illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

Theatrical Italics

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 8759 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

(in the spirit of Armstrong's pluralism), but, in keeping with hisinclusiveness, a reading of that play should somehow incorporate such an italicized moment—at least to be persuasive (or intersubjective) to me. My use of should invites a Coriolanus-like rebuke to a "Triton of the minnows" (I claim no moral or legal authority for such a stipulation), but in the search for yardsticks to judge or screen interpretations (or for solid building blocks to create interpretations) I have found few comparable tools that satisfy me.2

To apply my yardstick or tool, however, is by no means easy, for … many roadblocks prevent today's interpreter from seeing various theatrical effects that would have been obvious to Shakespeare's playgoers. First, given the paucity of stage directions in the original printed texts, the eye of a reader can readily slide over what may have been far more striking to a playgoer. Given various kinds of intervention, moreover, that reader who confronts today's editorial text rather than the original Quarto or Folio version may be spared exposure to such anomalies, just as today's playgoer watching a production may be screened from moments that a director deems unsuitable to our theatrical vocabulary. Since we lack a videotape of the Globe production (and are far removed from their culture and theatrical practice), to determine what was subtle versus what was obvious in their terms, in their productions, is no easy matter (and may at times be impossible).

Nonetheless, even on the page some images or moments do seem to stand out, to the extent that editors and directors regularly deem them "unrealistic" or offensive and therefore resist them, adapt them, or eliminate them. Here then is promising raw material for this category. What I am proposing, in part, is the converse of what I take to be one common interpretative procedure—to start with an agenda or interpretation and then find ways to realize it. Rather, I am suggesting that interpreters start with odd or extreme moments, assume they are especially noticeable because they seem so strident, and then build an interpretation upon them. Again, the apparent anomalies that do not fit "our" ways of thinking or problem-solving often can serve as windows into distinctive Elizabethan-Jacobean procedures. Not all such obvious moments or images are controversial or underinterpreted (e.g., few would disagree that the conjunction of the beautiful Titania and an assheaded Bottom is both obvious and at the heart of that comedy), but what about equally visible moments that have received little attention or have been altered or suppressed? My goal is not to argue in favor of one obligatory reading based upon such italicized images but rather (in the spirit of Armstrong's inclusiveness and intersubjectivity) to question interpretations that do not in some way take into account what most would agree to be an unmissable, unforgettable moment in a given play.

As a point of departure, consider the practical joke played upon Francis the drawer by Prince Hal at the outset of the famous tavern scene in I Henry IV. Whether owing to a sense of dramatic economy or a distaste for such pranks, this moment is often cut in performance (as in the television production for the BBC's "The Shakespeare Plays"). Nonetheless, the sequence has received its share of commentary, with the focus often upon Francis as an index to the prince's own uneasiness about his truancy or apprenticeship.3 Indeed, once attended to, this sequence can generate a variety of questions, a situation reinforced when Poins himself asks: "But hark ye; what cunning match have you made with this jest of the drawer? Come, what's the issue?" (2.4.86-8)

What most concerns me here, however, is the stage direction at what I take to be the climax of the trick: "Here they both call him. The Drawer stands amazed, not knowing which way to go " (2.4.76.s.d.). Whatever the interpretation, should not the interpreter somehow build upon or take very seriously this highly visible onstage image? For example, what if the frenzied movement of Francis (as he responds alternatively to Poins's offstage calls and the prince's onstage questions) that climaxes in this amazed state would have strongly echoed onstage activity already seen (e.g., of Hotspur in the previous scene) or soon to be seen (e.g., of Falstaff confronted with the truth about his flight at Gadshill)? As I understand the scene, Shakespeare is here setting up for the playgoer a paradigm of the controller and the controlled, the puppetmaster and the puppet, so as to encourage us to recognize what makes Hal so distinctive. That interpretation may or may not satisfy other readers or viewers,4 but the episode, especially the theatrical punch line signaled in the stage direction, cries out for some kind of explanation (as signaled also by Poins's question).

