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Home :: Archive :: 2006 :: May ::
Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.0406  Friday, 5 May 2006

[1] 	From: 	John E. Perry <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 04 May 2006 11:41:43 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

[2] 	From: 	Bruce Young <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 4 May 2006 10:47:30 -0600
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 17.0391 Characters

[3] 	From: 	L. Swilley <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 4 May 2006 18:07:46 -0500
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

[4] 	From: 	Elliott Stone <
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	Date: 	Thursday, 4 May 2006 21:33:38 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

[5] 	From: 	Paul Hebron <
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	Date: 	Friday, 5 May 2006 09:23:47 -0500
	Subj: 	Characters......



[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		John E. Perry <
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Date: 		Thursday, 04 May 2006 11:41:43 -0400
Subject: 17.0391 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

For me, at least, this has been one of the most interesting and 
enlightening discussions in a very long time.  And there's not even any 
Shakespeare text to drive it!

Bravo, Hardy, for starting it.

Bravissimi, SHAKSPERians, for developing and maintaining it at a 
consistently intelligent and cordial level.  If we could just keep all 
SHAKSPER discussions like this!

John Perry

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bruce Young <
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Date: 		Thursday, 4 May 2006 10:47:30 -0600
Subject: 17.0391 Characters
Comment: 	RE: SHK 17.0391 Characters

Mathew Lyons advises that we should resist "the addition of any kind of 
information" to the text, asserts that such additions (back stories, 
psychological inferences, historical associations) make a play something 
else ("a different play"), and calls such additions "fictions" or 
"fantasies."

I find his advice sobering.  But I don't know that anyone is capable of 
the strict puritanism that would be involved in bringing nothing at all 
to a play and experiencing it as nothing but the bare words.  Everything 
we think or say about a play comes as the result of inference (at least 
everything that could be said to be legitimately ABOUT the play).  That 
includes judgments about style, genre, and textual matters; about the 
characters' attitudes, emotions, and personalities (or if that is judged 
anachronistic, the "types" they belong to); about theatrical conventions 
or literary allusions and influences; about the play's ideological 
stance; and about its involvement in the political and cultural dynamics 
of mystification, subversion, containment, etc.

But it even includes the words themselves, at least if we mean something 
more than the raw sensory experience of seeing the black marks on a page 
or hearing the sounds spoken.  To read or hear the words as having 
meaning requires bringing something to the play--linguistic and 
historical and cultural context--and also requires a constant stream of 
inferences.

Lyons is probably right that whenever we think or talk about a play we 
change it, and we can argue about how much and in what ways we ought to 
do such changing.  But I'm afraid that if we follow his advice strictly, 
we'll have to stop thinking and talking about the plays altogether.

Bruce Young

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		L. Swilley <
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Date: 		Thursday, 4 May 2006 18:07:46 -0500
Subject: 17.0391 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

Edward Brown writes,

 >" 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?"

It may be that the audience is so encouraged. But the tragedy is 
certainly there in the play. Coriolanus' flaw is his conviction that the 
citizens should have no voice in the polity; they are, he maintains, 
curs that must be muzzled and whipped into submission, or at least 
treated as soldiers in his army where the governed have, of necessity, 
no voice in military decisions. When he submits to his mother's plea to 
favor the citizens and save them from the army of Aufidius, Coriolanus 
betrays himself, denying his former oligarichical beliefs. But he, 
himself, has been trained to obey - not only as soldier, but as the son 
of a commanding oligarch/mother, who would rather see him dead than fail 
of her own ideas. (And, of course, like her son, this mother has denied 
her aristocratic beliefs and argued for the salvation of her 
"inferiors." Both mother and son have lost or have never known the 
aristocratic principle of "noblesse oblige.")

Actors and directors who create backstories do this to create their own 
interpretation of the characters *and therefore - since the play is an 
organism - their interpretation of the whole play.* In this, they are 
not essentially different from the literary critic analyzing the text 
formally. If the actors - and  above all, the director - has done their 
interpretative work properly, thee will be a new light, a new 
consistency of argument brought forth by such extrapolations. (But, of 
course, the organic unity of the play must never be sacrificed for mere 
theatrical "moments," as too often happens. )

Is it germane to this that Olivier's oedipal "Hamlet" sees to work well?]

                                          * * *
Mark Lyons writes,

 >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. "

Would this not depend on the critical perspective employed? 
Psychological literary criticism looks at a character and defines him as 
a psychological case, then seeks to unify the play seen as a series of 
expected responses of that psychological type. Might not the backstory 
of that *type* serve well to bring into sharper focus the likelihood of 
those responses in the order in which they occur in the play?  And is 
that not a valid interpretation?

  [L. Swilley]

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Elliott Stone <
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Date: 		Thursday, 4 May 2006 21:33:38 -0400
Subject: 17.0391 Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 17.0391 Characters

A few years ago I saw Hamlet in Stratford Ontario. I was on a tour with 
a group of Yale Alumni.  In the "flower scene", played in a small 
theatre in the round, Ophelia entered carrying a baby (a doll wrapped 
up). She then put the baby down and went around to the various actors 
and made lascivious gestures. (For example, she untied Claudius' belt 
and knelt before him).  The next day we had a discussion with the drama 
professor leading the tour. There were 30 participants in the group but 
only two or three others were willing to agree that what we had all seen 
had actually happened!  One participant argued that he had heard 
backstage from the actors that the director had based this scene on his 
understanding of Ophelia's "mad song" in IV.v.  Hamlet, it was argued 
was not to be understood as the purported father but rather Polonius had 
arranged to get his daughter Ophelia pregnant. Polonius knew that Hamlet 
would not return from England. Polonius had constantly argued that 
Hamlet was in love with his daughter and that therefore everyone would 
assume that he was the father. This illegitimate child would then be the 
heir to the throne.

Prince Hamlet said, III.ii 141 "-The players cannot keep counsel, 
they'll tell all."

Best,
Elliott H. Stone

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Paul Hebron <
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Date: 		Friday, 5 May 2006 09:23:47 -0500
Subject: 	Characters......

I have refrained from posting on this subject to date, given Hardy's 
requests and the tenor of recent postings (see Steve Roth on Citing 
Sources and Scholarly Discussion). But I felt the need to highlight the 
welcome comments of Larry Weiss and Mathew Lyons on the specific issue 
of backstory, and, as it lay at the heart of Hardy's original response 
to Stuart Manger, to bring the issue back to a focus on it's value to an 
actor in the performance of the plays, and in the teaching of the canon 
as a dramatic as well as literary art form.

Larry is exactly on point in saying that a character's backstory (and 
forgive me here but I think most actors would think of the term as one 
word rather than two) is largely irrelevant to literary scholarship but 
"crucial to the performance artist".  And from an actor's perspective, 
Mathew is precisely correct in saying "...that any discussion of 
character surely has to be rooted in the text."  Any actor with any 
degree of training knows that any choices made for their character must 
be firmly based on a thorough and rigorous examination of the text.  It 
is a process that begins before the first read through and continues 
(certainly with Shakespeare) through to closing night.

To be more specific, an actor with a background in Stanislavski might 
approach that process of examination from the perspective of "given 
circumstances": stated, implied and imagined.  For example, in Antony 
and Cleopatra, the first words in the play belong to Philo, in 
conversation with Demetrius.  If your the actor playing Philo, this is 
it for you; you have the burden of starting the play, no one is likely 
to recognize you by name, and in roughly 16 lines through the course of 
this short scene your job is to create a fully realized character. 
Working through your text, all that is "stated" as a circumstance is 
that you are a Roman ("Nay, but this dotage of our General's...", 
italics are mine).  It is "implied" as a circumstance that your a 
soldier or at least a follower of Antony's.  Not a lot to go on for this 
largely expositional character, and thus the need for a backstory.  But 
I hasten to add that even the "imagined" circumstances for poor Philo 
should be grounded in the text.  Is his apparent bellicose nature 
perhaps paired with prejudice or xenophobia ("tawny front" and "gipsy's 
lust"), and is his anger at Antony based on his own career jealousies 
("His Captain's heart....reneges all temper")?  These kinds of 
decisions, as well as any additional choices as to upbringing, 
sociology, or relations to other characters in the play never personally 
encountered in the world of the text are for the benefit of the actor, 
and as such, are largely, and deeply, personal.  The guy playing 
Demetrius is unlikely to be concerned with "Philo, the Early Years", nor 
is anyone else for that matter.

Hardy writes "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 performance." 
How else to discuss the differences between Warren Mitchell's BBC 
Shylock from Olivier's collaboration on the same role with Jonathan 
Miller in 1973?  Yes, the world of the play as established by the 
directors in each instance was different, but is there not a clear value 
when teaching the play in trying to understand the choices each actor 
made, and the consequent backstories they might have created for 
themselves in developing those choices?  If done correctly, it's not a 
rambling conversation of unknowable generalities, but an effective tool 
for discussing the text itself.  What better standard could there be for 
judging the ultimate effectiveness of those choices than to ask the hard 
question every actor (and director if your lucky) asks in 
rehearsal...."Where is that found in the text?!"

I recognise my own presumptions here, that the plays were written to be 
performed, and that as dramatic literature they are best served in 
performance.  I hope as a consequence my comments won't be seen as being 
too far off the path of relevance, or heaven forefend, too IMHO!!!

With respect and best wishes,
Paul Hebron

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