It Doesn’t Say It Doesn’t!

This post is something of a spin-off from the “Ophelia Was Pushed!” thread going on earlier.  Shakespeare wrote a play.  It has a start and a finish, and either he puts something on stage, or he has somebody tell of something that happened off stage. What about everything else?   What’s your opinion? In my other life, the one with all the computers, we have this idea of “specifications”.   Any good project is supposed to have a good specification, which defines all the inputs to the system and how the system handles them.  Inevitably there are conditions that are missed, and for those we say simply that the behavior is “undefined.”  As computer geeks we’re cool with that having a certain meaning – it doesn’t mean “these inputs can never be provided”, it means “the system can do whatever it wants, and each implementation of the system may handle it differently.” I see something very similar here with Shakespeare’s work.  He gave us a closed system.  He left some stuff undefined.  So when those questions come up we could say “Those questions cannot be asked, because they cannot be answered” or we could say, “Since Shakespeare does not answer them, it is understood that we can answer them however we think is right.” What’s your position on this?  Tolerable, because you can’t stop it? Or perfectly natural and welcome?   I don’t have to like or agree with any individual interpretation, of course, much like I can see a certain implementation of a spec and say “Well, no, that behavior makes no sense to me.” But I’m perfectly happy with the rule that “undefined” means “do whatever you think is right.” UPDATE: For bonus points, point to an example of a production where something was added that clearly Shakespeare never said.  Isn’t there an example from history where Fortinbras shows up, and his line “Bid the soldiers shoot” is actually an order to execute Horatio?

14 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Say It Doesn’t!

  1. directortm says:

    The idea of Fortinbras shooting Horatio at the end, I believe, comes from Ingmar Bergman orginally (in the film I believe). It was also repeated in Oskar Eustis' production of Hamlet at NY Shakespeare Festival in 2008. It left me kind of empty, it feels more powerful for Horatio to have to bear the tragedy of Hamlet for the rest of his life. And it's also a sort of call to action of the audience to bear it with him. BUT, I can see the idea: Hamlet couldn't exact revenge so Denmark is done for? I like the original better. In my mind it's a more everlasting, more personal ending.

    Another example is Peter Sellars' production of Othello starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, shown at the Public last fall. He made Iago's theories about Othello sleeping with Emilia explicit. Seemed way off base to me. Made the play more simple, in a sort of Melrose Place, trading beds aspect. It confirmed Iago's revenge, no more theories. Because of this it made the inexplicable tragedy of losing Desdemona, seem small, because you find Othello guilty of that which he protests.

    Don't get me wrong, I like people trying out new things with Shakespeare's plays, especially when they provide some fresh insight. In these two cases, I don't think they did, but it's worth the try.

    My only point, is that when they do things as dramatic as this, it should be called "Peter Sellar's Othello" because they are essentially changing the intention of Shakespeare.

  2. I find I have no problem with exploiting variables in Shakespeare's text — in fact, I think it's probably the neatest thing about actually watching the plays. How will individual productions handle something like, say, the Fool disappearing halfway through Lear? There are boring but adequate ways of dealing with the problem (some soldiers run out, lynch the fool, Lear has his line at the end, and everyone's [un]happy), but there are also experimental, potentially disastrous, potentially mind-blowing ways of dealing with it (the Fool is somehow an aspect of Lear's own consciousness, an aspect that becomes less important post-storm and eventually is reclaimed or sublimated by him).

    There are also choices, as directortm points out, that are complete game-changers.

    I recently saw a very mediocre Macbeth that was set during a pseudo-Spanish Civil War. After the rebel Macduff killed Macbeth/Franco, Malcolm waltzed in with his bodyguards, told Macduff good job, and shot him. I suspect in the context of the production this is meant to be a sort of commentary on revolutions, regime changes, and their failures; the added Spanish flair then emphasizes the idea of the real revolutionaries being bowled over, betrayed, commercialized, whatever.

    It made the production's morals distinct from any possible historicist conjecture about Shakespeare's play's morals; I'm cool with that, to a degree, but I wouldn't say "Macbeth is all about betrayed Spanish revolutions" in the same way I refuse to say "The Tempest is all about the insidious evils of patriarchy and colonialism."

    At any rate, it was shocking to see and might have been remarkably effective, had the rest of the production been in any way attempting to support this reading of the text prior to the end. I would have enjoyed it if it were competently implemented. Perhaps… Guillermo Del Toro's Macbeth?

  3. I think anyone who's going to put on a Shakespeare play has to decide their own versions of those "undefined parameters," especially the big ones.
    Plus, any actor worth their salt will be constantly coming up with questions / motivations / interpretations about confusing points in the text, just as any director worth same said NaCl will be offering them, and weeding out ones that don't make sense.

    As long as the entire play is cohesive, and true to the text as much as you can be, I say go for it.

    Macbeth is a really popular example of this–I feel like the witches especially are open to huge amounts of directoral interpretation, and some really works and some really doesn't. I have my own opinions on which witch-versions make the best story, but I'm willing to set those opinions aside and enjoy the show, as long as whatever choice the particular production has made is consistent and makes for a gripping tale.

