William Shakespeare

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Theatrical Italics

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Allan C. Dessen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

"The Drawer stands amazed, not knowing which way to go"

I Henry IV, 2.4.76.s.d.

Evidence from the Shakespeare quartos and First Folio suggests the possibility of various forms of onstage juxtaposition, ranging from the early entrances of a Dogberry or Cassandra to the continued presence of a Jaques or Sir Walter Blunt. The resistance to such a practice today by editors, critics, and theatrical professionals acts out a dismissal of a phenomenon that seemingly defies "common sense" but a phenomenon that may equally well signal a gap between the theatrical vocabulary shared then and what is assumed today (or, in some instances, what has been assumed since the eighteenth century). By one set of yardsticks, such juxtapositions can be intrusive and therefore distracting, troubling. But what if such a technique is part of a theatrical strategy designed to highlight a figure or situation so as to make it unmissable? How would (or should) such a strategy predicated upon italicized signifiers in their theatrical vocabulary affect interpretation today?

Such questions are part of a larger set of problems (in the broad category of "validity in interpretation") that continue to bedevil literary theorists. To cite one recent formulation, Paul Armstrong posits: "Endless variety is possible in interpretation, but tests for validity can still judge some readings to be more plausible than others." As a pluralist who nonetheless believes in literary criticism as a rational enterprise, Armstrong proposes three such yardsticks for the validity of any interpretation: inclusiveness, intersubjectivity, and efficacy. For inclusiveness, he argues that "a hypothesis becomes more secure as it demonstrates its ability to account for parts without encountering anomaly and to undergo refinements and extensions without being abandoned." Although "as a normative ideal, or principle of correctness," this yardstick by itself may be useless, it can still be valuable "in that it can exclude bad guesses." As to intersubjectivity (linked to persuasiveness): "our reading becomes more credible if others assent to it or at least regard it as reasonable," while "the disagreement of others may be a signal that our interpretation is invalid because unshareable." By this criterion, "the ultimate indication" of correctness would be "universal agreement." To invoke efficacy is to see whether or not in pragmatic terms an interpretation "has the power to lead to new discoveries and continued comprehension," for "the presuppositions on which any hermeneutic takes its stand are not immune from practical testing" but "must continually justify themselves by their efficacy." If such presuppositions "repeatedly fail to lead to persuasive, inclusive readings, friends as well as foes may conclude that the problem lies not with the limited skills of the method's adherents but with its assumptions."1

To apply Armstrong's arguments and distinctions to the many warring approaches to Shakespeare's plays is a daunting task far beyond my province. In terms of recovering a lost or blurred theatrical vocabulary, however, is it possible to single out signifiers or techniques that would make it likely that a given interpretation does or could "work"—whether for a putative playgoer in the 1590s or a playgoer today? To respond to such a question, let me focus upon some onstage moments that not only stand out as noteworthy but actually cry out for interpretation—much like a trumpet or drum roll that in effect says "look at me!" As already noted, my term for such moments or images is theatrical italics in that they underscore some effect so as to ensure that a moderately attentive playgoer will recognize that something of importance is happening. Interpretations of such a moment may vary (in the spirit of Armstrong's pluralism), but, in keeping with his inclusiveness, a reading of that play should somehow incorporate such an italicized moment—at least to be...

(The entire section is 8,759 words.)