illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8334

Emily C. Bartels, Rutgers University

Subjected thus, How can you say to me I am a king?—Richard II 3.2.176-77


"To be or not to be" (3. 1. 55)—that is the question Hamlet asks of himself and Shakespeare asks of him and other self-scrutinizing figures like him (such as Othello, Lear, to some degree Cleopatra and Macbeth), figures emerging largely, though not solely, in the tragedies, where the idea of selfhood and the prospects of self-determination are most prominently at issue.1 New historicism, with its Foucauldian emphases on the coercive pervasion of "power" and the ideological overdetermination of identity, has brought us back, perhaps despite itself, to where early feminisms, with their interest in recovering muted female voices, began: to questions of agency, of the subject's power over and as a self.2 Given a world in which thoughts are subjects to and of a multi-layered network of social and political prescripts, what finally does and can it mean to be, to perform or possess identity, to speak and act as "I"?

It is not surprising that, in trying to bring women out of subjugation and into subjectivity, feminism found a generous ally in psychoanalysis.3 For despite the problematic phallocentrism of its seminal expressions, psychoanalysis provided a useful way to talk about (and hear) voices under cover, to explore the core of being in ways that involved figures of both genders. Seen through its gaze, Ophelia could signify, and signify something crucial, even if that something pointed back to the phallus, to male power and parts and female lack.4 Volumnia could take the words out of Coriolanus's mouth as a "cannibalistic mother," instancing his dependency on her while, to some degree, overcoming hers on him as on the patriarchal system he stands for.5 And Cordelia could signify a physically embodied nothing, which becom"the very ground of being" in the play.6

Yet even (if not especially) as these critiques turn to the body and its innermost parts, especially those that separate the girls from the boys, they find, in essence, nothing, a vacancy that tells us what is missing instead of what is there. The problem is not merely one of gender (though, of course, Cordelia's nothing is different from Lear's—and that difference may be what precipitates the play's crisis); it is also one of approach. Psychoanalytic readings can get us closer to the symbolic relations within early modern texts, but they cannot get us closer to the early modern self, except, as Stephen Greenblatt has suggested, as its effect.7 As Greenblatt has argued, "psychoanalytic interpretation seems to follow upon rather than to explain Renaissance text"8 In looking within, beyond the "seems," to find explanations for what is without, psychoanalytic interpretation anachronistically assumes the presence (and then loss)—or, at least, the means for imagining that presence and loss—of some prior, stabilized identity.9 But it is precisely that kind of identity that seems unimaginable in the early modern period.

Think, for example, of Hamlet, who tries relentlessly to talk himself—and a self—into being and who, consequently, has provoked us (and Lawrence Olivier) to produce him psychoanalytically.10 Hamlet believes, or says he believes, that he has "that within which passes show" (1. 2. 85) beneath his "inky cloak" and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.77-78). And he asserts that some harbor, in their interiors, a "vicious mole of nature" (1.4.24) that leaves an indelible imprint on their thoughts, "virtues," behaviors, and reason (1.4.33). Yet when he looks within himself to find and define "who's there" (1.1.1), the opening and central question of...

(This entire section contains 8334 words.)

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the play, we lose him amid "the whips and scorns of time, / Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, / The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay, / The insolence of office" and so on (3. 2.69-72). Though he tries to be Harrison Ford, he is fated (sadly) to be Mel Gibson, disjunct, impulsive, and disruptive, if not clinically disturbed.

Indeed, in the "Mel Gibson" film, Hamlet, Franco Zeffirelli (the director) obviously cannot cut Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy (though he does cut up his less famous "sullied flesh") and strains to mesh it into the diagesis by having Hamlet suddenly appear beside the family tombs.11 That Zeffirelli transforms Hamlet into an action-adventure hero (Hamlet is clearly Mel Gibson, rather than the other way around) certainly contributes to the problem. But a large part of it already is embedded in the text, in a characterization that has too many discrete and unreadable dimensions. At the end of the play, Hamlet himself knows that he has left us hanging and enlists Horatio to make sense of all the pieces, to "report me and my cause aright / To the unsatisfied" (5.2.339-40), lamenting, all the while, "what a wounded name, / Things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me!" (5.2.344-45). The rest is silence.

Shakespeare, however, is not silent. In presenting the story of a man who could not "make up" (in the sense of "constitute") his mind and being, Shakespeare may, in part, be dramatizing, and constrained by, the dilemma of early modern man and woman, of a society seeking, but lacking, stable terms for denoting interiorized identity—but only in part.12 For this play and others suggest that selfhood can be realized in other ways, through roles whose prescriptions for being and acting are already in place.

It is not Shakespeare but Hamlet, after all, who is set on wiping away all "fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past" from the "tables of [his] memory" (1.5.98-100). If Shakespeare did, in fact, play the ghost (as some suspect), he literally spoke with the voice of the Father, a voice that says "remember" and dictates a pre-cut role for Hamlet to play. Whether or not Shakespeare actually played the ghost, he locates the prospect of a meaningful identity in that role not taken: Hamlet's repeated gestures toward revenge and his reiterated awareness of his inability to carry them out are finally all that gives occasion and coherence to his otherwise disjunct monologues, soliloquies, and selves. He is a unified subject insofar as he is the revenger he is not.

