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Spring Quarter 2010

London's Contemporary Theater

ENGL 444 or DRAMA 494


(This page will be used for miscellaneous postings over the course of the quarter)


The Skills of Active Reading

Paraphrase: an inevitable skill underlying the active reading of many texts—Early Modern texts in particular—is simple comprehension. And some texts are tougher this way than others. Shakespeare’s English is different enough from modern English that most new readers work hard to understand even the literal sense of a text. For a number of texts, then, many students will have made progress just by learning to paraphrase, and that is in fact no small accomplishment. Nevertheless, accurate paraphrase really is only a preliminary skill. It is something most teachers presuppose in formal writing, not something they give credit for.

Noticing: Paraphrase presupposed, then, the first level of active reading is the noticing of specific details concerning choices authors make. An author may choose, for example, to use a metaphor, or to elevate diction, or (in a verse drama) to switch mid-scene from verse to prose. Those choices are easily enough seen once one has pointed them out, but many new readers look right past them. The capacity to notice what choices a writer has made corresponds to “Specifics,” the most basic of my grading criteria.

Exploring: Active reading’s second level is “exploring,” the word I use for working through the interpretive implications of the specifics one notices. Having noticed that a particular expression is metaphorical, for example, can you explore the logic of that metaphor? How do its terms shape the way we understand a character’s utterance? Exploring obviously depends upon noticing (how could you explore something you haven’t yet noticed?), and is thus a higher order skill; it is also a more challenging task because it doesn’t have fixed, “right-wrong” answers. It is in this sense open-ended, and readers must develop a certain interpretive patience if they are to get beyond the superficial. Good explorations should be “full,” not sketchy, and thus my criterion for this skill is also double: “Exploration/Fullness.”

Integration: My criterion for the third level of active reading is “Integration/ Power,” and it stands for the ability to pull together, sort, and evaluate the many particular observations made while noticing specifics and exploring their semantic logic. Very often Integration begins by identifying how the observations you’ve made can be described as moves in a particular conversation. The observations we’ve made about Utopia, for example, might be seen as questions raised in a conversation about the relation of humanistic education to social change. Such a hypothesis would supply a conceptual framework within which to organize discussions of the many places in the work where issues of education language and its power arise. A paper can become conceptually powerful only when writers can integrate their observations into this sort of coherent interpretive hypothesis.

Noticing, Exploration/Fullness, and Integration/Power are thus three grading criteria for this course. Other criteria I will use include:

Responsiveness: A responsive essay does what is asked, and doesn’t do what isn’t asked. I usually write out my assignments quite fully, and the object of doing so is to make sure you know what you are to be doing. If for any reason you don’t understand what you should be writing about, PLEASE RAISE THE QUESTION IN CLASS! If you don’t know what you are supposed to do, others probably won’t either.

Well-structured-ness: A well-structured essay or paper will have a clear conceptual center, a claim which explains why you are writing and why your reader should be reading. It will keep its attention focused clearly on that center’s logic, excluding what is irrelevant. It will provide enough road signs--transitions, connections-- that your reader will know where you’re going and why. A paper with a strong center will follow clearly, avoid unclear digressions, and its different parts will all be relevant to the claim you’re making.

Presentability: A good paper will be grammatically and stylistically clear and well-edited. You will have proofread carefully, run your spellchecker, looked for punctuation difficulties. And you will have followed the presentation guidelines given in the next three pages of this packet. Though I do not set the same high presentation standards for in-class work, I DO expect that in-class writing be literate and physically readable.


Thumb-Plunging, or the Art of Literary Noticing

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner,
Eating his Christmas pie.

He stuck in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

Working with complex texts can make you feel a lot like Jack. You’ve got this big textual pie, and you know there’s much in it worth discussing, and in the past you may even have stuck in your thumb and come out with an idea, but you still don’t know how to locate such idea-plums with more precision than Jack’s random thumb-plunging method. These pages offer ways to help you find things worth talking about in the texts you read.


Thinking about literature begins by noticing something in or about a work (or in a pair or set of works) that seems to be problematic in some way, and then making an argument as to how that problem should be explained. And because any problem worth careful attention will very likely allow more than one explanation, your job includes not just describing the explanation that seems best to you, but also arguing for it by giving the best reasons you can as to why you think that YOUR explanation is the right one.

But how does one find a problem, formulate a explanation, and then develop support for it? That, obviously, is the challenge; to help you get started I offer my “Three Rules for Reading.” Each comes in the form of a question; I accompany each question with a description of what it means and how it can be used:

1. What? The longer version of this question is “What choices can you notice that your author has made in the text in front of you?” The point of this question depends on two observations, the first of which has to do with what is implied by the very idea of “choice.” For a choice is necessarily the result of picking between various alternatives (without an alternative, we have no “choice” in the first place), and thus whatever our choice turns out to be, we nevertheless might have chosen to do something else. And that creates a problem: why, if we might have acted differently, did we make the choice we actually made? Sometimes the problem raised in this way is trivial (you chose to go for coffee an hour ago--why?), but it is nonetheless a problem, and as such offers a chance to weigh the alternatives we might have chosen instead, and to suggest an explanation as to why we made the choice we did. And what is true for personal choices is also true for literary choices. If a detective writer chooses to call his character “Mike Hammer,” (as did Mickey Spillane in I, the Jury), then because he could have chosen a million other names we can ask: why THIS choice and not another? Given the same choice, Agatha Christie (in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) called her detective “Hercules Poirot.” How are the two choices different? Spillane’s seems simpler, more common; “Hammer” even suggests hard, unfeeling, physical, powerful. Christie’s choice by contrast is uncommon--indeed, it’s a French name, and as such (some would say) suggests foreignness, eccentricity, even (because you have to know some French even to pronounce his name) intellectuality. We needn’t worry here about how the choices each of these authors made fits the kind of book they each wished to write (each in fact fits its book quite well). I’m only illustrating the general point that wherever we can identify a choice, we have also identified a problem which takes the form: why THIS choice and not another?

