I studied English at university a few years ago and on the whole I really enjoyed it. As most of my old essays are sitting around gathering dust I thought I would share one today. This is all about Shakespeare plays.
PATROCLES: Then tell me, I pray thee, what’s Thersites?
THERSITES: Thy knower, Patroclus .(Troilus and Cressida).
Do Shakespeare’s characters really know themselves or each other?
The characters ‘know’ themselves and each other to be actors. The nature of ‘self’ in Shakespeare’s plays is shown to be layered, fluid, artificial and unstable. Consequently a character’s self is difficult, if not impossible, to know. Shakespeare’s characters, such as Malcom and Hamlet, often devise methods of performance and observation in order to understand other characters. These methods often reveal the dynamic and intangible nature of self. To ‘know’ is to ‘be aware of through observation, inquiry, or information’ (Oxford English Dictionary). ‘Self’ is ‘a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action’ (Oxford English Dictionary). To know requires activity and in Shakespeare’s plays the activity characters use to interrogate self is performance and observation in the fictional world of the play and as actors on a stage. Each character is performing a self, truthfully or misleadingly, and each character is performed by an actor who has their own self. As ‘all the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players’ (As You Like It, Wells and Taylor, 2005, 2.7.139-140; all subsequent quotations will be from this edition, unless otherwise noted) the nature of a character’s essential being is a fabricated and fluid fiction. The fact ‘self’ is a blurry concept is the truth characters ultimately discover.
The natural fluidity of self under the pressure of performance and observation is particularly striking in Richard of Gloucester’s soliloquy in act three of 3 Henry VI. Shakespeare strips the scene down to leave Richard alone on the stage. The audience are reminded that they overwhelmingly outnumber the actor as he switches to an introspective mode of thinking. Richard’s soliloquy allows an actor to play with the audience as he shows them just how fluid a character can be. He shows the limits of fluidity by lapsing into a performance of self-delusion as he imagines himself making ‘heaven in a lady’s lap’ (3.3.148) and charming ‘sweet ladies with my words and looks’ (3.3.150). The delusion turns out to be conscious self-mockery. The discourse challenges the audience to laugh at the discordance between the charming identity he imagines and his appearance, but also makes the audience feel uncomfortable. There are identities Richard cannot convincingly perform because nature prohibits it. His fiction can only be as convincing as its container (the body, the actor) allows it to be. But Richard then challenges this notion by suggesting a strongly performed fluid fiction can defy nature, ‘I can add colours to the chameleon,/change shapes with Proteus’ (3.3.191-192). He shows intent to defy nature with the liquidity of a water god. The soliloquy becomes a balance sheet of the limitations of nature versus the force of his fictions; an audit of his ability to gain the crown. Richard, under the gaze of an audience, ends up revelling in his ability to perform against nature through developing a dynamic and slippery vision of his identity. Richard is an example of how characters are willing to sacrifice a static identity in favour of a fluid one that is innately unknowable due to its changeability.
Hamlet in Hamlet and Malcom in Macbeth both attempt to mislead and at the same time expose others through performance, in doing so they become examples of the fluid nature of self-representation they want to see through. Hamlet takes on an ‘antic disposition’ (Hamlet, 1.5.173) and Malcolm pretends to be a villain.In act four of Macbeth Malcom is presented with a problem: is Macduff his ally or foe. Macbeth, a ‘tyrant’ who ‘was once thought honest’ (4.3.13), is an example of the power of disguise that Malcolm has learned from. Surface appearances are, for him, no longer enough to know a man by; he now seeks to know the true internal selves of others. To test Macduff’s true character Malcolm uses observation and performance. Malcolm airs his thoughts on disguise; he says ‘all things foul would wear the brows of grace’ (4.3.23), a statement that bears a similarity to Hamlet’s comment ‘one may smile, and smile and be a villain’ (1.5.108). These lines reference disguise as a device used by the wicked, but Malcolm repurposes disguise for his own ends. Disguise is a fiction used to gain power. A sign of power is, as Greenblatt describes, ‘the ability to impose one’s fiction upon the world’ (2005, p.13). Malcolm creates a fiction to overpower any fictions Macduff may be hiding behind. Malcolm builds a tyrant king persona through a list of vices. He claims to be ‘bloody,/ Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin/ That has a name.’(4.3.57-60). Macduff is forced to break under the power of this fiction. ‘Fit to govern!/ No, not to live!’ (4.3.103/4) Macduff says. The exclamation marks emphasise the force with which the actor is persuaded to perform the line. A Lord is pushed into questioning whether a divinely chosen future king of Scotland should be allowed to live if he is possessed of such vices. ‘Angels are bright still though the brightest fell’ (4.3.22), Macduff appeared good on the surface, but so did Macbeth. It is the self Macduff keeps within that Malcom wants to see. Malcom acts differently to how he naturally is because he no longer trusts surface self-representation, he will not ‘submit to another’s narrative’ (Greenblatt, 2005, p.237). Malcom’s performance is itself an example of how deceptive self-representation can be in the name of power.
