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date: 07 August 2020

(p. 587) Cultural Performances Past and Present

‘[A]‌ text’s history’, writes Will Stockton, ‘includes not only the original conditions of its production and reception, but also … its “changing being in time” ’. And when history is made by means of the theatre, proffers Bloom, it ‘stretches the event open, such that it is simultaneously a preservation of the past and a preparation for the future’. Many of the ten essays in this final section share the inclusive and recursive perspective on the cultural production and reproduction of Shakespeare’s texts that Diana Henderson terms ‘Shakeshifting’: ‘the creative reshuffling of Shakespearean words, tropes, and narratives within modern media’. Considered from the perspective of various technologies that make and remake ‘Shakespeare’ for each generation and across cultures, these essays look to the past and to future practices in adaptation, theatrical performance, film, digital media, and graphic novels. Denise Albanese notes that

‘Shakespeare’ is the durable name we use for a collation of dispersed and non-commensurable practices, which arrive to us by myriad forms of delivery whose effects must be theorized … [H]‌ow we access Shakespeare, in what form, is as much at issue as the particular character of our responses.

The focus in this section is on such delivery systems, whether they are understood to be the actor’s body, dramaturgical practices, Hindi film, or classroom instruction.

The first two essays offer metacritical interventions for thinking of theatricality and technology in and across time. Kathleen McLuskie’s ‘A Time for The Merry Wives of Windsor (p. 588) provides a hinge between ‘Textual Production’ and ‘Cultural Performances’ by connecting the various versions of a play to its embodied performance on stage and in film, as well as to the gender criticism it has elicited. Like Rubright, she reads the differences between quarto and folio editions as having embodied significance, but she shifts the question towards the text’s temporality: ‘How far does its metaphorical “embodiment” in different theatrical, critical, and textual forms inflect our sense of its liveness or deadness in contemporary time?’ In relation to Merry Wives, McLuskie asserts that ‘Shakespeare is not our contemporary: the enforced marriage, autocratic power, violent and legally sanctioned discrimination against individuals that structure the narratives of his plays no longer constitute the fundamental relations of democratic societies.’ Yet, insistence on historical alterity is not the whole story, because scholarship and performance alike are required to negotiate the different ‘times’ of a play: ‘An emphasis on the real social differences between then and now … risks negating the affective power of most of Shakespeare’s narratives and rendering the plays “dead on arrival”.’ It is for this reason that ‘to sustain the pleasure and affect of the plays, the analogies and re-motivated narratives created by actorly and critical work occlude the differences and insist on the synergies between Shakespeare’s plays and the embodied actions that will allow them to register as alive on arrival’. Because we read social narrative out of dramatic texts, we must negotiate the ‘different timescales involved in representing the past’: ‘the long timescale of real social change, the short timescale that structures the narratives of the characters’ imagined past, and the immediate present of embodied performance’. In Merry Wives she finds that the ‘deep structures of traditional gender relations have the capacity for a pleasurable reiteration across time that remains singularly resistant even to the facts of major social transformation’—a conclusion that places her essay in provocative dialogue with that of Neely.

Jennifer Waldron revisits the much-discussed relationship of femininity to theatricality from the perspective of contemporary media theory, arguing that Shakespeare engages with, counters, and deflects ‘a long history of suspicion’ of ‘technical objects’ linked to Reformation iconoclasm. Treating theatrical artifice as a gendered ‘technic’, she asks, ‘how did both critics and playwrights imagine the capacities of the theatrical medium, an art form frequently dismissed in Shakespeare’s time as dangerously emasculating?’ The theatricality inherent in Hermione’s statue and its ur-story of Pygmalion, as well as the bed trick[s] of All’s Well, offer paradigmatic instances of the relationship of the human to the technical, and as such provide potent interventions in the history of media theory and gender. While Shakespeare elsewhere links theatrical technics with the artificiality, exteriority, and embodiment projected onto women (thereby colluding in the convergent traditions of technophobia and anti-feminism), bed trick[s] and statue scenes, she argues, ‘transvalue the traditionally negative associations of that feminization, in part by reimagining the functions of mediation itself’. The supposed ‘exteriority’ of theatrical technics, in these cases, is shown to be affectively ‘central to human experience—and, therefore, not “exterior” to it at all’.

