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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: April ::
Characters, Motivations, Themes,
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0368  Friday, 28 April 2006

From: 		Stuart Manger <
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Date: 		Thursday, 27 Apr 2006 17:33:56 +0100
Subject: 17.0359 Characters, Motivations, Themes, and ULTIMATE 
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0359 Characters, Motivations, Themes, and ULTIMATE 
Meanings

 >Of course in my classes, I discuss characters' back stories
 >and motivations, and themes and meaning of plays; but I
 >do so in the CONTEXT of performance realizations.
 >Particular performances interpret scripts in particular ways.
 >Olivier's Hamlet portrays a "man who could not make up his
 >mind"; another actor's or director's Hamlet might not be so
 >troubled. The point is not which of the TWO performance
 >realizations is the ULTIMATE, the ONE, the ONLY, the
 >TRUE Hamlet, but how well each finds textual justifications
 >for its choices in performance. At the Shakespeare Theatre,
 >for example, I saw the same actor (Fran Dorn) in one
 >production of OTHELLO portray a sassy, independent,
 >unapologetic Emilia and in another Emilia as the victim of
 >spousal abuse. Each choice was appropriate its particular
 >production. In a memorable discussion in 1996 of characters
 >as not being REAL people, I tried to distinguish between,
 >what I called, textual and performative characters - characters
 >in texts and characters in performances
 ><http://www.shaksper.net/archives/1996/0100.html>. A textual
 >characters has no back stories, no history, no past; a performative
 >character, on the other hand, may be acting as though she
 >suffered abuse from her husband.]

Could part of the problem Carol Barton astutely points out be in 
something Hardy Cook says in his Editor's notes: the teaching of a 
character's 'back story'. I think we may need to know what Hardy means 
by 'teaching the back story'?

Being a bit puzzled, I have to ask, how can you 'teach a back story'? 
These are characters in a play with no existence outside the play, and 
not some actual historical character from some actual historical period. 
They have no 'back story'. One might work up the documented historical 
background of a KNOWN historical figure e.g. Clarence, Bolingbroke, 
Brutus - but be very careful of ascribing to the Shakespeare's 
inventions similar knowledge, complexities etc. BUT how do you  teach a 
back story for Prospero, Oberon, Angelo, Hamlet, except through the 
evidence of the play itself? And the whole business this group has 
suffered over this winter over the role of Shylock has exemplified 
perfectly the dangers of inventing / speculating / extrapolating / 
reacting to a 'back story'.

As an English academic myself, can I ask my American colleagues if this 
is a common way into teaching a new Shakespeare play in high school / 
universities in US? If it is, then maybe some of the issues Carol Barton 
talks about are more than likely to occur and might give rise to some of 
the problems she identifies?

[Editor's Note: I am sorry that I am too busy right now to respond in 
depth. But for the record, I did not mean to imply that one could teach 
a back story but that discussion of possibilities outside of the text 
while completely fruitless in relation to the script may have utility 
when one is trying to explain an interpretation that is made in a 
performance.]

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