Performance of Shakespearean Plays

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Staging and performance are crucial elements in the overall impact of theatrical productions.

  In Shakespearean drama, aspects of staging: including costuming, setting, lighting, sound effects, as well as the on-stage movement of the actors have evolved over several centuries of production. Modern visions of staging include:”stiffly “authentic” productions; in the vaguely “authorized” versions of the major British subsidy theatres; in the explicitly co-creative work of directors like Marowitz and Brook; in culturally confrontational productions around the globe.” (Worthen 13) A number of modern productions of Shakespeare’s works make a radical departure from historical sources of the plays’ original staging, while other productions attempt to recreate or restore with as much authenticity as possible, the original staging and performance of Shakespeare’s plays.Staging and performance are critical to the interpretation of Elizabethan drama. In order to visualize an “authentic” mode of staging and performance for Shakespeare’s plays, it is necessary to choose a definitive text: “when actors and directors undertake to produce a Shakespearean play, they start from a text.

They base their choices in staging, inflection, and motion on one of the myriad textual reproductions available, assuming its accuracy, its authenticity, and its originality as the backdrop of their specific production” which ensures that a single text will be considered definitive.  (Osborne 168)Such adherence to the authenticity of a single text allows modern stagings to approximate the experience of  the Elizabethan theater:As readers and as performers, we can approximate “Shakespearean” intentions by           recovering the circumstances of the Elizabethan public theatre and asking how the plays             of that period exploited them. Of course, Styan is not calling for more tights and rapiers    in today’s productions; rather than reproducing Shakespeare’s medium, ersatz Elizabethan       stagings impose a basically pictorial (Victorian, naturalistic) aesthetic between the     Author and his audience.The key point in the passage quoted above is that the staging and performance of Shakespeare’s plays are essential factors in presenting the author’s vision and aesthetic and that recreating the authentic staging and performance techniques is an essential factor in enabling any audience to truly experience the plays as Shakespeare intended them.  Part of the reason staging and performance are so essential, of course, is due to the fact that Shakespeare, being intimately familiar with the techniques and conventions of Elizabethan theater, made full use of these elements in his original vision and composition of the plays. (Schechner)Another aspect which makes staging and performance crucial aspects of Shakespeare’s aesthetic is the perceptions of the audience in the theater, which are primarily centered on the visual and auditory senses.

  Some scholars have attempted to locate  a  region of the body where theatricality is “located.” In western theatre, the general concensus is that “the eyes and to some degree the ears are where theatricality is experienced. By etymology and by practice a theater is a “place of/for seeing.” (Schechner, 333) The preponderance of visual and auditory senses is a fundamental aspect of the Elizabethan theater and it is also important in the modern age.Present day audiences are as likely to understand visual and auditory expression as our  Elizabethan ancestors, and maybe more-so.  Staging and sound are important modes of expression for western audiences: “Seeing requires distance; engenders focus or differentiation; encourages analysis or breaking apart into logical strings; privileges meaning, theme, narration[.

..]we “know” the universe by “seeing” it. See = know; know = see; speed = space; distance = time; diachronicity = story” and so modern audiences, when watching an authentic Shakespearean staging, are likely to appreciate and understand the expressive audio and visual elements. (Schechner 333)Although attempting to reach an historically authentic vision of staging for Shakespearean lays is the best method to ensure that the author’s expression is faithfully preserved for an audience, the difficulty in recovering an authentic (or definitive) method and technique for staging is considerable. Staging helps to preserve the author’s intent, but evolutions in the way theater and dramatic expression are best used have taken place over the centuries.

