From Page to Stage: Taking Note of Shakespeare’s Theatrical Context

As I was reviewing my posts from this semester, I was struck by how different they were from the posts I wrote last semester for Shakespeare II. In my meta-post for Spring 2014, I remarked that I was obsessed “with identity formation” (“Identity Crisis”). Indeed, all of my Spring posts examine the way Shakespeare shapes the identities of his characters via “the interplay of language and social obligation” (“Identity Crisis”). This seems like a particularly relevant comment in relation to Richard III, given the fact that it is largely Richard’s persuasive eloquence that enables him to upset the normal social order and to take the throne. Without his mastery of language, Richard’s plot would mostly have ended up like the rude mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a mistimed, misworded flop. Clearly, language plays an integral role in establishing character in Shakespeare’s work. However, as my posts for this semester have noted, character development is not the only role of Shakespeare’s language nor is it the only aspect of his work that deserves notice. Rather than focusing exclusively on language and identity, my Fall 2014 posts have been far more interested in exploring Shakespeare’s theatricality, particularly the way he challenges the perceptions of his audience through the manipulation of theatrical elements such as character, genre, plot, and props.

Shakespeare frequently plays on the theatrical expectations of his audience, often subverting them only to confirm them later in order to probe questions regarding performance, identity, and society. My first two posts both examine the way Shakespeare uses his character as tools this end, highlighting the way one’s perception of a situation or a person depend largely on performative cues. In “A Tale of Two Festes,” I argue that by featuring a Feste-like character in the tragedy of King Lear, Shakespeare highlights the parallels between comedy and tragedy. Because audience members are predisposed to see these genres as almost diametrically opposed, the idea that they are actually bare marked similarities is a challenging idea. However, Shakespeare depicts the Feste/Fool character as operating in much the same space in the comedy Twelfth Night as in the tragedy King Lear, indicating that existence of least some mutual ground between the two tales. For instance, both Feste and the Fool as comedic guides, pointing out the sources of contention and offering veiled suggestions as to how the problems might be resolved. By transplanting a figure of comedy into tragedy, Shakespeare heightens the sense that the whole the tragedy might actually be avoided. Of course, this does not prove to be the case, but that does not stop audience members from desperately trying to read some hopeful possibility from the tragic events.

I take a slightly different approach to the perception (or, perhaps, misperception) of social cues in my second blog “Margaret: The Shakespearean Frenemy.” In this instance, Shakespeare is not necessarily subverting a theatrical convention. Instead, he is showcasing a stock character to question our perception of others. For all intents and purposes, Margaret, the hand maiden of Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, seems like a loyal and affectionate friend. However, the audience knows that she is actually partially responsible for ruining Hero’s reputation. The question, of course, is whether she intended for Hero to hurt or whether it was just a joke gone wrong. To answer this question, I chose to look at how Margaret’s character functioned within the plot of the play, comparing her to the stock character that we might now refer to as the Frenemy. What makes these characters so dangerous is the way they can hide their agenda, responding in the friendly, concerned way that one would expect from a confidante. For instance, Margaret wants to make Hero look her best on her wedding day, going so far as to argue about which ruff Hero should wear. However, the audience realizes this “concern” is also tinted with jealously as Margaret secretly wishes Hero’s clothes and position were her own. This duplicitously is unsettling, prompting us to wonder whether or not we too have accepted a foe as friend.

Although all of my posts are concerned on some level with perception, only my most recent post, “White! No Black!: A Closer Look at the Tell-Tale Handkerchief,” the most explicit and, perhaps most intriguing, connection. By leaving the appearance of Desdemona’s handkerchief largely undescribed, Shakespeare forces his performers and his audience to draw on their preconceived notions of handkerchiefs to decide what this fateful prop actually looks like. This, in turn, can affect the symbolic resonance that we attach to the handkerchief. For instance, if it is white, we are likely to connect it with Desdemona, where if it is black, we’ll might instead connect it with Othello. As I noted in the post, this ambiguity can be something of a double-edged sword, allowing us to essentially create what we expect to see while shutting out other valid possibilities. However, what makes the handkerchief a particularly interesting example is its inherently physical nature. Unlike ambiguous dialogue, which can retain multiple interpretations even after an actor has chosen to deliver it a certain way, a prop’s materiality makes it difficult to reinterpret after the director has chosen one appearance over another. In order to appreciate the potentially subversive, or at least, alternative, connotations of Shakespeare’s props, one has to remember that all performances are mediated by performers who have their own cultural expectations. If we passively accept these mediated interpretations, we are not appreciating the full potential of Shakespeare’s work.

While the language and identity issues that so fascinated me last semester are still clearly evident in the texts that we have been reading this Fall, I feel like my study of Shakespeare’s work as theater has helped broaden my understanding of the themes that grant Shakespeare’s plays their longevity. In thinking about Shakespeare’s plays as plays, as pieces meant to be brought to life through performance, one must consider the problematic relation between identity, perception, reality, etc. on a much more visceral level. Why is it important that similar characters appear in tragedies and comedies? What does it say about the people who are misled/fooled by the Frenemy? How should one represent an important prop? Thinking through such questions is crucial, not only in translating Shakespeare from the page to the stage, but also in understanding our own reliance on perception and interpretation.

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