Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 3

Welcome to the third plenary session, and the final session for day one of the conference! I am Mary Finch and I will be live blogging this session that runs from 4:15-5:30 pm. Thanks for joining us!

Jeanne McCarthy, Georgia Gwinnett College
The “Studious” Actor in Sixteenth-Century Popular Theatre; Or, Reconsidering the Influence of the Grammar School on Popular Culture

McCarthy begins by observing how several of Shakespeare’s scenes discuss literacy and study, most notably the mechanicals in A Midsummer’s Nights Dream. While most players could read, not all of them could and certainly not their entire audience. Progress towards literacy throughout Elizabethan England was inconsistent. Players attracted those who followed the tradition of an oral culture with its pageantry in costumes and plot.

Turning towards the school drama, McCarthy discusses the influences of the philosopher Quintilian. McCarthy explains that the works of the schools were, like Shakespeare’s plays, deeply literary and performative due to the influence of Quintilian, which raised the bar for performance of adult actors as well. The textual study that grew out of Quintilian’s philosophy focused on feeling, not just displaying. The pedagogy of Quintilian also focused on empathy, encouraging students to imagine what their characters were feeling or thinking.

McCarthy then highlighted how Hamlet’s disdain for indicative acting follows along with the acting philosophy of Quintilian. The similarities between Quintilian and the methods Stanislavsky and A. C. Bradley challenge how we view acting from the Elizabethan time.

Ann Thompson, King’s College London
Chests and Trunks on the Early Modern Stage

Thompson begins by discussing the most notable, and dramatic, use of a chest in Cymbeline. Thoughout Elizabethan plays, trunks and chests are used for numerous reasons, benign and malevolent, for purposes ranging from hiding identity to storing gods to a discreet location for illicit sex. Today, trunks most often contain a body. Interestingly, both trunk and chest are terms for the human body.

Thompson elaborates on the use of the words in the context of plays. The trunks can also refer to parts of trees as well as places to store things, according to OED which lists storage as one of the final uses of the word. The term only refers to furniture six times in Shakespeare’s work. It is far more likely to refer to a human body. In many cases, he puns with the word invoking both meanings.

In contrast, chest more commonly refers to the non-corporeal meaning, but still appears as a referent for the body occasionally, in Shakespeare’s texts. The variety of meanings and contexts for trunks and chests provide a wealth of interpretive decisions, either referenced or brought on stage.

Thompson concluded by observing that a trunk on stage would be an ideal hiding place from the Bear.

Kerry Cooke, James Madison University
Address for Success: Epistolary Theory in Twelfth Night

Cooke plans to argue that Shakespeare did use letters for dramatic effects, not just to convey meaning or act as a messenger. She neatly broke her lecture into three parts:

Part 1: “Theoretically Speaking”

To begin, Cooke highlighted the ways that letters reflected the social hierarchy of Early Modern England. In letter writing, status of the writer and receiver governed the features and style of the writing. Letters contained a number of formalities, one of them being the use of a secretary hand or italic hand. Everything from status, content, and gender determined what handwriting was most appropriate. Cooke further explained the content and recipients of the letter even determined the alignment of the words on the page.

“Letter writing was a goal orientated activity” where conventions were a means to success.

Part 2: The Twelfth Time You’ve Seen this Scene

Cooke draws upon the moment when Malvolio examines the letter he assumes is from Olivia, using actor Marshall Garrett to read the famous lines. Commenting as Garret reads, Cooke shows how Malvolio’s description of the letter draws in the audience. A “lady’s hand” means the letter is written in italics, not just that it appears feminine. Malvolio then acknowledges the other formalities such as the waxen seal,  which indicates privacy along with authorship.The interspersion of prose and verse fills the page, and the salutation, signature, and post-script complete the physical image of the letter, along with the written message.

Part 3: All Dressed Up

Looking at the effect of the letter on Malvolio, Cooke shows how successfully Maria considered her audience, the haughty Malvolio. Maria used the italic hand of an upper class woman, framed her letter appropriately on the page, and created a signature that allures to Malvolio. According to Cook, Malvolio did not misread the letter because he was proud or lustful, but he read it exactly as Maria intended it, making it successful letter.

Shannon Kelley, Fairfield University
Crooked Trees and Mistresses: Staging the Contreblason in Lyly’s Endymion

Kelley begins by asking as to imagine the pillar on the stage as a tree, which actor Marshall Garrett will fall in love with during the course of the lecture. (His moving performance caused interspersed laughter throughout.)