Hamlet's problem (and our problem with him), then, is not that he plays by the book, but, paradoxically, that he does not—that he is unable to mimic the player's grief over Hecuba; or the Norwegian soldiers' courage (as they fight for "a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name" [4.4.18-19]); or Laertes's love for Ophelia (which Hamlet fears "outface[s]" him [5.1.278]); or, most importantly, the ghost's lust for vengeance (as he urges Hamlet to remember him and, almost literally, dismember Claudius). If Hamlet would only be the revenger that the ghost and we expect him to be, we could know him, or at least know him better.

And he knows it, too—knows, that is, the power of convention-bound parts. Instructing the players how to perform, he cautions them not to step out of bounds, not to "out-Herod Herod" (3.2.14) and "o'erstep the modesty of nature" (3.2.19). Their job, he says, is "to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (3.2.22-24). While they are, of course, to "hold a mirror up to nature" (3.2.22), they are to do so by reproducing the forms and features, the images and impressions already dictated by the culture. Hamlet's language is itself infused with such forms and features, as if they convey identity best.13 Not only does he call up the stereotypical Herod to define the limits of good taste. He also insists that any clown who speaks "more than is set down for" him (3.2.39-40) is a "fool" (3.2.45), using the familiar dramatic posture of fool to define the foolish actor.

At the beginning of the play, when who Hamlet is to be first becomes an urgent matter for Hamlet, the ghost, and us, he too looks to convention for direction, even as he vows to wipe his memories clean. Before he has a chance to figure out who's there beneath his inky cloak and customary suit of solemn black, he confronts the ghost and an unlooked-for history that threatens to "harrow up [Hamlet's] soul, freeze [his] young blood," and make his eyes "start from their spheres" (1.4.16-17). Although he declares himself ready for revenge, instead of taking up a weapon or mapping out some definitive plan of action, he takes up a pen (in his mind, at least) and decides to write down, in the dark and brutal cold of night, outside on the castle battlements, the part of villain:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables—meet it is I set it down That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.                                      [1.5.106-9]

Though the Danish version of villain includes an incongruous detail, Hamlet is anxious to inscribe the role nonetheless, to recall and remember the terms of playing.

It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare begins and later interrupts Hamlet's course of action (or, as some would have it, inaction) with the writing down of parts. For Hamlet's impulse to reinscribe or reiterate conventional roles and use them as the passion and cue for acting and being underscores a crucial irony in the play: that the potential to speak and act as an independent subject comes through—and not despite—the embrace of prefabricated roles. Shakespeare clearly raises the possibility of an identity defined by what is within, but he problematizes that (i.e., Hamlet's) mode of self-discovery, suggesting that what Hamlet is looking for lies elsewhere, outside his unreadable interiors, in parts that are already set down for and before him.

It is on those parts that I want to focus here. For it is within them, within roles such as the revenger or the villain, that the idea of agency, of the subject's ability to act as and on a self, is at once most vital and most vexed. Richard III, Iago, Falstaff, Edmund—these figures stand apart from Shakespeare's Hamlets, Othellos, and Lears as subjects who can impose their own rules of order (or disorder) on the staged regime, and leave their marks, the imprints of their selves, indelibly upon it. Yet they are also recognizable types, whose moves are dictated by popular traditions. Their stories show us that, in Shakespeare at least, agency and autonomy do not go hand in hand, that self-determination takes place through and not despite popular forms and pressures, and that the selfs dependence on those forms and pressures is a site of both possibility and crisis.


If Robert Weimann is right, the dynamics on the early modern stage were defined, to a significant degree, by the interplay of two styles and spaces of acting: the locus and the platea. The locus housed the dramatic illusion, the central "reality" of the play. Its scenes and characters were embedded believably in a quasi-realistic time, place, and network of relations, probably played out in the interior of the stage and distanced, literally and figuratively, from the audience, from the fact that what we are watching is theatre. The platea, in contrast, was an abstract, non-illusionist space, positioned downstage, close to the audience, where the boundaries of the fiction were broken. It was peopled with predictable characters—with vices, villains, madmen, and fools—borrowed from popular dramatic and festival traditions, where they played non-representational choric and allegoric roles. Positioned in the platea, they could stand outside the main action, to interpret, disrupt, and expose its illusions.14

Given this division of experience, we might expect the representation of self and the allocation of agency to be most powerful in the locus, where the "heroes" struggle, in the guise of "real people," amid a complex of social and political pressures, to define themselves and their worlds. The medieval stage (as, to some degree, the liturgical stage before it) was itself split between locus and platea, although the "reality" of character, setting, and events within the locus was limited: locus figures were more like figureheads; its settings, more like props; its events, more like ritual moments, even as they approxi-mated a specific time and place. Still, when representational features, personal motives and personalizing traits, entered in to augment or explain what was otherwise a conventional posture, it was in the locus.15 And it was through the locus that the illusion of character grew—away from abstractly registered Mankinds and Everymans to uniquely delineated Hamlets and Lears.