Shifting the lens from characters to actors, Evelyn Tribble deploys an understanding of theatricality as embodied cognition to complicate approaches to the youthful boy player who, she argues, ‘may have been an object of desire, but … was equally a skilled subject’. ‘[R]‌e-directing our attention to the skill of the boy player’, she argues, ‘can provide a fuller account of the nature of embodiment on the early modern stage’, including roles that are (p. 589) not limited to gender crossing. Playwrights such as Shakespeare and John Lyly often capitalize on the ‘enskilment’ of the performer: ‘the processes by which novices are inducted into a skill environment, their absorption into its practices and norms, and the training of the body and the nervous system that marks skilled, deliberate practice’. By integrating into their stageplays self-conscious ‘moments of animation, meta-theatricality, and feigned ineptness’, playwrights draw ironic attention to the finesse that is required of a trained player, particularly the skills of ‘stage presence, wit, aptness, and quickness’ required in their roles as women, older men, and mythological figures.

Holly Dugan’s examination of the lost history of rape provides an alternative angle on the boy actor’s experience: his sexual vulnerability. Her meditation on Shakespeare’s ‘lost play’, Cardenio, its putative source in Cervantes, and its modern ‘adaptations’ such as Double Falsehood concentrates on ‘both our desire for and our knowledge about the past’, including not only the ‘truth’ about Shakespeare, but about sex. In terms that intersect with McLuskie’s reading of ‘deep structures’, she is interested in how ‘certain transhistorical beliefs about embodiment shape even historicist endeavours’, and she finds such beliefs to be evident in recent performances of sexual assault. These stagings demonstrate the cultural imagination of rape which refuses, through a kind of ‘willed ignorance’, to consider the bodily violation of youthful males. Recovering the history of shepherds through several different literary traditions, she shows how Violante’s rape narratives ‘emerge from a palimpsest of fragmented histories of sexual violence: of women, of servants, of shepherds, and of boy actors’, histories that are troublingly indexed to genre and the willingness to find sexual violence funny.

Dugan’s concern with what turns the spectre of rape from a matter of comedy into a matter of tragedy (and vice versa) is shared by Jean Howard, whose interest lies in the performative limits and possibilities of dramatizing rape on the contemporary stage. What, she asks, are the stakes of a feminist performance practice, and what strategies are made possible by the plays themselves? Such a question, of course, implicates female agency as a core concern—not only the agency of the raped woman, but the agencies of contemporary actors, directors, and theatregoers. Examining the strategies chosen by directors of Titus Andronicus and Heywood’s Rape of Lucrece: A Roman Tragedy, she identifies the ways that directors conceal violence ‘through tactics of aestheticization’ as well as the ‘possibilities of feminist intervention’ in both plays. She finds in Heywood’s inclusion of songs, which interrupt the rape narrative, a more radical inroad for feminist resistance than productions that attempt to transform Lavinia into a ‘volitional and intentional’ agent. Turning from the actor’s representational function (to embody ‘character’) to the ‘presentational’ skills emphasized by Tribble—the ability to sing, dance, and clown—she argues that the twenty-one songs inserted into Heywood’s Lucrece enable a feminist perspective to be voiced by male characters in such a way that implicates the entire community in the social norms that tolerate sexual assault: ‘The play does not change Lucrece’s consciousness; rather, it establishes the conditions by which an audience may change theirs by revealing … the social context of rape.’

