Isn’t Will Ironic? Don’t You Think?

As I work my way through Playing Shakespeare, I’m now at the selection on irony.  Barton admits that irony is very difficult to get right, because you’re left to interpret clues in the text which could go many different ways.  They then start by doing the “Brutus is an honorable man” speech, calling it the most obvious example and getting it out of the way. Who’s got another favorite example of a scene that is played for the irony?  One of the actors specifically asks about the difference between being “wry” and ironic, and though Barton seems to suggest that being wry has more to do with going for the laugh (smirk?), I’m not sure I fully understand his answer.

6 thoughts on “Isn’t Will Ironic? Don’t You Think?

  1. I'm not sure if he talks about this, because I've never owned a copy of Playing Shakespeare–until this Friday–(YAY!) and haven't caught up to you yet. But this example is one of my favorites I use in teaching. The fact that Antony repeats, over and over again, the word "honorable" and also that the word itself is sometimes responsible for taking up four beats in a ten beat line makes Antony's irony rather obvious: "For Brutus is an Hon-or-a-ble man. So are they all; all Hon-or-a-ble men. {…} And Brutus is an Honorable man. {…} And sure he is an Honorable man." Each time (5) capitalized and each time given the value and weight of four beats to speak one word.
    Antithetically, he speaks ironically of Caesar's Am-bi-ti-on the same way six times.

    Great stuff.

  2. I had a hard time following Barton on much of this one, as well. I think he was working in his own idiolect for much of it–the concept of "irony" is very powerful and important to him, but he seems to go roaring off into some terminological landscape that it's tricky for the rest of us to see into at all.

    It seemed to me that many of the actors shared my bafflement–the fellow playing Henry IV in the deposition scene in particular. Some of the others just seemed to give this air of trying to get through their lines without a fuss while John goes off into John-Land.

  3. I can definitely see that, Craig. You never know when a performance is going to measure
    "Ok, good, now on to the next thing" or a "Let's sit down and discuss it and then do it 3 times". (I realize that it is edited for television).

    What was it that Barton said about one of the sonnets, something about "You are scolding your mistress…" and the actor about to do the recitation looks at his page and says, "Oh, *thats* what it's about, is it?"

    By the way, I am coming to quite love Ben Kingsley's work. He seems like a real student of it, asking questions, delivering his best performance, all while freely admitting that he's shaking in his boots about whether he'll do it right.

    "I cannot kill my friend. [turns to guard] Kill my friend." – Ben Kingsley in "Sneakers" with Robert Redford

  4. Duane said: "One of the actors specifically asks about the difference between being “wry” and ironic, and though Barton seems to suggest that being wry has more to do with going for the laugh (smirk?), I’m not sure I fully understand his answer.

    Could he have meant that there can be wryness in irony, but being ironic isn't necessarily the same as being wry, yet can have a wryness to it? In any event, I always take into account the fact that these episodes are edited, as you mentioned before Duane, and encapsulated versions, attempting to get sometimes difficult concepts across in very little time.

    Checking the book, he does say that wryness is not ambiguous, but irony is. And, "I realize we've strayed here beyond something which is demonstrably and objectively present in the text to something much more subjective."

    All in all, I don't believe he was simply off on a high horse. It's fairly clear to me that his message was that irony and ambiguity go hand in hand, and that textually it's sometimes difficult to ferret out the irony unless we look for it very closely.
    The actual textual digging, (which he even skirts around somewhat in the book) and explaining how the method and means to go about it works, takes far longer than a 50 min. vid session would allow. You're going to have to forgo information which can sometimes make all the difference in the world towards clarification– deceptively simple in its ultimate explanation but– too time consuming to actually "explain" fully –even if one happens to be John Barton. 🙂
    His partner, Sir Peter Hall, does much more of the detailed textual work, which underlies Barton's theoretical stance, in his book, "Advice to the Players."

  5. I really must locate this series. Shame on me for only having a BlackBerry!

    I don't know how much it really counts as ironic, but I really love how I've seen Polonius' "To thine own self be true" speech acted recently. (In conjunction, I've also seen it used it several short stories in which it's definitely ironic.) But that's my latest point of interest.

  6. Hi Stacie,

    If you're at all interested in the art of acting Shakespeare, get it. It's $80, but it is a 4DVD set, so that's like $20/lesson. To watch Patrick Stewart, Judi Dench and Ian McKellen study with John Barton? Deal.

    I've often wondered about the irony of Polonius' speech. I hear people often complain, "Anybody who quotes that speech like it's words to live by doesn't get the irony!" Or do they? Is Polonius being deliberately ironic ("wink wink, nudge nudge, if you put on a good front people will trust you and you can get away with anything!"), or does it have more to do with the fact that he's not really listening to what he's saying (i.e. he's hardly one to talk about being true to yourself)? I think I may kick this up to a top level post so more people see it.

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