Colloquy XII: Staged and Unstaged Binaries/Evil

Ashley Pierce here (again, again) blogging the 12th colloquy “Staged and Unstaged Binaries/Evil.” Chaired by JIm Casey with presenters Brittany Ginder, Joanna Grossman, Gabriel Rieger, and Danielle Sanfilippo. This session takes place Friday October 25th from 2:30 to 3:45 PM in conjunction with the 2013 Blackfriars Conference. In lue of describing their papers, the presenters will be discussing their various topics. Though I will provide a brief description and titles of the papers, via an abstract provided at the colloquy.

Violence and the Body: The Obscene and the Ob-scene by Jim Casey “In Lynda Nead’s distinction between art and obscenity, “Art is being defined in terms of the containing, of form within limits; obscenity, on the other hand, is defined in terms of excess, as form beyond limit, beyond the frame of representation.” In this paper, I explore the ideas of containment and excess in scenes of early modern violence. For example, Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus seems to have been something the early moderns would have considered obscene. Consequently, it occurs ob-scene. Other moments of excessive violence in the play, however–Titus’ mutilation, Mutius’ murder, for example–remain in full view. I am interested in exploring the boundaries of acceptable violence to better understand the sociocultural expectations of gendered bodies.”

Tongues in Richard II by Joanna Grossman “The myriad instances of grotesque mutilation in Elizabethan revenge plays have long captivated audiences and readers alike. Frequently, the disfigured body part depicted on stage is a severed tongue, with Lavinia in Titus Andronicus being perhaps the most famous example. But although the image of Lavinia’s horrible defacement proves difficult to expunge from one’s memory, this paper argues that Richard II is in fact the Shakespearean play that most thoroughly and imaginatively explores the organ’s potential dramatic functions. In “Sins of the Tongue”, Carla Mazzio considers early modern portrayals of tongues and concludes that this period witnessed a paradoxical construction of the organ as a simultaneously moral and immoral–but, most importantly, autonomous–actor. Surprisingly, for all the wealth of examples that Mazzio draws upon, she makes no mention of Richard II, which contains more references to tongues than any other Shakespearean work. Although the presence of tongues is undeniable, the playwright’s application of the motif in this history play is subtle, especially when compared to revenge dramas. For this reason, the subject of tongues has been unwittingly pushed to the background in favor of discussions on the pervasive religious symbolism or the use of the sun, water, and countless other emblems throughout the discourse. This paper examines what has been an undeservedly overlooked aspect of the first installment in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. I hope to show that the play’s religious undertones are best understood in relation to Shakespeare’s frequent use of tongues and that Richard II posits an inverse relationship between this particular organ’s autonomy and the welfare of the state, namely because the unbridled tongue constitutes an impediment to effective leadership.”

“Made of the Selfsame Metal”: Regan as King Lear‘s Soldier/Daughter by Brittany Proudfoot-Ginder

“King Lear’s daughters have long been placed within the Manichean binary of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ The innocent Cordelia is the embodiment of feminine nature and the bringer of all things ‘good’ whereas Goneril and Regan are categorized as ‘evil,’ jealous, and manipulative monsters. This binary scheme, like most, is flawed. Cordelia is rarely dissected past the cliched image of Christ, and the judgments made in regard to the elder Lear sisters are grossly out of proportion with their supposed injustices. While a larger study on Regan’s place on the stage and in the Lear family is the topic of the thesis I am currently writing, I will be focusing in this particular essay on how this middle daughter breaks not only the binary scheme of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ but also the binary of acceptable ways for men and women to commit acts of violence on the Renaissance stage.”

“The Whirligig of Time”: Twelfth Night and the Politics of Revenge by Gabriel A. Rigger

“One of the most compelling questions in Shakespeare’s canon occurs in the final scene of Twelfth Night, in which the steward Malvolio, having vowed to “be revenged on the whole pack” of the court of Illyria, leaves the stage with an unsettled lawsuit against the sea captain who has delievered. Theatre historian Ralph Berry observes that “[a] modern production of Twelfth Night is obliged to redefine comedy, knowing always that its ultimate event is the destruction of a notably charmless bureaucrat.” The comedy of destruction can sit uneasily with a contemporary audience.
Much of that comedy hinges upon the revenge plot enacted upon Malvolio by his rival Feste tat jester and Feste’s cohorts in the court of the Countess, and indeed the notion of repayment, of “quiting,” runs throughout. Cesario quites Olivia’s disregard for Orsino, while Olivia’s love for Cesario, like Orsino’s love for Olivia is unrequited. Throughout the comedy we witness “the whirligig of time bring[ing] in his revenges,” and indeed its climactic scene hinges upon the vengeance played between Feste and Malvolio, the two rivals at the court of Illyria who split the play between them. Ostensibly, the two characters represent oppositional modes of social experience, but a closer analysis reveals that for all of their superficial opposition, the two characters have much in common and, I will argue, serve a similar dramatic function in the universe of Twelfth Night, providing examples of fundamental, disordered melancholy in contrast to the performative melancholy of the aristocracy.”

Dimensions of Shylock Beyond “Hath Not a Jew Eye?” by Danielle Sanfilippo

“Readers of The Merchant of Venice speech are likely to point to Shylock’s much-quoted “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech as the most crucial moment of Act 3, Scene 1. After all, it is in this speech that Shylock gives his reasons for his dramatic revenge. However, just a few lines later, Shylock’s fellow Jew Tubal enters, providing an even richer, if often overlooked, layer to the scene. RSC direcing legend John Barton astutely notes that this part of the scene is very dependnt on the actor playing Tubal. As is common in Shakespeare, there are no stage directions indicating how the actor should play the part. Yet this minor character can help provide important perspectives on Shylock as well as a larger picture of the Jewish community.
The weight of the scene depends on the abrupt (and often comic) mood shifts that Tubal wrings out of Shylock. Mentions of Jessica’s spendthrift habits plunge him into despair while news of Antonio’s debt fills him with glee. Tubal is also present for the emotional moment when Shylock realizes that Jessica has given away her mother’s ring. Far from being a toady, Tubal is a wealthy independent character whose presence highlights Shylock’s emotions and helps him come to the ultimate decision to seek revenge. Most crucially, Tubal gives a perspective on Shylock that is not seen elsewhere in the play; that of a peer in the Jewish community. Tubal’s lines are largely neutral, a frequent Shakespearean technique. The actor must choose Tubal’s reaction. Does he agree with Shylock’s perverse plan or is he somewhat disapproving? In demonstrating the immense importance of this character to the revenge plot of The Merchant of Venice, I would like to have two actors help me with contrasting readings of Tubal’s lines.”