Yet on the early modern stage, it is the platea figures who see better, into and beyond the illusions of the locus, and who take power and presence from what they see. Though they themselves are, in essence, fictionalized, in interpreting another's fictions, they assume what seems a unified and self-determined consciousness, the very thing that gives the audience its edge. They are, in fact, like us—able to evaluate someone else's dramas, to take a stand, presumably, on and in their own terms. What gives them (perhaps even more than us) a special providence is that they stand between the play and us as an organizing point of view. Whether or not the playwright or we adopt their perspectives, we see the play through them, through their subjective visions, shared intimately, if not exclusively, with us. That intimacy further tightens the bond between them and us, making us complicit in their maneuvers and making us examine, understand, and evaluate ourselves in their terms.16 When Iago tells us of his plans to "serve [his] turn" upon the Moor (1.1.42) or Richard III of his plans to "prove a villain" (1. 1.30) as we sit idly by, we are forced to experience and review ourselves as the sort (somewhat like Buckingham or Emilia) who prompt rather than prevent disaster. Though we may not finally bear the burden of the platea figures' guilt (and platea figures are often guilty), we must situate ourselves through—and so recognize the power of—their consciousness, subjectivity, and being.

Take, for example, Lear's Edmund, who emerges as a self-determined subject because, and not although, he plays the bastard. Tellingly, Lear's one moment of power, his division of the kingdom, is framed by scenes which focus on Edmund, allowing him and his illegitimacy to top the legitimate king. As the play opens, Kent and Gloucester cut off their discussion of what otherwise would seem rather urgent affairs of state, to talk about Edmund's conception. After Lear comes forth and, unwittingly, regally self-destructs, we return to Edmund, to his "what's in a bastard" speech, made aware by the frame that, while Lear (literally and figuratively) has no ground to stand on or to speak from, Edmund the bastard does. At issue here is not, or not just, the matter of legitimacy but also, more impressively, a matter of form. For what goes wrong in the courtroom drama that Lear directs is that Lear does not play by the rules, either as king or as father: he solicits private terms for public rites, exchanges "love" (or expressions of love) for land and land for love, and blatantly allows flattery to speak for "truth" and that is only the beginning. Edmund, however, knows and keeps his place. As Kent and Gloucester jest about the "good sport" of "his making" (1.1.23), fondly but clearly at his expense, he stands submissively by, obsequiously offering his "services" to Kent (1.1.29), promising to "study deserving" (1.1.31), and, consequently, being acknowledged and embraced by both.

Even when, in the following scene, Edmund comes out subversively as bastard (in every sense of the word), he plays by the rules, into honesty, expectation, and authenticity. "Wherefore should I, / Stand in the plague of custom," he queries,

                     and permit The curiosity of nations to deprive me, For that I am some twelve or fourteen   moonshines Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base? When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true, As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us With base? with baseness? bastardy? base? base? Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take More composition, and fierce quality, Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well then, Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land. Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund As to th' legitimate. Fine word, "legitimate"! Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed And my invention thrive, Edmund the base Shall [top] th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper: Now, gods, stand up for bastards!                                                  [1.2.2-22]

We believe him (as we do Richard III and Iago) because he is straight with us, because he admits (and openly admires) his own "fierce quality" and "composition" and his "base" designs to top the legitimate Edgar. And we believe him because he meets our expectations about what the bastard finally should be. His turn for the worse is, metadramatically, a turn for the better, for it resolves the tension created in the opening scene as he, in playing up to and into the noble aspirations of his father and Kent, appears, perplexingly, nice.

Edmund assumes that our sympathies are with him, and he gives us strong incentives to prove him right. In asking "why brand they us," he embraces us as his confidantes and supporters, if not his next of kin. In so doing, he also sets us apart from an unappealing "they" who privilege tribes of fops bred of dull, stale, tired beds over bastards of "fierce quality." If we resist, we become "they." If we comply, we join the ranks of a victimized and knowing "us"—just the sort of subject we (especially non-aristocratic spectators) love to love, the sort of subject we might resemble, and the sort of subject who, therefore, resembles us. We also join the playwright, who shares Edmund's social critique. Whatever the opening scene says about Cordelia, it clearly faults Lear for arbitrarily turning her into a bastard, dispossessing her of her birthright, dowry, and land, and banishing her as base. Ideologically speaking, Edmund, then, speaks for both us and the play; though he is not true, he speaks "truths" that underline and undermine the status quo and identify him with those who can see through it—those (Shakespeare and us) whom we experience, or would like to experience, as self-determining subjects, the birth of Foucault and the death of the author notwithstanding.17

Even apart from his ties to the author and audience, as Edmund deconstructs the language and legitimacy of the state, he simultaneously constructs a compelling illusion of self. Soliloquies, innately suited to the kind of self-realization Hamlet tries to effect, are very rare in Lear. And it seems all the more important, then, that Edmund is the first—and, until the middle of act 2, the only—character to have one. His soliloquy not only distinguishes him; it also gives him occasion to distinguish himself, to stake a strong claim to selfhood and persuasively assert (several times) an "I." In it, he invents his own terms of being, outside the oppressive "plagues of custom" that automatically brand bastards and brand them as base. Like Iago and Richard III, he knows where he stands and why, and what he must do to thrive, and he can adeptly turn the language of the law against itself to and for his own advantage. He will be Edmund the base, as custom dictates, but he will also grow and prosper, with his brother's land and his father's love, as custom prohibits.