A similar effect is generated by Romeo's attempted suicide in 3.3 where the supposed "good" Quarto of 1599 provides no stage direction, but the "bad" Quarto of 1597 (perhaps based upon an actor's memory of some production) provides: "He offers to stab himself, and Nurse snatches the dagger away " (GIV). Some editors incorporate the QI signal into their texts, but New Arden editor Brian Gibbons rejects the Nurse's intervention as "neither necessary or defensible." Rather, for this editor "this piece of business looks like a gratuitous and distracting bid on the part of the actor in the unauthorized version to claim extra attention to himself when the audience should be concentrating on Romeo and the Friar." In the Arden edition the Nurse's intervention is therefore relegated to the textual notes and footnotes.

But, as with other possible examples of theatrical italics, what if the strategy behind QI's stage direction is to call attention not to the actor but to the onstage configuration (as with the amazed paralysis of Francis the drawer), a configuration that in turn epitomizes images and motifs enunciated in the dialogue? After Mercutio's death, Romeo had cried out: "O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soft'ned valor's steel" (3.1.111-13). Then, after Romeo's aborted attempt at suicide, the Friar's long moralization starts:

                  Hold thy desperate hand. Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art; Thy tears are womanish, thy wild acts denote The unreasonable fury of a beast. Unseemly woman in a seeming man! And ill-beseeming beast in seeming both!                                (3.3.108-13)

The playgoer who sees Romeo's self-destructive violence interrupted (surprisingly) by the Nurse and then hears the Friar's terms (e.g., "Art thou a man?"; "Thy tears are womanish"; "Unseemly woman in a seeming man") is therefore encouraged to consider: what kind of "man" is Romeo at this point in the play? What by one kind of interpretative logic may seem "gratuitous and distracting" or "out of character" or "unbelievable" may, in the terms of a different logic or vocabulary, prove imagistically or symbolically consistent or meaningful. Indeed, how better act out the ascendancy of the "womanish" or unmanly side of Romeo and call that ascendancy to the attention of a firsttime playgoer?

For a third example, consider the context of one of the most famous moments in Shakespeare, Macbeth's "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." Seven lines into the scene a stage direction calls for "a cry within of women" (5.5.7), at which point Macbeth asks "What is that noise?" and Seyton responds: "It is the cry of women, my good lord." After a short speech ("I have supped full with horrors") Macbeth asks again: "Wherefore was that cry?" to which Seyton responds: "The Queen, my lord, is dead" (15-16), a revelation that elicits the famous speech. The Folio, however, provides no exit and re-entry for Seyton between his two lines, so the only authoritative text gives no indication how he finds out that the queen is dead. Editors therefore insert an exit for Seyton after his first line and an entrance before his second; a director may have Seyton exit or may have him send off a lesser functionary who then returns or may have Seyton walk to a stage door, confer with someone offstage, and return to Macbeth. If the playgoer is to understand that Lady Macbeth has died at the moment of the cry, the announcer of the news presumably must have some means of learning the news; our logic of interpretation or theatrical vocabulary therefore requires an exit or some comparable means of getting that news on stage.

But, again, can today's interpreter conceive of the scene as scripted in the Folio? Macbeth would ask his first question ("What is that noise?") and get the answer ("It is the cry of women"). No one then leaves the stage; Seyton remains by his side. After his ruminations about fears and horrors, Macbeth asks again: "Wherefore was that cry?" and Seyton responds: "The Queen, my lord, is dead." In this literal rendition of the Folio, the playgoer cannot help seeing that Seyton (to be pronounced Satan?) has no normal (earthly?) way of knowing what he knows. But he does know. Macbeth may be too preoccupied to notice the anomaly, but, if staged this way, the playgoer cannot help being jarred. Indeed, the anomaly then becomes a major part of the context for the nihilistic comments that follow. Such a staging (which adds nothing but rather takes the Folio at face value) strikes me as eerie, powerful, perhaps quite unnerving. A focus upon how Seyton knows of the death almost inevitably leads to the addition of stage business that can provide a practical explanation for that "how," but such literal-mindedness may lead to a masking of a truly distinctive Jacobean effect linked to a mystery behind that "how" and may erase today what would have been italicized then.

