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8.5: The Values of Poetic Drama

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  • Though there are hundreds of Shakespeare brands —methods of doing theatre that differ from theatre to theatre and country to country—the Shakespearean theatrical tradition is a rich one, and one that is distinct from the primarily realistic modes of performance we see in many plays and films today. Shakespeare’s poetic drama has different values than its counterparts in realism and therefore is a different kind of theatrical expression, one that requires different tools in rehearsal and performance. The following are among the values that set poetic drama apart:

    Language as the Primary Means of Conveyance

    Poetic drama puts a premium on language in performance. Though language is an important part of most kinds of theatre, poetic drama uses language as the primary means of revealing characters and story. In realism and other modes of making theatre, other means of revelation might be used, from spectacular effects, to dance or movement, to physicality, behavioral acting choices, or subtextual discoveries. One example of language as the primary means of revealing the characters and story is in this speech from Hamlet as Hamlet happens upon his uncle, Claudius, the play’s villain, who is praying and debates whether or not to kill him:

    Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
    And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
    And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
    A villain kills my father; and for that,
    I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven.
    O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
    He took my father grossly, full of bread;
    With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
    And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
    But in our circumstance and course of thought,
    ’Tis heavy with him. And am I then revenged,
    To take him in the purging of his soul,
    When he is fit and season’d for his passage?
    No!
    Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
    When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
    Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
    At game, a-swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in’t;

    Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
    And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
    As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
    This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

    Here, Hamlet is revealing to the audience everything happening in this moment through his language: He has an opportunity to kill his uncle, but his uncle is praying, maybe for forgiveness; if Claudius is forgiven, Hamlet’s choice to murder him would be an act of grace, not of revenge; Hamlet wants to kill Claudius anyway and tells us he is raising his sword to do it; ultimately he relents, promising to find another, more opportune moment to kill his uncle, preferably while Claudius is engaged in some sort of sin.

    Though there are notable exceptions in realistic drama, Shakespeare’s use of language to convey the dramatic moment, the plot, and even the character’s thoughts and actions is an essential element of poetic drama. In realistic drama, we might expect to get all of this information but by an array of different means: Hamlet might raise his sword but not necessarily tell us he is doing so. We might see the character struggle psychologically or physically with the idea of killing his uncle but not necessarily reveal that thought process to the audience. Lighting cues, sound effects, or musical underscoring might help tell the story of this suspenseful moment of reluctance. In contrast, in Shakespeare’s poetic drama —not only in speeches like this but also in dialogue —the spoken language becomes the primary means of making the theatrical moment.

    Heightened Language Leads to Heightened Experience

    Especially as compared to realistic drama, poetic drama simply sounds different than realistic dialogue. One of the ways we might describe this difference is that realistic dialogue sounds more or less the way we speak to each other as part of our everyday lives, while in poetic drama, there is a heightened sense to the language —it operates in a special, more intense way. This heightened language is directly tied to the poetry: Shakespeare’s language, for instance, does not merely convey ideas, as it might in realism, but conveys rhythm, structure, rhetorical patterns, linguistic flourishes, and image in a complex way. Take the first part of Richard’s speech from the opening of Richard III:

    Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
    And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
    Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
    Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
    Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
    Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
    Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
    And now,—instead of mounting barbed steeds To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,—
    He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

    In this speech, the language works differently than it would if Richard III were a realistic drama. First, the language is poetic: each line has a certain number of syllables and a certain rhythm, the sentence structure is occasionally manipulated to fit a better rhythm or to make for a more beautiful line reading, the images are especially rich (e.g., “grim-visag’d war,” the idea that war could be a stern-looking person), and there are patterns built into the language that give the speech its heightened sense. In another mode of drama, this speech could just as easily be:

    We’re really glad the York family just won the civil war. The sad days for us are over and we’re going to trade in our days of war for music and parties.

    Instead, Shakespeare’s speech has a lot more going on in it—contrasting images (summer and winter), recurrent sounds (the assonance in “clouds,” “lour’d,” and “house” and the consonance in “bosom,” “buried,” “brows,” and “bound”), the setting up and breaking of rhetorical patterns (the three lines beginning with “Our . . . ”), and the expansive word choice (lascivious, lour’d, and barbed).

    This heightened approach to the language in the Shakespearean theatrical tradition calls for a heightened experience, both for actors and audience. For actors, speaking poetic drama might mean matching the heightened, more intense, more lyrical nature of the language with a heightened approach to physicality, vocal delivery, or emotional payout. For the audience, the heightened language can mean a more demanding, more complex theatrical experience.

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    Certainly not all of the patterns have been Identified In this selection. Shakespeare's language Is full of these and many other rhetorical elements. What other patterns can you Identify In this speech?

    Language Prompts the Imagination in a Special Way

    In part because of the heightened language and experience associated with it, and in part because of its literary nature, poetic drama calls upon both the practitioner and the audience to engage their imaginations in ways that may be less common in realistic drama. In Shakespeare’s plays, we can be called upon to imagine the setting; to stretch our imagination to account for a magical character or a fantastical, unrealistic element; or to believe that the woman in the play who is dressed like a man passes muster.

    The requirement of imagination is a key element of Shakespeare’s plays in particular. One example is spoken décor, settings that are described rather than demonstrated, as in this example from Macbeth:

    Duncan: This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses.

    BANQUO: This guest of summer,
    The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
    By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
    Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird Hath made his pendent bed and procréant cradle:
    Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
    The air is delicate.

    Here we do not see Macbeth’s castle, which Duncan and Banquo describe, but rather we hear about it through descriptive language — spoken décor. For Shakespeare and other dramatists in early modern England, spoken décor proved an economical means of creating setting for a particular scene. Rather than building a new set for each scene, or even a new set for each play, both of which were very expensive and impractical options for the playing companies of the day, spoken décor called upon the actors to paint a world —Scotland, Rome, Egypt, Italy —that audience could imagine together.

    In addition to spoken décor, Shakespeare’s plays stoke the imagination in other ways: a few actors might have to represent an entire army, weeks might pass in just a few moments on the stage, or a character might hide in plain sight or adopt what is, to the audience, a very transparent disguise. The Chorus in Henry V points to some of the ways audiences might be prompted to imagine:

    . . . can this cockpit hold The vasty helds of France? or may we cram Within this wooden О the very casques That did affright the air at Agincourt?
    O, pardon! since a crooked figure may Attest in little place a million;
    And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
    On your imaginary forces work.
    Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies,

    Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
    Into a thousand parts divide on man,
    And make imaginary puissance;
    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
    For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
    Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
    Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
    Admit me Chorus to this history;
    Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
    Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

    For audiences, imagining and filling in the world of the play is a cue to take a more active part in how the play is made and, ultimately, in its successful performance. Because Shakespeare’s poetic drama asks us to imagine that Rosalind, a beautiful young woman, is instead a young man named Ganymede, the ultimate success of Rosalind’s disguise depends on whether we allow it to work over the course of the play, As You Like It. This stretching or testing of our imaginative will is key in Shakespeare’s plays and represents a clear distinction from what can often be a more literal and more plausible way of making theatre in the realistic mode. Though there are myriad exceptions among plays in contemporary theatre— Angels in America, Parts I (5 II, for instance —poetic drama, particularly that of Shakespeare, seems to make these special demands on the audience as a rule.

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