Breaking the Chain (of Being)

In London this past July, I had the opportunity to participate in TranShakespeare, a series of workshops on gender in Shakespeare led by Lisa Wolpe. This is a version of an essay originally created in response to those workshops.


 

When my acting teacher introduced me to E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture during my second year of undergrad, I thought I had been handed the secret key to Shakespeare. That slim volume apparently laid out with clarity and detail what Shakespeare and his contemporaries believed about the world. The central concept is that of the chain of being, which proposes that Elizabethans viewed the universe as a precise and incontrovertible hierarchy from God to monarch to men to women to animals, with various detailed gradations within those groups. Everything could be ranked: types of animals, types of plants, types of metals and stones. In espousing it, Tillyard was following in the footsteps of scholar Arthur O. Lovejoy, who wrote The Great Chain of Being. Between them, they articulated one of the most influential concepts in Shakespeare scholarship and performance. But The Elizabethan World Picture was published in 1942, The Great Chain of Being was in 1936. And yet, despite the political, social, scholarly, and theatrical revolutions that have taken place in the past seventy years, the theory of the chain of being is still widely taught as unquestioned fact, especially to performers.

I still understand exactly why, as an aspiring actor getting a grip on Shakespeare for the first time, I found Tillyard so appealing. Faced with the daunting task of somehow bringing this epically long, extremely dense, hugely famous poetry into my own voice and body, Tillyard’s implicit promise of a set of clear rules to follow was immensely comforting. Read this book, understand where Shakespeare was coming from. Understand where Shakespeare was coming from, automatically know how to live in his roles. Easy! Or at least, easier. But such easy answers are always oversimplifications. One particularly pertinent example of this is the question of gender, a hot topic in Shakespeare studies and performance at the moment. As theatre artists question and challenge the boundaries of gender in our own social and theatrical culture, we must also be prepared to embrace the full complexity of the time period in which the plays we grapple with were written.

The place of gender within the chain of being is clear: women are inferior to men. Men are closer to God, women are closer to animals. It fits in perfectly with the general sense of historical misogyny, and seems to mesh in turn with some of the more sexist displays in Shakespeare’s plays. The only problem is that it’s just not true. Whenever the idea of the chain of being gets brought into a workshop or rehearsal room, I reflexively cringe: I can feel the stereotype that scholarship is rigid and uncreative being reinforced once again. But dismantling the chain of being is, in contrast, another excellent example of how recent Shakespearean and early modern scholarship can act not as rigid rules to bind in creativity, but creative forces in themselves.

No one culture can be compressed into a single set of guiding principles. Plenty of Elizabethans likely believed the basic ideas behind the chain of being … but many almost certainly did not, and those people were not simply lone, subversive voices. Like any time period, there was a multiplicity of perspectives, and this cultural foment of contradictions is reflected even within individual plays and poems.

Critic Phyllis Rackin has repeatedly written that many scholarly assumptions about the early modern period, particularly those regarding the role of women, seem much more invested in upholding contemporary gender roles rather than actually reflecting the realities of a society in which women ran businesses, were guild members, performed in non-professional drama, and of course, were the reigning heads of countries. This is not to suggest that sexism did not exist, because of course there were essential and powerful strains of misogyny at the heart of fifteenth and sixteenth century law and culture, but Tillyard and Lovejoy’s hierarchy suggests a frankly unrealistic rigidity that even Shakespeare’s own plays do not uphold.

When I consider this question, I often think about a pair of plays whose exact relationship is admittedly contested, but which highlight not only the multiplicity of opinions that characterized the period, but also remind us that times, tastes, and authorial interests change. These plays are Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and John Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, a sort-of sequel to Shakespeare’s play in which Petrucchio’s second wife, Maria, embarks on a scheme to ‘tame’ her unruly husband. While hardly a rousing call for feminism by modern standards, it is a fascinating reflection of how Shakespeare’s own contemporary, and future protégé, contested Shakespeare’s early perspective on marriage and sexual hierarchy. (It also raises the question of what we are losing by so completely focusing gendered explorations of classical theatre on Shakespeare. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Fletcher and his collaborators, but also Ben Jonson and former boy player Nathan Field, played much more radically with the possibilities of cross-dressing on an all-male stage, and produced works that could be much more explicitly reinterpreted from a modern perspective as reflections on the potential fluidity of gendered identities.)

Shaking up the chain of being is just one step in freeing scholarship from its undeserved reputation for stodginess. I hope artists can move instead to exploring how bringing a scholar and dramaturg’s understanding of the period and its writers into the room can, in fact, open up creative possibilities far broader than the strict, stiff ‘rules’ about the place and identity of men and women that early twentieth-century historians have handed down to us.

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