Such italicized moments can be especially visible in Shakespeare's earliest and least admired plays where such effects are less likely to be screened from view by the poetry or fully realized personae. Let me start with three of the many moments in Titus Andronicus that have troubled readers, editors, and playgoers and therefore have often been blurred or eliminated. First, consider the exeunt near the end of 3.1 that includes not only Titus, Marcus, and the armless, tongueless Lavinia but also the heads of Quintus and Martius and the severed hand of Titus. The Quarto provides no stage direction here, but the now one-handed Titus stipulates how each exiting figure is to handle an appropriate object:

                  Come, brother, take a head; And in this hand the other will I bear. And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employed in these   arms: Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy   teeth.                               (3.1.279-82)

This passage has proved very troublesome for editors and directors. Although only one word changes in the Folio (Armes becomes things, TLN 1430), some editors (most recently Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor in their Oxford edition) have emended line 282 so as to eliminate the hand-in-mouth reference.5 Readers of an unemended scene may ignore these lines, but directors, unwilling to risk an audience's reaction to the image of Lavinia exiting with the hand like a puppy carrying off its master's slippers, either cut the text or bring on young Lucius to help with the items to be carried.

But consider the assets of such an italicized moment. Given the heavy emphasis up to this point upon murder, rape, and dismemberment, how better act out the violation of the personal, family and political body than to have severed heads carried in the hands of the two old men and the warrior's severed hand carried off in the mouth of the violated woman? How better express the Andronici as prey to the wilderness of tigers or the chaotic disorder of the body politic or the failure of traditional norms? In Armstrong's terms, to build an interpretation upon such a strident, evocative onstage image is efficacious and intersubjective. Not to take this exeunt into account is to violate the yardstick of inclusiveness and, as with Francis, Romeo-Nurse, and Seyton-Macbeth, to sidestep what many would agree to be an especially noticeable, perhaps unforgettable moment.6

Consider next the appearance of Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius in 5.2 disguised as Revenge, Rapine, and Murder. This lapse into allegory or near allegory poses particular problems in a modern production. The route taken by most actors and directors is to assume a mad or nearly mad Titus and a Tamora so confident in that madness that she is willing to take on a disguise that clearly would not "work" for a sane figure. To enhance the credibility of the moment, today's director will resort to a darkened stage (to heighten the possibility of concealment), heavy makeup, and some kind of outlandish disguise for the three figures so as to diminish Tamora's (and Shakespeare's) apparently anomalous choice of Revenge as a persona for this interview.

But much of the point of the moment as scripted lies not in Tamora's attitude to disguise or Titus' presumed madness (issues crucial to a twentieth-century theatrical vocabulary) but in the "image" of Revenge set up for the playgoer. What Shakespeare provides, at least in 1590s terms, is an individual (here Tamora) who for a moment "becomes" Revenge, a process certainly not irrelevant to Titus himself (whether mad or not) in the last two scenes of this revenge tragedy. Given the fact that in The Spanish Tragedy Revenge appears with Don Andrea at the outset and remains onstage throughout the remainder of the play, the presence of a figure of "Revenge" in the "real world" of Titus' Rome was at least possible in the theatre of the early 1590s. Our dominant mode of psychological realism (would such a "character" say or do X in this situation?) does not mesh comfortably with a figure posing as Revenge, even if that pose is to deceive a supposedly deranged figure with "miserable, mad, mistaking eyes" (5.2.66). But given the theatrical vocabulary available in the 1590s, Shakespeare may have had more rather than fewer options than a dramatist confined to "realism."7

What then are the assets of having this visible epitome of Revenge announce that she has been "sent from th' infernal kingdom / To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind / By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes" (5.2.30-2)? Of particular interest here is her demand: "Come down and welcome me to this world's light" and, a few lines later, "come down and welcome me" (33, 43). Here, in a simple yet highly emphatic fashion, Titus' acquiescence to Tamora-Revenge's twice repeated "come down" clearly brings him from some removed position above to her level below. Such a movement downward is characteristic of many Revenge plays (whether that "below" is conceived of as Hell or as subterranean psychological forces) and, moreover, is set up forcefully in this play in the arrow-shooting scene where Publius brings word to Titus that Justice is not available (being employed "with Jove in heaven, or somewhere else") "but Pluto sends you word / If you will have Revenge from hell, you shall." Titus responds that Jove "doth me wrong to feed me with delays"; rather, "I'll dive into the burning lake below, / And pull her out of Acheron by the heels" (4.3.37-44).8 Titus in 5.2 can therefore act out his literal and figurative descent to the level of Revenge, a descent that, by the end of the scene, yields the bloodiest moment in a bloody play and leads to the ultimate in revenge, the Thyestean banquet of 5.3.