The only other character to have a soliloquy in the opening acts is Edgar, Edmund's alter ego, and he does so, importantly, only as he takes on a platea role—that of the madman. Edgar is so deeply embedded in the illusion that we neither see nor hear from him until his brother has had him outlawed. Finding "no port" or "place" where others have not "proclaim'd" against him, Edgar decides to "preserve [him]self ' as Poor Tom, following the popular precedent of Bedlam beggars:

  I heard myself proclaim'd, And by the happy hollow of a tree Escap'd the hunt. No port is free, no place That guard and most unusual vigilance Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may scape I will preserve myself, and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I'll grime with   filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hairs in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and president Of Bedlam beggars.                                      [2.3.1-14]

To be Edgar, he asserts, is nothing; to be Poor Tom, "that's something yet" (2.3.21). And indeed, it is something—something, backed by popular proof and precedent, that allows him to escape and outface persecution, to preserve and perform himself, outside the Father's law.18

Kent, too, must go under cover and assume a platea role in order to preserve himself from the mental and physical alienation imposed on him at court. After an unsuccessful attempt to speak his mind to the misguided Lear, he sells himself into the ex-king's service as "a man" (1.4.10), an unnamed, "very honest-hearted fellow" (1.4.19)—later, only secondarily, identified as "Caius"—plain, blunt, ordinary, wanting only to serve. Only in that guise can he respond and resist, persecute Oswald and protect Lear, and ultimately "be himself," speak what he feels and not what he ought to say, like the Fool. The Fool himself inhabits a platea role and, through it, can also leave his mark, creating so much sense of self that he can be (and has been) seen as a surrogate for Cordelia. Though it is Lear who is caught up in the question of identity, it is the platea figures—the bastards, madmen, and fools—who seem to have the answer, to know, to do, and so to be.19

And so it is in other plays as well. Despite Iago's assertion that he is not who he is, we know him better than we know Othello, who, when the going gets rough, gives up on the psyche and tries to understand himself as a type, as a Moor, Turk, or "base Indian" (or Judean) (5.2.347). We know Sir Toby better than we know Viola, except when she cross-dresses herself out of the illusion into a platea position that allows her to flesh out "the form of [her] intent" (1.2.55) and ultimately "deliver to the world" "what [her] estate is" (1.2.44). We know Falstaff better than we know Hal, who tries to capitalize on the fact that he knows the tavern folk (and us) "all" (1.2.195), but ends up showing us more about their power and presence than his. It seems no coincidence that figures such as Iago and Falstaff threaten always to steal the show—and in the latter case actually did, prompting Queen Elizabeth to ask Shakespeare for a play (The Merry Wives of Windsor) all about Falstaff and "Falstaff in love," a topic that credits him with a kind of personalized self-possession we never get (or except) from Hal.20 For platea characters carry the weight of being and perform as subjective, rather than submerged or subjected, selves—not because of what they (or we) see within themselves, but because of what they (and, through them, we) see in others, in the state and status quo, and what they do, and can do, with what they see.

For Kent, Edgar, and Viola, of course, the crossing into platea spaces is, finally, only a guise, a temporary posture (or imposture) forced upon them by otherwise unwieldly circumstances. It is no accident, however, that these characters can speak and act as self-determining subjects most fully then, when they play into convention. Weimann reads these and similar dramatic crossings as evidence that, by Shakespeare's time, the locus and platea had collapsed into each other, producing a fairly seamless interplay of perspectives and counterperspectives, illusions and lucid disillusionments.21 Yet the seams, I would argue, show. Hamlet tries to play the madman and get on top of the action, but his assumed madness only presses him further into the illusion, into unreadability and confusion—his, the other characters', and ours. He himself declares madness his enemy, and as he justifies his actions through it, he nonetheless keeps himself separate from it.

Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet! If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away, And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes, Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness. If't be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged, His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.                                         [5.2.233-39]

Unlike Edgar, who gives up his name as he takes on a platea role and gains a vital self-preserving distance from his given identity, Hamlet never ceases to be Hamlet—a Hamlet tellingly depersonalized here into a name, without an "I," a Hamlet, that is, who can be possessed by madness, but cannot possess it, or possess himself through it. And so is it true for Lear, Ophelia, and Lady Macbeth, who can go, but not be, mad, their madness pulling them deeper into the illusion, not allowing them to escape its self-effacing "realities." They are more like poor Yorick than like Poor Tom.

