As I mentioned in my comment to Judith Tannenbaum’s blog, both plays feature talented musical fools who sing snatches of songs with the refrain “For the rain it raineth every day.”
It may seem a slim link but it is a tantalizing one, in large part because I can’t develop that thread as I would like. For we will never be able to hear how the song sounded as it went from comedy to tragedy. I do not believe we have a surviving score (notating the melody) or even that Shakespeare wrote this song (though it is often attributed to him). In 12th Night, Feste uses it to close the play in a way that would appear to encourage the audience to join in, so it had to have been traditional. (Similarly I have always found it odd to read so often that Shakespeare “coined” X amount of words. The last thing he would want to do was confuse his audience with made up words. This myth originates with a misunderstanding of the usage examples given in the Oxford English Dictionary—saying the first recorded use of the word appears in Shakespeare doesn’t mean he made up the word.) The point that I am stressing is that what we know of Shakespeare and his theater is very fragmentary.
For instance we only have good drawing of an outdoor theater.
And actually, it’s a copy (discovered three centuries later) and that draftsman was far poorer than the original artist. And it’s of the Swan and it’s from 1596. Yet since its discovery this image has had a powerful effect on our vision of how Shakespeare is to be staged. In 1610, the astrologer Simon Foreman saw Macbeth and wrote that Macbeth and Banquo rode through a wood and found 3 fairies. Critics like to think about what it means that Foreman doesn’t call them witches. But when it comes to the image of horses on stage and a set with trees—no. He must be wrong—conflating an image out of Holinshed with the play he saw. Shakespeare’s stage isn’t strewn with “trees”— and for god sake, horses aren’t up there. The stage is bare because the Swan’s stage is bare in the drawing. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Lear has most been influenced by this vision that demands that the events take place without a set.
I am not saying the convention of a bare stage is bad—only that I think the best thing to do now is to take the air out of the Swan drawing. To that end in class I like to improvise a caption for it as if it were an item in the New Yorker’s cartoon contest. It may be a rehearsal. Maybe that’s the janitor down there.
And if you think they put on plays in 1640 like they did in 1596 that’s fine. Some tv shows today are shot with three cameras as pioneered on I Love Lucy too. . .
We have one image of actors in costume.
It doesn’t quite match the text for Shakespeare’s Titus but most critics accept it as an image of the Bard’s play and declare that the artist got the tableau wrong. More recently, credible arguments have been put forward that the artist just might be right (like Foreman might be right) and we could be looking at an image from a Titus by another author.
We have one image of an indoor theater. It too is weird, first surfacing as the frontispiece to a restoration collection of drolleries. It features patrons in Puritan dress (1640’s??), indoor illumination, and various popular characters.
The precise theater is uncertain (the Red Bull, perhaps). And we have some maps (well, not yet maps, its choreography, that strange early form where the rendered place is not yet imagined from overhead as a grid) and other illustrations where the exteriors of the playhouse appear and that is about it.
We don’t know how the actors performed. We estimate that about 90% of what was staged has been lost. As a result your imagination is free to have at Lear.
When reading Lear, I would say it bears keeping in mind how Shakespeare deviates from his source and how the play has been adapted since. I think the bottom line question with Lear turns on Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy. Some talk of redemption in Lear. I wish I could. Perhaps Belle or others will see it that way.
I will end by pointing out that Cordelia, of which we have heard much (sounds like a neat California town) is usually said to have been lifted out of Spenser. But bear in mind that only in Shakespeare is she murdered. I said Shakespeare was always engaged in a delicate dance with Spenser. In Lear he strangles that music. Yet it survives, immortally in Mad Tom’s sublime description of the sampire gatherer engaged in his trade somewhere below Lear’s feet at Dover cliffs. Remember too the Fool who ends 12th Night; he is (as Belle explained) another of our heroic minor characters who survive. Not so in Lear. There the fool doesn’t die either. Like Tom’s vision at Dover, he just vanishes.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports