I’ve written my first column for Oregon ArtsWatch, on the subject of some of the controversial decisions made by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre over the past year. You can find it here!
Over the holiday season, like many people, I made a lot of small talk with family and friends of the family, and a lot of them asked me about Shakespeare. Specifically, a lot of them asked about the headlines they’d seen claiming that Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated. When I was in London, I was lucky enough to attend a launch event for the New Oxford Shakespeare, the edition that sparked all those Marlowe articles by officially attributing him as a co-author, and that decision was likewise all anyone wanted to talk to the editors about.
In a recent article in Shakespeare Quarterly, a group of four scholars lay out their methods for determining authorship based on ‘word adjacency networks,’ or the likelihood that a certain word will appear within x number of words in a given writer’s work. Not being remotely mathematically minded, I can’t pretend I understood it perfectly clearly, and I think there’s a lot of interesting debate about the utility of these methods.
But when one of those family friends asked how I felt about these studies– whether I felt like it was some kind of desecration to apply math to art– I told him that I found these discoveries quite exciting. I can’t quite say that I think we should accept these findings as 100% accurate and without flaw, or that they firmly close the book on questions about who collaborated with whom, but I am interested them in as a starting-place for a new line of inquiry.
I wrote my MA thesis, for example, about female characters in Shakespeare’s history plays. The problem that scholars seem to consistently be trying to tackle with that topic is why on earth the female characters of Shakespeare’s early history plays are so different from those of the later plays. In the eyes of a contemporary feminist reader, he seems to distinctly regress in terms of his representation of women– but even taking away that ahistorical lens, something dramatic does shift in how he incorporates female characters into his historical plots between the first plays and the last.
So I’m intrigued by these findings. What if part of the answer is to read characters like Joan of Arc, the Countess of Auvergne, and the Duchess of Gloucester not entirely as Shakespeare characters, but as Marlowe characters– or perhaps most plausibly, some hybrid of the two, borne of their collaboration and efforts to blend their styles? Maybe nothing will come of it, but as someone who can’t help but approach textual questions from a dramaturgical perspective, I would be excited to explore and see if Marlowe’s hand provides a potential answer for some of the questions surrounding these plays.
I’m very excited to have written my first piece for American Theatre, which you can find here! It’s about how theatres decide to market the plot of Hamlet.
Jonathan Munby’s production of The Merchant of Venice, which I saw at The Globe last summer, is coming to New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. It’s a production that, mostly thanks to its leading man Jonathan Pryce and his daughter Phoebe Pryce’s immensely moving turns as Shylock and Jessica, manages to make a compelling story out of what can be one of Shakespeare’s more unpalatable subplots. But its return has reminded me of debates my classmates and I had when Jonathan Pryce’s casting was announced: specifically, whether Shylock ought to only be played by Jewish actors.
The question of whether Jewish characters should, in general, only be played by Jewish actors is one that is way too complex to get into here, but I think whatever one’s opinion, Shylock represents a special case, if only because of the role’s fame. Indeed, however one ranks Merchant of Venice’s inherent anti-Semitism (is the play itself anti-Semitic, or just the characters?), one cannot deny its checkered past, including an extensive performance history in Nazi Germany. Can only a Jewish actor ensure that Shylock is being treated with the proper respect? For a long time, without deeply examining the assumption, I thought so.
Another, even more unpalatable Shakespeare play raised the same question this summer when Phyllida Lloyd directed The Taming of the Shrew for Shakespeare in the Park, which recently closed. In keeping with her Shakespeare soon-to-be trilogy presented at the Donmar and St. Ann’s Warehouse, Lloyd handed the play over to an entirely female cast, led by Janet McTeer and Cush Jumbo as Petruchio and Kate. I’ll freely admit I was disappointed when this show was announced as Shakespeare in the Park’s first all-woman production, and no less disappointed when I saw the final product. The production never made a compelling case for its own casting, never used the female bodies onstage to illuminate anything about the play’s disgusting misogyny or to explain why a play that is about nothing more than the physical and emotional abuse of a woman ‘for her own good’ deserves continued performance at all.
