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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: May ::
Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0391  Thursday, 4 May 2006

[1] 	From: 	Edward Brown <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 03 May 2006 15:34:27 -0500
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

[2] 	From: 	Larry Weiss <
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	Date: 	Wednesday, 03 May 2006 17:42:51 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0385 Characters

[3] 	From: 	Mathew Lyons <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 04 May 2006 01:20:39 +0100
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0385 Characters


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Edward Brown <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 03 May 2006 15:34:27 -0500
Subject: 17.0377 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0377 Characters

I would argue for "Coriolanus" as a play in which Shakespeare actively 
encourages his audience to construct a back-story for the protagonist. 
Otherwise he is just an arrogant mommy's boy and where is the tragedy?

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Larry Weiss <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 03 May 2006 17:42:51 -0400
Subject: 17.0385 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0385 Characters

I am beginning to suspect that the question so vigorously debated in 
this thread is what we lawyers call a "false conflict":  i.e., 
apparently conflicting and irreconcilable principles that turn out to be 
perfectly harmonious once we understand that one of the principles 
applies in certain circumstances and the other in different situations.

Backstories and questions of psychological characterization that cannot 
be answered by the text are of limited interest (if any at all) to the 
literary scholar, but may be crucial to the performance artist.  To take 
an obvious example:  It has been a long time since I have seen an 
article addressing the question of whether Hamlet and Ophelia had a 
sexual relationship, and I hope not to see one for an even longer 
period.  That question is meaningless to a literary scholar as it cannot 
be answered, and isn't even mooted, by the text.  But it may be 
essential to the actors (even those not in the Chicago company), as it 
informs their performances.  I am told that it is now customary for the 
actors playing Hamlet and Ophelia to go off privately at the first 
read-through and decide for themselves whether their characters had been 
intimate.  The answer they reach has no effect on the text of the play 
but it does affect their performances and the appreciation of their 
characters by the audience.

Put somewhat differently:  I suspect that Hardy would not look with 
favor on a thread that attempted to answer the question of whether 
Hamlet and Ophelia had an affair; but posts discussing performance 
trends in this regard would meet a different fate.

I suspect that Hardy's last post was intended to make a similar point.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Mathew Lyons <
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Date: 		Thursday, 04 May 2006 01:20:39 +0100
Subject: 17.0385 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0385 Characters

I think there are really two main points here.

The first has been stated before but clearly needs stating again. This 
is Hardy's list, not ours. We may disagree with his criteria for 
appropriate posts, but if so, we should post our comments elsewhere. To 
argue with him seems particularly ungracious, given the effort it 
demands from him, like an uninvited guest at a party taking offence at 
being escorted to the door.

The second is that any discussion of character surely has to be rooted 
in the text. Perhaps this is a reductive and reactionary position, I 
don't know. But how can the words we have not be the starting point for 
any discussion, as opposed to words that Shakespeare might have written 
but didn't?

Schoenbaum in Shakespeare's Lives (I think) relates the anecdote about 
the biographer of Shakespeare who stands in front of Shakespeare's 
portrait, which is hanging behind glass in a gallery. The biographer 
stares and stares, probing, straining for some sense of the man as he 
really was.  Slowly, the biographer sees the portrait become alive, the 
eyes seem to glint, the flesh softens, the mouth parts in a smile... And 
then the biographer realises that he is looking at his own reflection in 
the glass and not Shakespeare at all.

I think the same problem is often at play when Shakespeare's characters 
are discussed. Yes, we all carry round our idea or ideas of these 
characters in our heads; to that extent we think we know them. But that 
knowledge is insubstantial, slippery, impressionistic, something that we 
ourselves have rounded out and invested with a kind of reality from the 
moments of insight that Shakespeare actually affords us. The more we 
talk about them, these characters, the more we are actually talking 
about ourselves.

Similarly, it is true that contemporary actors - unlike the actor 
Shakespeare - find the process of establishing a back story for their 
parts a useful exercise in preparing for performance. But does 
discussion of that process belong in a forum that is at heart textual 
and scholarly rather than performative?

L Swilley writes: "If the "manufacture" of the possible events Claudius' 
childhood help us to a better understanding of the *character's* 
function in the play, I cannot see how it can be disallowed... We must 
be as cautious in the addition of psychological information about the 
character as we should be about the addition of historical/biographical 
information"

The manufacture of Claudius' childhood cannot help us to a better 
understanding of the character because by the very act of manufacture, 
you are modifying that character. If I posit a particular childhood for 
Claudius, which is not contradicted by the text but which has no 
explicit basis in it either, then it may well be the case that I might 
read "Hamlet" again and find some fresh resonances. But those new 
resonances would be the product of the fiction, the notional childhood, 
that I have imagined, and nothing else. Of course the play would look 
different - possibly even clearer: I would have added new information 
into it. It would be a different play. We shouldn't be cautious about 
the addition of any kind of information, any more than we should be 
cautious about the addition of new speeches or scenes. We should resist 
both wholeheartedly. [Have I imagined an early Hollywood Shakespeare 
'with additional dialogue by Sam Smith', by the way?]

'Back stories' sound all well and good. But what we are talking about is 
fictions. Or, to be crueller, fantasies. There is no intrinsic 
difference between reading a play in the context of a fiction of my own 
creation - however plausibly it intersects with the text(s) that 
Shakespeare wrote - and reading a play with the idea that it was, in 
fact, written by Francis Bacon. Neither can be the subject of critical 
discussion because both are predicated on subjective positions and/or 
presumptions which are not susceptible to argument or debate.

Oh, and did someone mention a moratorium on "Hamlet"?

Mathew Lyons

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