William Shakespeare

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Mixing Memory and Desire: Notes for a Psychodynamic Exploration of Shakespeare

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Takashi Sasayama, Kwansei Gakuin University

In a critical attempt to interpret a play of Shakespeare in phenomenological terms, that is, as the source of an intensely integrated psychic experience instead of as a selfcontained artifact with semantic autonomy, nothing seems more crucial than illuminating the relationship of the working of the audience's subliminal mind to the received meaning of the play.

Generally speaking, what a play means is primarily conditioned by how the audience logically makes out the whole sequence of incidents and situations incorporated in the play's action. What happens at a given moment in some development of the plot forms a configuration in our mental vision insofar as it is viewed against the background of all that has been theatrically experienced since the very beginning of the play. Thus, it would appear justifiable to argue that the structured design of the narrative, both temporal and spatial, is the basis for the entire body of audience experience, which is the matrix of the play's central meaning.

Not infrequently, however, watching a performance in the theatre, we find ourselves responding to a character or an element of the dramatic action in a way that somehow seems quite impossible from a rational apprehension in the logical narrative context. In these cases it is to be assumed that our response is more or less controlled by some force of our subliminal consciousness, whose working is intuitive, or sometimes even irrational, rather than discursive or cerebral.

The theatrical experience, unlike a reading experience that can be repeated, is an irreversible sequence of an infinite number of immediate 'presents'. Each present moment on the stage recedes into an amorphous past and is replaced by a new 'present'. In the course of this process there are moments when what has withdrawn into the past suddenly takes shape as a virtual memory, while that which is to come is fantasized as an expected future. Operating at the core of our response mechanism at such moments are, more often than not, certain deeply embedded desires. They were engendered as our consciousness singularly reacted to some specific movement of the drama, and have since kept growing obscurely within ourselves so as to function as special psychic attitudes or anticipations, with which ensuing developments of the action are to be envisioned in terms of wish fulfilments. There is a sense in which the basic formula of the theatrical experience is the creation of desires and the subsequent satisfying (or denying) of those desires in the audience's mind.

I should like to try out this sort of analysis on a few plays of Shakespeare—first very briefly on King Lear, The Winter's Tale, and Hamlet, giving light in each case on the pattern of the inner action of the play from the angle of our subliminal reactions to it in our theatrical experience of the play; then somewhat more extensively on Othello, concentrating the speculation on a couple of important issues related to the tragic effect in the final scene of the drama.

In terms of audience response, two separate layers of action can be discerned in King Lear. In one layer there is the drama of Lear's anger and curse. His anger, being cut off at an early stage from its initial motive, keeps on increasing through its self-generated energy to an unlimited extent. Running a parallel course, his curse starts with his own unnatural daughters, but soon expands far beyond them to find its object in the female body in general and at last in the fertility of nature. The other layer of action is taken up by the drama of the endlessly growing evil of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. Their transformation into beasts becomes complete when their inhumanity towards their fathers and retainers comes to be coupled with their sexual promiscuity. Between these two layers of action there exists no positive causal relation. Still, it is perfectly possible for the audience to respond to the latter layer of action as though all...

(The entire section is 5,261 words.)