Yet even if the locus and platea merge—even if Hamlet is momentarily a circumspective madman or Ophelia an illuminated madwoman, even if Edgar is sometimes a son of a duke and sometimes "unaccommodated man" (3.4.106-7) or Edmund sometimes a bastard and sometimes an earl—the platea postures still stand out clearly, and clearly as the place where characters can define themselves apart from the confines of their worlds and speak, if not act, most convincingly, as an "I."


There is, of course, one slight, but vital, hitch. The platea figures are also conventional types, whose roles are defined and delimited by popular traditions shaping early modern drama and society from the ground and bottom up.22 While they are able to escape, if not overturn, the dictates imposed onstage by those who set the terms of the illusionary state, they are not able to escape the dictates imposed outside the illusion, by those who set the terms of stage. And those, in large part and loosely defined, are "the people," whose collective consciousness determined, on a community level, what it meant "to be."23 We know that the local community, with all its rites and rituals of passage (marriages, skimmingtons, charivaris, funerals, and the like), mentored and monitored the performance of self.24 And these pressures were both manifested and represented on the stage. The popular voice found highly audible expression in early forms of festival and drama—dancing, mumming, displays of misrule, and seasonal celebrations of various sorts—whether the dominant regime manipulatively allowed that voice to vent itself and so to run out of steam and/or into collective order, or whether that voice effectively resisted cooptation, articulated its own agendas, and produced its own cohesion, or both.25 These traditions certainly contributed to the institution of the locus (which became the center-piece of Elizabethan popular drama), but they survive most prominently and obviously in the platea, in characters who speak directly to the audience, in habits gleaned from its streets.26 More than Shakespeare's Hamlets, Othellos, Lears, or noble kings and princes, platea figures stand, metadramatically, as representatives of the people, their class identities notwithstanding.27 And as such, they face an important limitation: they do have a unique, self-affirming agency (onstage), but only insofar as they play by the rules (offstage), into roles prescribed by popular custom and expectation.

The consequences of not doing so are dire, on Shakespeare's stage at least. Consider what happens to Cordelia, who follows no one's codes but her own and "alone speaks according to no 'darker purpose,' no fore-plan," as James Siemon has argued.28 In opposing the terms of state, she refuses to play either the obedient, duty-bound daughter (though not necessarily a platea posture, a similarly conventional role, which gets Desdemona to Cyprus, out of her father's "guardage" [1.2.70], and into the arms of a Moor), or the evil sibling (which gets her sisters and Edmund unlooked-for power, land, and the promise, at least, of illicit sex). Nor will she cross-dress herself—like Viola, Portia, or Rosalind—into a liberating but malebonded, and bounded, fiction, a sort of safe-house for wayward female characters.29 Instead, she writes her own script and winds up with "nothing" to say (1.1.87) and no place from which to say it for three out of five acts. It is only her surrogate, the Fool, who, in contrast, in playing by one set of rules, can subvert another.

Cordelia does return at the end of act 4, leading the army of France, but she acts not for herself but for her father. Tellingly, she is reintroduced into the drama via others' voices, in a conversation between a gentleman and Kent, who give the Marshal of France, Monsieur La Far, credit as the army's head and describe Cordelia only in terms of her filial love and sorrow. She herself admits: "No blown ambition doth our arms incite, / But love, dear love, and our ag'd father's right" (4.4.27-28). She does leave her mark, not as Queen of France or England, a rebel or a royalist, but as Lear's prodigal daughter, one who finds, in her words, "no cause, no cause" (4.7.74) for resentment or resistance. Twice she claims "I am"—words which become signal expressions of characters like Hamlet who try to possess a self. But both times she does so, her assertions reinforce her subjugation: the first, when Lear states, "I think this lady / To be my child Cordelia," and she responds, "And so I am; I am" (4.7.68-69); and again, when she laments, "For thee, oppressed king, I am cast down" (5.3.5). That is as far as she gets towards self-possession, both because and although she acts through convention, and acts through it too late. While the ostensibly obedient Desdemona can rise from the dead to claim that "Nobody—I myself killed her (5.2.122), displaying her power to alter the given text, Cordelia gets no second wind, no breath, except that which the delusional Lear puts in her.

Edmund, too, loses his power and presence as he gets caught up in the illusion and, from acts 3 to 5, loses the name and place of bastard. In act 3, Cornwall declares him "Earl of Gloucester" (3.5.17-18) and uses the occasion and its aftermath to order him about, telling him when to exit and when to enter, and what to do in between—find Gloucester, attend on Regan, leave the scene of the blinding crime, and so on. In the meantime, Regan and Goneril make a play both for and out of the new earl (as they cannot when he is the bastard), setting him up as the ultimate object of desire and venemous ly vying and dying for his love. Goneril, in fact, initiates the "love plot" with an unsolicited kiss, and while Edmund has a hand (at the least) in the affairs, we learn about them not from him but from the sisters' letters, messengers, and words. Edmund is noticeably voiceless, and in an illicitly sexual situation in which we expect him to take charge (as, for example, DeFlores does in The Changeling).