Scholars place a primary importance on the “performativity” of Shakespearean drama which is defined as: “the interface between writing and enactment,” where “the function of the text in the force of performance is extremely variable, even within a relatively discrete historical and cultural moment”, so the definition allows for a great deal of evolution in the staging and presentation of the Shakespearean plays.   (Bristol, Mcluskie, and Holmes 120)Because the nature of theatrical experiences evolves over historical time, the considerations of apt or correct staging for enduring dramas like Shakespeare’s also change. preserving the author’s original intent relies, not only on a definitive text as previously mentioned, but on establishing a definitive idea of which elements of staging, production, and performance will best allow the audience access to the themes and conflicts and actions of the plays.      By establishing “force attributed to the dramatic text in performance” which is changeable, is considered by some scholars to be the “mark of modern Shakespearean performativity,” which emerged first and most fully in the “eighteenth century when the identity of the Shakespearean text outside the theater came to bear on Shakespearean practices in the theater” and also through to the present day, where rigid adherence to Elizabethan stagecraft and performance are compromised with staging and performances which will hold the interest of and stimulate the senses of modern audiences. The change in staging was meant to accommodate an Eighteenth century audience (as opposed to an Elizabethan audience); as a consequence many changes were permitted.

Adaptations that were made “specifically for the stage often contain alterations and additions motivated by little except the desire to make a scene theatrically more effective. The eighteenth century had its own idea of stage effectiveness,” which stressed plot-elements over those of character development. “The typical eighteenth-century adaptation of a Shakespeare play, with its flat characters and busy plot, seems melodramatic in comparison to the original.” (Branam 135)By examining the Eighteenth century model of staging and performance, it is easy to see how certain expressive elements of Shakespeare’s plays were lost to Eighteenth Century audiences, which, in turn, demonstrates the crucial importance of staging and performance to the preservation of the themes and conflicts in Shakespearean drama. Important scenes, likewise, were altered are so dramatically altered in staging, that Shakespeare’s original vision was lost :”Elizabethan playwrights were of course not averse to melodrama, but their melodrama             was different from that of the eighteenth century. For one thing, the Elizabethan’s       melodrama was often situational whereas the eighteenth century’s is more            characteristically verbal.

Scenes that achieved melodrama by excess of violence or by        shocking the sensibilities of the audience in any other way (the putting out of Gloucester       eyes in King Lear, for example, or the death of Arthur in King John) were not pleasing to      the eighteenth-century audience, and were usually altered.As mentioned previously, certain modern productions choose to break with Elizabethan convention altogther ,”a tradition extending from Barry Jackson’s modern-dress productions of the 1920s through the ‘eclectic’ staging common today” which rather than presenting Shakespeare’s authorial vision, attempt to convey the idea that “the Shakespearean text is freighted with its past, and that this history must be confronted, restored, or updated.” (Bristol, Mcluskie, and Holmes 120) So, staging of a Shakespearean play can be used to faithfully reproduce as much as is possible the ideas and expressions of the Elizabethan theater, or the staging and performance of a Shakespearean play can be used to demonstrate the dominance of “modernity” over the classical past.For modern critics (and actors) who refuse this kind of revisionism of Shakespearean plays,  the past is viewed as “an artistic institution that has long-established norms for performing Shakespeare’s plays, norms so strong that they seem to many to be part of the playtext itself.

” The tradition of performance is held cherished by celebrated actors who incorporate formal traditional elements into their performances, “Both Gielgud and Olivier, for instance, speak frequently about the expectation on the part of both critics and audience members that the performance text of Hamlet must not only include Shakespeare’s words, but a particular style of acting.” (Bristol, Mcluskie, and Holmes 64)The consistent element in all productions and stagings of Shakespearean plays is the critical importance of these elements in transmitting the essential qualities of the plays to audiences. Often, the critical importance of these elements is realized even before a person experiences a given play, as reviews of plays frequently focus on aspects of staging and performance. Because  critics “often comment in their reviews on the costume and stage-setting of a production, sometimes remark on its lighting and (more rarely) its sound design” a play can succeed or fail on these elements alone from a critical point of view.

