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Staging emotion in Shakespeare

In Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio asks the ever-ironical Benedick whether he approves of the young daughter of their host, Hero. Benedick replies:

Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgement, or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex? (TLN 163-5)

When Claudio earnestly pleads for him to “speak in sober judgement,” Benedick’s response is the opposite of sober – scornful, witty, and ironical.

Claudio’s predicament is very like us all as we read so much of Shakespeare. Even my modest attempt to give life to the interchange – describing Claudio as “earnest” – provided more than the original text.

In this current age of happy :), sad :(, and other helpful emoticons, the paucity and taciturnity of the stage directions in Shakespeare’s texts must be frustrating, at least to some of our readers. Scenes can begin with a laconic entrance and end with an equally undescriptive exit, with no indication between of any emotion in the speakers, or stage business. Perhaps we should encourage our editors to be more helpful and expressive ;).

The software we use for this Chronicle does not allow us to insert the more graphic little emoticon images, as many blogs do – including Facebook. There is a whole vocabulary of emoticons available to the savvy modern blogger that could be exploited by editors. Stage directions already include “kiss :*” and “cry :’(” (though this emotion is usually signaled in the text by “weeps"), but imagine the additional information the editor could pass on with emoticons like “gasp, grin, wink, grumpy, upset, confused, unsure, shock,” or “heart.” “Sunglasses” might be very useful for characters in disguise, especially since it can also mean “cool.”

Facebook emoticons

A performance of Shakespeare is really a kind of reading of the play with all kinds of built-in emoticons provided by the actors as they strut and fret on the stage, and mouth their lines to us groundlings. But on the page the lines tell us so little about what is really going on. There are some obvious pointers, to be sure. When Cordelia tells her father “You must not kneel,” we know that Lear is trying to kneel to ask her forgiveness. And there are occasionally some really helpful stage directions. When Cleopatra hears the news that Antony has married Octavia, she is clearly angry >:(.

Hence horrible villain, or I’ll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me: I’ll unhair thy head . . . (TLN 1105-6)

– but we would not know how she expresses this emotion without the direction, “She hales him up and down” (TLN 1106.1).

Think how a similarly helpful editor could assist the reader in some of Shakespeare’s more famous passages. It’s pretty easy to figure out that Hamlet is puzzled as he asks himself the big question about the usefulness of life, but later in the speech there could be some really helpful editorial insertions (the emoticons are enclosed in single quotes to assist those of us who are less familiar with them):

To die, to sleep ‘:)’–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache ‘:(’ and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream ‘:O’. Ay, there’s the rub ‘>:(’,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come :/
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause ‘o.O’.
Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia!–Nymph ‘O:)’, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered ‘;)’.
(Hamlet TLN 1714-22, 42-44)

Key (for the uninitiated):

:) happy
:( sad
:O gasp
>:( grumpy or angry
:/ unsure
o.O upset
O:) angel
;) wink

That last wink clears up a major character crux in the play, since it makes it clear that Hamlet and Ophelia have indeed done the deed of darkness together.

So many of Shakespeare’s characters indulge in irony that it’s sometimes difficult to be sure when they are serious. Perhaps we need a further symbol, a kind of ironicon, in the text. Keith Houston, in The New Statesman, recently wrote fascinatingly about the attempt, since the seventeenth century, to create a punctuation mark that would be used to indicate irony (http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/rain-your-wedding-day, 24 October 2013). None of the attempts have thus succeeded, apart from the rather ambiguous wink ;). As Houston remarks, can a reader ever be sure that an irony mark is not being used ironically?

Ah well, perhaps it’s for the best that the Internet Shakespeare Editions leaves the question of the extent of editorially added stage directions to the capable hands of our editors. We do ask them to be restrained, and to leave the hard work of figuring out what characters are feeling to the reader. And we provide them with a useful way of signaling instances where they have chosen one option among many, by displaying the stage direction (or part of it) in gray. Asides are especially tricky, since few are recorded in the original texts, and it can make a major difference to a character and a scene if passages are spoken to all onstage, or just to the audience. Our editors of Twelfth Night have used this convention very effectively – see their stage directions in the interchange between Maria and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (TLN 170). Perhaps this approach provides something of a happy compromise between leaving readers to create their own performances in the theater of the mind, and helping them to follow the intricacies of the text.

