Drama and Theater

We’ll be using Harry Berger’s article “Theater, Drama, and the Second World: A Prologue to Shakespeare” throughout my Shakespeare survey. What follow is a quick breakdown of the article’s main concepts: the distinction between drama and theater and the ways that distinction can help us understand the difference between Medieval Ritual and Shakespearean Play.

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Drama and Theater

Acting Exercise: Duchess of Malfi Act 4 Scene 1

Task: Read The Duchess of Mali Act 4 Scene 1. Chart each character’s moral/emotional movement in the scene, and use that information to decide how to play the scene’s power dynamics.

Conclusions: The scene’s villain (Ferdinand) and heroine (Duchess) are clear. This is a scene where the Duchess begins to lose power, while Ferdinand gains control. The most interesting character in the scene is Bosola, who is caught between his employer and the Duchess. He begins the scene by admiring the Duchess and ends the scene so disgusted with the Duchess’s treatment at Ferdinand’s hands (bad pun) that he decides he can’t be involved without disguising himself.

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Acting Exercise: Duchess of Malfi Act 4 Scene 1

SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

In this survey article, Annabel Patterson attempts to answer the question, “What was the connection between political thought in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns and the popular theater of the time?” The question is a difficult one. Shakespeare, the play’s most popular playwright, was also enigmatic on political issues. Specific critics helped focus the question: David Bevington explored contemporary political allusions, Margot Heinemann explored religious conflict, and Rebecca Bushnell explored how one could tell in the period who was a good king or not. Patterson argues political thought is abstract and deals with the structure of government and the proper representation it occasions. One of the reasons that English drama may be ambiguous in its political commitment is that not many English writers offered original political analysis. Most of those pieces came from the Dutch. The two most important pieces of English analysis (both from the 1550s) were printed in Geneva.

Patterson points out that if one goes to the Henrician interlude or the Restoration era, all of a sudden the political thought of playwrights becomes strikingly clear. As an example, Patterson gives us a dramatization of Queen Esther wherein we have an inset discussion on the relationship between kings and advisors. In a criticism of Cardinal Wolsey, the most effective voice in the play argues for a king to be the lone decision maker. Patterson teases out contemporary applications as well that are a little less secure in the meaning. Whatever the case, we can simply contrast the open discussion from the Esther play with the enigmatic Elizabethan version of this same question in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Another interesting example, though it falls just before the fifty years Patterson focuses on, is Gorboduc where two advisors debate the political reasons for dividing a kingdom or leaving it in tact. Again, the obvious comparison point is a Shakespeare play, King Lear, where it’s impossible to point to any single line for an abstract discussion of the implied principle, “NEVER divide a kingdom.”

Ending her article with the analysis of two Jacobean plays, Patterson shows how conflicted political thought is in the period’s drama. Middleton’s A Game at Chess was meant to discourage Prince Charles’s marriage to a Spanish wife and was clear enough in its targets that it earned a formal protest from a Spanish ambassador. Samuel Daniel’s Philotas is about the dangers of an over-powerful subject. This play seems divided in its treatment. The first three acts appear seem to be a reading of Elizabeth favorite-turned-outcast the Earl of Essex. The final two acts discuss the fact that Philotas’s fellow courtiers were to blame for his downfall. Patterson shows how the first three acts were written in 1600, while Elizabeth was still alive, and the final two acts were complete a year into James’s reign. The resulting negotiation for Samuel Daniel, who Patterson labels a political philosopher, is a complicated one to say the least.

In short, this period’s plays is not where we should go to find political thought.

SUMMARY: Political Thought and the Theater, 1580-1630

SUMMARY: Introduction to A Companion to Renaissance Drama

In his introduction to Blackwell’s A Companion to Renaissance Drama, Arthur Kinney insists that the English were not only playgoers during the Renaissance, they were play-actors. Every social space they saw—church, court, school—was a performance space. Kinney argues that the “mirror” Hamlet talks about is a good to conceptualize English theater. It’s job was to re-enact a world already filled with performances. Of course, the officially designated theater was activated by imagination, but it functioned primarily by imagining causal connections between disjointed spaces and times. The heart of Kinney’s argument is that such re-enactments played back history and context to their audiences. He takes as his test case the Arden of Faversham, a story with a long history in English chronicles (starting around 1551) and culminating in the printing of an anonymous play in 1592. The story involves a wealthy land-owner murdered by conspirators that include his wife. Kinney shows how in 1551, the play was connected to the land that Henry made available when he took it from the Catholic Church and sold it to regular citizens in the late 1530s. Arden’s murder reaks of class warfare. On the other hand, such a context does not apply to the 1592 play which was printed in the final decade of Queen Elizabeth’s rule. Now, a providential narrative of a morally corrupt wife being brought to justice. Kinney uses this example to argue that in this period, the line between text and context becomes blurry, and such an effect is what Kinney thinks the final legacy of this drama actually is.

SUMMARY: Introduction to A Companion to Renaissance Drama