Friday, April 24, 2009
All throughout history, women have struggled to maintain power and authority over the men around them and the situations they are in. Their struggle is especially interesting in the early modern period, particularly in respect to the stage and performance. The stage offered an interesting dynamic for women; a unique setting in which they may attain power, even if just for a moment. However, the few plays of the period in which women were awarded power, such as “Knight of the Burning Pestle,” were almost always written by men, and often played by young boys—a maneuver which is arguably means of undermining female authority and power. The merchant’s wife in “Knight of the Burning Pestle” is one such character who is able to acquire a sort of power over the characters and situations surrounding her. While female characters (and therefore, women) in early modern drama were able to attain power, this power was still removable because of the many ways in which it was easily undermined.
For thirty years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don't. Everything about me is a contradiction and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There is a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them. Orson Welles
Centuries before these words were uttered by Orson Welles, playwright John Webster seemed to understand this idea. Often cited as a ‘structurally defective’ and ‘frequently contradictory’ (Leech 66), Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi embodies this concept of a willful mass of contradictions. Few if any plays from the era create characters so vivid and real, yet so regularly remind the audience of the artificiality of this staged drama. Webster draws on clichés, other plays, and the culture at large to add more jarring elements to this strange mix of high naturalism and cutting metatheatics. With this, Webster concocts a play that alternatively blurs and contrasts the border between what is real and what is only representation or an image of something else. By confusing the theatrical and the natural on stage, Webster emphasizes a greater relationship between the real and the unreal, the imagined and the depicted, while also pointedly illustrating the power representation and images have to affect reality.
A nosebleed. It may seem like an occurrence of little significance, but in John Webster's Early Modern play, The Duchess of Malfi, this exit of bodily fluid onstage surprisingly provides insight into the way the body was perceived in performance at this time. Antonio's nosebleed is presented as a bad omen and occurs just before all hell breaks loose for his family. The idea of seeing a nosebleed as a manifestation of superstition is not surprising, when considering the fact that little was understood about this biological phenomenon in Early Modern England. The body was seen far differently in Webster's time than it is in our own. Given that biological knowledge was so limited when Duchess was first produced, the body took on a much more mysterious and perhaps even spiritual essence than it does today. Observing a bodily omen such as a nosebleed onstage would have done more than simply provide foreshadowing, it would have provided an audience with insight into who a character was internally as well as how he fit into the grand scheme of the play's world.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Throughout history mankind has embraced the idea that we define ourselves by the way in which we live our lives. The pursuit of wealth, power, discipline, and religion are only a few of areas which people use to mold their persona. Sixteenth century Britain provided prime examples of these pursuits, which are reflected in the plays produced during this period. Whatever the pursuit, each person’s individual definition was understood to end with a common punctuation: death. Whatever the person’s status or achievements, their mortality was unavoidable. Although these concepts were clearly evident, a different thought began to make itself apparent. Plays like The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed in Kindness began to shed a new light on the subject of death. Instead of a permanent end, death began to be seen as a gateway to immortality. This new concept of immortality was not the same immortality strictly defined in the religious sense, but a fusion of this religious ideology and the Humanistic views beginning to make their impression on society. This immortality defines itself in the notion that one’s fate is decided by the way in which they die; suggesting it is death that provides an individual with an opportunity to achieve true life.
Friday, April 10, 2009
“The Changeling” is full of instances where characters happen to be at the right place at the right time. However, I find Scene III, Act iii to be particularly interesting. In the asylum, Isabella is looking at the different madmen. When she is left alone with Antonio, he reveals himself to be faking his craziness, and he professes love to and kisses Isabella. While she doesn’t seem entirely supportive of the actions, she doesn’t do much to fight him, either. During this entire scenario, Lollio was watching from above. He escorts Antonio away and when he returns, he is in a position of power over Isabella because of what he witnessed. Even though this play is “consumed with changeability” there are still moments where location and timing are critical, and this moment is one of them. Because of what Lollio saw, he is now in a position to take advantage of Isabella in nearly any way he sees fit (and, at that moment, does attempt to kiss her, and calls her a prostitute). Isabella is married, and of course should not be fooling around with anyone (especially her husband’s patients)—which Lollio knows and will take full advantage of.
It is somewhat difficult to determine whether being in the right place at the right time is a result of one’s resolve or chance. There is much support to be found in the first three acts for both arguments causing me to believe it is a combination of both. In Act 1 De Flores states, “Here’s a favor come, with a mischief! Now I know/ She had rather wear my pelt tanned in a pair/ Of dancing pumps than I should thrust my fingers/ Into her sockets here, I know she hates me,/ Yet cannot choose but love her./ No matter; if but to vex her, I’ll haunt her still./ Though I get nothing else, I have my will.”(1.1.233-239) This line seems to be a reflection of how the rest of the play seems to try and find a balance between happenstance and the actual drive of the characters in determining their fates. In this line, De Flores speaks concerning the occasion where he returns Beatrice’s glove and his feelings on the matter. There is some controversy on whether or not Beatrice drops her glove on accident or on purpose to lure De Flores into helping her. Here we see question of chance reiterated. If Beatrice had dropped the glove accidentally, De Flores resolve concerning his relationship with her would have been strengthened by a random occurrence. On the other hand, had she dropped the glove on purpose, his resolve would have been strengthened by her doing making his actions a result of her conscious effort. De Flores goes on to explain how he cannot help but love her, which gives the idea that we are slave to fate. He goes on to claim that he will have his will, coming back to the idea that the characters are in control of what happens. We see this pendulum swing back and forth between chance and character resolve throughout the entirety of the play. Perhaps we are meant to understand that while the characters seem to have their own choices, they are still part of a “master” plan (the plot of the play) that cannot be denied.
When Beatrice replies, she says "Oh, there's one above me, sir."(speaking of her father and his right/duty to marry his daughter off to a well-suited man). In her aside she states "For five days past to be recalled! Sure, mine eyes were mistaken; This was the man was meant me. That he should come so near his time, and miss it!"(ll84-87). Beatrice is speaking of the fact that Alsemero was just five days too late of confessing his love. She has already promised to marry another, and is now faced with a complex because she believes that she has not only made the wrong decision, but Alsemero s the only one for her. The way she speaks about this horrible misfortune makes it obvious that her and Alsemero are destined to be together-and she will find a way to scheme out of the current marriage proposal. It is so interesting that Alsemero was so close to being able to have Beatrice without any sort of conflict-had he just come a few days sooner. However, this very scene sets the stage for the fulfillment of destiny which will take place through the fight to be together.
The constant presence of chance within the play, and its mutable benefit for a host of characters, lends a new meaning to the title. In a play so caught up with notions of disguise and treason, could it be that luck is the ultimate changeling? Middleton shows chance to be a force that can appear to you as pure benefit, give you all you desire, and then stab you in the back. Sometimes literally.