When the play was announced I wondered, and I wonder still, why all-female Shrews are so common. Why do so many directors and companies seem to think that letting women act out a sexist fable makes the play more palatable? Does enacting one’s own oppression suddenly make it okay, or interesting? And then I began to wonder if, by wanting Shylock to be played by Jewish actors, I was expecting just that. The mere presence of a Jewish actor was meant to give the play a seal of approval: this Jewish person has approved of this through his participation, so it must be okay.
But does it? I’m inclined to think not. Much like that one loudmouth you know’s mysterious and unnamed friend of color who they insist is totally fine with that racist joke/that whitewashed movie/that off-color comment, such casting (especially in Shrew) seems to me less and less like actual commentary and more and more like a shield behind which to hide from questions about why we want to do these plays at all.
Now, I think the sensitivity that The Merchant of Venice requires can be achieved with or without a Jewish actor as Shylock, though I’d certainly look askance at a production with no Jewish voices in the room at all. The play, particularly in Munby’s production, has a lot to offer to a contemporary audience, and a lot to say about power, violence, and oppression. I think The Taming of the Shrew does not. And having it be women who abuse and torture one another rather than a man to a woman doesn’t make it any more interesting.
In honor of Shakespeare’s 400th death-day, the New York Times celebrated by commissioning four writers to create “lost” scenes from Shakespeare plays. The entry for Romeo and Juliet, called ‘How Fast Love Curdles,’ had a premise that probably sounds familiar: the teenage lovers are nothing but hormone-addled idiots, their star-crossed love just adolescent lust. The piece is meant to be comedy, but it offers nothing more than the class smart-aleck in tenth grade English probably already pointed out. And it is in keeping with a frustratingly common dismissal of the play, rooted in disdain for its young central lovers.
Though it’s one of the most popular and most produced Shakespeare plays, scorn for Romeo and Juliet abounds. I wrote a blog post for Shakespeare’s Globe last summer, and for some reason, half the people who reblogged it on Tumblr felt the need to mention in the tags how much they hated the play. Professed Shakespeare fans on my Facebook page will periodically circulate this post:
Setting aside the fact that ‘everyone who actually read it’ would notice that Romeo’s age is not specified, the smug tone that suggests those who really understand the play gets my hackles up for a whole host of reasons– not least of which being, this cynical reading is emphatically wrong. No, not an alternate take, not a deconstruction: wrong. Antony and Cleopatra is, arguably, a story about a probably misguided relationship that directly leads to a lot of deaths. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is almost definitely that. But to cast Romeo and Juliet as anything other than the victims of their own play- a status that the text of the play works very hard to make explicitly clear- is to completely miss the point of the tragedy and to strip it of its most radical commentary.
Start from the beginning. The prologue (always a useful means of signaling a play’s intentions) doesn’t even mention the leading lovers’ names. It is focused on the city of Verona itself. The first four lines are solely dedicated to the Montague-Capulet feud. After that, every mention of the lovers is contextualized by their relationship to both the feud and the city at large:
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventure’d piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage.
You could easily come away from this prologue expecting an equal split in the play to follow between lovers and politicians. Something is rotten in the state of Verona, and Shakespeare sets up the promise of an almost Christ-like redemption of the families through the love and deaths of their children.
While it’s easy to gloss over Romeo and Juliet’s extreme decisions in the latter half of the play as nothing more than the overreactions of teenagers, they’re pushed into all of them by outside forces: by the banishment of Romeo, who the Prince himself admits is just a scapegoat upon whom he can avenge his kinsman Mercutio’s murder; by Lord Capulet’s violent threats in the face of Juliet’s refusal to marry; and of course, by the feud, which binds the lovers to secrecy in the first place. Though youthful passion (of course not a force to be completely dismissed) drives Romeo and Juliet to one another, and to make some of the mistakes that hasten their downfall, Shakespeare provides continual reminders that their choices are also guided by unrelenting pressure from those in power to just give in to unthinking obedience and meaningless traditions of violence and revenge.