That’s the first observation about why it is helpful to notice the choices authors make. The second has to do with the nature of language generally, and artistic language in particular. For it turns out that any piece of language is the result of choices--sometimes conscious, sometimes not. When we see someone we know in the street, we choose our greeting. We say “Hello,” or “Hi,” or “Hey man,” or whatever phrase seems best to us at the time. True, our choice isn’t usually a conscious one, but it IS a choice, and (this is the truly amazing part), even though we don’t consciously think it through, nevertheless it is a choice for which we can actually give reasons, should we ever stop to think about it. For we don’t say just any old thing. Rather, our greeting depends on how well we know the person we greet, how much we like them, their gender, their age--a whole range of factors.

But if just saying hello requires choices, imagine how much more complicated a series of choices is involved in the writing of a carefully constructed text! And every one of those choices--just like the choice we make in saying hello--sets up a problem, that of why this choice rather than another. To be sure, not every choice turns out to have an interesting explanation, but many in fact do, and as readers we can put ourselves in the position of having something to say by learning first to isolate the choices an author has made, and then (in step 2, described below) by going on to explain and evaluate their significances.

Noticing Whats, then, helps one get started with interpretation by imagining any text as the result of a series of choices, each one of which raises a problem for which its readers need to supply solutions. That’s the good news. The bad news is that once we’ve begun noticing in this way we may find that we have as many problems as we have words. So the real trick in this lies in separating the truly interesting choices--the “notice-worthy” ones--from all the rest, and a good place to begin that task is to look for those choices which represent any kind of departure from the ordinary or the expectable. After all, we don’t usually need to explain the expected. Rather, it’s the unexpected, the strange, the departure from the ordinary that creates a need for explanation. That departure can take a number of forms. It can be an action that we wouldn’t have predicted; it can be a surprising turn in a conversation, perhaps a topic raised for reasons that aren’t fully clear. Or it can be a stylistically noticeable use of language: a sound effect, a metaphor, a particular rhythm.

As an example of how one might use the notion of the unusual to isolate a notice-worthy choice, consider in the opening scene of King Lear the way Gloucester responds to Kent when Kent inquires about Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, who is even then standing right next to them:

Kent: Is this not your son, my lord?
Gloucester: His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge. I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to’t.
Kent: I cannot conceive you.
Gloucester: Sir, this young fellow’s mother could; whereupon she grew round-wombed, and had indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed. Do you smell a fault?
Kent: I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper.
Gloucester: But I have a son, sir, by order of law, some year elder than this, who yet is no dearer in my account: though this knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.

At one level this is just ordinary background conversation--Shakespeare is only setting the tone before Lear’s grand entrance and the great family fight that is to follow. But there is also a very marked strangeness about the interchange. For Gloucester here describes Edmund as a kind of inconvenience, a mistake, the result of a “fault” which (against his better judgment, he seems to say) he has grown to like. Now, as a subject for interpretation this is noticeable because it is an unusual way to talk about one’s son, even if his mother wasn’t legally your wife when he was born. Indeed, because the tone is so insulting (he even goes on to call him his “whoreson”!), it would be an unusual way to talk about anyone at all--let alone your own son--who was standing right next to you. Because that way of talking is strange, it’s also something that invites explanation. It creates a little problem of motive: why does Gloucester talk this way? As a departure from what we might have expected someone to say, then, these lines offer an excellent What--something well worth notice.

Or, to take a different example, you might notice in Measure for Measure that in the play’s first speeches Shakespeare chooses to have the Duke and others (including Angelo himself) characterize Angelo as humble, self-doubting, even unwilling to take on the power which the Duke gives him. That’s something worth noticing, since humility isn’t his strong suit later on. So is Angelo just posing? Are others merely deceived by his apparent modesty? Or is his subsequent arrogance a genuine change, a completely new twist to his character? Much later in the play we learn that the Duke had long suspected Angelo wasn’t as humble as his outward show had suggested--so the Duke’s talk at the play’s beginning turns out to be ironic at the very least. But in any case, Angelo’s humility is so stressed at the play’s outset (the idea is repeated several times) that it is well worth notice. Why (the next question will be) does Shakespeare make such a big deal of Angelo’s modesty here?