To focus upon Tamora's overconfidence and Titus' madness (or upon darkness and a well crafted disguise), then, is to provide a workable scene in terms that make sense to playgoers today but to diminish the full range of the original effect. The acting out of Revenge as a force that can take over an individual, along with the descent of the title figure to the level of that Revenge, has a stark power and elegant simplicity that anticipates and feeds into the events of the final scene. Like the 3.1 exeunt with two heads and a hand, such an italicized effect generates fruitful questions and insights (in keeping with Armstrong's efficacy).

As a third example from this early tragedy, consider the signal for Titus to appear "like a cook, placing the dishes" (5.3.25.s.d.), an odd costume immediately called to our attention by Saturninus' question: "Why art thou thus attired, Andronicus?" Titus' answer ("Because I would be sure to have all well / To entertain your highness and your Empress") has not satisfied subsequent theatrical professionals, so that today's productions often do not present here a decidedly different image of the revenger. For the original audience, moreover, such a costume (along with "placing the dishes ") would have served as part of a theatrical shorthand to denote the "place" (a banquet room) and would have suggested (wrongly) a subservient Titus debasing himself in degree in order best to serve his emperor and empress.

But to ignore this distinctive costume (or to play it for laughs—as in the 1987-88 Royal Shakespeare Company production) may be to blur a climactic image that brings into focus various motifs in the play linked to appetites, feeding, and revenge. Thus, the Folio stage direction for 3.2 indicates "a banquet" (TLN 1451), but Titus opens that scene with the order: "So, so, now sit; and look you eat no more / Than will preserve just so much strength in us / As will revenge these bitter woes of ours" (1-3). By the end of the play, however, revenge has become linked not to abstinence but to feeding and appetite, usually in dangerous or self-destructive terms. For example, in her overconfident claims to Saturninus, Tamora promises to "enchant the old Andronicus / With words more sweet, and yet more dangerous, / Than baits to fish or honeystalks to sheep"; the fish, she notes, "is wounded with the bait," and the sheep "rotted with delicious feed" (4.4.88-92). The most potent orchestration of "appetite" or feeding is found in Titus' long speech at the end of 5.2 where the revenger first torments the muted Chiron and Demetrius with a detailed account of what he is going to do to or with them (e.g., "I will grind your bones to dust, / And with your blood and it I'll make a paste"), then promises to "make two pasties of your shameful heads," and finally announces that he will "bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, / Like to the earth, swallow her own increase" (186-91). After his command that Lavinia "receive the blood" and a second reference to paste and heads, Titus "cuts their throats" and announces "I'll play the cook" so as "to make this banquet, which I wish may prove / More stern and bloody than the Centaurs' feast."

When Titus enters to set up the banquet in 5.3 (with or without a cook's costume), the spectator is therefore well prepared. The savage ironies in his lines, moreover, are anything but subtle: starting with "although the cheer be poor, / 'Twill fill your stomachs; please you eat of it" (5.3.28-9); building to "Will't please you eat? will't please your highness feed?" (54); and climaxing, in response to the emperor's command to fetch Chiron and Demetrius: "Why, there they are, both baked in this pie, / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred" (60-2). Indeed, these lines and the overall effect have seemed excessive to many directors and readers.