But are they even in love? the cynics will ask. Yes, they are. To argue otherwise is to completely ignore Shakespeare’s stylistic hints, or to suggest that Shakespeare’s use of verse is entirely meaningless. When Romeo and Juliet meet and talk, creating a sonnet with their dialogue that culminates in a kiss, the change that they undergo can hardly be understated. Romeo has punned with Mercutio and Benvolio and pined for the disinterested Rosaline, but Juliet is the first character who understands the language he is trying to speak. Throughout his early scenes, Romeo presents his friends with rhyming couplets which they use only to make witty quips. Juliet hears, understands, and builds a poem with him. Likewise, in contrast to an introductory scene in which Juliet can barely get a word in, Romeo listens to and welcomes her wit.
To imagine that their relationship is nothing more than emotionless lust, that Romeo and Juliet are to be blamed for everything that follows, is to entirely flip the redemptive promise of the play: that violence, hate, and fear can be undone by a radical act of love. The Prince’s final lines don’t place the blame on thoughtless youth, or an unruly young woman or an intemperate young man (as plenty of early modern tragedies do). Rather, he chastises the city leaders, including himself:
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I, for winking at your discords, too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish’d.
Those who would blame Romeo and Juliet for their actions sound suspiciously like Friar Lawrence at his most cowardly, or Lord Capulet at his most tyrannous: insisting that the children under their care cannot possibly know themselves, cannot possibly understand what they have done or what the need to do next, must surely mind their elders’ advice- or else. But it’s this very advice, this very world created by cowardly, tyrannous guardians that drives them to secrecy, violence, and death. Left to their own devices- at the party, on the balcony, in Juliet’s bedroom- their world is one of peace and poetry. The very last endearment that Juliet calls Romeo the morning after their wedding is friend.
From the prologue’s focus on the warring families, to the ending lines centered around Lord Montague, Lord Capulet, and the Prince, Shakespeare frames the play as a civic tragedy, rooted in the failures of those in power on scales both large (the city of Verona) and small (the Capulet and Montague households) to put aside their personal hatred and prejudice and properly rule. But within this frame— quite literally nestled in the middle of the lines from the prologue quoted above— Shakespeare places love. The two are essential to one another: the power structures which doom the young couple, and the love which will blow those structures apart.
In the New York Times a few weeks ago, there was an article about historical accuracy in Oscar-nominated films. The Academy loves accuracy, according to the article, which goes so far as to suggest that having the accuracy of the events it depicts questioned can even lose films Oscars they seemed poised to win.
Unsurprisingly, this made me think about Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s histories are… not known for their complete accuracy, to say the least. The compression of time, conflation of events, and addition and subtraction of characters can make trying to pick the ‘truth’ out of most of the plays, frankly, pointless. Not that this stops people from trying, and you can easily find books and articles enumerating all the things Shakespeare got wrong.
Sometimes, knowing that Shakespeare changed a detail can illuminate something very interesting about his apparent intentions in structuring the drama. Knowing, for example, that the historical Queen Margaret was dead in France well before the events of Richard III, and the famous confrontation scenes between Richard and the female characters have almost no precedent in contemporary sources suggests that Shakespeare was much more interested in the female characters than many contemporary productions seem to be.
But very often, as with the linked article’s suggestion that inaccuracy loses Oscars, the claim of historical inaccuracy seems intended to double as a value judgment. Or, on the opposite scale, “revealing” that many of his details really are accurate after all seems meant to serve as a vindication.
It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare’s audiences didn’t care. None of the Elizabethan or Jacobean history plays have the kind of scrupulous accuracy that today’s audiences seem to demand.
