An Infinity of Mona Lisas

Last night, after forcing my wife to watch a portion of Hamlet, I told her “You know I’ll watch the whole three hours again.  With remote in hand, stopping and rewinding.”

I tried to explain why that is.  It’s more than just “I liked that movie, I would watch it again.”  With Shakespeare’s masterpieces you get this dual-nature thing going where on the one hand you’ve got what Shakespeare wrote us 400 years ago.  That’s not changing.  You could see Hamlets now till the end of time and the source text isn’t going anywhere. But on the other hand you’ve got this particular interpretation.  It is one of a million.  So, sure, Hamlet always says “To be or not to be”, but how did this particular actor say it?  And why? How does it differ from how that other actor said it?

I was at a loss to explain the analogy. I started down the path of saying “Imagine you have a chance, regularly, to go see the Mona Lisa.  But that’s not quite it, because that’s a masterpiece that doesn’t change, it’s the same every time you see it.  What if every time you saw it, it was different?  Still the same, still the Mona Lisa, still a masterpiece.  But … different.” 

Does anybody know what I’m trying to say?  Many a science fiction story has been written about all powerful core sources of “stuff”, be it energy or life or power or what have you, and the notion of seeds or splinters of that wellspring being used as the essence of new “stuff”.  It’s a bit like that.  Here you’ve got this body of work that’s essentially infinite in that we can continue to draw on it forever.  So each time we perform it we’re taking a little sliver of it and creating something new. 

Make sense? Am I babbling?

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16 thoughts on “An Infinity of Mona Lisas

  1. I think it's the renewing power that keeps me coming back to Shakespeare for more. As a teacher, I learn something new about characters, relationships, desires, and conflicts each time I discuss a play with my classes. I love sinking into the world of a play and watching the life between the lines.

    Unlike a painting, plays are a collaboration among three parties: the writer, the actor, and the audience. Without all three, the piece isn't complete. Since two of the three variables change with each performance, there are an infinite number of original performances. Shakespeare's genius as a writer lies in his ability to create characters and scenes that are large enough to move around in and enable performance rather than restricting it to "one right way" the way television or film starts as a story board before it is recorded.

    In my theater class, I always discuss with my students the idea that live performances are ephemeral–lasting only a moment–and that it is this precious quality that makes it worth seeing a play live rather than watching a film.

  2. I heartily second that, MissP. And another element of the ephemeral quality is that no two live performances by the same actor are ever the same.–That is, if the actor is growing within the role, which should always be happening. As John Barton says, (and I paraphrase) Shakespeare is so rich, we're never quite able to catch it all at any one given time, or do all the things that are available for us to explore.

  3. On a somewhat related note, I've often told people that I'd much rather go to a zoo than a museum. What's in a museum (not counting obvious edge cases) is the same as it's been for a thousand years, and will continue to be so. Yet on any day at any zoo in any cage, you could sit for 5 minutes or 5 hours and see something different every time.

  4. I get it. Maybe only the Shakespeare geeks and English teachers get it.

    Every year when I get to my Shakespeare unit, I'm overcome with the enormity of the text. These plays have been taught for now hundreds of years. The language is still understandable (unlike the original drafts of Canterbury Tales or Beowulf) and we still see ourselves in the characters.

    Just think of that: our children, us, our parents, our grandparents, our greats, our great-greats all read these texts. The meaning has changed over time (like your post about Freudian interpretations of Hamlet), but there's something immensely universal in these texts. They truly withstand the test of time.

    When I used to teach Hamlet, I loved showing my students different performances of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. That's when the light would go off over their heads and they finally got it: how nuance, tone, pause, expression, and movement can drastically alter the meaning of a text.

  5. Wow. Lotta teachers here.
    I teach Julius Caesar every year and Romeo less often.
    I usually concentrate on the first half (who doesn't?) and then let the kids watch as things fall apart.
    The problem is the paucity of film versions of JC. You've got the 1970 version, the one I call 'the lurid Euro-porno version', and the '53 with Marlon Brando. That's got some great acting but my kids see black and white and they just fall over. Also, the accents are kind of thick- not a lot of 'cheerio, chap' in East L.A.
    However, I make do with what I have and my kids seem to get a lot more from it then they do with other teachers here. I explain the Feast of Lupercal's fertility ritual, I explain how powerful Cassius is when he seduces Brutus with his offer to be a mirror.
    I wish there were more modern versions of JC available. It's a natural, isn't it? It's 'The Sopranos'.