[You will find a handy list of emoticons available from the ever-helpful Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_emoticons, and this link lists and illustrates common Facebook emoticons.]

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 01:01:51 pm. Categories: Postings  

Smelling to heaven

What do you think about when you are on the sixth kilometer of a ten kilometer run (or, in my case walk-jog), as you try to keep your mind off legs and lungs that are beginning to protest?

For a few years I’ve been taking on the annual mass run in Victora, the Times-Colonist 10K (I love the way the name of the paper archives an attitude that saw colonialism as splendid). At about the fifth kilometer the route takes us along the coastline of the Juan de Fuca Strait, where we are rewarded by a view of the peaks of the Olympic mountains in the US, a scant 20 kilometers away.

But you can’t stop to admire the view. Instead, my mind wandered back to the day before when I picked up my gear – t-shirt, and the clever chip that times me to a hundredth of a second. Sponsors of the race often provide freebies, and this time it was mini-packs of men’s deodorant. I took a couple, of course, just in case there were sniffer dogs in the last kilometer making sure that nobody smelly was allowed to cross the finish line. But as I was making my way along with the thousands of other runners, I started to think about odors in general, and body odors in particular, with my usual tendency to summon up random Shakespearean quotes from the rag-bag of my very approximate memory.

I thought, of course, of Claudius and his rank offence, smelling to heaven (Hamlet TLN 2312), and that astonishing line from Sonnet 94, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Somewhere around Mile 0 (the beginning of the 7821 kilometers of the Trans-Canada Highway), as I started on a gentle downhill stretch, I found myself thinking about the whole question of smells and Early Modern life. We tend, of course, to imagine the period as incredibly smelly. People washing very little, middens beside the houses, chamber pots emptied from second floor windows onto the street, Fleet Ditch as an open sewer running through London. Check out Ben Jonson’s poem on it: “On the Famous Voyage” – the text is available on the site of SewerHistory.org. It’s also worth looking at Andrew McRae’s article “‘On the Famous Voyage’: Ben Jonson and Civic Space.”

I’m sure that if we were somehow teleported back to the middle of Shakespeare’s London we would be assailed by all kinds of smells we would find offensive, but I think it’s important to remember that, like so many things, smell is a function of what we are used to. I’m never comfortable with movies that create a meticulously “medieval” scene with relentlessly muted colours, lots of muddy streets, and so on, because our eyes have been educated to far more vivid wavelengths. Those who lived in the period would have perceived as colorful what we see as pale, because their eyes were accustomed to a more muted palette of colors. The same must have been true of smells.

This is not to say that there were not stinks enough in Shakespeare’s world. Even on Prospero’s well-controlled island they penetrate: Caliban smells like a fish, and later, when Trinculo has been led through the mire by Ariel, he is upset that he smells “all horse-piss, at which [his] nose is in great indignation” (The Tempest, TLN 1984-5). If this were not bad enough, Shakespeare suggests that sin smells ranker even than fish, as my title, adapted from Claudius’s confession, implies. And the righteously indignant Lord Salisbury in King John, finding the body of Arthur beneath the castle’s walls, speaks of the moral stench in what he takes to be a murder:

Away with me, all you whose souls abhor
Th’uncleanly savors of a slaughter-house,
For I am stifled with this smell of sin. (TLN 2116)

(In typically Shakespearean fashion, Salisbury is both right and wrong: King John did intend to murder Arthur, but in fact his death was the result of the young prince’s attempt to escape.)

Not all in Shakespeare’s olfactory imagery is unpleasant, however. There are good smells too, for without them a rose by any other word (or Q1’s “name”) would not smell as sweet. There is the fragrance of herbs and flowers, and, as Bottom/Pyramus reminds us (after suitable prompting from director Quince), the odor of a lover’s breath:

Quin. Speake Pyramus: Thysby stand forth.
Pyra. Thisby the flowers of odious sauours sweete.
Quin. Odours, odorous.
Py. Odours sauours sweete.
So hath thy breath, my dearest Thisby deare.
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream, TLN 895-9)

The savors of fresh Pacific air and the odorous fields of almost Wordsworthian daffodils and bluebells at the bottom of Beacon Hill raised my spirits and my energy far more than the freebie deodorant. I got to the finish line without incident, my t-shirt suitably sweat-wet, but irresistably fragrant.