In 1765, Samuel Johnson published his Preface to Shakespeare, which included an entire section enumerating Shakespeare’s faults and flaws. He alludes to inaccuracy, sort of, but specifically refers only to Shakespeare’s tendency towards anachronism, which I would argue is not quite the same as nitpicking all the ways in which he changed around timelines or conflated characters. If there’s anyone you’d expect to be a stickler for facts, it’s a neoclassicist like Johnson– but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.
Writing in 1817, Romantic critic William Hazlitt does briefly note the relative historical accuracy of Shakespeare’s plays, but proclaims them uniformly correct: ‘his plays are in this respect the glass of history’. And, he notes, the places where Shakespeare has had to fictionalize are as good as, if not better than, real history.
In 1837, a printer named Charles Knight embarked on a project to produce an illustrated edition of Shakespeare. He was far from the first to do this, but he intended to distinguish his version in one important way: rather than stage-inspired illustrations, he wanted engravings of the actual settings, the real historical personages, and historically accurate clothing and architecture. In this aim, his Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespere was, intentionally or otherwise, keeping step with emerging theatrical trends.
Around the 1830s, British actors began returning to what they saw as Shakespeare’s roots. Restoration adaptations which had superseded Shakespeare’s texts in some cases began to be restored (others would last even into the 20th century), and there was a new interest in creating productions with historically accurate, highly detailed sets and costumes. It seems only logical that, with a surging interest in representing the historical periods of Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare’s own inconsistent depiction of that history would become newly noticeable– and perhaps newly irritating.
These days, of course, directors are much more likely to say to hell with history and set the plays in any time or place they wish. Our obsession with historical accuracy has drifted away from Shakespeare to more naturalistic forms of media, where we seem to expect that, because the action looks realistic, it ought to fact-check against reality, too.
When some scandal about Shakespeare enters the news, certain camps seem to form quickly: scholar vs practitioner, casual fan vs expert. One of my hopes in my career overall is to break down these categories, and recognize that while they do have differing methodologies and goals, there is a great deal that each can offer the other. There is a lot of really interesting scholarship that hasn’t yet made its way into the mainstream theatrical conversation, but provides interesting perspectives and areas of inquiry for artists. As one example, I want to talk about how Shakespeare’s plays got from the page to the stage and back again.
This might sound like the least relevant topic possible. After all, deeply examining text and print seems antithetical to the belief that the plays were created for performance, not as literature. But understanding how early modern printing and editing processes differ from our own– and how our own combine with those to create the editions that we read– can transform our understanding of our relationships as artists to the text.
The study of early modern print culture has been a widely covered topic in the last few years, but I’d like to try and approach it from a slightly different angle, and look at the journey from what an actor in Shakespeare’s company would have seen, and how that translated to and relates to the text an actor today receives.
Elizabethan and Jacobean didn’t get the full text of play they were performing because it was too expensive and time-consuming. The company’s copy of the script was written out by hand, and making twelve or more hand-written copies would have been preposterous. So actors got hand-written cue scripts, which contained only their lines and a few iambs of their cues.
We only have one surviving cue script from the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. It belonged to Edward Alleyn, star actor of the Lord Admiral’s Men (played by Ben Affleck in Shakespeare in Love), for the title role in the play Orlando Furioso. You can look at it here, and read more about it here.
It’s missing a lot of things we would consider key information for an actor. The other charcters’ lines, obviously, but also subtler information actors and writers today think of as essential to meaning: punctuation, line breaks, consistent capitalization. However much attention the playwright paid to those things when preparing his script to be printed, they apparently weren’t considered terribly important for actors. We can even see several places where the lines are filled in by Alleyn himself, adding yet another degree of separation between whatever the playwright may have originally written and what ended up being spoken onstage.
The Printers (and The First Folio)
How much attention did playwright pay to spelling, punctuation, line breaks, and the like when a play was being printed? Often, the answer was not much. For Shakespeare, the answer was very possibly none. It was usually the playing company, not the writer, who was seeing a work (which the company, not the writer, owned) into print. Some writers composed prefaces explaining the play’s reception or even (in the case of Ben Jonson) changes that had been made between performance and printing, but Shakespeare never bothered. And of course, by the time the first folio was bring printed, his opinions could not be consulted because he was dead.
