Book Review: Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

16245157Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

Language, Shakespeare, and the Gettysburg Address

Wordle of the text of the Gettysburg AddressToday marks the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, perhaps one of the most famous compositions in the English language. For decades, it was a staple of classroom memorization, and its opening line still permeates our cultural consciousness (with occasional help from parodies and cartoon shows). But what is it about that speech that has such a lasting effect? Some of the same elements that have allowed Shakespeare to endure. This article by Jeanne Fahnestock does a nice job of analyzing the linguistic components of the Gettysburg Address. Something that particularly struck me was the discussion of word origins.

It is therefore not unusual in synonym-rich English to have multiple ways of saying something, one living on from Anglo-Saxon or Norse, another a French-tinctured option, and still another incorporated directly from a classical language. Consider the alternatives last/endure/persist or full/complete/consummate. Of course no English speaker would see these alternatives as fungible since, through years of usage, each has acquired a special sense and preferred context. But an artist in the English language like Lincoln understands the consequences in precision and nuance of movement from layer to layer. He chose the French-sourced endure at one one point in his Remarks and the Old English full at another.

Part of the genius of the composition of famous speeches lies in choosing the right word for the moment. Shakespeare is a master at this. The vocabulary of Shakespeare’s plays totals over 31,000 different words, and more than half of those only see use once or twice. While he can use and invent Latinate or French-origin words like “arbitrate”, “dissembling”, “burgonet”, or even “honorificabilitudinitatibus”, he can also write sentences as simple as “He is a dreamer; let us leave him” or “I am slain”. When we ask students to do word-for-word paraphrasing, as our actors do at the start of the rehearsal process, they often find that Shakespeare has already chosen the simplest word. Trying to “simplify” by paraphrasing turns something as simple as Orlando’s statement “Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing” into something distinctly more complex, such as “Absence; I am not educated to create presence.”

Word choice matters to rhetoric as well. As Fahnestock’s article points out, much of the power of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes from Lincoln’s method of structuring his sentences to achieve a desired effect — one that is emotionally moving, one that trains the listener to expect certain forms, and one that is aurally graceful and satisfying. The devices he uses — antithesis, polyptoton, tricolon — are some of the same as Shakespeare’s most-frequently-used forms. Repetition snags the ear, and Shakespeare and Lincoln, both men with an acute awareness for how to hold an audience, knew how to turn it to their advantage.

Interestingly, Lincoln connects to Shakespeare in one more way: textual variants. No one actually knows what were the 270-odd words spoken that day, as there are at least five different copies of the speech in Lincoln’s handwriting, and it is unclear which he read from — or if he may have made further extemporaneous adjustments. Further complicating the matter, newspapers in the days following the speech printed yet different variations, leaving no single authoritative text. That confusion of textual veracity is one that Shakespeare scholars also face, since even our quartos and folios are still several degrees removed from Shakespeare’s hand. Though Lincoln and Shakespeare both wrote some of the most famous sentences in the English language, the strange reality of textual culture is that we can’t now know that those were even their original words.