    (As another example: I recently saw a production of "Twelfth Night" done as a semi-Dickensian Christmas show. They took this idea and ran with it way too far, basically upping all the jolly holiday stuff and nixing any bit of melancholy. It pretty much ruined the play, which for me is based as much on melancholy as joy, and it's the balance of those two among all the characters that makes it so delicious. This was certainly a choice made around "undefinables"–ie, how do we feel about Malvolio, is the joke on him supposed to be cruel or funny, etc–but the choice made didn't jive with the rest of the play.)

  4. But I’m perfectly happy with the rule that “undefined” means “do whatever you think is right.”

    In an "interpretive" world what else can one do? But not unlike computers, arbitrary code won't work unless it contains components which will actually interface, no? I agree–as long as interpretation "computes" down the line:)

  5. Well, what you do in this case is you sit around on a standards committee for months, arguing about it, until you change the spec. 🙂

    There are advantages to leaving more stuff undefined — smaller specs! But downsides as well – never knowing whether two implementations are compatible. Plenty of careers have been made chasing down bugs like that. ("Well on Linux this condition returns a null, which we check for, but on Windows the machine halts and catches fire and the code doesn't really run much more after that.")

    Honestly, what can you really do? You can, if you're a middle project manager, argue furiously that input (x,y,z) is not accounted for therefore it does not have to be addressed because it will never happen. This makes engineers want to hurt people. I suppose it is similar to an actress who asks the director, "Why does Gertrude apparently watch Ophelia die?" and the director says "Who knows, Shakespeare didn't really say. Don't worry about it, just read the damned lines." That would make for bad product, in both cases.

  6. Duane wrote:("Well on Linux this condition returns a null, which we check for, but on Windows the machine halts and catches fire and the code doesn't really run much more after that.")


    The great Pamela Brown was asked what "Method" she employed when performing Shakespeare. Her answer? "My dear, I just learn the wordies and then I go on and do them." Simplistic? Maybe–but a great deal of truth resides within. Remember Sir Ian's account?

    As a Linux user, I'm still laughing at your description of the bugs. What a hoot! 🙂

  7. re: Fool as an aspect of Lear's own consciousness, I read about a Tempest once that I seriously wish I'd seen, in which it is revealed that the entire play has taken place inside the head of Prospero, doomed to die alone on the island, driven mad and making up a world in which he is a powerful wizard who takes revenge on his enemies, and his baby daughter grows up to marry a prince and live happily ever after …

    That must have been absolutely brutal to unveil. I applaud whoever came up with that.

  8. This is actually perfect for a paper I am writing about On stage description of Off stage action. Shakespeare doesn't have to define everything and erase any gaps in the story he created: Then it wouldn't be 'play.' What Shakespeare does is create a world of drama that is similar to the real world. Anything that isn't defined in his world we as audience are left to see as the places where that fictive world overlaps with the real world. However, in the case of character actions or motivations, there are lots of way that lots of people in the real world can act and react. Therefore, possible worlds are created by the reader/audience member/actor/director/whoever is making judgments about the text.

    When the referent of something is transferred beyond the confines of the playhouse, we as the audience are asked to disattend this. However, a good actor/director while have already figured out what the absent referent is and provided a filler even if they don't say so explicitly.

    Also, for the bonus: I recently read Marowitz' Taming of the Shrew, which takes Shakespeare's text cuts it as he wants and adds copious amounts of stage directions.

    In his Taming, in the final scene where back at Baptista's house, Petruchio consummates their marriage against Kate's will, with an approving Baptista looking over. Then they launch into the scene where Kate gives her uncomfortable submission speech.

    Definitely not Shakespeare, but a viable reading of the tone of the play none the less.

  9. Monica wrote: "When the referent of something is transferred beyond the confines of the playhouse, we as the audience are asked to disattend this. However, a good actor/director while have already figured out what the absent referent is and provided a filler even if they don't say so explicitly."

    Right you are Monica. And this "filler" or subtext is many times only needed
    for the benefit of the actor, so they might do the job the playwright has
    asked them to do.

    In the case of Gertrude's revelation, no one ON Stage is interested in
    ferreting out the whys of the possibility of Gertrude sitting and "watching" Ophelia die the awful death of asphyxiation by drowning. Maybe Laertes, at the very least, might be somewhat curious (his father's death notwithstanding 🙂 ) as to how she could let his sister meet such a fate and stand by and do NOTHING? Instead, he reacts to the EVENT, which is what Shakespeare asks his audience to do, and he moves on, as the story moves on, On Stage.

    Again, this is Theatre, folks. And a very special kind of theatre. There are
    many ways to lend treatment to the task the actor has been handed by
    Shakespeare. It's possible that Gertrude might even step downstage and deliver the piece as a bit of reverie for the benefit of the audience, the characters IN the play overhearing her thoughts and subsequently reacting to the facts and ONLY those facts as we, the audience are asked to do in this case. And apparently, this device has worked for a very very long time, since I note the utter surprise of those many who have never asked "The Question" before.