Printers, on the other hand, had more to keep in mind than just copying down exactly what was on the page (assuming they count even read it clearly, which evidence suggests they sometimes couldn’t). Printers set every page by hand, one page at a time. They also only had a limited amount of type, so there are examples of printers running out of, for example, the letter E and suddenly and temporarily dropping Es from the ends of names and words. The same could happen with punctuation marks.
To be as efficient as possible, printers estimated in advance how long a play would be, and divided up on the manuscript how much would ideally fit on each page. Sometimes this didn’t work out. Because of the way books were constructed, however, readjusting pages was incredibly difficult– better to squeeze things in if you could. Which they did, by altering spelling, changing punctuation or even the placement of line breaks in the verse– and there is even evidence of words and lines being quietly removed to make sure the pages came out as expected. You can also see gaps and empty spaces at the bottom of pages that didn’t end up taking up quite enough space.
The first folio of Shakespeare’s works claimed to offer corrected and updated versions of the text. And sometimes it did! But mostly it didn’t. When there was a good quarto version available, the folio almost always just copied it directly, because a printed script is much easier to read than a handwritten one, and thus easier to accurately set type for. But there is no evidence, as Patrick Tucker notably asserts, to believe that the Folio contains performance clues that the quartos lack– partly because most of it is derived from the quartos, and partly because, as discussed above, even a play set directly from a prompt book wouldn’t actually look like the texts that the actors were working from.
Most Shakespeare fans know about the textual quibbles that plague Hamlet and, more extensively, King Lear. Does Hamlet wish his ‘solid’ or ‘sullied’ flesh would melt? Are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, or ours? Does Lear spy stirrings of life in Cordelia, and how many O!s are there, anyway? But these are only the most famous examples: these questions plague almost every play (and plays with only one extant version, like Macbeth and Pericles, tend to come with their own set of problems). Previously, the editorial tradition preferred to examine all of these options in search of a theoretical ‘perfect text’ from which all these versions were theoretically derived. More recently, some scholars have chosen to accept each version as a whole, valid text in itself (as evidenced by, for example, the Norton Shakespeare printing two King Lears). What either tradition means is that choices are being made in the modern edition that we read. When people complain that a production or adaptation isn’t faithful to The Text– well, you have to stop and ask yourself what ‘The Text’ means, anyway.
Some editors, like the RSC’s line of Shakespeare editions, like to print their plays like modern play texts, including more contemporary style character lists and stage directions. But this can be misleading, too– because, as discussed above, punctuation and spelling are unreliable. And by modernizing both of these things into a script form where actors are used to taking punctuation and stage directions as important clues, readers who don’t know better than find themselves taking commas, periods, and even question marks as Shakespeare’s gospel, when in fact they may not even appear in any of the printed versions (and, as mentioned above, their inclusion or exclusion isn’t really a reliable indicator of what Shakespeare wrote or the actors read).
Now, I’m not actually advocating for ignoring punctuation, spelling, and line breaks in Shakespeare. Lots of interesting things emerge from delving into them, and there is immense value in the scholarly practice which accepts the text as we have received it as a starting place more important than theorizing about what the perfect version may have been. But recognizing that these things aren’t set in stone– that there aren’t, in fact, pat rules to learn– is also immensely liberating. Knowing that a single line is a question in one version of the text and a statement in another suddenly doubles the potential deliveries, and raises twice as many questions about what that line and moment can mean. A better understanding of how the text came to be doesn’t shut down possibilities with pedantic, rigid rules, but in fact (and this is going to become a theme) opens up the text to even more creativity on the part of the artists working with it.
Some further reading:
The Henslowe-Alleyn Archive: an amazing resource with essays on and transcriptions of the extensive documents (including business documents belonging to theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe) that actor Edward Alleyn donated to Dulwich College upon his death.