(White 109)This last observation was probably as true for Elizabethan audiences as it is for modern audiences. In order to more fully appreciate the importance of staging and performance in the context of the Shakespearean drama, it is useful to examine some of the play-texts and scenes along with general observations on the techniques and structures of the Elizabethan theater. By comparing these original, historical sources it becomes easier to understand the important roles of both traditional staging and performance and modernist “revisions” of Shakespearean drama.Essentially, the Elizabethan stage was a single-set or a modular set that could be modified without much effort for one or perhaps two additional scenes. All “unlocated” scenes — or scenes without specific location — “scenes that take place in streets, on plains, or in forests, etc.

, are obviously played on the forestage — that part of the platform that is actually in the auditorium” which allowed for the staging of important “minor” scenes and asides that took place away from the play’s central sets and action. “Semilocated” places such as “the courtyard of a castle, in front of a house or palace, where a background of some kind is needed, or where doors are of importance to the action of the scene,” were staged “on the middle stage -that part of the platform encompassed by the three sections of the “tiring house.” (De Banke 34) Other important scenes in Shakespearean drama include battle-scenes, processions, weddings, and other pageantry. When these were performed “these two areas can become one in order to give greater freedom of movement to the crowds” while interior scenes were played on the inner-stage.  (De Banke 34)An example of the importance of the use of the inner and outer stages in Elizabethan productions of Shakespearean plays is readily apparent in Shakespeare’s comedy “As You Like It.

” In Act 1 Scene 3, the scene “opens on the inner stage, where Rosalind and Celia are exchanging confidences”; this staging helps to indicate the secretive nature of their intimate conversation. ” When the Duke “and his lords enter by one of the side doors on to the middle stage, the girls come downstage and join them, the curtains close, and the scene continues on the middle stage” with the movement of the actors “distracting” the audience from the simultaneous set-construction: “In the meantime, the stagehands are setting up a grassy bank, trees, and shrubs for “the Forest of Arden”, — as part of the scene which follows.” (De Banke 38) Again, the importance of the staging is not only technical but thematic — the way the audience sees and hears the action on stage will frame its emotional impact. Decisions of staging are therefore based on the emotional resonance of the texts: “A close study of the text not only will point to the change of emotional emphasis which calls for a change of setting, but, more than likely, will also reveal the original end of one episode and the beginning of another”  indicating that the flow of staging is as important as the smooth transition of one sentence to another in the chacrters’ speeches and lines. (De Banke 38)In fact, the impact of the written lines in Shakespearean drama  is often intended to correspond directly to action or dramatic techniques on-stage.

Many important examples of this exist in Richard III, where the depiction of supernatural elements is critical to the dramatic impact of the play. To  the Elizabethans, the supernatural elements of Richard III were not viewed merely as dramatic devices, but as genuine phenomena: “nor could one argue from Richard III that the Elizabethans did not believe in the objective reality of ghosts” (Whitmore 79). Conceptions drawn from common superstition found life in the play; including the idea of a murdered corpse which reveals its murderer through portent. The “bleeding corpse motif, in which blood issues afresh from the corpse when the murderer approaches or touches it, thus revealing the guilty person” (Atkinson 2).

This phenomena is used by Shakespeare, famously in Richard III, when Richard  intercepts the corpse of Henry VI on the way to its interment: “See, see dead Henry’s wounds/Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh./Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,/For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood/From cold and empty veins where no blood dwells/:Thy deed inhuman and unnatural/Provokes this deluge most unnatural.” Obviously, in this example, the impact of Shakespeare’s language is often deepened or even dependent upon the visual staging of the action of the scenes.Another important aspect of staging is that Shakespearean drama is dependent upon the conventions of its historical age. Costumes and the physical appearance of characters is extremely important in giving the audience important information about the character’s personality and motivations. Though Macbeth offers the well-known lines “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” Shakespeare (and his audience) evidently believed otherwise, or at the very least depended on their abilities to suspend their disbelief in Physiognomy for purposes dramatic or comedic catharsis; most probably, though, the belief that a person’s physical appearance not only indicated, but determined, personality and moral characteristics in the Elizabethan age operated not as a theatrical convention, merely, but as a social convention which persisted beyond the confines of the theater.

