in the family
and the state. And, yes, it's also a play about incest and the terrible
consequences it causes.

Or that's how I see it. And I'd argue that abuse of power by males and
the problem of incest is just as important NOW as the problems in
Ireland and Israel. In fact, the one leads to the other.  Imperial
abuses of power come back to haunt us later, wouldn't you agree?

Well, I've let the cat out of the bag. I doubt if you accept my
argument, but I'd ask you to think about what I've said.

Happy Holidays,
--Ed

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Dec 2002 22:25:24 -0500
Subject: 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.2424 Re: Cordelia and Listening to the Play

>Terence's koan.  My
>assumption was that he meant something pretty much as he himself
>responded--patterns, nonverbal etceteras, etc

I'll let T. Hawkes write for himself as to whether Dale Lyles has
assumed more or less correctly.  My earlier post meant only to observe
that a play text from which the language assigned to the actors to speak
has been erased presents us with precious little in the way of
"patterns" and "nonverbal etceteras".  Even if we take the generous road
and let the speech headings themselves stand I do not believe that what
remains for the play itself to "say" will amount to much.  From Q1 of
*Othello* we might infer from the title page and stage directions (for
our purposes, usefully extracted from the text as Appendix B of M. R.
Ridley's Arden edition) that a Moor named Othello is in some
relationship to the city of Venice, that several scenes of the play
occur at night,  and that these scenes tend to involve threatened or
actual violence, that some of the action follows the arrival of a ship,
that either Othello or Iago falls down, that someone, probably Othello,
kisses and then stifles some female personage, that Iago kills his wife,
that someone, perhaps Othello ("Tragedy") but perhaps Cassio or Lodovico
or Montano, stabs himself.  From the speech prefixes we could deduce
that Othello makes an appearance before the Duke and some senators, that
Bianca and Cassio converse together in the presence of Othello and Iago,
that Othello is a more significant figure than Montano, and Iago than
Roderigo.  We could probably construct some historical "patterns" on the
basis of the surviving extratextual materials - the Stationers Register,
Henslowe's diary, etc. (though whether hundreds of scholars would have
labored for years to assemble those materials were it not for those
erased speeches I very much doubt).  But I think the kinds of patterns
likely to be interesting to Terence Hawkes can very largely be found
only in the words written to be spoken by the actors or read, initially
and primarily with that understanding, by some reader - that is, the
"speeches" of "the characters" - and that these speeches largely
comprise the play.

Literally,
David Evett

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