Shakespeare and Text by John Jowett: an introduction to the history of book editing and publishing, and how our changing knowledge has impacted the field of Shakespeare scholarship.
Making Shakespeare by Tiffany Stern: an examination of how a play made its way from the playhouse to the printing house.
When I first was getting really into Shakespeare, I bought a bracelet that said ‘this above all: to thine own self be true’ on it. When I got more into Shakespeare, I was embarrassed by this and got rid of it as the most obvious example of faux-profound Shakespeare being taken out of context by people who don’t understand it.
And then I learned about commonplacing.
When Hamlet cries ‘My tables! Meet it is I set it down…’, he’s participating in a hot Elizabethan trend: carrying around little books (called, that’s right, a commonplace book) to write things down. Things you heard, things you saw, or things you read. As commonplacing grew increasingly, well, common, printers started getting in on the act by marking out phrases in their books that might be ripe for commonplacing. They were indicated with little quote marks like this: “.
Here’s an example from Internet Shakespeare Editions:
And here’s another:
Yes, ‘to thine own self be true’ was being held up as an inspirational quote out of context even in 1603.
I admit that at first, I found this practice more than a little odd. If you’re meant to be collecting quotes and ideas that appeal to you, why would you want them pre-selected? Isn’t half the point choosing your favorite lines for yourself? But then I started noticing that we’ve created a contemporary version.
Here’s an article from n+1, one from Medium, and one from HowlRound. They all have something in common: the pull quotes all come with a Twitter button underneath them. You can automatically tweet those phrases without even having to open a new tab. I don’t know if this necessarily makes commonplace marks make more sense to me, but at least it shows a consistent impulse. And, to be fair, the guesses of both commonplacers and pull-quoters about which gobbets will be appealing are usually right.
So really, I should be regretting getting rid of that bracelet…
The highlight of my trip to see Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, was my dad’s assessment afterwards that, once she realized Macbeth couldn’t take the heat, Lady Macbeth should have just killed him and taken care of ruling herself.
Aside from some striking visuals and some very dodgy Scottish accents, the film highlighted for me two major difficulties with translating Shakespeare to film, neither of which director Justin Kurzel successfully accounted for.
1. Shakespeare is not naturalism.
Film often is. This film certainly tries to be, generally eschewing Shakespeare’s anachronistic castles for the villages of early Scotland. I will happily concede their more ‘realistic’ interpretation of the movement of Birnam Wood is also beautiful. But in general, the dramatic cinema tendency speak low and slow is deadly to good verse delivery. The monotone, raspy whisper that seems to be a staple of period drama renders the poetry nonsensical, delivered as it is without emphasis or shaping of the verse lines. Delivered in the currently-fashionable understated style of Oscar nominees, every scene sounds basically the same. The characters exist in three modes: naturalistic mumbling, madness, or sorrow. This makes for dialogue that is not only monotonous, but difficult to understand if you don’t know the play already.
2. What is all this poetry for?
During one of Macbeth’s soliloquies– I’ll be honest, I can’t remember which– I found myself wondering ‘why is this happening?’ It, along with the retained descriptions of Duncan’s dead body, made me very aware of the extent to which Shakespeare’s poetry was intended to stand in for things the audience couldn’t see– scenery, battlefields, corpses, even the actors’ expressions. These all happen to be things that contemporary film audiences can see very, very well. Seeing the turmoil on Fassbender’s face and hearing him talk about how upset he was felt just as redundant as hearing Macduff describe Duncan’s murdered corpse while the camera lingered on a shot of it. I came way with the distinct feeling that you really only need one or the other… which does suggest that a fundamental element of Shakespeare and a fundamental element of film are somewhat incompatible.
These are both setting aside some of the other narrative choices of the adaptation, most of which I didn’t like, but are certainly within their rights as adaptors to add. These two points seemed to me to be the most egregious misunderstandings of how Shakespeare as writer functions, and what all those words they were muttering and shouting were actually for.
