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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  


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