(Olson, 2003)One simple (and universal) manifestation of physiognomy — beards and other facial hair – shows a straightforward approach to the Elizabethan vision of physical character determination: “Beards were also quite common on the Renaissance stage[…] These are not, however, the only “texts” “from the period that equate being a man with having a beard[.

..] medical treatises, physiognomy books, poetical works, and tracts on gender. In many of these texts, moreover, facial hair is not simply imagined as a means of constructing sexual differencesbetween men and women; it is also a means of constructing distinctions between men and boys. Thus, it would appear that boys were considered to be a different gender from men.

” (Fischer, 2001, p. 155)            Certainly, the idea that outward appearance indicates an inward truth or reveals “criminal intent” is a cornerstone for the dramatic tension and conflict in Richard III. “Lady Anne repeatedly likens Richard to an animal, her initial curse on his future offspring to be of “ugly and unnatural aspect” (1.2.22) highlights the conviction, typical of the period, that the union of a human with an animal will result in the birth of monstrous progeny” (Olson, 2003)Shakespeare’s intent to meld language with on-stage action and the setting and staging of his plays finds equally profound influence in other plays such as “Much Ado About Nothing” which thematically addresses interplay between gender specific world-visions and aspirations, specifically, the male and female interplay in romantic settings. The staging of the play’s opening scenes is critical in establishing the play’s themes.

  As the play opens, a battle has recently ended and the fighting troops are retiring to Don Pedro’s estate. Typically, the transference of soldiers to a domestic setting provides ample enough opportunity for drama and conflict; the genius of Much Ado About Nothing resides in Shakespeare’s elegant treatment of this serious dramatic theme: what happens to battle-hardened soldiers when they enter the world of domestic intrigue and ambiguity?The ambiguous and mysterious nature of the domestic worlds of love and romance is indicated symbolically by the masquerade in Act II scene 1. Here, donning masks and beginning to engage in the “war” of love and marriage, the play’s complications are set spinning. Interestingly, these complications involve not only the “match-making” intrigues of the party-goers, but the darker complications brought upon by Don John, a “bastard,”a specificity which furthers the play’s themes of domesticity and marriage, in effect, proffering the bastard John as a villain and in so doing, enhancing the play’s theme that “balance” of the male and female psyches is the goal of marriage. In order for balance and harmony to be achieved; in effect, for the bastard John’s villainous plans to be undone, truth must be ferreted out of the ensuing “masquerade” where everything appears to be something it isn’t.

Hero is first believed to be immoral and then believed to be dead. Benedick and Beatrice appear to be bitter enemies but are, in fact, deeply in love. Claudio and Don Pedro appear to be fighting for morality and righteousness, but are, in fact, persecuting an innocent girl.          The world-turned-upside-down vision creates and ironic contrast with the backdrop of the play: warfare, and brings what might otherwise be regarded as trivialities.         The donning of specific costumes (masks) helps to promote the play’s themes for the audience.Clearly, in Shakespearean drama, language, gesture, staging, costume, lighting, and sound function harmoniously, or should.

As discussed previously, certain modern adaptations of Shakespearean drama intentionally attempt to break with the classical past and by doing so, embrace modern themes and ideas. However, as has been demonstrated in this discussion, the preservation of the original emotional resonance of Shakespeare’s plays demands an adherence (as much as can be made) to the authentic staging and performance of the plays as they were written in Elizabethan times. Such preservation of authorial intent helps to ensure that the themes and meanings of the plays will be faithfully offered to an audience. It is, as mentioned, sometimes very difficult to recover from history Shakespeare’s original intentions for the staging of his plays, but the fully harmonic and integrated stature of his plays cannot be easily argued against even by modern critics.

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