In act 5, Edmund begins to disentangle himself from the sisters' subplot, recognizing that he cannot "carry out [his] side" (i.e., "win his game") while both live, one with a viperous husband (5.1.61).30 But it is only when the wheel comes full circle and he assigns himself a conventional place upon it that he can, once again, step outside the illusion, into a circumspective space, and boldly claim an "I." "The wheel is come full circle; I am here" (5.3.175), he announces—back where he started, surveying and interpreting the action like, and with, us. Although he gives in to Edgar's nobility and acknowledges him as "right" (5.3.174), in doing so he also acknowledges his own malignancies, agreeing that he was born of a "dark and vicious place" (5.3.173) and admitting (a little like Titus Andronicus's Aaron the Moor): "What you have charg'd me with, that have I done, / And more, much more" (5.3.163-64). He is Edmund the bastard still.

At the end of the scene and of his life, when the poisonous bodies of Goneril and Regan are brought onstage as tragic signs of the times, Edmund decides to do "some good" "despite of [his] own nature" (5.3.244-45). But his unconventional efforts to do good—to reverse his "writ" on the life of Lear and on Cordelia (5.3.246-49)—can only fail and fall, notably, on deaf ears. No one seems to take account of his reformation, and when a messenger enters to announce his death, Albany remarks, "That's but a trifle here" (5.3.296). To be Edmund, Earl of Gloucester, inside the illusion, is nothing; to be the bastard, outside it, that's something yet. When the wheel comes full circle, he is, once again, here.

Edmund's climactic assertion of an "I," coming as it does when his good fortune has run out, is certainly ironic, as Catherine Belsey has suggested of similar boldfaced assertions ("This is I, Hamlet the Dane," "I am Duchess of Malfi still," "I am Antony yet") uttered just as the character is on the brink of his or her demise.31 Yet it points not merely to the vacancy of self-assertion in a world where the wheel will always come full circle, and come full circle fast. It also points to the paradox of presence—to the simultaneous license and limitation—that comes with speaking within bounds. Platea figures do have the leverage to be and to act outside the staged status quo; but they also must fit a dramatic mold. Edmund can have dominance as long as he is a bastard (which means he ultimately must fail). While Cordelia can say nothing, the Fool can speak what he feels, not what he ought to say—but only as a fool. Iago can rewrite the terms in which Othello knows himself (and his wife) as long as he, Iago, is duplicitously not who he is, and winds up finally voiceless, even if by his choice. What we are seeing, I think, is a curious elision, crucial to Shakespeare's representation of identity, between agency and circumscription, subjectivity and subjugation, the simultaneous determining and overdetermining of the self.

Perhaps it is curious, however, only because of the way we see, because of our assumption that agency and self-determination should come with full autonomy. And perhaps the conflict, then, is not between two mutually exclusively ways of being, but between two mutually exclusive ways of understanding being—ours and the early modern. The now much-critiqued new historicist focus on the dominating strategies of state (as well, perhaps, as our own government's laws, which still dictate what we do with our minds and bodies—or, in the military, what we say about what we do) has led us to read prescribed forms and structures as predominantly coercive. Yet in the case of local pressures (as, I would argue, of state control), the picture is not so simple, at least not as it is represented on Shakespeare's stage. To read them as cooptive and not also constructive, self-denying and not also self-defining, is to miss an important part of the story—of the potential for self-realization that comes with and through the collective conscious and unconscious. In Edmund's case as in Edgar's, Falstaff's, and Iago's, to play into popular precepts is to play significantly against the state. And while these figures must speak with the voice of the people, through that voice they also find and define themselves and come out and act up, in mind and deeds.

King Lear contains one of the most stunning and surprising instances of "acting up" within Shakespeare, if not within early modern drama more generally. As Cornwall and Regan mercilessly pluck out the first of Gloucester's eyes, the First Servant steps forward to save the other, ordering his master to "Hold" (3. 7. 72) and fatally wounding him with a sword when Cornwall fights back. Regan's by now well-known retort, "A peasant stand up thus?" (3.7.80), registers the uniqueness of the moment, of resistance from an otherwise subjugated figure, whose duty is only and submissively to serve. The First Servant does not live long enough to make it into the platea. But his story is remarkable enough to be retold and embellished two scenes later, with personal passions added on all sides.

As Cornwall went after Gloucester's second eye, a messenger tells Albany:

A servant that he bred, thrill'd with remorse, Oppos'd against the act, bending his sword To his great master, who, [thereat] enraged, Flew on him, and amongst them fell'd him dead, But not without that harmful stroke which since Hath pluck'd him after.                                       [4.2.73-78]

The instance of a "peasant" standing up thus, and gaining hints of personality (being "thrill'd with remorse") in the process, becomes emblematic of how identity happens in the play: through positions shaped and circumscribed by the people's voice.


