Blackfriars Conference 2015 – Colloquy Session XIV

Morning! Whitney Egbert again live blogging from Colloquy Session XIV on Political Wisdom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, and 1 Henry VI. The session is running from 9:00 to 10:15 in the Augusta Room at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel.

A small change to the schedule with one presenter being absent – this morning we will hear from Bernard Dobski, John Presnall, Dustin Gish, with additional thoughts from William “Reg” Rampone.  Gish will also be our chair.

Dobski starts us out with 1H6 and the presentation of Joan of Arc.  He is interested in the claims that she can produce the results she does on politics and military without any previous involvement.  He asks “What is the proper or legitimate claim to rule?  Or is there no legitimate rule and is just whoever can win?  Or is the only legitimate rule the one where the people put them there?”  He explores this in three steps: 1) the bodily needs – our own and those of others; 2) Joan has a relationship between body and soul that allows her to manipulate/dominate over the men; and 3) as good as her understanding is, it is incomplete, especially in her understanding of how her sexual politics might effect her results.

Presnall discusses Antony and Cleopatra, the sunset of our last true republic.  He explores the role of speech and the sense of common good and points out that a lot of the text for the leaders of the world at that point seem to have set aside the concept of common good.  Presnall points out that no one seems to want to talk about killing others and ignore the need for advancement – there is a divergence between what they speak about and what needs to be done and so we turn to a love story instead.  That leads to a diminishment of the life politic in lieu of the life erotic in, if none others, Antony’s world.  He ponders, as a note, if this play shows the early sense of the new world to emerge into Christianity as the next thing to emerge after all of what is now, in the play, finishes its sunset.

Gish dives into The Winters Tale and the idea of tyranny, mentioned more in this play than any other excepting Macbeth, the sense of justice that comes up, especially in the second half, and finally the Oracle, again mentioned more here than in other shows.  He also points out the connection between this and other great works – the sense of Eros as in The Symposium and Plato’s The Republic; likewise the Oracle’s most famous advice of “know thyself,” with Leontes does not do but Socrates did abide by.  Gish, going back to his points of tyranny and justice, says that Leontes is not really driven by the jealousy he feels but the anger that jealousy creates.  Camillo and Paulina both site changes in the king in their text that indicate changes in his true person.  He is changed by the calming of his soul as his faith is reawakened.  Gish proposes that Leontes is, across the play, a passionate man who never goes from that but that it changes – anger at the first, despair and grief, and finally passion and joy and that it is Paulina who helps him transition through them, moderating his Eros.

We return to Dobski and Joan – he clarifies that Joan’s manipulation might come from her understanding and awareness of men’s pride and sense of wanting to excel but that she seems to give too much too quickly so she loses everything.  He sites the taking and losing of both Rohen and Orleans.  Rampone jumps in and points out that the men are also using Joan.  Dobski agrees but says that he doesn’t think, in this play, that Joan thinks she is divinely inspired but that instead she is smarter than the men and she knows she needs something to get the power. That plays into the English opinion of the French at the time the play was written (a woman is smarter than your king!) and she is portrayed as complicated rather than just a fop as the French are portrayed in Henry V.  Her real counter in the play is Talbot and that ends in a draw.  She is not the typical portrayal of a French person nor of a woman, even a strong woman, in Shakespeare.

Gish asks Dobski and Presnall to define what they mean by Eros in each of the plays so that we ensure that everyone in the room is on the same page.  An interesting discussion between the three about the dichotomy between love and politics in each of these three plays ensues – drawing the similarities but also how love is different in each, how each play highlights a different type of the Eros.

Rampone asks Gish about the psychology behind the jealousy of Leontes in The Winters Tale.  Gish responds that he hasn’t really looked at it in the modern sense of things but used Aristotle’s sense around the time, which is how he got to anger.  There is not, then, a sense of love in marriages as we currently define it, so when it comes up, it gets turned to anger and therefore, as Presnall adds, to the treason that Hermione is actually accused of in the court.

The discussion continues, jumping from a sense of male/female, god/goddess to a longer conversation about whether the final moment in The Winters Tale and whether it is a miracle or theatrical.  It got lively and passionate!  A great discussion over how could Paulina know that her name is Perdita and could she have orchestrated it all.  Paulina is a great point of interest in the group.

Dobski then swings the conversation to Antony and Cleopatra before we see the show this evening, asking Presnall about the suicide.  There is a break in the room between those who think Cleopatra is egocentric and those who think she is attempting to preserve her empire, whether for herself and her memory or for her son.

An auditor draws a connection between all three plays, saying they are all about “what’s worth living for” and then “what makes a good ruler.”  The ideas that what do the characters in each of these plays fight for and what are the characteristics that work and fail in the leadership.  And what is honor and virtue.

This was a truly lovely discussion.

-Whitney Egbert

The Shakespeare Forum