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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: August ::
Dramatis Personae
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1738  Thursday, 1 August 2002

From:           Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:           Thursday, August 01, 2002
Subject:        Dramatis Personae

From the issue dated August 2, 2002

Dramatis Personae: the Wise, the Witty, the Poignant, the Sociopathic

Arthur C. Kirsch, an emeritus professor of English at the University of
Virginia and the editor of W.H. Auden: Lectures on Shakespeare
(Princeton University Press, 2001):

Among my favorites is Imogen, in Cymbeline, who seems to me the fullest
characterization of a woman in Shakespeare. As Robertson Davies pointed
out long ago, almost all of Shakespeare's women are conceived within the
constraints of what a boy actor -- that is to say, an immature actor --
can do. They can be witty, like Rosalind; they can suffer, while mad or
sleepwalking, like Ophelia and Lady Macbeth; they can be childishly
sexy, like Cleopatra; they can have the innocence of Miranda.

Imogen is conceived beyond such constraints. She has a rich inner life
at the same time that she defines herself by her relationships -- as a
wife, a daughter, and a sister -- and she consciously suffers. Accused
of infidelity to her absent husband, she cries: "False to his bed? What
is it to be false?/To lie in watch there, and to think of him?/To weep
twixt clock and clock? ... That's false to his bed,/Is't?" But she does
more than complain. The servant of her husband, who has been ordered to
kill her, says, "O gracious lady,/Since I received command to do this
business/I have not slept one wink." She answers "Do't, and to bed
then." Imogen is at once domestic and numinous, the redeemer of a
kingdom, and she has her own astonishingly expressive voice -- "the tune
of Imogen," her father calls it. She is the most realistic and adult
image of love in Shakespeare.

  ***

Lois Potter, a professor of English at the University of Delaware and
the author of Othello (Manchester University Press, 2002):

When people ask me questions about a Shakespeare character, I usually
reply, "It depends on how you play it." That's why I'm fascinated by
Emilia, in Othello. Iago's wife hardly says anything until near the end
of the play, at which point she explodes with an effect that always
comes as a surprise, no matter how often I see it. It's up to her and
the director to decide how to prepare for that explosion.

Modern productions emphasize subtext, thus giving her many opportunities
to build a character and a series of relationships. With Iago in
particular she has several options: She can be pathetically in love
despite his lack of response; she can be happily married though
occasionally puzzled by what she describes as his "wayward" behavior; or
she can be frightened of him. Her relationship with Desdemona -- wary,
disapproving, affectionate, protective -- will depend on their
respective ages. She can behave, with both Othello and Cassio, like
someone of whom Iago might well be jealous, perhaps even like someone
with a guilty past. Is she intelligent and disillusioned, or stupid and
thoughtless, or self-sacrificing and heroic?

Even if no one before the 19th century thought of asking those
questions, and even though there are no answers in the text, it is now
impossible to play the part without taking account of at least some of
them. And yet the choices the performer makes hardly matter: The words
Shakespeare gave her in that final scene will still break your heart.

  ***

JoAnne Akalaitis, a professor of theater at Bard College:

I think that Falstaff, especially in Henry IV, Part Two, is one of
Shakespeare's most poignant characters. He represents the frailty of
friendship and the vulnerability of old age.  While King Lear is a noble
and complicated person, Falstaff indeed is also very complicated -- and
extremely intelligent, extremely vigorous and rigorous in his lifestyle,
and he knows what he doing. He knows how to play the fool, but he's
never a fool.

And, of course, it's a hard role to cast. It's not comedic; it's very
dark. Falstaff has a deeply nocturnal side to him, and that's what's so
much fun about the character: He sort of plays the good-living guy, but
underneath it there's something extremely disturbed and reflective.