These examples of “What’s”—choices we can see Shakespeare making to set his plays up in one way rather than another—may not surprise you. If not, then good. But do keep in mind that while we ourselves make language choices every time we say a word, and while we are also highly skilled at a kind of unconscious analysis of choices that others make when they speak or write to us, nevertheless the ability to notice in this conscious, analytic way is not God-given. Though we all have the capacity to notice in this way, it takes a great deal of work to actually do it. Indeed, new readers of imaginative literature often treat its texts as transparent—they look right past the language without ever noticing how writers have chosen to use one word instead of another, one idea here, but a different one there. Even though as readers each of us will (and must) be responding to the choices these writers have made, (unless we simply aren’t understanding them at all!), most of us as new readers nevertheless will not know how to pay conscious attention to these choices. That is a reading skill to be learned.

2. Why? The full form of this question is something like: “Why might a writer have made the particular choice you have noticed? What does that choice indicate about how he or she is thinking?” With respect to the examples above, the effect of the “Why?” question is to ask you to think about possible explanations for the “whats” you have noticed in step one.

Why, for example, does Shakespeare have Gloucester talk the way he does of Edmund? Is it to give us an initial sense that Gloucester is not very respectful of his son as a human being? to show us that for him Edmund, as an illegitimate, bastard son, will always be a little less than human? Or is it to be taken more generally to suggest that everyone in this play will have trouble understanding the feelings and emotions of others, Gloucester here being as insensitive about his son as Lear will soon show himself to be about his daughters? Or does Shakespeare have Gloucester speak this way in order to suggest ahead of time something about why Edmund will soon show himself to be a brutal, cunning, and manipulative man? Edmund is, this opening interchange suggests, only living up to his own father’s dehumanizing description of him.

In pursuing “Whys” you need to be imaginative and playful, casting your nets wide in order to come up with claim-worthy hypotheses. But you must also keep in mind that these “whys” are, indeed, hypotheses. We don’t know for sure what Shakespeare really meant to do in the examples I’ve given you—and what Shakespeare intended isn’t always the best measure of a reading anyway. In explaining the problems we locate in a text all we have to work from are probabilities and inferences made from our past experiences with the ways people have used the language code with us.

Still, the fact is that we do make inferences of this sort quite regularly in our ordinary lives, and we do so fairly reliably. So (I’ll stress this one more time) though you are working with a literary text, you are really only using in a self-conscious and reflective way skills and knowledge which you already possess and which you often use in other dimensions of your life.

Finally, the question of whether our interpretive why's are limited by the question, "Yes, but did Shakespeare REALLY mean to do that?" This introduces the question of intention, and it is often offered as a way of suggesting that we English types are trying way too hard. I address this at length elsewhere, but in short, the question of intention is both unanswerable (Shakespeare left not even so much as a word about what he intended his works, plays, lines, to do, after all) and irrelevant, since authors' choices are made with a whole range of degrees of intention. A writer works within his or her intuitions as well as explicit intentions; when you write a line you have some sense somewhere of what you want it to do--how else could you write it at all? But you may not formalize that intention in your mind. It feels right to say something this way, and so you do. And some of us are really very, very good at that sort of intuitional writing, and then some of us are not. That's why we haven't yet written our own Hamlet.

The point is, the question of "why" is less about intention than it is about coherence or what I sometimes call a play's (or a scene's or a line's) "semantic logic." Sometimes a writer is very clear about what he or she means to do, but in the end, we only have the structures of words on the page (or, at a performance, in the air) as our guide to understanding. We understand what we read or hear by applying the rules of English, and by bringing to bear our experience and skills as a reader to read as fully, as attentively, and as responsibly as we can--and "why" is a way to open that process to more conscious and thoughtful exploration.

3. So What? My third rule-question turns to evaluating and prioritizing the information generated by the first two questions. Its full form is something like: “Okay, so you’ve noticed a lot and thought a lot and made a lot of suggestions about why Shakespeare might have set his play up the way he did. That’s all well and good, but where does this all lead us? So What?” Once you get the knack, you can do a great deal of noticing and proposing of explanatory hypotheses, yet some of the whys you come up with may not finally be relevant to the play, or to what you want to say about it. So you need a point at which you step back and re-organize your work. That’s the So What step. Having noticed things about Gloucester all through the play, how do they all fit together to explain his character (say)? You’ve made all these observations—now, So What?

The What/Why/So What drill works pretty well all by itself, but you can make it work even better if you add to it the habit of thinking contrastively as well. Thus in addition to asking “What?” learn also to ask “What Not?” This move helps by enabling you to see better the other ways a writer might have written, other choices she or he might have made, but in fact (for whatever reasons she or he had) did not. Thus you might have noticed (as we did above) Shakespeare’s choice to open King Lear with a conversation between Kent and Gloucester, and having noticed that, you could go right on to Why. But you might also pause to fill out your sense of what that choice means by thinking some about the choices Shakespeare did NOT make—the What- Nots.

Thus Shakespeare did not begin the play with Edmund standing alone, complaining about the way people have never respected him (though that is in fact how Shakespeare starts Act 1 scene 2), nor did Shakespeare start simply with Lear’s entrance. Why Not? Imagine it: instead of the banter between Kent and Gloucester, we could simply have begun with Lear’s first line: “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy.” Why does Shakespeare NOT do so?

So these What Nots are ways the play could well have begun, and the point about asking the What Not question is that in thinking about why Shakespeare chose neither of those alternatives you may get a better sense of the advantages he saw in choosing instead to begin with the comparatively indirect approach of Kent and Gloucester’s brief conversation.