In a recent collection of essays, Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism, Coppélia Kahn and Gayle Greene have attempted to "tell the story of secondwave feminism," a "collective story" embodied in and through first-person accounts. "It is a way of saying 'I,'" they write, "that is also a way of saying 'we.'"32 It is also, as the distinctively personal nature of each essay demonstrates, a way of saying "we" that is also a way of saying "I." The collection demonstrates the self-affirming power that comes with speaking for and through the communal. With it, the wheel comes full circle, from a sometimes essentializing and so, to some degree, self-effacing feminism, invested in pressing the female voice out of all bounds, to a historical and historicizing feminism, aware of the boundaries of its own and early modern inscriptions of agency. Many of the scholars (including the editors) who have contributed to the collection are specialists in the Renaissance, and it seems all the more appropriate, then, that Changing Subjects (and the subject of changing subjects) is poised between "we" and "I," between the terms that gave the emergent early modern self a changing meaning.

Importantly, there is some resistance to the collective impulse of the project, perhaps not surprisingly, given postmodern sensibilities and suspicions and the dangers (coming from the left and the right) of being labelled "politically correct."33 But like the volume itself, that resistance also points us back to the Renaissance and to the Shakespearean stage. For there too, the circumscription of identity, of the early modern subject's autonomy, is not only a source of possibility, but also, as I suggested at the outset, a source of crisis—something I can only gesture to here, in closing.

It seems no coincidence that the bounds between locus and platea begin to blur at the moment when early modern society was trying to call a (modern) self into being—to define the subject in terms of subjectivity rather than subjugation—and that the locus became the primary site of action on the stage. For finally, the emergence of a modern subject required a step into an illusion we later would give up—the illusion that the "realities" we live in are in our control, if not of our own making. Nor is it coincidence that the figures who characteristically assume the platea position on Shakespeare's stage are bastards if not villains. In part, of course, the customary suits of solemn black come with the territory, with the roles that popular tradition offered. But in Shakespeare, the dark side is amplified, in figures such as Iago and Aaron the Moor, who seem to love evil for evil's sake.34 In producing the platea in such malignly loaded terms (terms in which we try not to see ourselves), Shakespeare sets its constructs in relief, calling attention to the fact that they are, in fact, constructs.35 As figures take being within them, they also take being against them and open new spaces for acting.36

Like Hamlet, Shakespeare is looking for new terms of being, hoping that one could smile and smile and be a villain still, however the part has been previously prescribed. Yet, unlike Hamlet, Shakespeare is not writing from a void, from a sense that all that lies on the other side of being (as an independent subject) is not being. Shakespeare's position on "the popular voice" is as cloudy and complicated as it is, in current critical discourse, controversial.37 But wherever he stands on its politics, he sets up that voice as a crucial agent of self-determination, one that must be acknowledged and reckoned with before it is effaced or replaced. Perhaps it is only as popular prescriptions come into play as the cornerstone of identity that their limits appear. And perhaps it is only by working through (and not merely against) their modes of being that the truly modern subject can be.38


1 This essay evolved from a talk presented at MLA (Toronto, 1993), and I am grateful to those who responded and so helped shape its final form. All quotations of Shakespeare are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, et al. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1974).

2 The groundbreaking collection of feminist criticism in Shakespeare studies has been The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), which hopes to bring attention to "the parts women have played, do play, and might play in literature as well as in culture" ("Introduction," 3). The (in my view, highly lucrative) combination of new historicism and feminism, under the rubric of "materialist feminism," was finally bound to happen, since the discourse of power continually points to what it excludes.

3 See, for an excellent example, Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). Important psychoanalytic readings of Shakespeare are still, of course, emerging. See, in particular, Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest(New York: Routledge, 1992); and Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

4 The most extreme instance of this kind of reading is Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. Shoshana Felman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 11-52. See also Compare Elaine Showalter, "Representing Ophelia: women, madness, and the responsibilities of feminist criticism," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), 77-94. Showalter critiques the ways in which Ophelia has been erased by feminist and psychoanalytic critics, and suggests that "Ophelia does have a story of her own that feminist criticism can tell": "the history of her own representation" (79).

5 Janet Adelman, '"Anger's My Meat': Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus," in Representing Shakespeare, 140.

6 David Willbern, "Shakespeare's Nothing," in Representing Shakespeare, 247.

7 Stephen Greenblatt, "Psychoanalysis and Renaissance Culture," in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New York: Routledge, 1990), 143-45.

8 Greenblatt, 142.

9 Cf. Murray M. Schwartz, "Shakespeare through Contemporary Psychoanalysis," in Representing Shakespeare 21-32, who assigns a more direct relevance to psychoanalytic interpretations.

10 I am referring to the well-known 1948 film version of Hamlet, which Olivier directed and starred in.

11 I am referring here, obviously, to Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson.

12 This is the problem suggested by Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), esp. 35-37, and amplified by Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), esp. 41-42.