  6. @Vanilla Chunk: Funny you say Julius Caesar is like the Sopranos. When I taught Macbeth for the first time in 99-00, the Sopranos were in the 1st or 2nd season and each Monday, my kids would discuss how Tony was like Macbeth.

    This is what we're talking about! The universality of the texts and how different performers bring out different nuances.

  7. I thought I'd hate this film but ended up loving it, mostly for the reasons you give here, Duane. Each century's grappled with tragic balance when it's come to responding to Hamlet (Philip Edwards is provocative on this at ), and, thankfully, the "light" behind Tennant's eyes kept it tragic-yet-updated for me, despite the antics. I was dismayed only at the lines that were cut, but was relieved that the gravedigger was allowed his "se offendendo/se defendendo" bit, a pet area of mine. BTW, Duane, I've tried to email you some PDF's a couple of times, but they've always bounced back with an "inbox full" message. Perhaps my attachments are too large? I've been following your blog closely, and I have a strong feeling that you'd want to see them, especially in the afterglow of Shakespeare Day and this hugely stimulating Hamlet experience.

  8. I get a steady stream of email, Boris, so I don't think the mail box is the problem (though it is a small one, it came with the hosting). Can you link me to the PDFs somewhere else?

  9. I just want to put a word in for textual editors, commentators and readers, too. Actors and directors are not the only ones who get to interpret Shakespeare. The editorial tradition spans hundreds of years and it can be quite fascinating to read some of the variations in readings that have occurred over the years. And the nice thing is that they are in print for anyone to read! I find that I often come up with different nuances when I re-read a play (or a sonnet). One need not modernize Shakespeare to reinterpret him. Sometimes you just need to look at him in a different light. Just the words.

  10. Although I also heartily agree with you in all the other areas Carl, you might have to offer a stronger argument for the majority of textual editors other than what they've done to the text for that span of hundreds of years, to convince me that I should consider them too, too seriously. 🙂

  11. Editors are no different from actors and directors–there are good ones and bad ones. Some editors have made brilliant additions to our understanding and interpretation of Shakespeare's works–from clever emendations that certainly uncovered compositorial errors, to insightful unfolding of complicated Elizabethan grammar, or sensitive interpretation of poetic meaning– while others have offered nothing but obfuscation. There is some very rich material to be gained from the edited texts–and a lot of dross to sift through. Just as there is in the history of theatrical performance of the plays.

  12. Agreed.

    What follows was the focus of my comment:
    The trouble is, is that much of the dross is sitting on the commercial bookshelves in the form of badly altered, badly punctuated, "improved" and "corrected", structurally-pristine, "academically-poetical" text, passed down (after similar "emendations") over the centuries from one editor to the next. This is then offered as required reading for someone's first exposure to Shakespeare. This is the strongest imprint a textual editor can have–common and accepted, wide scale, mandated exposure– and I think you and I both know how much the original text has been altered for the worse in so many of these instances.
    Unlike you or me, neophytes aren't going to bother to seek out the brilliant,"non-obfuscated" work. Compounding this is the fact that ultimately, it's the publishing houses that tell them what Shakespeare is or isn't. And they know little and care less about Shakespeare.

  13. You are quite right, JM, we agree on the demerits of modern, commercial editions. But I am a big fan of the Arden series and often the New Cambridge, with the caveat that, as with any series, there is some unevenness depending on the individual editor. Of course, for the adventuresome, there is always the New Variorum, expansive in breadth, always fascinating, equally exasperating– not for the weak of heart, and certainly not for casual reading.
    I would recommend the Arden for someone interested in seeing what a good editor can do to enlighten a text. But you do have to be prepared to spend a little more time reading a play than you would otherwise. It's sort of like Duane sitting there with the rewind button.

  14. The 1623 Folio or Quartos, after all, have no annotations or commentary 🙂

    I'm a fan of the Arden series as well. There's nothing like having a practical additional book of notations as catalysts–extensive, in-depth, analytical viewpoint–when acting in, directing, or conflating, OR just plain reading the play. I think we've come full circle– I'm back to your first point, Carl. With all of his involvement in the theatre, and his insistence on the need to hear the words aloud, John Barton still advocated the act of just plain reading the plays. It's a whole different world of experience in itself, and nuances reveal themselves in surprising ways.

  15. Anonymous wrote…"That's why som[e] people read _fanfiction, isn't it?"

    Note that I said "as catalysts", not "as pablum". One need not agree with or believe any analytical criticism. But it's sometimes very useful as a spur in the invention of a creative foil for its own rebuttal.

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