Time in Shakespeare
A résumé of the talk given by Paul Kirkham on March 22nd 2022
Written at a time when plague closed more than just the theatres and many of us retreated to the safety of house and garden to contemplate mortality, the passage of time, and of course Shakespeare.
I came across an intriguing paper* whose argument starts with an observation that the greatest anachronism in all Shakespeare’s plays is the appearance of the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsommer Night's Dreame. What are these staunch representatives of the Elizabethan working class doing providing comic interludes in ancient Athens? One explanation may be that they are not from the wrong time and place so much as a different time and place. They are minor parts, their chronotope is diurnal, seasonal, governed by the moon and sun. Major roles are driven by the stars and planets, they follow time’s arrow rather than time’s cycle. And this distinction goes for the plays which are most coherent in time and place – the histories. Lesser characters are treated differently, they speak prose, their ‘betters’ speak verse.
Taking this idea forward I would suggest that whether in the stables at Gadshill, or a tavern in Eastcheap the little people are playing in a soap opera where the imperative is simply to get through the day. They have no agency in the epic storylines of court and battlefield. You can see why this might resonate during lockdown.
Real drama comes when these worlds collide. Think of the comfortable squire Alexander Iden strolling safely in his Kentish garden being rudely disturbed by the starving fugitive Jack Cade, on the run from his failed rebellion. The prose-speaking upstart Cade is killed by the verse-speaking Iden. (Henry VI pt2).
Or Falstaff, scampering away to court from the bucolic comfort of an orchard in Gloucestershire only to be put in his place almost as brutally as Cade, certainly more cruelly. (Henry IV pt2)
The ‘natural order’ is re-established as both Cade and Falstaff are met with the same words: ‘I know thee not’. Social mobility? I think not!
And all this in a third chronotope, that of the imagination: a dream time, where you can girdle the earth in a matter of minutes, a magical place of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces. Theatre, the two hours’ traffic of our stage; it’s good to be back!
- Shakespeare’s Time Travellers: Shakespeare: Vol 15, No 3 (tandfonline.com)
Summary of talk Don't shoot the messenger. by Julia Pirie
October 11th, 2022
Sophocles: No one loves the messenger who brings bad news The messenger (nuntius) in Greek drama was used to report action (like deaths) which had, by convention, to take place off stage. Not bound by the Classical unities, Shakespeare's plays use messengers to fulfil a variety of different dramatic purposes, among others: to kick start a plot; to alter direction of the plot or pace of the play; to change the mood; and to establish or develop characters. Having compared how news was circulated in Shakespeare's time with our own access to news 24/7 and discussed the variety of characters in his plays who carry messages, the talk went on to illustrate and explore examples from seven plays.
Messengers are often treated very badly by those to whom their job is to deliver news. Because the Society had recently read Antony and Cleopatra the examples started there. Messengers in this play criss-cross the known world, having to face the wrath of both Antony and Cleopatra. Some of the business is comic; but underneath, there is a vein of sadism in the way the powerful treat the inferiors who bring them news that upsets them.
Examples were also taken from Richard lll, particularly from Act lV where Shakespeare moves the plot on from Stanley's news about Richmond's being at sea to the point where Catesby must tell Richard that the Tudor has landed at Milford Haven. At this point Richard is losing his grip hand over fist: his downfall is being set up. Shakespeare demonstrates this by the way he reacts, particularly to the unnamed messengers who bring news from all over England.
It was suggested that Macbeth falls from the start of the Scottish play. The witches' message (prophecy) tempts him from the moment they utter it. Banquo is more cautious, but Macbeth is "rapt" and it is soon clear that he disregards any advice from his friend, who is, of course, also given messages of future success. Later scenes in Act V, where Macbeth is going to realise finally that the witches have played him false, were also examined as his obstinate bluster is slowly eroded by the realisation that those "instruments of darkness" have been playing with him.
Titus Andronicus is one of the goriest plays. The talk looked at the fate of the Clown who Titus sends as messenger to Saturninus. The man, totally overawed by being at court, gives his message and expects the reward Titus said would be his. Instead, he is dragged off to be hanged. Although he is anonymous this is one of the times Shakespeare draws the audience in to sympathise with the minor character. Someone added here another example from this play reminding us of the response Titus got when sending his hand to Saturninus in exchange for the lives of his sons. The message back came both with that hand and his sons' heads.
Of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the audience sees and knows much more. They carried Claudius's message - the audience hears him give a version of it to them - to England. Hamlet hoists them by their own petard by replacing his death warrant with theirs. A point was raised here about Hamlet's actions and his apparent callousness. He who wouldn't kill Claudius, because he thought his uncle was praying and would therefore go to heaven, is happy to send his chums unshriven (as indeed his father was) to their deaths. It was suggested that he can act. He can kill Polonius (by accident) and Rosencrants and Guildenstern, as here, but seemingly only when he doesn't have to think about it too much.
The endings of the comedies Love's Labours Lost and Much Ado concern messengers - for different effects: the former where the news of the king's death puts a damper on all celebrations and the latter where the news is good (although not for Don John) but punishments are postponed until after the celebrations.
At this point someone asked about 'good' news and it was decided there wasn't much in Shakespeare's plays. Two members volunteered to read from Romeo and Juliet, a play full of drama and ending in tragedy because characters deliver and receive false messages, the extract when the Nurse brings Romeo's news that he will meet Juliet at Friar Laurence's cell that afternoon. In line with modern practice, the Nurse was male, and the pair of very talented and experienced readers gave a performance which had the audience roaring with laughter.
A good discussion followed the break. Two more members read the scene from Twelfth Night where Viola (as the nuncio, Cesario) has to deliver Orsino's messages to Olivia. Again, there is comedy. Behind it (and Twelfth Night often tilts in the direction of tragedy) Viola is suffering. She must deliver her post using Orsino's words to another woman. Discussion followed. Points were made generally about the handling of the unnamed (unfranchised) or minor characters whose functions are limited and who are often treated outrageously by those who have the power to do so. This led back into the 21st century where many examples of similar treatment are visited on those vulnerable communities by rulers, governments and even individuals. Shakespeare's plays do indeed "Hold a mirror up to nature."