Finally, you might find it helpful to remember that while So What? may be the last consideration when working out a reading of something, it is very often the first consideration when writing. For it is the So What? question that will help you formulate a central claim to make about your reading. Its force is to direct you towards making a judgment about the interpretive work you have done, and thereby towards an argument (or “claim,” or “point”) to make in any paper you write.

Life versus Literature

As I describe the problem-recognition-and-solution process, it all may seem rather strange and artificial. But as I’ve already suggested, it’s not entirely different from processes we undertake in more or less unconscious ways all the time. For the lives we lead and the cultural situations we inhabit are full of narratives and metaphors—just as literature is—and we are constantly involved in a kind of quasi-literary problem solving simply in order to understand the people we deal with and to decide what we will do about them.

Yes, there are differences. Literature usually foregrounds its problems more clearly than do our day to day lives, often intensifying them as well. And it offers them to us in a format (a story, a play) that, because it is about what are only imaginary people in imaginary situations, also introduces an element of distance between what’s going on in the work, and what’s going on in our own lives. That can be good—we are likely to find it easier to talk rationally about Hamlet’s problem, or Dorothea Brooke’s (in George Eliot’s Middlemarch), than about our own. But it can be bad, too, since that very distance may also make the kind of thinking you do for a good paper seem just an abstract or pointless task. Nobody really cares about the Prince of Denmark, after all. This one never really existed, and nowadays there isn’t one anyway. Obviously, your claim about him will finally only be interesting if at some level and in some way that claim is like claims you might make about people you know in real life.

So good literary analysis shouldn’t seem pointless, or completely divorced from reality. At the same time, to say that reading interpretively is in some way like defining and solving problems in your own life doesn’t mean that questions about Hamlet are really only questions about you. Rather, it’s to say that the kind of recognition and analysis you do when thinking about Hamlet is very much like the kinds of recognition and analysis you are likely to find possible in other dimensions of your existence. It is the claim of literary study only that the two are similar, and that the more clearly you can think about literature, the better chance you will have of thinking consciously and carefully about life.


Beyond Problematizing

What, Why and So What can be helpful, then, but since noticing also depends both on knowing what is expected to begin with (so you can notice if a writer does the un-expected) and on knowing what sorts of things writers conventionally make choices about, you also need to know something about literary conventions if you are to be able to notice what is unusual, or significant. Here are a few reading basics to supply a foundation from which to work:

1. Thematic structure. Most narratives share an underlying three-part abstract structure which moves from Order, to Disorder, to Reorder. They thus begin by representing a scene of relatively coherent (though also very unstable) social Order, they then stage a series of crises that threatens to reduce their whole world to a state of complete Disorder, and they finally enact some sort of experience which either establishes or at least predicts some new social structure: Re-Order. The initial Order is always somehow false or misleading (that’s why it is unstable), though the particular nature of what’s wrong will be different in different plays. The Disorder that follows will always be a confusion caused by the disintegration of the false order; generally a problem will have arisen that puts pressure on the opening order in such a way as to reveal its inherent inadequacy. Then, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Re-Order which concludes the story will respond to the confusion by creating a new ordering principle. In doing so, it will also restructure (somehow) the society’s values so as to leave us at the narrative’s end with a social order ostensibly stronger, somehow better (if not perfect) than that with which we began.

Given this basic thematic structure, you as a reader looking for Whats can notice either departures from or adaptations of these basic steps, or (especially): a) how, exactly, an author chooses to characterize his or her opening order and its shortcomings; b) what exactly will put pressure upon that opening instability and force the narrative’s world into chaos; and finally, c) just exactly how the story proposes that the chaos at its center be tamed and restructured. Then, once you have worked out answers to these questions, you can finally evaluate the work’s thematics. Do the work’s claims about what creates or resolves trouble in the world hold up under your scrutiny? How do they give us ways of understanding something, or experiencing something, which we otherwise might not have had?

2. Dramatic structure. This notion parallels thematic structure, but focuses attention on dramatic function instead of thematic meaning. (Obviously “dramatic” structure has direct bearing only on plays, but in fact narratives generally follow the same pattern.) Thus plays generally must accomplish certain dramatic tasks if they are to be successful, and traditionally those things have been described as a five-part sequence: Exposition, Complication, Climax, Denouement, Conclusion. In the Exposition a play establishes its main characters, its setting, its opening premises. In its Complication (sometimes referred to as the "Rising Action") it introduces pressures which force conflict. The Climax sees the logical/narrative outcome of that complication as things reach a kind of breaking point, generally a point of actual or symbolic chaos or confusion (the Dis-order stage described in paragraph 1 above). The Denouement represents a response to the confusion, as characters or events work somehow to restructure themselves or society in order to re-establish social coherence. And the Conclusion offers some sort of final turn to indicate that the new order has successfully been established. Thus we are likely to get at the end of plays either a symbolic celebration of coherence (a comedy which ends with a marriage or a dance), or, in tragedies, at the least a promise of a better understood, less ambitious, more careful governance (as in Macbeth). As with thematic structure, this structural scheme allows you to see through the apparent narrative structure of a play, where characters act for whatever reasons the narrative offers, and to supply instead a different and hidden, even if conventional, set of reasons for what happens on stage.