Characters do not have to be consciously disguising themselves in order to hide elements of their internal self. In Hamlet, Hamlet becomes intent on discovering if Claudius is really a murderer. The complicating factor is that the un-guilty self Claudius presents when he is not known to be a murderer is not a deliberate disguise but perhaps a subconscious one. Claudius does not constantly perform the guilt that comes with murder because he internally dissociates himself from it. ‘My fault is past’ (3.3.51) Claudius reasons, as he prays to be divinely cleansed of his sins. The play scene in act three forces Claudius into exceptional circumstances where he is forced to act uncharacteristically and perform the guilt he does not perpetually feel, which is a performance structure Edgar (2009, p.51) discusses in relation to building characters through drama. ‘The plays the thing/ wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’ (2.2.606/7), Hamlet claims. The play is Hamlet’s active attempt to gain knowledge about Claudius through ‘performative activity’ (Edgar, 2009, p.49). The shift in Claudius’s persona that Hamlet is looking for happens in a short line: ‘give me some light. Away’ (3.2.257). Claudius refuses to let the murderer part of himself into his public persona. Nevertheless, his sharp reaction is an obvious product of his guilt. The sharpness of the line highlights how unused he is to consciously burying this murderer identity. Rather than perform a conscious disguise of it in public, he chooses to exit the public performance space completely, both in terms of the play world and the stage world. Claudius is ‘possessed/ of those effects for which I did the murder’ (3.3.53/4), ‘possessed’ means ‘held as property; owned’ (OED Online). Claudius’s current identity is owned and shaped by what he gained through being a murderer, regardless of his internal hope to be cleansed of sin. Parts of Claudius’s essential being are unclear in ordinary circumstances even when there is not a conscious decision to deceive because he genuinely ‘imagined he could trick something more than men’ (Bradley, 1969, p.138). Characters sometimes unconsciously deceive because they do not want to truly know themselves for what they are.
Some characters seem to gain an uncanny awareness of how they are a character in a play and exist only as a constructed-self performed by an actor on a stage. This awareness demonstrates how the concept of identity becomes fluid for actors. During the main body of a play characters often use the language of performance in a way that reminds the audience it is make-believe, but Shakespeare crafts the language with enough subtly so as not to jolt audiences out of believing in the stage world entirely. In Hamlet, Hamlet discusses the time when Polonius acted ‘I’th’ university’ (3.2.95), ‘what did you enact?’ (3.2.97) he asks. ‘I did enact Julius Caesar. I was killed I’th’ Capitol. Brutus killed me’ (3.2.100), Polonius replies. Shakespeare wrote a play called Julius Caesar that is generally thought to have been performed around 1599, which helps date the version of Hamlet containing the dialogue discussed above. Interestingly, ‘it is generally assumed that John Heminges acted… Caesar in the first play and Polonius in the second, and that Richard Burbage acted both Brutus and Hamlet’ (Edwards, 1983, p.148). The dialogue between Hamlet and Polonius, which was performed by Heminges and Burbage, works in relation to the world in and on the stage as it references another self both the characters and actors have previously performed. Polonius’s line presents an uncanny reference to the real world in a way that blurs the lines between whether the actor is representing himself or the character, but the answer is perhaps that he is performing a combination of both selves intertwined into one body in that scene.
Endings deal with the relationship between a character’s and an actor’s identity in a slightly different way in comparison to the rest of a play because the friction between the overlapping selves of actor and character reaches a peak. Rosalind during the epilogue of As You Like It is directed to speak ‘to the audience’ (p.680). She comes partially out of the play to recognise ‘it is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue’ (p.680). Rosalind shows she is conscious of the fact she is contained in a genre with generic expectations. The young male actor who would have performed the role in 1600 shows through in the line: ‘if I were a woman’ (p.680). ‘If’ sharply highlights that Rosalind’s character, further to being trapped in a play, only physically exists when the male actor wishes to perform her. The dual selves embodied in the actor’s person rub against each other in this epilogue. The audience are jarred into remembering they are watching a boy actor perform the cross-dressing Rosalind, whose performed masculinity as Ganymede in the main body of the play bought the character closer to the actor’s male self. Characters cannot really know themselves during their time on stage without recognising their fictional nature. But a careful balance between awareness and ignorance is usually maintained in the main body of the play because if characters fully recognise their fictional nature then they will cease to exist, which is why the scene between Polonius and Hamlet limits itself to dramatic irony rather than break the play’s world, even Richard’s revelry in his own fictionality works within the world of the play. Fiction has power as long as it can suspend disbelieve. Endings, however, are where boundaries are pushed and as a result characters become more like shadows as their fictional power dwindles and the actor becomes more prominent. The epilogue is where the fiction of the play and characters dissolve.
Characters in plays come alive through performance and observation. In act five, scene one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the audience watch as Hippolyta, Theseus and the lovers become an audience to the mechanical’s play. The audience on the stage perform as actors and observe as characters. The scene sharply reminds audiences that the definition of who and what you see on stage is blurry and complicated. Performance and observation are at the heart of quests to discover truth. In the case of ‘self’, a somewhat liquid and intangible thing, there is one essential truth Shakespeare’s characters reach: because they ‘are players’ in and out of the play’s world they have no set form of self. As Puck says in the epilogue, characters in plays are but ‘shadows’ (l.1). Because identities are dynamic and artificial no character can truly grasp ‘self’ in regards to themselves or each other, but they can understand that the fluidity of performance is why they cannot precisely define who they are besides being actors.
- Bradley, AC (1969) Shakespearean Tragedy. 2nd edn. London: Macmillan
- Edgar, David (2009) How Plays Work. London: Nick Hern Books
- Edwards, Philip (1983) ‘Shakespeare and Kyd,’ in Muir, K., Halio, J. and Palmer, D.J. (eds) Shakespeare, Man of the Theatre. London: Associated University Press, Ltd., pp.148-154
- Greenblatt, Stephen (2005) Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From Moore to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
- Shakespeare, W. (1591)3 Henry VI in Taylor, G and Wells, S. (eds.) (2005) The Oxford Shakespeare: The Collective Works. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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- Shakespeare, W. (1606; adapted 1616) Macbeth in Taylor, G and Wells, S. (eds.) (2005) The Oxford Shakespeare. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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