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 07:40:22 pm. Categories: Postings  

Rich and strange

Just across the water from Victoria, in Seattle/Bellevue, I enjoyed two experiences of the vigor and vitality of non-Western culture as spinoffs from the recent meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. On one afternoon I ran away to the Seattle Art Museum, and at the conference itself I watched a performance of Bond, a Chinese opera based on The Merchant of Venice, from the Taiwan BangZi Company.

Shylock in 'Bond'
Shylock (Hai-ling Wang) in the Taiwanese BangZi Opera’s “Bond”

Bond was performed in the traditional BangZi style – the BangZi is a percussion instrument, a wood block, that is used throughout the spoken part of the performance to punctuate and emphasize moments in the dialog. The effect is akin to the less subtle drum-roll or cymbal clash used by some MCs.

The plot of the opera remained very close to The Merchant. The setting was a medieval Chinese prefecture, with Shylock standing out as an elaborately and richly dressed Saracen. Our local Victoria-based Pacific Opera, uses the now-common “surtitles” above the stage to translate the sung language for the audience; in the Grand Ballroom at the Bellevue Hiatt, the dialog was projected onto two large screens at the side of the stage, set up for PowerPoint presentations at the conference. It was a bit like watching a tennis match as the eye moved from the screen to the vivid white of the costumes on stage – except for Shylock, of course, whose elaborate dress proclaimed his difference.

I found it fascinating to watch the plot removed from the disturbing and complex intertext of Shylock’s Jewishness. I have little cultural background to inform me on possible responses to Saracens. I have most recently been encountering them through background research on King John, since John’s more attractive older brother, Richard Lionheart, achieved fame through his wars on Saladin and his Saracen army as part of his crusade. Richard committed the usual atrocities justified by the name of god, but it was all a long time ago and a long way from home. (John was pretty good at atrocities himself, though he limited himself principally to his own subjects.)

Was this something closer to the experience of an Elizabethan audience? I don’t know any Saracens today, and few, if any of the original audience for The Merchant would have known any Jews. The Shylock of Bond seemed to me to be a generally comic figure, though the comedy may have been in part the effect on my ears unaccustomed to the interspersed comments from the BangZi wooden block. The distancing that came from unfamiliar language, setting, the operatic medium with its arias, and the unusual “side-titles” meant that the plot spoke more loudly to me as a structure, rather than as a frame for character and debate. When Bond’s Shylock is forced to convert, the side-titles instructed him (if I remember accurately) to stop wearing “silly clothes,” emphasizing the exterior rather than the religious. The moment was moving, but far from the often shattering effect we experience from a more familiar Shakespearean Shylock.

The unfamiliar was definitely in the air at SAM, the Seattle Art Museum. They have a remarkable collection of art from indigenous peoples from the Pacific North-West, Australia, and Africa. I’ve seen a lot of aboriginal art, but was surprised by the richness of their collection, and moved by several of the pieces. Check out “Gathering Storm” by Lin Onus (the image is very small on their website, but several blogs post larger images – for this one you have to scroll well down to find it) and the extraordinary work of Gloria Petyarre in her series on leaves, clearly owing much to the long tradition of aboriginal dot paintings.. Just around the corner you find the collection of Pacific North-West and in a room further on a collection of African masks that I admire but would not like to see staring at me from my wall. After all this arresting strangeness, the early American and European collections, though admirable, seem pale and unadventurous.

Never fear. A feature of SAM on my visit was the collection of Nick Cave’s “sound-suits,” full-body costumes that express the strangeness of the human body and the paraphernalia we collect for uses other than clothing. The juxtaposition of the human figure and all the marvelous things Cave has picked up at garage sales is strange and rich indeed. I especially liked the suit decorated with all kinds of ornamental birds (on the right of the picture below). Unless you looked closely you would miss the face on the suit behind the birds – that of a large tabby cat.

Nick Cave exhibition, Seattle Museum of Art
Nick Cave exhibition, Seattle Museum of Art

It’s exciting to see so much experimentation that is both surprising and beautiful, jolting us as we see the familiar made unfamiliar, at the same time revealing it more fully. This, after all, is what metaphor does, and what Shakespeare continues to do as we re-read and re-interpret him.