3. Character. Lots could be said about character, but here I offer simply three ways of classifying them: Flat or Full (or Round); Dynamic or Static; Type or Unique. Flat characters are usually minimally characterized; their function is to enable the action, not to complicate it. Full, or Round, characters have at least something of that complexity about them which we recognize as life-like. Dynamic characters are those which change; ordinarily at least one character in a Shakespearian play will change, and the critical question will concern first what change occurred, and then how and why. (Not every Full character is also Dynamic, but no Flat character ever is.) Type characters are conventional: standard character types that tend to show up in similar forms in many different plays. They include the parasite (Lucio, in Measure for Measure), the braggart soldier (Falstaff [Henry IV]), the fool, the faithful servant (Escalus [M for M], Kent [King Lear]), and the young lovers (Hermia and Lysander [Midsummer Night’s Dream], Claudio and Juliet [M for M]). Type characters may be flat or full. Certainly Falstaff, though a version of the braggart soldier, is also one of the most interesting and complex figures in all of Shakespeare. Unique characters are (obviously) those which are in some or all ways unlike any other character you’ll run across. (Of course, any character is bound to be like other characters in certain respects, just as any type character is bound to be “unique” in certain ways. What counts is the dominant impression.)

4. Language. This is where your noticing will be most active. What to look for? Among the many things we could talk about we can focus on three major categories: images, metaphors, and formal patterns.

a. Images. An image is the use of a word or phrase to conjure up for us some appeal to one of our senses: hearing, touch, taste, smell, motion, and (very much more often than anything else) sight. Images are especially notable for two kinds of effect. First, they tend to function like speaking pictures of ideas or states of mind, using suggestion and connotation to modify or extend what a character is saying. When Lear, for example, responds to Goneril’s refusal to allow him his full 100 knights, rather than saying simply “How awful it is to have an ungrateful child,” he expresses that thought with the image of a serpent’s tooth: “How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (1.4.279-80). By doing so Lear’s language indirectly implies much more than it otherwise might: he doesn’t actually call Goneril a serpent (that is the advantage of imagery’s indirection), but his image focuses his sense of her through the image of a serpent, thereby associating with her all the evil connotations of snakes: danger, venom, slyness, devil-linked (Satan having become a serpent in order to tempt Eve).

Second, images often make connections between different speakers or parts of the play simply by recurring. Thus Edmund conjures up the image of Nature as a goddess to pray to in Act 1, scene 2, and Lear does pretty much the same thing in Act 1, scene 4. Obviously, Lear and Edmund are very different characters, but once you notice that Shakespeare chooses to have them both use the same terms, they are connected for a moment, and you are in effect asked to reflect on whether or not there is any significance to their both using the same image. Similarly, images of sight and seeing are frequent in the play, and they create a kind of indirect set of echoes reminding us each time of one of the play’s central ironic commonplaces, that we are very often “blind” when we think we can “see” (Lear cannot “see” Cordelia’s or Kent’s loyalty), and vice-versa.

b. Metaphors. A metaphor is a special kind of image, one which asserts a comparison between two things. Sometimes these comparisons are explicit (“my love is like a rose”), sometimes they are implicit (“the heirs were wolves”), sometimes they are submerged (half hidden, as when Lear says of Tom of Bedlam: “Nothing could have subdued nature to such a lowness but his unkind daughters,” where, almost invisibly, nature is being compared to an unnamed something whose power can be tamed and subdued).

Whatever their form, however, the crucial feature of all metaphors is that they are always condensed, and in that lies their power. When Gloucester in King Lear, for example, remarks at 4.1.33 that before he fell off the cliff he had been made to “think a man a worm,” he makes a comparison between human beings and worms, but his expression is condensed because he doesn’t explain anything about the ways in which he thinks these two entities are alike. He assumes his listeners will fill in that missing part, expanding the metaphor to include the ways in which the likeness makes sense.

But what is powerful in this condensation is that the expanding that we must do if the metaphor is to be understood is left to our imaginations, and often, by using our imaginations, we can expand the expression in very provocative ways. Here Gloucester says only that he used to think man was worm-like, but what does that mean? How exactly could man be worm-like? Gloucester doesn’t say, so we reader/hearers are left to unpack the expression, leaving ourselves with a whole range of possible meanings, any one of which, or even all of which, might be ways to understand what Gloucester has in mind. Thus humanity might be worm-like in being low, mindless or crawling. Or maybe it’s in being slimy, a thing no one would want to touch, and thus no one could possible love. All of these would fit, even explain, Gloucester’s state of despair--why would any human being want to go on living if they really thought themselves to be as low or mindless as a worm?

The point here though isn’t simply that every metaphor has a billion meanings (though some literary critics have talked of metaphors as if they did), but rather that every metaphor has a very wide range of potential implication, all of it unspoken and functioning only by indirection. As a result, once we’ve noticed a metaphor, we need to explore its semantic logic to ask how its incompleteness offers indirect perspectives of one kind or another. Sometimes those meanings seem actually intended by the character (as Gloucester certainly does mean to suggest that he had earlier been thinking that man is as lowly and unlovable as a worm). But at other times such meanings are only ironically present. Thus we may think—in ways Gloucester himself was obviously not thinking—that many of this play’s characters are far more worm-like than others. Although Gloucester has done some pretty stupid and harmful things, and had decided to kill himself in despair, ironically he is by no means the wormiest of this lot. Edmund, Goneril, Reagan, Cornwall—even Lear himself—all seem a whole lot more worm-like than Gloucester.)

c. Formal Patterns. These, again, are many, but you’ll see the most important if you look (and listen) for recurring sounds or for rhythms. Good examples of thematic uses of such patterns occur in King Lear’s first scene as each daughter gives her answer to Lear’s request that they express their loves. Goneril begins, and her speech is full of grammatical repetitions:

I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor.

She’s using sound repetitions (“word … wield”; “rich or rare”; “less … life”), parallel constructions (each line repeats—is in parallel with—the opening comparison of love with something wonderful, and by repeating, the lines create the sense Goneril wants to convey of copiousness and excess: Lots and Lots!), and then she follows with that quick, short list of positive sounding ideas (“grace, health, beauty, honor”), where the listing (because it both piles up these ideas, and because it implies she could go on and on) is again a formal element that adds to the sense of boundlessness. One might also hear in these lines—precisely because there is so much formal manipulation—a note of artificiality, too.

Contrast to this rich, flowing set of parallels and graceful repetitions Cordelia’s plain and undecorated response to her father’s question. First, of course, her response is the bare word “Nothing.” That’s already in stark formal contrast to her sisters’ talk. But even when she then gets three lines together, they are in no way the sort of fancy talk her sisters come up with:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.

Except for the repeated “h” of “heave” and “heart” and the minor parallelism in “no more nor less,” this is pretty plain stuff. Of course, that’s just what Cordelia means to say—she wants to be plain, ordinary, and not at all like her high-sounding artificial sisters. She will go on to contrast herself to her sisters explicitly, but even in the formal patterns of the two speeches we’ve looked at here we can already see an indirect kind of assertion: Goneril’s words are formal, arrayed, artificial, and thus, it is implied, false; Cordelia’s words are plain, direct, unarranged, and therefore (her words indirectly claim) honest.

5. Recurrent Themes. People argue a great deal about what sort of meaning literary texts have, or whether they have meanings at all. Some readers feel that great literature is great precisely because it offers timeless truths without which we are the poorer as human beings. Others feel that truths are never “timeless,” and that whatever Shakespeare (or anyone else) meant in 1596 is impossible to recover anyway. For my part, I think the question of whether one can know what any writer meant, or of whether or not anything a character in a Renaissance play claims is “true,” is largely beside the point. I don’t think the function of a literary work is to tell us anything at all--truth included. Rather in my view it is to create an experience through which an audience can address questions in ways its viewers/ readers will find intellectually and emotionally compelling. Thus whether King Lear’s hypothesis about how human beings differ from animals is actually true doesn’t really matter; Shakespeare doesn’t have to tell us “the truth.” What does matter is that the way in which Shakespeare raises the question, and the terms he offers for its exploration, continue to offer audiences ways to think about a problem—what it means to be human, and how that is different from being some other part of creation—that they find personally and socially useful.

Whether or not you will accept that premise, literary works that have been valued over time tend to meditate (or work variations on) a relatively limited set of themes. In “Cultural Conversations” I offer my own explanation of why these themes recur; many of you will have explanations of your own. For whatever reasons, however, the topics below have become something like literary commonplaces—ideas to which readers and viewers keep returning.


Common Literary Themes

Art in Life; Art versus Life: Does art act upon our lives, and if so, how? or is Art an alternative to life, a place of escape and entertainment? What is the function of art? What cultural work does art—or this very text—do?

Civility: What makes society possible? how does civility decay? what can one do when civility fails?

Desire: What creates love, affection, lust, obsession? What deforms desire? How can it be constructive (is that what “love” is?)? Why is it so often destructive?

Education: What is education? Is it different from indoctrination? What is its relation to power, social position, civility, religion?

Gender: Do men and women differ? How do they differ? Is there anything essentially masculine or feminine about any of us? Can women be masculine? Can men be feminine? Would any of them ever want to be? Why? Why not?

Guilt Concealed, Guilt Revealed. What is guilt, anyway? Why do we sin? How can we deal with the guilt we feel? Why does the punishment we undergo so often seem so much more terrible than the sin which invokes it? (Guilt Revealed can be thought of as The great Tragic theme.)

Humanness: What is Human? What is Not? Can we lose our humanity? How? How can it be restored?

Heroism: Are there really heroes? What makes a hero? What is Heroism’s link to Ero-tic-ism? Is sacrifice part of heroism? Can one be a passive hero?

Identity: Who are we, and how do we come (if we ever come), truly to know ourselves? What is identity’s relation to what we do? To our cultural genesis? To gender? Can we change identity? Is it constructed or innate? Made or discovered? (Identity is the great Comic theme.)

Initiations: Passages from (relative) innocence to experience. How do they happen? Can one control them? What does one get from the experience? Is innocence or experience the higher state? Why?

Knowing: Why is there such an arrogance to knowing? Can one ever know enough? Is too much knowledge dangerous? What is knowledge? The paradox of knowing: we must know to survive, but knowing is also intoxicating, dangerous, even deadly.

Language: What is language? How is it related to truth? to power? to art? Does language conscribe or enable us? How are we constructed by language, live within it?

Love: What are the powers of love, the confusions of love, the benefits, the costs? Must love be sexual? Is it higher or more real if it is not? Are there different loves? Does one choose among them?

