subtitled: ‘Sir’s rule number 1‘ …
‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’ [a]
Bernardo and Francisco have a point. The entire path of the scene is determined by who is on stage. Think of the ways the conversation could go if instead of Bernardo, another unknown Dane approaches Francisco’s guard-post, or one of Fortinbras’ troops.
From Hamlet to real life, and the idea of decorum – behaving or speaking appropriately to the circumstances and audience.
I’ve always believed it was an essential survival skill – the ability to straighten up, look busy and simultaneously blend into the background when the boss was around. Yet I see, in the classroom, that time and time again, students have lost the ability or willingness to do this when senior management arrive.
Nor do they have an innate awareness when it comes to the rhetorical side of decorum, which Shakespeare would have been schooled in as part of his education. I’ll hazard a guess that I’m not the only English teacher to find himself railing against the use of slang and other distinctly unacademic language in A Level essays and coursework. It’s not just correcting ‘should OF‘ to ‘should HAVE‘, sadly …
But let’s move away from my teaching frustrations and towards this week’s QotW. As you might have seen from my recent piece intended to help Brian, then assuming you know the play’s narrative, Sir’s rule number 1 is always to double-check who is on stage. This is partly so that students remember to identify and comment on any soliloquising they are faced with – the ways in which it reflects a subjective honesty on the speaker’s part; how it can be used to provoke empathy for the character; how it gives us insight into a character’s thought processes when faced with a moral dilemma; its role in creating dramatic irony, and so on.
But avoiding overlooking the soliloquy is too simplistic a way to look at it. Here’s Jeremy Lopez:
An important part of reading stage directions, then, is learning to remember who is onstage when, and learning to imagine what effect silent but visible characters might have on the action and your interpretation of it. […]
Whatever we think the actor playing Aaron [in Titus Andronicus] might manage to convey in the opening scene, it is one of Shakespeare’s great theatrical devices to keep him silent for over 500 lines, and then to give him the stage to himself [b]
And for my students, of course I’m going to bring it round to Richard III. Remember, troops, that almost above everything else, Richard is a consummate actor, as he tells us in 3HenryVI:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions. [c]
You all ought to be able to list a number of scenes where he plays a part. James R Siemon tells us that:
In 1793 George Steevens praised the role of Richard for its dizzying variety, as ‘perhaps beyond all others variegated’ and comprehending ‘a trait of almost every species of character on the stage. The hero, the lover, the statesman, the buffoon, the hypocrite, the hardened and repenting sinner &c’ [d]
And the absolute joy of the play, returning to Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy, is that we are in on the joke. At least until Richard is crowned …
Thus, the biggest laugh when I screen Dominic Cooke‘s 2016 version (The Hollow Crown) in class is always when the doors to Baynard’s Castle open in act III scene vii. Buckingham, the mayor and assembled burghers are treated to a ridiculous Richard in full saintly mode, holding the fattest bible imaginable, flanked – in his entrance hall, mark you – by two priests, and with the light deliberately illuminating an enormous gold crucifix.
[a] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, at http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[b] Jeremy Lopez, The Arden Introduction to Reading Shakespeare: Close Reading and Analysis, (Bloomsbury Publishing: London 2019)
[c] William Shakespeare, Henry VI part 3, at http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[d] William Shakespeare, Richard III (Arden Third Edition, ed. James R Siemon), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2014)