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 05:28:28 pm. Categories: Postings  

Scholarship and proud-pied April

It’s spring here in Victoria, and while a young man’s fancy can turn where it may, a studious Shakespearean’s thoughts turn to the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. It’s always held around Easter, when hotels are affordable and classes over, or nearly. This year we meet in Seattle – or, more accurately, in Bellevue, just to the east of the city center.

The program offers the usual snapshot of what’s in, what’s out as the assembled scholars enquire into the mystery of things. There are sessions on stage history and staging the plays, politics, philosophy (and its offshoot, critical theory), theology, textual studies, sexuality and gender in various flavors, race, the environment, diet, some other writers as they relate to Shakespeare, and so on.

I’m contributing, predictably enough, to a session on electronic media and Shakespeare. This time it’s a workshop looking in detail at a remarkable resource, the Shakespeare Quartos Archive. The ultimate plan for the project is to put searchable, high-quality images of all the extant quarto of Shakespeare’s plays online. The project has had sufficient funding (from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the UK Joint Information Systems Committee) to start with Hamlet. It’s a site worth exploring (it’s optimized for Firefox). And if you have a large monitor you can make some very cool comparisons between different versions of the early quartos.

One important feature of the site is that, like the Internet Shakespeare Editions, it is open to all. Resources that a few scant years ago were accessed only by a few scholars with research budgets sufficient to visit major libraries in the US and UK can now be explored by everyone from their desktop.

In between sessions, delegates to the SAA from the eastern provinces and states can enjoy the mild north-western spring weather. Expect showers, glimpses of sun, and temperatures hovering around ten degrees Celsius (50 in irrational Fahrenheit). I’m not sure whether Seattle can manage flowers like cuckoo-buds or lady-smocks, but there will be daisies pied and violets blue aplenty. That song from Love’s Labor’s Lost that begins so lyrically changes abruptly to the ironic as Shakespeare reminds us of that sign of early spring, the song of the cuckoo and its punning reminder of the cuckold – the “word of fear, / Unpleasing to a married ear.” No cuckoos in this part of the world (though I can’t vouch for the human variety); instead there is the cheerful, monotonous chirp of the North American robin, bold and russet-breasted, drilling in my garden for the early worm.

The moral? If you are a worm, sleep in.

Or, if you are a scholar and have to rise early to attend to a learned discussion, at least later in the day heed Sir Toby’s advice: “Th’art a scholar; let us therefore eat and drink” (Twelfth Night, TLN 712).

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 11:33:34 am. Categories: Postings  

Supermoons and streetlights

Last night was the full moon. The full supermoon, when its orbit reaches perigee and it comes closest to Earth.

Shakespeare sees it as a watery moon, a pale-faced moon, a changeable moon. In such a night as this, before the advent of street lights and helicopter parents, did children leave their supper and leave their sleep to join their playfellows in the street. In such a night, when the moon comes more nearer earth than she was wont she makes men mad, or at least for a few chilly minutes she encourages them to leave the television and poke a head outside to see whether the winter clouds have for a moment parted to reveal her quiet glory peering over the neighbor’s well-lit windows.

Supermoon March 2011
The moon at perigee.

At times for Shakespeare’s characters it was an ominous moon, especially when there were five of them.

HUBERT: My lord, they say five moons were seen tonight:
Four fixèd, and the fifth did whirl about
The other four in wondrous motion.
KING JOHN: Five moons?
HUBERT: Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously. (King John TLN 1906-11)

But we need no soothsayers, no star-guessers to tell us that the moon influences people as it influences the seas, though in these days of oppressive and omnipresent streetlights we see too little moonlight. Portia compares the frail light of a candle to the moon:

Ner. When the moone shone we did not see the candle?
Por. So doth the greater glory dim the lesse. (The Merchant of Venice, TLN 2506-7, quoted from the Folio)

So human lights dim the glory even of a supermoon, and we are left unmoved by what must have been exciting and unusual – a full moon, a night free, or almost free, of clouds, and a world of changed colors and shadows waiting outside. I recall my grandfather, in one of his regular reminiscing modes, explaining that in the early years of the motor car in Australia it was legal on nights when there was a full moon to drive without headlights. Now the fine Dominion Astrophysical Observatory near Victoria is swamped with light pollution at all hours.