Order: By what principles should/must a society order itself? Knowledge and order.

Other: Who and what is defined by various dimensions of our culture as “other”—excluded or privileged, and by what criteria? Because race, gender, sexual orientation and class are often criteria by which societies create classes of “other-ness,” each of these can be thematized under this rubric.

Pastoral/Escape. Reflection on our need/urge to flee from the world, especially as a way to gain time and space within which (paradoxically) to think about how best to live in the world. Content and discontent.

Power: What is power’s rightful and its wrongful use? What creates power? What is power’s relation to desire, to ambition, to social structures? Does power always corrupt? Why?

Pride: How is pride a sin? How is it a virtue? Can one live without it? Why does pride cometh before a fall? What is the relation between pride and action? Pride and control?

Truth: What is truth? How do we find it or know it? What is its relation to language? to power?

Values: What do we value? Are social values different from individual values? How? Why? With what consequences?


Theatre as Action:
What do we do when we do Drama?

What does a play do? The answer to this is pretty open-ended—lots of very different things could count as something accomplished. But in reflecting on this question you can start with four very frequently invoked functions, or realms of action:

The Personal Function. One thing plays can do is enact a range of psychological functions, creating effects that people locate with words like beauty, amusement, “entertainment,” or escape. We take a certain sort of pleasure from each of these effects, or fulfill some kind of very deep need. Sometimes it’s simply a need to feel a sense of completeness in the world, sometimes it is to intuit powerful patterns that are in some sense bigger and deeper than anything we ourselves can create. Or maybe it feels like a need to divert ourselves from the reality we struggle with each day and to spend time in a parallel universe that can with its successes re-inspire us when we return to the real world we left as we entered the theatre. Each of these effects seem to be in some sense quite simple, though each can also be further investigated. Why, for example, does the display of order so please us? What is it about the way we navigate our existence that makes moments of beauty so pleasurable? Not every play asks us to think about these issues; indeed many (Mamma Mia, for example) urge us not to think much at all. But whatever we are thinking consciously, our minds are busy nevertheless, even if at a level well below (or beyond) our conscious thought.

The Teaching Function. This function accounts for the way plays can attempt to inform us about life’s various experiences or issues. A play may offer insight into a particular sort of character, for example, suggesting what a person of such and such a type would do under this or that set of circumstances. Or it may attempt to unveil what it takes to be truths about the way we live, or the way the world is structured, that we may or may not already understand. Maybe it will make an argument about social or political power and how it is distributed.

Or maybe it wants to teach us about how the world might be, or how it should be. In The Apology for Poetry Sir Philip Sidney talks about the “Golden World” that art creates—that which has never before been seen or thought of, something to aim for, to model ourselves upon and work towards. Other writers, by contrast, may give you an anti-world, a kind of model of what we fear or shun, or seek blindly to our own detriment. In any of these cases, however, the function of such art is to inform us, warn us, move us, always to be teaching us something, and it is our job in such circumstances to evaluate the work the play does—to ask into its motives. Do we really learn something of value here? What? or are this work’s “truths” mere sentimentality or (worse) propaganda?

The Forum Function. In this mode the theatre creates space for conversation and argument about issues that the playwright feels to matter. It’s related to the teaching function, but with an important difference. For here the job is not so much to make an argument about the world as to raise a question in a provocative way, to invite or tease or incite in us a will to engage. David Mamet’s play Oleanna, of a few years back, was such a play, as are most (all?) of Shakespeare’s. Here the fact that art works by indirection (we are given a story about kings, for example, and not a story about our very own lives) has both an advantage and a disadvantage over more conventional means of public argument.

For there are many things we don’t want to talk about publicly. We have taboos, restrictions, fears about offending others when we mention sex, class, gender, race—and basic politics. When we try to talk about these things directly we may too quickly lose our equanimities. But when we put the same issue into story we can talk as it were “at a distance.” We can discuss the way Hamlet abuses Ophelia, or how he seems sexually attracted to his mother, much more easily than we can talk about our own gender or our own mothers. We can discuss the racism represented in Ellison’s Invisible Man much more easily than we can discuss our own difficulties in keeping our minds free from stereotype and prejudice.

Of course, there is also a price to be paid for this liberty: because it is indirect it is also a relatively weak form of action. It may very often be the ONLY form of action available to us, but because it is only indirectly related, the real connection to the lives we lead is not necessarily obvious. We can see, for example, how Ophelia is talked down to by her father, her brother, her lover, the King, the Queen—everyone. But can we see in our own lives—or are we even willing to see—how frequently we repeat this cultural stereotype of seeing women—and especially young women—as unable to think and act for themselves?

The Community Function. Here the role of drama is to define, invoke, celebrate, rehearse the common wisdom or vision or history of a culture. Here the play may not say anything either new or different, but instead works to affirm or celebrate what already is. In this mode drama helps to build or shape a culture, to produce coherence, even solidarity. Its capacity for this is not always positive—one reason art can be used as propaganda is precisely its capacity to bring minds together in a particularly powerful way. But rightly used it can contribute to the sense of well being any community needs if it is to grow and prosper.

Obviously, these four functions are not mutually exclusive. A play can very easily please us as it teaches (probably better had, in fact!), or establish community as it preaches, or offer escape in such a way as to lead us to think new thoughts about how things might or should be. But you can rest assured that any play must be doing SOMETHING if it’s going to be even trivially successful, and as a sophisticated playgoer it’s your task to sort that “something” out.


Elements of Drama

Whether reading Dickens, or walking London, or going to a play, the basic theme of what we offer you in our courses together here always centers on “Seeing.” For each of us imagines two very different ways of seeing—the difference being a level of both attention and understanding. It should be obvious that you can see more and more interestingly when you have things to look for—you can date a building better when you know how to look for the arches, for example. Similarly for drama, you’ll see more, and you’ll see what you see better, if you approach the production in terms of its necessary elements. So, herewith a rough and ready guide to the elements of drama, with just a few words about each.

Frame: That dimension of the work that sets it off from the ordinary and invites from its audience special attention; that which declares, “Look at me, and attend!” In many theatres it is the proscenium arch, drawing our attention even before the play begins. But it is also the theatre itself, and the experience of getting to it, entering it, locating ourselves in its surrounding. All of this is a way (not always or in all ways intentional) of marking off the dramatic experience as “something different.” So reflect on the frame and its experience for you. What does the theatre look like? How do they create the frame, and what do they do with it?

Text: The words, the script. For most plays this is the chief raw material, the thing that is enacted, represented, brought to life, shaped, varied, interpreted.

Delivery: How the text is spoken. Clarity, precision, expression, dynamics.

Facial Expression: How well does facial expression make meaning manifest? In what ways?

Gesture: Body movements and stance. How well does the actor use her body to make meaning manifest? In what ways?

Movement within the acting space: This is a product of direction (blocking) and acting. A director can tell an actor where to move, but only the actor can do the moving. There is thus a logic of movement, and a performance of movement.

Properties. What props are used? How do they fit the text? The actor? The movement? How are they used?

Make-up/Costume. Period? Realistic? Abstract? Contemporary?

Sets and Stage Set-up. Period? Realistic? Abstract? Open? Stage set-up: proscenium, thrust, in the round, mixed forms?

Lighting. Where, how and when are lights used in the show? What do they seem to be designed to add?

Music/Sound. Where, how and when are sounds or music used in the show? What do they seem designed to add?


Theatre Terms

I realize that some of the theatre terms we will use here are not commonly known, and few of you have easy access to dictionaries. So herewith some terms basic to theatre studies, along with short definitions.

Block (v.): To establish actors’ movements throughout the course of a play.
Blocking: The movement plan for a play.
Business: Use of a prop. “The business with the drink glasses was brilliant.”
Circle: The front rows of the first balcony. Excellent and expensive seats.
Cross (v.): To move on stage from one stage area to another.
Curtain: That big thick heavy thing that most theatres have, but many no longer use.
Deus ex machina: “A god from the machine”: (often figurative) a device lowered from
above to solve a problem, usually when the playwright can’t think of a better way.
Ellipsoidal spots: Focus spot lights used to light particular spots on the stage.
Flies: The storage area in the fly tower. “The set is in the flies.”
Flood lights: Lights used to “flood” a space, often used against a sky.
Fly (v.): To raise sets or any other staging element up out of audience view into the flies.
Fly tower: A storage area directly above the stage up into which sets can be “flown.”
Fresnel: A spotlight with a diffusion lens for general area lighting.
Gel: A sheet of colored plastic (originally gelatin) placed in a frame in front of spotlights.
Go dry: Forget one’s line. Also, “drop a line.”
Gods: The very highest balcony seating, as in “we were sitting in the gods.”
Interval: British term for our “Intermission.”
Pace: General term to describe the speed with which a production unfolds.
Pick up the cue: To speak one’s line immediately upon the end of the preceding line.
Prismatic spots: Newly developed ellipsoidal spotlight with automatic color shifting.
Project (v.): To speak in such a manner as to be audible well beyond ordinary range.
Promenade performance: Staging in which actors mingle with the audience.
Prompt box: The hidden place from which the prompter tracks the play.
Properties (props): Any object on stage that can be picked up and handled.
Proscenium stage: The traditional picture frame, fourth-wall stage.
Revolve: Part of a stage floor that can turn, usually used to speed scene changes.
Scrim: A thin, gauze-like curtain that can be made transparent.
Sky: Term for a white background curtain against which lighting effects can be employed.
Soliloquy: A speech by a character alone on stage, often addressed to the audience.
Safety Curtain: A fireproof curtain to isolate stage fires from the audience. Required to be lowered at least once during every performance (usually at the interval).
Stage areas: USL, USC, USR / SL, CS, SR / DSL, DSC, DSR. (actor’s [not your] left/right)
Stage fright: A condition in which actors forget their lines completely. A mini-panic attack.
Stalls: The seats on the main floor. Usually the most expensive.
Teasers: The curtains at the top of the stage screening audience view from the flies.
Theatre in the round: Staging where the audience is seated all around the acting space.
Thrust stage: A stage that “thrusts” forward into the audience area of the stalls.
Timing: General term for how well the cast picks up cues.
Top a laugh: To come in with your line precisely at the peak of audience laughter for a preceding line. A delivery technique for keeping up the proper pace.
Upstage (v.): To distract attention from the speaker; sometimes done purposefully.
Wings: The sides of the stage.



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