A guest post by Barbara Bono, Arlynda Boyer, Eric Brinkman, Musa Gurnis, Maria S. Horne, Emily MacLeod, Deborah Payne, Melanie Rio, Joseph Roach, Kirara Sato, Katherine Schaap Williams, and Gretchen York
Part three of the blog post written by the members of the “What Acting Is” seminar.
“There is no subtext in Shakespeare,” said Akeem Davis. His definitive statement startled twelve people who ferret out multi-layered meanings for a living. Introducing us to the problem of unspoken thought in drama, however, Davis’s intervention also provoked some of our most contentious and productive discussions. From one perspective, we clearly had to concede his point. Shakespeare typically represents characters’ unspoken thoughts in soliloquys and asides, generously turning subtext into text, including the most famous line from his most frequently quoted play: “To be, or not to be, that is the question” (Hamlet 3.1.55). Modern dramatists, by contrast, frequently insert stage directions like “Pause” and “Silence” where speeches used to be, challenging actor and reader alike to fill up the spaces between the lines, hence the conventional meaning of “subtext” for actors today as the wordless expression of thoughts and feelings.
Yet from another perspective, there’s more story here for us to tell. With all four King John actors in the room, we took up the ways in which Shakespeare evokes the interior lives of characters not only by what they say, but also by unconscious omissions, tacit implications, or double-sided intentions. This kind of complexity opens up a large space for creative interpretation, ending in choices that actors need to make. Brian Dykstra, for instance, played King John’s delayed reaction to news of the death of Queen Eleanor, “My mother dead!” (King John 4.2.191), which Shakespeare withholds for 67 lines of urgent dialogue about other matters after the bad news has arrived, by bracketing the three-word exclamation with very short pauses, as concise but also as referential as asterisks. Dykstra inserted them as aural punctuation marks before and after delivering the line itself tonelessly, as if it welled up into words from the dark silence of his disavowed shock. In the shorthand of an actor-centered criticism, this instance of precision craftsmanship in service of expressive affect exemplifies “mentality,” the interplay of consciousness and unconsciousness in the words and behind them. Akeem Davis convinced us: this is not the subtext of modern drama, but a kindred phenomenon that is distinctive of Shakespearean characterization.
Shakespeare’s characters are often highly intelligent, which is one reason why they are so interesting. A pertinent description of intelligent people is that they can simultaneously hold contradictory ideas about the same subject and still function. Such divided consciousness bespeaks multi-layered intentions, some of which remain unspoken and even unrecognized by the speaker. As a test case for our theory that mentality manifests itself in Shakespeare as divided consciousness, oscillating between spoken and unspoken thought, we focused on the madness attributed to Constance in King John.
When we asked Holly Twyford about her character’s final appearance in the play (Act 3, Scene 4), which is usually included among Shakespeare’s “mad scenes,” she insisted that the soon-to-be bereaved mother isn’t mad, even though she certainly looks and acts that way. What alternative mental path did Twyford choose to play and why? Constance has been separated from her young son, Arthur, whom she believes is the rightful heir to the English throne. She has good reason to fear for his safety; the boy’s usurping uncle is, as she suspects, plotting his murder. When her sometime allies, the French king Phillip and his son Louis, seek to placate her and put a stop to her grief-stricken outbursts, she insists:
I am not mad! This hair I tear is mine;
My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost.
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
(King John 3.4.45-48)
Twyford adopted this sentiment as her own during our discussion, as sure of herself in the seminar room as Constance is onstage. She’s not insane. But given early modern understandings of insanity, it’s not unreasonable for Phillip and Louis to conclude that she is. Constance’s reference to tearing her hair and King Phillip’s subsequent instruction to “Bind up those tresses” (3.4.70) indicates how she should enter: with her hair unbound, a telling textual detail. The Folger Theatre’s production also had her enter barefoot, a telling extra-textual detail.
The visual rhetoric of mentality in early modern drama is often surprisingly specific, and signifiers of madness are no exception. As early as the 1580s, stage directions call for a character to enter “like a madman,” a stipulation which usually calls for disordered clothing, or if the character is female, “with her hair about her ears,” or something similar. Because clothing and fashion were indicative and even constitutive of social status, to deliberately disarrange oneself was often regarded as a sign of madness, an act of violence against one’s identity. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Phillip and Louis interpret Constance’s wild grief as madness. Nor is it surprising that she defends herself by insisting that she knows exactly who she is: “My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey’s wife.”
But is vociferating that you are not mad while acting as if you are itself a symptom of insanity? Can you offer your identity as evidence of sanity by doing public violence to it? In the late sixteenth century there were few, if any, discrete categories of mental illness—so “madness,” “melancholy,” “hysteria,” and even demonic possession often overlap onstage and in doctors’ records. However, one of the most common manifestations of madness is a temporary frenzy brought on by an excess of emotion—anger, grief, or even love.
The last we hear of Constance is that she “in a frenzy died” (4.2.125). Where the text thus goes one way and the character’s truth another, subtext enlarges as the space of decision. Holly Twyford amply justified her choice by her eloquent performance of Constance’s denial. She stood up fiercely against the testimony of her male interlocutors and spoke up to contradict the evidence of her disarray. With her hair undone and feet bare, however, her Constance assumed an excruciating mental burden: convincing her skeptical auditors—both on the stage and in the audience—that she is losing everything she has in the world except her mind.
If the text provided all that an actor needed to play a character, theatre history would be greatly simplified. Allowing for different cuts to the script, Thomas Betterton’s Hamlet would be the same as Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If text is all the actor has to go by, then how does the actor read, for instance, blackness through the text of Othello’s role? What are the textual and structural cues in Othello that put the “black” in “black vengeance” (3.3.447)?
Our research showed that in 1825 it mattered mightily to contemporaries when African-American expat Ira Aldridge became the first black actor to play Othello. Our study of Hugh Quarshie’s Othello (matched against Lucian Msamati’s Iago) in the 2015 RSC production, along with the mordant barbs of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s recent American Moor, showed that in casting Othello today, race still matters. It matters in some ways that Aldridge would scarcely recognize and others he knew all “too well” (Othello 5.2.344). We pressed the question of the distinctiveness of the individual actor’s contribution. Akeem Davis, speaking generally about the intersection of the character as the actor’s person, again answered aphoristically: “Shakespeare sounds like you—if it doesn’t, it’s false.”
But what creative source is there to tap that makes a character thus sound true? We returned several times to the anecdote about Polus, the tragic actor in ancient Greece, who played the title role in the Electra of Sophocles. Into the property urn that that Electra believes contains the cremated remains of Orestes, Polus deposited the real ashes of his son, recently deceased, and filled the theatre with soul-searing lamentations, the truth of which could not be doubted. Extreme as the example of Polus is, no one contradicted us when we suggested the existence of a point of intersection, which varies among individual talents, where imagination meets memory and make-believe precipitates flesh-and-blood experience. “My body doesn’t know I’m faking it,” said Kate Eastwood Norris, describing the discovery and embodiment of a truth that could belong only to her performance of Lady Macbeth. We pondered the possible consequences of night-by-night repetition of harrowing actions on body and soul—can any actor, we wondered, go on stage without bringing along the ashes of someone?—but we were moved and reassured by Norris’s account of her post-performance ritual of self-care: carefully taking off her costume and putting it away.