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Aristotle divided the kinds of poetry into three kinds, based on the number of narrators: Lyric (what we now call poetry) is “imitation of an action by language with one narrator”; Epic (Iliad, novels, etc.) is “imitation of an action by language with more than one narrator” (characters who tell the story and characters who speak, etc.); Drama is “imitation of an action by language without narrator” to which he adds “theatre is imitation of an action by action.” This is what is “performative” about drama—the action is not confined to language, but makes use of the “metalanguage” of performance—blocking, movement, gestures, facial expressions, etc. etc.—to imitate the action. One important performative in drama is the “speech-act”—those human actions that are imbedded in words—to “promise”, to “threaten”, to “claim”, to “object”, etc. etc. The performative languages, then, are “speech-acts,” “paralinguistics” (vocal inflections that show emotion and reaction—surprise, fear, elation, etc.) , body language, proxemics (physical distances between characters), stage conventions, etc. These performative qualities separate drama from the other literary forms, because not only can they be performed in space, but also in the mind’s eye while reading drama as literature. A clear example of performativity in dramatic literature is Hamlet’s first entrance. His mother, Gertrude, says, “Hamlet, cast thy nighted colors off.” To the theatre viewer, this is the first identification of Hamlet, but to the reader, this is the first time we know that Hamlet (who is named in the stage directions) is dressed in black (“knighted colors”).
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