  ***

Cynthia Marshall, a professor of English at Rhodes College and the
author of The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early
Modern Texts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002):

For the best demonstration of how Shakespeare creates a compelling
dramatic character, the award goes to Rosalind, in As You Like It. We
see the courtly lady Rosalind invent the alternative persona of a young
male, the "saucy lackey" Ganymede, putting on this new identity in much
the way the actor would have assumed that of Rosalind. The oscillation
between these two roles, together with further excursions into a third
level of pretense (Ganymede feigning Rosalind), creates the illusion of
depth, in the manner of a Baroque painting, through folds and layers and
the resulting play of perspective.

For instance, the moment when Rosalind-as-Ganymede first presents
herself to her lover Orlando has traditionally been an opportunity for
actresses to display a convincingly masculine bearing. But when Adrian
Lester played Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl's production in the early 1990s,
his achievement was to convey the girl (Rosalind) hiding, embarrassed,
beneath the male disguise. With Rosalind, Shakespeare displays a
favorite technique: creating with one hand what the other is busily
taking apart. Yet for all that, the character does not appeal merely to
postmodern or theatrically interested sensibilities -- the vividness of
Rosalind's quickness, exuberance, insight, and daring make her a classic
type of favorite character and an impressive role model for young female
readers dismayed by tragic heroines.

  ***

Coppelia Kahn, a professor of English at Brown University and the author
of Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women (Routledge, 1997):

The character I find most compelling is in fact a dyad: the hero of
Shakespeare's late tragedy Coriolanus, and Volumnia, the mother to whom
he is bound in the fullest sense of the word. Neither has the appeal,
the inwardness, the rich and resonant poetry of a Hamlet, a Cleopatra, a
Macbeth. But I find them compelling because together they act out the
dynamics of the ideology of masculinity that Rome worships -- that
combination of aggressiveness, self-discipline, and moral rigor called
virtus.

Bred by his mother to be a killing machine, a thing of blood, for the
Roman state, Coriolanus succeeds so well that he must run for office,
must learn the supple art of politics -- in precise contradiction to the
intransigence that Volumnia has taught him. Inevitably, his attempts at
compromise erupt into fury. In a perfect peripeteia, the state that has
idolized him banishes him, and Rome's superhero makes war against his
own country.

A tragic irony drives this plot. In reality, Coriolanus is not his own
man, but his mother's creation. His ferocious manliness is learned from
her -- but it is the only self he knows. And in a further irony, the
patriarchy that purports to reserve ultimate authority to the male has,
in its reliance on the mother to mold man-children for the state,
actually granted her the more terrible power. In themselves, mother and
son are unlovable, even repellent characters -- but the social meanings
of their fierce interdependence are fascinating.

  ***

Benjamin Saunders, an assistant professor of English at the University
of Oregon and an editor, with Denise Fulbrook and Roger Beebe, of Rock
Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture (Duke University
Press, 2002):

Choosing one Shakespeare character, or even one play, seems so very
hard. Ask me next week, or after my next Shakespeare class, and I might
give you a completely different answer.  Hamlet? But so obvious. ...
Macbeth? Great speaker, but no more psychologically realistic than Bill
Murray's character in Groundhog Day.

When it comes to characters (rather than plays) that I really like to
talk about, Portia is very high on my list. But, if only because I've
been writing about him lately, today Othello's Iago is the character I
find most compelling in Shakespeare. In the process of imagining this
wounded, anal-retentive, puritanical sociopath, Shakespeare found
himself violating one of the most basic expectations of his idiom: the
dramatic convention that the soliloquy is always reliable, that it
offers the truth of the character's motivations.

But with Iago we get a proliferation of justifications and excuses for
his hatred (professional jealousy? wounded masculine pride? a sense of
rejection?) that combine partial confessions with retractions and
qualifications, until we think -- to borrow from a historically
undervalued Shakespearean character -- that he is protesting too much.
When there's no one around to lie to, Iago will lie to himself. And it's
in part this violation of theatrical norms that lets us feel that we can
have insights into the character that remain unknown to the character
"himself," if you will.

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