Kelley establishes that while stage trees are not rare, no playwright uses them as frequently with as much specificity as Lyly. The trees are not just a prop, but also a symbol invoking romance and the ideas of Ovid. They can even suffer violence. Some trees even speak in the plays.

In Endymion, Sir Tophas genuinely renounces young women in favor of older women, which prepares audiences for his romantic interest in the stage tree later on since he already resists societal expectations of love and romance. The use of Aspen specifically, a smooth yet loud tree, reflects women full of talk and noise, just the sort of older women Tellus prefers. Kelley shares a myth about the devil giving women the gift (or curse) of speech through an Aspen leaf strengthening the connection between the tree and Tophas for Elizabethan audiences.

However, Kelley goes on, Tophas’ love towards the tree becomes too much. Dipsas’ transformation back into a person is met with disdain from Tophas rather than adoration. This disappointment comes not only from the loss of the tree, but also that she is no longer “crone,” who he prefers to the Petrarchan ideal of beauty.

Sarah Neville, Ohio State University
Death Properties in Renaissance Drama: Coffins

Neville opens her speech by challenging the long hold assumption that there are numerous skulls on stage during the gravedigger scene–looking at stage directions, there is only a requirement for a shovel. Comparing the stage directions in the quarto and folio publications, Neville points out the differences in how Ophelia’s body is brought on stage. There is a long standing tradition assuming that the coffin of Ophelia must be open. Yet, Hamlet cannot see her and does not realize that it is Ophelia until Laertes identifies her. This examples embodies the problems of dealing with corpses and coffins on stage.

First, in order to have a corpse, someone had to bring it on stage, and then off again. Neville mused that the use of severed heads alleviated the weight of transporting bodies around the stage, and perhaps is why Shakespeare (and other authors) used them frequently.

This paper addressed the death problem and the way that Elizabethan play makers learned to solve the issue. The prevalent use of coffins in histories also brought them into comedies, romances, and tragicomedies.

Death properties allowed playwrights to explore the differences between “bodies within boxes, and those without.” Even today, as demonstrated by the process to stage today’s demonstration, dead bodies still present a problem for companies today.

Coffins appear at the start of Henry VI part 1 and Richard II, and Henslowe’s diary shows that they had two coffins in possession. In some cases, the body is left exposed with the more ambiguous stage directions “enter corpse” or the dialogue of the surrounding characters which remarks on the corpse. The most striking entrances of a corpse might be Lear’s carrying of his daughter Cordelia. This contrasts to the bringing of the treacherous daughters that are simply brought in. Several actors demonstrated the different effects of bring a corpse in a container, as opposed to carrying one on.

As Neville described it, “Coffins are a portable discovery space” that can contain doom, revival, and even transformation.

Neville has found that these uses are not only the result of an interest in death, but also a practical use. The increase use of death properties addresses with the problem of corpses, but also contributes to the ambiguity of tragicomedies, bringing death close to the living.

Paige Reynolds, University of Central Arkansas
Performing the Female Body in Macbeth

Reynolds started with anecdote about ways to avoid the “Curse”–one production blessed the shoes the actors wore to ward off ill will. A lesser known curse, but one as serious, surrounds the challenge of staging and dealing with the body of Lady Macbeth.

Reading Lady Macbeth as the embodiment of sexuality and moral depravity makes playing her deeply difficult, since the body of Lady Macbeth should both attract and repulse. The first mention of this curse of this comes from Malcolm’s descriptions of her as beast-like and sexually depraved.

Lady Macbeth’s famous “Unsex me here” speech achieves the opposite when staged; it clearly sexes her with its focus on the body and the repetition of the “come” (which has a disputed erotic history). The erotic performance contradicts the purpose of achieving a cool and detached commitment to ambition. Because of this contradiction, Lady Macbeth’s language and performance frequently registers as a “male fantasy.”

In contrast, Reynolds stresses that Lady Macbeth’s sexuality does not reflect a mental illness, nor can it be a characterization, just like “be seduced” could hardly function as characterization for Macbeth. Emphasizing the powers of seduction reduces Lady Macbeth to the insults of Malcolm.

Finally, the sleep walking scene forecasts Lady Macbeth’s death and exposes her internal struggle, while Macbeth’s struggle becomes more hidden from the audience. The observing doctor and waiting lady act as an audience, scrutinizing the night gown clad female body, and her exposed mind. The curse of figuring out the staging of Lady Macbeth’s sexual body offers as much potential for destruction as the other “Curse.”

— Mary Finch
MLitt student at MBC Shakespeare & Performance

One thought on “Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Plenary Session 3

  1. Pingback: Blackfriars Conference 2015 — Liveblogging Masterlist | ASC Education

Comments are closed.