I sometimes mutter about this, but it’s time to confess it outright: I’m a romance denier. I don’t believe “romance” is a genre of Shakespeare play. And two plays I saw recently at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival helped confirm this impression for me. One of them is a play we categorize unequivocally as a comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The other, Pericles, is generally labelled a romance. But seeing them back-to-back drove home their similarities, and drew attention to the ways in which separating the early and late comedies into different generic categories warps our understanding of both.
So first, romances. A critic named Edward Dowden is to blame for using the word for the first time. While we have divested ourselves of most of the nonsense that Victorians made up, for some reason the genre Dowden proposed in his 1875 book has stuck around. Their tragicomic elements, their emphasis on mysticism and redemption, their deus ex machina endings… all of these are pointed to as reasons that romances deserve to be considered a separate genre from other comedies.
Pericles seems to offer proof of this in spades, particularly in OSF’s sublime production, directed by Joseph Haj. The elegant, sweeping production, interspersed with music and dance, neither mocks nor attempts to rationalize its inconsistent tone and improbable series of events, but allows the play to speak for itself. Accepting, as Haj writes in his program note, that “[t]he play is only troublesome if one insists on it behaving like other plays” allows Pericles’ s episodic structure, amazing coincidences, and heightened emotions to accumulate into a fantastical but cohesive world in which the miraculous culminating reunions seem both natural and essential.
The continuing insistence on romance as a genre seems to stem from an effort to explain precisely the strangeness that Haj chose to embrace in his Pericles. But this labeling has led, in my opinion, to a widespread neglect of the fact that all of the supposedly unique elements of a romance are also present in almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies– romances just demonstrate them in a more extreme and concentrated form. And sometimes not even that much more extreme. This was emphasized for me by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which I saw at OSF the night after I saw Pericles.
Productions of Much Ado often seem at a loss as to how to handle the scene where Claudio and the soldiers, as ordered by Leonato, go to Hero’s (fake) tomb to sing a song of mourning and apology to her (not actually) dead body. As my parentheses imply, it’s hard to know what to make of such a long scene of mourning for someone who isn’t actually dead by characters who contemporary audiences aren’t particularly inclined to trust. But Blain-Cruz’s staging of the scene, with Hero herself draped in fabric standing in for her own burial monument, transformed and elevated the scene and song into something just about as mystical as the revelations in Pericles.
Hero behaving as her own statue called to mind at once Shakespeare’s most famous living statue: Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale, a character to whom Hero is frequently linked in scholarly criticism. And with good reason. Both are apparently killed by their lover’s irrational jealousy and apparently reborn to renew the union and forgive. Hero’s choice to forgive Claudio is too often dismissed by contemporary artists as not a choice at all, sexist and a bit pathetic, Shakespeare ignoring the complexities he himself has created in favor of a tidy ending.
But the critical and artistic insistence on the difference between comedy and romance has erased the highly mystical transformation that Hero undergoes, one that Blain-Cruz’s staging highlights and the text itself clearly supports. Hero’s response to Claudio’s exclamation that there is “Another Hero!” is not “No, I’m the same Hero,” but “Nothing certainer.” To paraphrase Haj again, by expecting Much Ado About Nothing to act like other comedies (and I think a similar argument can be made about the endings of almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies), Hero’s power to be reborn and forgive, and the agency implied by such a choice– in fact as radical and transformative as Prospero, Hermione, and Imogen’s ability to do the same– is underrated and ignored.
It is easier for Shakespeare’s early comedies and middle tragedies to masquerade as something like naturalistic, but that doesn’t mean that they are. In cordoning off Shakespeare’s most bizarre and mystical plays into a genre of their own, we have ignored the mysticism of the rest of his canon. So many plays hinge on the power of forgiveness, and whether or not such redemption is permitted or even seems possible can often be the biggest difference between comedy and tragedy. By allowing the magical potential of the romance to seep back into the rest of the canon, as these OSF productions do, the familiarity of these plays can be shaken, the easy answers of sharp genre designations rejected.