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.

Rejecting Romance

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.

Tell My Story: Shakespeare and Hamilton

I wasn’t going to write about Hamilton, because after the utter flood of coverage, what’s left to say? But I love history plays, and have spend huge portions of the past year and a half thinking about them– and the more I thought about them in relation to Hamilton, the more of a pattern I began to see with regards to the female characters.

Hamilton’s reclamation of the history play for minority voices is one of its most trumpeted elements– and for English-language drama, the history play is a genre that is deeply indebted to Shakespeare. In addition to his participation in the Shakespearean tradition of layering the patterns of tragedy onto the events of history, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s treatment of female characters in Hamilton also directly evokes tropes and structures made famous by Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous historical scenes is found in Richard II, and depicts privileged people who are nonetheless at the very margins of power: the Queen of England, wife of King Richard II, accidentally overhears from two gardeners’ gossip that her husband has been deposed, that she is no longer queen. She’s so far from power, it has evidently not occurred to anyone to even update her on what is going on.

In another famous scene, female characters are more actively shoved from power: in Henry IV Part One, Lady Percy begs her husband, Henry “Hotspur” Percy, to let her in on the rebellion that he’s planning. She obliquely suggests that she has a double right to the knowledge, as his wife and as the sister of his suspected co-conspirator. Hotspur flatly refuses, and though he agrees to allow her to follow him on his impending journey, he refuses to tell her where they’ll be going or why.

So far, so familiar. Wives left behind by duty-bound, ambition-fueled men, we see that all the time. We even see it in the first act of Hamilton with Eliza Hamilton’s repeated refrain of “isn’t this enough?”, to which Alexander’s implicit answer always turns out to be no.

But with both of these Shakespeare characters– and, indeed, with other women throughout his history plays– there is a slight twist. As King Richard, now deposed, is led away to prison, he bids farewell to his wife and leaves her with a final request: “In winter’s tedious nights sit by the fire/With good old folks and let them tell thee tales/Of woeful ages long ado betid;/And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs,/Tell thou the lamentable tale of me.”

Lady Percy actually does this, positioning herself as the true bearer of her husband’s legacy after he is killed in battle, relating tales of his deeds when she thinks they have been forgotten: “[His honor] stuck upon him as the sun/In the grey vault of heaven, and by his light/Did all the chivalry of England move/To do brave acts […] He was the mark and glass, copy and book,/That fashioned others.”

Despite their explicit exclusion from their husbands’ actions, they become the bearers of their stories after their deaths. And the same can basically be said of Eliza in Hamilton. Her aim in most of her scenes echoes that of Lady Percy in most of hers: to persuade her husband to stay home, stay domestic, stay by her side. And both Harry Percy and Alexander Hamilton reject this offer repeatedly, committing great deeds (and not-so-great ones) in a world in which their wives aren’t welcome. Like Richard’s Queen’s eavesdropping revelation of her husband’s deposition, Eliza finds out her husband’s lurid secret when he publishes a pamphlet revealing it to the world.

Subsequently, in her only entirely solo number, “Burn,” Eliza undertakes to “eras[e herself] from the narrative/Let future historians wonder how/Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.” It’s an exciting example of how a dramatist can use gaps in the historical record to fill in a character’s arc– in this case, the fact that the real Eliza Hamilton, for some reason, destroyed her letters– but also points to what she clearly views as her future role: not a player in her own right, but a source of the information with which others may build her husband’s legacy. And, in the final number, when she “put[s herself] back in the narrative,” it is in precisely this role.

The closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” provides an answer to the third clause of its title: Eliza will tell Alexander’s story. It details her fifty-year effort to tell her husband’s story– like Lady Percy, to remind others of the importance of a life she fears is being forgotten.

(It’s interesting, and probably too much to fully cover here, that this precise role also exists in In the Heights, but is filled by the main male character, Usnavi, while his female love interest yearns to escape and rejects the vision of neighborhood loyalty that Usnavi ultimately dedicates himself to upholding.)

The unique ways in which female characters interact with and ultimately propagate historical narratives are strikingly similar in Miranda’s musical and Shakespeare’s later history plays. The women are not quite in the room where it happens, but maybe listening at the door. In Shakespeare, there seems to be an implicit link between their exclusion from the direct action of the play and their ability to assume the role of narrator. It’s fascinating to see how directly this narrative pattern is echoed by Hamilton. If it’s not a conscious look back towards Shakespeare (which I certainly wouldn’t put past Miranda), it’s proof of how deeply embedded Shakespeare’s tropes and structures are within our impulses about how to dramatize history.