13 See Peter Erickson, Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), esp. 79-83, on Hamlet and "the cultural pressure of generic form" (80).

14 Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), esp. 73-85. For an interesting application of Weimann in a reading of Othello, see Michael E. Mooney, "Location and Idiom in Othello," in Othello: New Perspectives, ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Kent Cartwright (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), 115-34.

15 See Weimann, esp. his discussion of Herod, 75-76.

16 For a discussion of audience complicity, see Marjorie Garber, '"What's Past Is Prologue': Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays," in Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 301-31.

17 Compare Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy: Religion, Ideology and Power in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), esp. 195-202, who sees Edmund as trapped by the materialist ideologies of his society.

18 For a fine treatment of the Bedlam beggar, see William C. Carroll, "'The Base Shall Top Th' Legitimate': The Bedlam Beggar and the Role of Edgar in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 426-41. Compare his treatment of Poor Tom, which Carroll sees as a guise that erases self. See also

19 The power of conventional postures is interesting to consider in light of Greenblatt's contention (which, I think, is also true) that "King Lear is haunted by a sense of rituals and beliefs that are no longer efficacious, that have been emptied out"; "Shakespeare and the Exorcists," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, 177.

20 The story of Queen Elizabeth's request is succinctly recounted in the introduction to the play, in The Riverside Shakespeare, 286.

21 See Weimann, esp. 208-52. For Weimann, this integration of locus and platea means progress from implicitly less-sophisticated popular dramatic forms to more complicated drama. I share Michael Bristol's discomfort with this "false teleology" and its unfortunate, but surely unintentional on Weimann's part, devaluation of the popular; see Bristol, Carnival and Theater: Plebian Culture and the Structure of Authority in Renaissance England (New York: Methuen, 1985), 47.

22 In addition to Weimann, the most seminal recent work on popular traditions is Bristol. See also

23 There are obviously many problems with using terms such as "the people" and, indeed, "the popular," since they collapse peoples of various ideologic, class, and gender positions into one mindset, import, or persuasion. Just as we now frequently use "Shakespeare" to talk, with some but not absolute historical specificity, about whoever is behind a body of work designated as his, so similarly am I using "people," rather abstractly, to refer to those who participated in and orchestrated popular rites and rituals.

24 The work in this field is too extensive to cite here. For a particularly useful collection of recent essays, however, see True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

25 Michael Bristol surveys the various ways critics and theorists have viewed festival, from C. L. Barber's influential contention that festival allowed disruptive individual energy to be integrated harmoniously into a benevolent though dominating system of order (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959]) to his own (I think, convincing) revisionist position, that allows popular culture to have a life of its own, even in the face of its inevitable appropriation. See Bristol, esp. 26-39.

26 As Weimann notes: "The Latin word platea … originally indicated the open space between houses—a street or public place at ground level" (Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, 79).

27 Edmund is, after all, bora (though somewhat dispossessed) of a noble household.

28 James Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 259.

29 The issue of cross-dressing—and its multifaceted postures, potential, and limits—is much too complicated to explore fully here. But certainly the inherent (though transgressive) conventionality of cross-dressed figures (including male actors playing women) aligns them with platea characters, even for figures such as The Merchant of Venice's Portia, who do not step outside the illusion. As You Like It's Rosalind is clearly an instance of a cross-dresser who does.

30 The paraphrase is from The Riverside Shakespeare, p. 1290 n.

31 Belsey, 35-36. Belsey writes: "These instances of self-assertion are … intelligible in their contexts as ironic, pathetic rather than heroic, or alternatively monstrous, precisely in human" (36).

32 From Coppélia Kahn and Gayle Greene's introduction, Changing Subjects: The Making of Feminist Literary Criticism (New York: Routledge, 1993), 1-2.

33 For example, see Linda S. Kauffman, "The long goodbye: against the personal testimony or, an infant grifter grows up," Changing Subjects, 129-47. While Kauffman positions herself against individualism, she also notes her "discomfort with the use of the collective 'we'" (138).

34 Compare Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of A Metaphor in Relation To His Major Villains (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), who focuses on the darker side of the Vice tradition and argues that its "comic side" has been "overstressed" (136).

35 In an essay on gay identities (whose performative aspect is not that far from that of the platea figures), Judith Butler has argued that "to be constituted or structured in part by the very heterosexual norms by which gay people are oppressed is not … to be claimed or determined by those structures." Rather, it is to bring those structures into relief as "illusory" "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991), 23.

36 This is not far from the recent project of queer theory, which reappropriates "queerness" from homophobic discourse as a means of expressing and forging alternatives to heteronormality. See Michael Warner, "Introduction," in Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, vii-xxxi.

37 The debate over whether Shakespeare's views are liberal or conservative, or somewhere in between, is extensive. For one recent treatment of the issue, see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

38 I owe special thanks to Louise (Wakeford) Hunter, for a chalet in Lyme Regis, perfect for working through these—and my own—modes of being.

Source: "Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self," in Theatre Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, May, 1994, pp. 171-85.


Beginnings and Endings


Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories