>Dialectical Intentionality

>It might be productive to pursue a dialectical approach to the impasse we have reached in our discussions of Shakespearean intentionality in performance: a desire to know the author’s intentions, an unconscious assumption that we do, exists along with a thriving self-consciousness that we really have no idea of the author’s intentions, and the (mysterious?) drive to interpret the plays at any rate.

This is the same impasse which is reached and “overcome” by Hegel, a resolution of the relationship between humans and their environment. In the study of Shakespeare’s plays, this deadlock manifests itself in the self-conceptualization of an other both in Shakespeare himself and in the culture he inhabited. (Re)Extending our understanding of Shakespeare into the realm of pure performance serves to highlight this basic antagonism because in performance we reflect our exploration of otherness backward on ourselves. The question of how one goes about recreating a performance of Shakespeare seems to make clear in its implications that anyone interacting with Shakespeare, regardless of the medium, is really doing just that. Thus, the performance suggests a great deal about our own culture — our immediate, rather than historical, relationship to our environment — that might otherwise go unnoticed. It is an awakening in a Benjaminian sense, a realization of our own implication in the world.

Shakespeare himself occupied a space in relation to print and performance –both professionally and culturally — very near the one that any self-respecting director or actor (or critic!) must occupy in his or her attempt to put on a Shakespearean performance. For Shakespeare, it was the proximal nature of text, it’s sudden pervasiveness and cultural import that transformed his ideas about performance. He operated for much of his career both as performer, in that the “primary audience” of his plays continued to be a live one, and as author, increasingly aware of the role his works played as literature. In a wider sense, Shakespeare’s culture was embroiled in a political and economic transformation which had as its center, it’s organizing force, the printed word (Essential McLuhan, 1995, p. 97, 108-109). Shakespeare’s plays, more or less consciously, embody this dialectical moment and act as a synthesis for the opposing forces of print and oral traditions.

For the director or critic acting today, this dialectic works in reverse, and Shakespeare’s social struggle becomes an artistic one; the struggle with text as a medium takes shape as an object in the playscript itself, and the oral tradition to which Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance hearken back is projected forward in the current performance and impels us to reflect on our own cultural manifestations.

In order to pursue such a theoretical analysis, many other equally valid and important interpretations of Shakespeare’s works must be either marginalized or ignored completely. However, examining Shakespeare in this way seems especially useful; Shakespeare’s commentary on performance as such, and on textual materials related to performance, may well give new insight into the ways that other approaches (theoretical, thematic, or pragmatic) might best proceed.

Shakespeare himself explores through his plays the experience of waking up to one’s position in history. In his mythological themes he reminds his audience of a past that never was, a relationship with an ideal that he places in history, while insisting through his structure and dialogue that his audience place it in their minds. The mythological elements his plays are the most direct and unambiguous references to the recent oral past that can be found in Shakespeare. Additionally, through the metadramatic and metatextual structures that pervade his plays, he continually calls attention to his plays as plays, as cultural artifacts both in their nature as performance, and in their ever-increasing nature as print. By doing so he not only challenges his audience members to recognize the role that performance plays in their own lives and cultural histories; he also outlines the role that performance will play in the burgeoning age of print.

This is the effect achieved by the Chorus in Henry V, as well as by its self-conscious placement at the end of a series of historical plays based on historical books. The Chorus’s invocation of the muse in the first line of the play, when paired with the subject matter that the title suggests, serves to begin the play in precisely the ambiguous position between the oral and written traditions that Shakespeare and his audiences were experiencing in the world all around them. And the Chorus of Henry V is pervasive, entering the story line over and over ostensibly in order to “set the scene.” The very frequency of these interruptions, however, serves automatically to draw the audience away from the story, away from the illusion, and remind them of their role as interpreters not of reality, not of history per se, but of a creative construct.

Likewise, Henry V seems repeatedly to make direct and indirect reference both to the plays which preceded it. The most obvious reference to 1 and 2 Henry IV is in the structure of the scenes involving Falstaff. Falstaff, of course, does not appear on stage in the play, but to understand his role at all, Shakespeare’s reason for even mentioning him, requires a knowledge of his historical existence within the Henriad. This knowledge may well have been cultivated in the audience by the mere existence in performance-past of the preceding plays, but it seems more likely that Shakespeare found he could rely somewhat on the printed dispersal of his plays to fill in the gaps for potential late-comers. (My Oxford Shakespeare gives the date that Henry V was written as Spring 1599, with a first printed edition available by August of the next year. One year to print, even by today’s standards, is exceedingly fast.) This is not to say that the actual reading of Shakespeare was necessarily widespread (although it may have been), but only to suggest that quickly printed editions of Shakespeare’s plays allowed for a wider familiarity with their characters, stories and themes. An appropriate analogy might be found in the “Last-time-on” segments which begin many television shows, or the Seasonal “recap” episodes of shows like Lost. It’s not necessarily important that you know every detail, but that what is important you can glean quickly and so be prepared. Falstaff’s death, and Harry’s role in Bardolph’s execution, not to mention the numerous passing references to Harry’s delinquent past, only take on their full meaning if you know what happened in the first three episodes.

The dialogue of the play is also stricken through with references to the previous plays, as well as to their historical source material. In the first scene of the play, while Canterbury expounds Harry’s qualifications, he says “list his discourse of war, and you shall hear/A fearful battle rendered you in music” (1.1.44-45), which would seem to be a reminder, right at the outset, that a lot of this story has already been told. And both Canterbury and Fluellen mention history as received by a “chronicle,” the former in reference to history yet created (1.2.16), the latter to discuss a history long since past (4.7.92). In both instances the audience is being reminded of the material, the literal Chronicles (according to Wells and Taylor, this includes both those of Hall and Holinshed), with which they are certainly familiar and from which the story of the play is drawn. King Harry himself calls attention to his own position as the character in someone else’s creative construct:

Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipped with a waxen epitaph (1.2.230-33).

That Harry refuses the possibility that it is his death that will be immortalized speaks to his role as a mythological hero. However, by recognizing “history” –that is, written history, in the form of “chronicles” and of plays — as the immortalizing medium, Shakespeare again calls attention to the increasing importance of print to contemporary society.

A Midsummer Nights Dream seems built entirely around bringing about a conscious understanding in the audience of the interaction between theme and dramatic structure. In its obsession with the idea of Dreams that stretches all the way to the title, it almost demands that an awakening is necessary. He equates dream reality both to dramatic reality, but through some very clever and complicated structural choices, he succeeds in extending the idea of dream-world out into the world itself, in to the world of the audience. His utilization of mythological themes and characters reminds the audience of its oral history, but he implements these characters in such a way that oral (that is to say, episodic) history ends up muddying and being muddied by written (linear, narrative, reason-bound) history. It cannot be coincidence, for example, that Shakespeare locates his dream-world naysayer, his unremitting voice of reason, in the character of Theseus. Theseus, whose own history is entirely mythic, has been tamed by reason and refuses to allow the realm of the myth into his kingdom. Theseus’s very decision to marry, to “settle down”, the even which frames the entire play, suggests just the sort of transition that Elizabethan culture was experiencing with the growth of print-culture.

Perhaps Shakespeare recognized his cultural and historical position and meant to exploit it. More likely, much of his seeming preoccupation is a result simply of his unconscious position in history. Either way, performance as intention becomes a salient element of any attempt at analysis, and especially analysis with the intention of performance.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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