    Sadly, we've forgotten the fact that we enter into a contract with the
    playwright and actors to "suspend disbelief". As I mentioned somewhere before, our penchant for "realism" does Shakespeare a disservice. His work wasn't meant to be held under the voyeuristic microscopes we carry around with us as the result of a steady bombardment of films, soap opera, and "reality shows".

  10. I agree with you on the point, JM, if you can believe it. I fully agree that there's a line where you say "Shakespeare said and did this for the following reasons, we can't escape that, we have to work within those boundaries."

    In "thought experiments" like we're doing, though, I happily throw that out and never look back. I don't think Shakespeare means what it does today because the plays were just that darned good, I think there's something that we can elevate above that and take with us. Presumptuous? Sure. Did Shakespeare intend his work to be used in that way? Almost certainly not. But it's not gonna stop me.

    Once upon a time I asked, if there was no Shakespeare person and instead the space aliens just showed up one day and dropped the Complete Works on the steps of the White House, how differently would we examine them? What if the entire thing was titled "How To Be Human"? How would we look at it then?

    I once had an idea for a bumper sticker that read "What Would Iago Do?" and was disappointed that it already exists. Technically the answer is, "Nothing, because he's a made up character and Shakespeare didn't write him doing anything in your situation." Agreed. But it doesn't mean the question's not fun to play with.

  11. I wrote in the other thread that it's been a blast to do this kind of thing. Please don't think I'm trying to stop investigation–or imagination–it's the last thing I would try to do. There's much we can learn from such inventive and investigative musings.

    I'm only trying to provide a clearer picture, which is unnecessarily muddied when there are those who, as in the case of our "Gertrude must have murdered Ophelia" crowd, wish us to then seriously consider it as something which MUST be dealt with in the context of what Shakespeare wrote. This implies an application of their theory to what the audience would then see on stage–a "fixing" of Shakespeare, so to speak–and it's nowhere to be found there.
    In any event…Muse On Duane…it's good stuff 🙂

  12. Yes, JM. That Subtext allows the actor to act more 'truthfully,' which is what makes the audience believe the 'realism' which does not exist in Shakespeare but is easily disattended on the stage.

    And think the reason why JM and Duane seem to almost be arguing the same thing on the in the previous two posts, is because the nature of modern Shakespeare cuts two ways at a time: 1) Reading Shakespeare asks the reader to preform the same 'thought experiments' (as Duane called it) as actors do to give their characters subtext. 2) Understanding of Shakespeare as performance, asks us to defend the text from the people who could treat it as such. THIS is the dual nature of Performance and Text which Shakespeare's first audience did not have to deal with. Both of these are born out of our modern sensibilities for realism, first for realism in the text then for historical realism.

    The key is to recognize that both exist and are not mutually exclusive.

  13. Agree completely with JM. One must be very careful when one decides to add something to, or take something out, of Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare was a dramatic artist, and he was very good at it. If he did not include a piece of information or action in a play, there was probably a good dramatic reason for it. It is not that the play would be less meaningful, or yield a different viewpoint, it would just likely be NOT AS GOOD. This is my major problem with re-interpretations that add material not in the text (or make major cuts in the text). A director is entitled to his or her opinion. But if he or she strays from Shakespeare's text, what is put in is in serious jeopardy of being inferior and reducing the dramatic quality of the play. I have never seen an exception to this rule.
    Modernizations are a different matter, and often offer spins that can be interesting and sometimes arresting. Just my opinion.

  14. Right you are once again, Monica.
    And this is not an argument–I agree with everything you said– only an internal addendum:
    I would only add that far more textual instruction for the actor lies within
    the Text itself; more than most (at least those here in America) are willing to accept is there. This isn't
    "sub" text in the same sense as would be defined by an Actor's Studio devotee.
    This happens to reside within the Text itself.
    Earlier on in the Gertrude thread, I mentioned the construction of the piece
    itself as a way to find clues to how the piece (I don't want to say
    "should", because then the arrows start to fly) could be handled in terms of
    how or what the actor might do with it and, as a result, to directly affect what the audience might perceive. Pamela Brown knew (and many of our best classical actors today know) about the maxim that if you learn how to handle the text, the text will act You.
    There were no "directors" or acting gurus in Shakespeare's time. An actor
    himself, Will wrote the direction into the lines themselves. So, in fact, with
    Shakespeare, far less of the "sub" textual needs to be applied in terms of what goes into a presentation for the audience anyway. Initially, his plays were written to be performed, not analyzed or read. Too much modern sub-textual application techniques by the actor–even when legitimate and logical, if then practically applied for everyone to see–can lead to some very dull and boring Shakespeare. He wrote it for the Audience, first and foremost, and they should be the actor's, director's, and producer's first concern when it comes to
    handling the text–even Now. How do we accomplish this? By paying better
    attention not to the subtext, but to the words. It's a way to initiate the fire of audience interest, a way to hold that interest, and hence, to promote Shakespeare himself and the Work itself.

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