Sunday, September 8, 13:17 CDT

if i'm going to keep doing this
the whole web writing thing i mean
it's going to have to be something different

here, have something different
i'm really, really not proud of this
it's going here because i'm tired of being this lame
just because i can get away with it
and if people who respect my writing see it
i will be forced to change
or quit

Journal for a Shakespeare class, #1

What's Shakespeare trying to do here?

My first thought is that I really just don't know, but I don't think I can extend that for two pages...

Propaganda seems like far too simple an answer, but it's the first thing that comes to mind. It would be hard to argue that Richard III isn't propaganda in some sense of the word. Unless I'm off on my timeline, this is a play that was performed more or less directly under the nose of Queen Elizabeth - and more importantly, entirely under her good graces. For the Queen, the Wars of the Roses were more than just a dramatic piece of history. They were inextricably tied up with the entire basis of her power. And her family history, which all things considered I'm assuming was kind of a touchy subject.

So it'd be easy enough to say that the point of Shakespeare's Richard III was to please - or at least avoid angering - a powerful monarch and an assortment of those in power. It's probably true, but it's not the whole truth.

No art exists in a vacuum. Shakespeare's theatre was about as far from the isolated creation of a single mind as it's possible to get and still claim any one person as author. Richard III was never intended to be read; it was intended to be acted, in a public space, by a multitude of players, for audiences who probably included almost the entire social spectrum of the times. The politics and the religion of the day were inseperable and pervasive. The history, not surprisingly paid for by the winners, was bound to both. And in a less-than-literate age, if the content of books depended on the whims and needs of those in power, then a widely accessible and public form must have been incredibly constrained by the standards we're used to.

In the 21st c., at least in the West, we can read and write very nearly anything we please, but we still can't discuss sex openly or use key four letter words on TV. Granted that most of the explicitly content-based restrictions on our public art are eroding, I still imagine the situation was similar in 16th and 17th c. England, if considerably more extreme. Perhaps it was closer to the mid-1900's in the USA, when real political consequences for certain kinds of writing were obvious, but literature was still clearly freer (is that a word?) than television, radio, and film.

(And having said all that, now I'm wondering: What if there weren't a lot of ways the stage was less constricted than something intended as lasting literature? An observant company might know quite well who was in a given audience. Any play might be altered at a moment's notice - even mid-performance. Actors must have had some freedom in the interpretation of their roles and the nuances they gave to the language. The language itself was beyond clever, capable of carrying so many meanings that the whole damn thing should have just collapsed. It wasn't, so far as I understand, ever intended as a lasting record to be read... Maybe the theatre was feared and hated in certain corners for legitimate reasons, if controlling thought was their overriding concern...)

The theatre occupied a precarious position in the grand scheme of things, despite which it continued to make a profit - which was the point of having a theatre in the first place, unless I'm mistaken. You entertained people, you made some money. As side benefits you got to mess around on stage in costume and give eloquent speeches and make bad puns and play with the minds of an audience. Maybe have published one of the world's greatest bodies of writing as kind of a byproduct, a nice financially lucrative afterthought, of the whole process.

So I think... Well, I think Shakespeare was out to entertain people. It's easy enough to see that, watching Richard performed. Forget that, and you're missing the point of anything that real audiences willingly put themselves through. I also think he knew upon which side his proverbial bread was buttered. I don't think that's the whole story, though. I think he was - given the constraints of what he knew, what he probably believed about his country's history, and what it was politic to say about that history - trying to make sense of things. Trying to put them in some kind of... Maybe moral order is what I'm grasping at. Which is an assertion I haven't done anything to support or even lead up to, but I think it makes sense considering the nature of Shakespeare's theatre, which I did ramble about for a while.

p1k3 / 2002 / 9 / 8