A candle in the dark. Real dark. How welcome its gleam must have been in a generally unlit world, offering a glimmer of hope in darkness:

Por. That light we see is burning in my hall:
How farre that little candell throwes his beames,
So shines a good deed in a naughty world. (The Merchant of Venice, TLN 2503-5)

Is it too much to see in this an image of Shakespeare’s always-threatened, always-contingent world of comedy?

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 11:05:11 am. Categories: Postings  

The not-so-firm earth

In King John, the outspoken Constance speaks with passion of the loss of her son in battle: “my grief’s so great / That no supporter but the huge firm earth / Can hold it up” (TLN 993-5). No less than three of our editors have discovered recently that the huge firm earth seems less a stable support than they might like. All are safe and well, but two missed by just a few hours the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Helen Ostovich – whose old-spelling and modern texts of All’s Well That Ends Well are online – wrote of her near miss, “We knew in retrospect the exact moment of the quake – at 12:51 we were coming down a mountain road to the beach when the road suddenly shuddered and I almost lost control of the car for a moment. Luckily it felt like driving on black ice or loose snow, and habit clicked in. But it was a scary moment – and I thought it was my driving error until we reached the motel and were told the full story of the quake.” It seems that Canadian winters toughen its drivers to deal with all kinds of extremes.

Another to leave Christchurch just in time was Mark Houlahan, co-editor of Twelfth Night with David Carnegie. David’s family was impacted but all is now well. Fellow New Zealander, Tom Bishop, is on sabbatical in Kyoto – far enough away from the present catastrophe in Japan to be safe, but close enough to be keenly aware of the fragility of that seemingly firm earth we tread upon. Tom is editing Pericles for the ISE, and has been going great guns on a difficult and challenging text. His modern text is up on the beta site, and will go live in a couple of weeks.

Those of us who live on the eastern arc of the ring of fire may not altogether be quaking, but we are somewhat nervously checking on our earthquake kits, hoping that all the water and canned goods we so carefully store will be well past their best-by date before they are needed. Today’s local news headlined a rush to buy earthquake supplies from local stores. Small worries compared to those of our neighbors across the Pacific. Our thoughts are with them, and, more pragmatically, our financial support. (I’m wary of online scams in times like this and limit myself to the tried-and-true like Médecins sans Frontières or the Red Cross.)

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 09:35:26 am. Categories: Postings  

Leaning on mine elbow

“Thus leaning on mine elbow I begin.” So the chatty Bastard in King John celebrates his loss of land, and elevation in status as Sir Richard, incidental son of Richard Lionheart. So. leaning on my keyboard I begin the Shakespace Blog, informal voice of the Internet Shakespeare Editions.

My plan, at least to begin with, is to talk about the various activities, triumphs, problems, and humdrums of the ISE and its many contributors. There will be moments of cheerful announcements, like our recent upgrading of our interface for viewing facsimiles (see the home page for the facsimiles, or the page where my quotation comes from). At other times, news about the increasing presence of Shakespeare and related materials on the Web. Or about productions of the plays.

Even in the quiet lotus land of Victoria we have Shakespeare on stage – a fine student production of Twelfth Night just ended, directed by Linda Hardy. Set in the psychedelic seventies, Hardy updated the play elegantly, picking up on the http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Annex/Texts/TN/M/default/ opening line of the play, “If music be the food of love, play on . . .” If the production downplayed the hint of over-ripeness that follows ("Give me excess of it, that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die.") and if there was less of the melancholy that permeates Feste’s songs, so much the better for a cast of the gorgeously young and vibrant. Shakespeare’s music, for the most part, was replaced by wittily appropriate Beatles songs (all you need is love, after all).

A student of mine, writing for an electronic bulletin board, when such things were new and strange, commented that it was like speaking in a darkened theater with a megaphone and no sense of audience. So I feel on this first post. Welcome to the musings of a Shakespeare enthusiast, a computer junkie, cheerful coordinator of the many activities of the Internet Shakespeare Editions.

– Michael Best, Coordinating Editor

Permanent link to full entry 08:03:01 am. Categories: Postings  


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