In her comparative close reading of Othello’s handkerchief and its reconceptualization in the 2006 Hindi film, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara, Diana Henderson explores how gendered violence and resistance can be materially signified across cultures through the manipulation of objects that not only mediate representations of the gendered body, (p. 590) but extend it. Here, the handkerchief—in Shakespeare’s play, a fatal signifier of female honour—is re-presented as a bejewelled ‘kamarband’ (akin to a chain) given to Dolly by her betrothed. Used increasingly as a means to curry favour, the kamarband (originally ‘a sign of tradition associated with female honour and marriage’) is absorbed ‘into the dominant corruption of the men’s world’. Tracing the kamarband’s journey reveals the gendered opposition that structures the film, with the female characters represented as simultaneously ‘more traditional and more radical in their response to societal corruption than are the men’. Rather than instantiating a Western form of liberal feminism, ‘Omkara recalls a female community deeply rooted in Indian scriptures, legacies, and the compensatory actions they inspire, providing the only site of moral stability in a gangster democracy.’ In methodological terms, Henderson seeks to counter oversimplified deployments of identity politics by identifying the risks and rewards of exploring gendered meanings as they intersect with other identity categories in and across cultural locations. She argues that media studies and gender studies both must confront the fact that embodied representations circulate via ‘media forms that evade full comprehension as material realities and processes, yet which (like Shakespeare’s playscripts) cross all sorts of physical boundaries and limits’. Analytically bearing down on a material object, she suggests, can help critics sort through diverse registers of information, and in so doing help them better understand ‘what constitutes an autonomous human being (or, in democratic political discourse, a citizen) in an era of global circulation and exchange’.

Susan Bennett’s examination of the Iraqi Theatre Company’s 2012 production Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad is likewise concerned with the fact that, as Henderson puts it, bodies are ‘located in and haunted by multiple scripts and histories’, likewise concerned with audiences’ premises about Shakespeare and national cultures in the context of global circulation, and likewise concerned with the lineaments of tragedy as Shakespeare’s works are adapted for new purposes. Rather than approach Romeo and Juliet as a tale of doomed romantic love, she examines how embodiment is ‘construed in a precarious elsewhere whose own history with the West marshals Shakespeare’s tragedy into a more pressing articulation of human rights today’. Reimagined as a play of cross-sectarian love, Monadhil Daood’s adaptation ‘dramatizes the contingent practices of Iraqi nationhood’ and thereby elicits ‘a different order of tragedy’. Central to her inquiry is the play’s performance in England as part of the World Shakespeare Festival, underwritten by British Petroleum, which implicates the play and its audiences in ‘the equivocal condition of nationhood’ prevailing in the larger context of globalization. Her expansive concept of the ‘performativity of national bodies’ includes not only the actors on stage, but ‘the history of English audiences with Shakespeare’s play … alongside the specific history of English interests in Iraq’. Given widespread ignorance of Iraqi history, as well as audience members’ tutelage in the purported meaning of Romeo and Juliet by the proliferation of films, productions, and adaptations, Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad upset conventional spectatorial expectations, as it ‘literally tore out the possibility of love from the bodies on stage and replaced it with a relentlessly masculinist battle for power’. Furthermore, ‘the real tragedy’ performed by this adaptation ‘is the West’s passive spectatorship of a story familiar to us from the nightly news’ as well as the ‘extreme effects of global corporate power in the shaping of national policies, local experience, and all too often the precarious life of bodies’.

Bennett, Henderson, Dugan, and Howard are each concerned with the possibilities and limitations of contemporary performance practices as revealed in the material histories (p. 591) of both the past and the present, with Bennett and Henderson particularly attuned to the political conditions of contemporary performance in different global sites. A different approach to performance organizes Lauren Eriks Cline’s discussion of ‘Caliban’s bodies’. In theorizing the links between performed bodies and texts, she seeks to sidestep ‘the text–performance binary whose endless inversions have absorbed so much of the critical energy in Shakespearean performance studies’. Conjoining performance theory to ‘monster theory’, which reads ‘cultures through the monsters they create’, she locates in both approaches ‘an investment in exploring ways of thinking embodiment that thrive, rather than flounder, on fragmentation, repetition, and loss’. The monster, she argues, ‘allows us to inhale a “paranoid” suspicion of power’s assembled traps while also embracing a “reparative” love of the part-objects that enable escape and re-assemblage’. The Deleuzian concept of ‘assemblage’ is here deployed on behalf of ascertaining Caliban’s (and Sycorax’s) multiple forms, read not in terms of a progressive, ‘evolutionary’, cultural history of theatrical representation, but to access ‘instances of non-binary code-switching’, the ‘baggy’ and contradictory assemblage of their ‘shifting embodiment’. In ways that extend the implications of animal studies elsewhere in this volume, Caliban’s ‘ambivalent becomings-animal’ upset more than human–animal boundaries to implicate the ways in which history itself is told. As she puts it, Calibans from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ‘do not trace a theatrical family tree. They trouble one.’ Indeed, it is in the ‘opaque surfaces’ of their theatrical embodiments that present opportunities for thinking through the entwined critical sensibilities of cultural reification and cultural subversion available at different historical moments. For, ‘although the geography of Caliban-as-monster is as subject to reterritorializing border wars as the island on which he lives, the “opaque terrain” of his body … also contains the escape routes of Caliban’s becomings’.