That Victorian Lady, the Globe, and Authenticity

Certain corners of the internet have been fascinated by a Vox post by Sarah A. Chrisman, a woman who claims that she and her husband live their entire lives in an accurately Victorian fashion. She never explains how they came by a Victorian-era computer for blogging, but she does indeed blog and has written several books detailing how they come by and live with their period-accurate clothes and technology.
There have been a lot of really interesting pieces discussing the family, mostly negatively. Chrisman’s idolization of the Victorian era seems either cheerfully blind to, or disturbingly accepting ofthe sexist, racist, imperialist aspects of 19th century English culture. She also claims that she and her husband are historians (which they are, somehow) and that their Victorian reenactment is actually a large-scale research project, an experiment which has allowed them more authentic access to the period they study.
Questions about the place of reconstruction and reenactment are continually hovering in the air at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where I worked for the past seven months. The Globe now has two performance spaces: the Globe itself, occasional home to all-male ‘original practices’ (OP) productions; and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled after the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period, and host of the Research in Action series, curated by scholars and intended to explore the interaction between Jacobean scenes and the theatre space. 
I’ve always loved history (and dressing up!) and the Victorian couple’s thinking brought to mind my own reasons for wanting to undertake the course of study at the Globe that I’ve just finished. I wrote in my admissions essay how seeing the Globe’s OP Twelfth Night had completely transformed my understanding of the play; I was sure that this transformation was because the production was all-male, in period costume and make-up, using period music and props. I hope it’s a credit to the program itself that I am now convinced it was only the sheen of authenticity that was so seductive (though it was still a great production). The most obvious example is the fact that I didn’t even see Twelfth Night at the Globe, I saw it on Broadway. My ‘authentic’ Jacobean experience was mediated through the 19th century American architecture, designed to facilitate theatrical experiences with goals very different from those of an early modern play.
But even if I had seen it at the Globe, we’d still have to assume that the Globe is a perfectly accurate reconstruction (which we can’t know if it is), and swap out Mark Rylance and Paul Chahidi for boys or young men (and how old or young, exactly, would they be?), and assume that the play had been staged and rehearsed in keeping with early modern rehearsal and staging practices (if we knew for certain what those were).
All of these ‘we just don’t knows’ are what these ‘authentic’ spaces and reenactments tempt us to be able to answer. Chrisman insists she can discover the truth of Victorian experience by wearing a corset and typing by oil lamp. Similarly, one of the many debates about the construction of the Globe has to do with the placement of the onstage pillars. During an interview I conducted, an actor at the Globe half-jokingly noted that he was pretty sure the pillars were in the wrong place: when I pressed him, he said more seriously that they just felt wrong, they didn’t complement his impulses as an actor. In his writings about the discovery of the Rose Playhouse, Sir Ian McKellan somewhat smugly points out that many features make perfect sense to an actor, like an apparent rake in the floor, or the fact that the stage faces the sun— but what about those that don’t, like the truly atrocious sightlines from the side galleries?
But as Slate’s really nice article puts it, ‘The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.’ Wearing Victorian clothes and using Victorian furniture does not magically grant you insight into the era itself; to judge by Chrisman, it may well distract you from more critical, complex forms of intellectual engagement– including questioning how something as broad as the Victorian era (or the Jacobean, or the Elizabethan) could possibly be narrowed down to a single set of opinions and aesthetics.
Similarly, we are not an early modern audience. Thinking that we can watch a scene performed in a reconstructed space and use our opinions and impulses to recreate the way things were really done is to forget the most essential pieces of the puzzle: the culture, the society, the other plays we’d seen that week or in our lifetime, the things we’d read that morning, the gossip around town. The most conspicuous example in the case of early modern performance practice is the boy player: we will always find men playing women to be more unusual than an Elizabethan or Jacobean would have, and even then, we can’t really know how realistic or artificial they considered those performances to be.
 
It’s incredibly tempting to think that the right architecture or the right outfit can offer a shortcut to understanding a time period or a culture that we love. I am a huge fan of living history, and artifacts and reconstructions have immense value. But it’s dangerous (to good history, anyway) to forget that in many essential ways, we are not doing or seeing what Victorians and Elizabethans and Jacobeans did and saw.

(Also, just to be clear, however bad their historiography, nothing justifies some of the abuse and threats that Chisman reports receiving. That’s just awful.)