In order to consider ‘the composite effect of “Caliban” as an expanding multiplicity of representations and affects’, Eriks Cline deliberately subordinates ‘the social positionality of the actor’. For Ayanna Thompson and Laura Turchi, in contrast, when it comes to embodied identities, the ‘social positionality of the actor’ is the main fulcrum of both analysis and future possibility. With their exploration of the theories, methodologies, and practices of performance-based pedagogy, the volume begins to activate in pedagogical terms many of the concerns articulated by other contributors. They argue that the dominant trend towards performance-based pedagogy, in which ‘the student’s body plays a central role in his or her kinaesthetic processes and syntheses’, has been stymied by ‘a conflicted response to … diverse student populations’, a response whose colour blindness is part and parcel of an undertheorized attachment to a universalist understanding that ‘Shakespeare is for everyone’. Thus, while a rhetoric of diversity is everywhere, ‘the practical implications for the ways to embody diversity in Shakespearean performance are avoided’. Thompson and Turchi not only critique available pedagogical resources, but offer ‘a more complex portrait of embodied learning’ based on their own pedagogical practices and classroom observations. They provide practical suggestions for engaging with students’ gender, racial, sexual, and physical differences, using them not as blank slates upon which to write Shakespearean character but as a resource for dealing with ‘hot topics’ in today’s society. Advocating ‘intentional framing’ to foster debate about how Shakespeare’s meanings are created through bodies as well as how those meanings change as actors’ bodies do, they argue that ‘embodied performances can provide the vehicle for more complex discussions about history’.

(p. 592) The volume ends with Denise Albanese’s meditation on the relation of affect to aesthetics in feminist engagements with Shakespeare. In words that resonate with embodied classroom practices, she confesses,

I don’t generally read Shakespeare … with an absorption so total I ignore cues from the animal body, wrapt instead in a fiction so all-encompassing it replaces my world for a time. Early modern English, speech headings, and notes, pressing for attention and engendering interruption, summon up a text whose mediation is ever-present: a text I work over as much as it works on me.

Borrowing from Lauren Berlant the concept of ‘cruel optimism’—‘the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object’—she explores what it means to consider Shakespeare as such a problematic object, one that, nonetheless, we feel as well as think about—or perhaps think about through feeling. A discourse of feeling, she notes, has been significantly devalued in both ideological criticism and contemporary, neoliberal capitalism. In her effort to restore feeling to the critical repertoire, Albanese argues that we need to own up to the ambivalence—the pleasure and the guilt in that pleasure—that is part of the contemporary ‘habitus’ of reading and viewing Shakespeare’s plays. Ranging across media as diverse as Branagh’s film Love’s Labour’s Lost and the graphic series Kill Shakespeare, she anatomizes the attendant pleasures and displeasure they solicit. In an analysis that finds, for instance, in Branagh’s inclusion of Gershwin songs precisely what does not work because, in social and ideological terms, it does not matter, she explores the strange mix of aesthetic and ideological judgments that conduce to taking pleasure in a Shakespearean event. As she puts it, ‘there is no escape from the problem of value’—and as she fesses up to her own aesthetic judgments, we can apprehend an invitation to examine our own.