But what would have been the effect if Titus does appear "like a cook" (as predicted in the closing lines of 5.2) and, in this odd costume, does call emphatic attention to his culinary role as he hovers around the banqueters? In imagistic terms, what has so far been primarily verbal or aural (animals "rotted with delicious feed") now is being displayed visually, not only in the pasties being consumed by Tamora and others but also in the purveyor of such delicacies, Titus, who sets up the feeding of (and himself feeds upon) his enemies so as to become a visible part of the appetitive revenge process (just as Tamora had "become" Revenge in 5.2). The image of the revenger as cook builds upon what has gone before and, especially as italicized here by both the costume and Saturninus' question, brings to a climax the feed-and-be-fed-upon imagery earlier linked to the hunt and to the "wilderness of tigers" (3.1.54), a wilderness in which both families have now become prey. The same man who in 3.2 had urged his family to refrain from eating now sets up the meal for others and feeds upon his revenge. Moreover, if Aaron or Tamora's body is placed in the trap door, this cook-revenger has generated a feast that parallels and supersedes the "detested, dark, blood-drinking pit" and "fell devouring receptacle" (2.3.224, 235) that had claimed Bassianus, Quintus, and Martius. In short, at the climax of this revenge process, "Titus like a cook" makes very good sense indeed.

Much of the effect of such italicized moments (whether the exeunt with heads and hand, Tamora as Revenge, or Titus as cook) lies in their surprise value or initial illogic, a surprise that is designed to call attention to that moment and, ideally, to tease the playgoer. into thought, into making connections. That effect, however, can be undermined, even eliminated entirely, if a subsequent interpreter on the stage or on the page resists such images or such logic of illogic, so that a provocative signpost (at least for the 1590s) is then lost. In such cases, to deitalicize is to diminish the range of possibilities, to weaken the signals, so as to preserve a post-1590s sense of decorum or verisimilitude, principles Shakespeare was aware of but was willing to strain, even violate, to gain his effects.

As a comparable example from another early Shakespeare play consider I Henry VI where, at the nadir of her fortunes just before her capture by York, Joan la Pucelle appeals for help to a group of onstage "Fiends" (5.3.7.s.d.), but in response these fiends, according to the Folio stage directions, "walk, and speak not, " "hang their heads, " "shake their heads, " and finally "depart" (s.d.s at 12, 17, 19, 23). This exchange has not fared well on the page or on the stage, for to deal with this script is inevitably to run afoul of this scene and this appeal-rejection that in several ways tests the notions of today's interpreters. The Folio's call for fiends and for specific reactions is unusually clear (and presumably would have posed few problems in the 1590s for playgoers attuned to Doctor Faustus), but Elizabethan onstage presentation of the supernatural repeatedly strains "our" paradigms of credibility (and canons of taste), with this moment (along with the apparitions in the cauldron scene of Macbeth) a particular challenge.

Directors have therefore tinkered with the Folio signals. In Jane Howell's rendition for television, Joan speaks her lines while staring at the camera so that no supernatural entities are in sight to walk, refuse to speak, hang their heads, and eventually depart. In Adrian Noble's ninety-minute Royal Shakespeare Company rendition of Part 1 (1987-88), various onstage corpses from the previous battle rose as if animated to provide an onstage audience, but without the reactions to Joan's pleas specified in the Folio. In the Terry Hands 1977-78 Royal Shakespeare Company production, amid the onstage cannons that dominated the battlefield set Joan offered herself to the fiends who appeared suddenly "looking like gas-masked soldiers from the French trenches of the First World War."9 In contrast, in his ninety-minute English Shakespeare Company production Michael Bogdanov cut the fiends and altered the text, so that, alone on stage and looking at the audience, Joan directed her appeal not to any diabolic entities but rather to the Virgin Mary, a change that eliminated any infernal climax for this sequence.

For generations idealizers of Shakespeare, who have been embarrassed by this play and especially offended by the chauvinistic depiction of St. Joan, have had great difficulty coming to grips with this moment.10 Such reactions are revealing, for even to a casual reader the interaction between Joan and the fiends leaps off the page in vivid (and to many, offensive) fashion. What then are the advantages of singling out this moment as theatrical italics?

As one possible answer, consider Joan and her devils not as a one-shot effect but as the climactic example of a larger progression of images and moments that starts in Act 2. From her first appearance Joan has claimed supernatural powers (see 1.2.72-92), a claim tested in the first meeting between Joan and Talbot that results in a standoff; still, Joan scorns his strength (1.5.15) and leads her troops to victory at Orleans. Moments later, Talbot, aided by Bedford and Burgundy, scales the walls and regains the town, so that a united English force wins back what had just been lost. The three leaders working together therefore accomplish what Talbot, facing Joan alone, could not. Shakespeare then provides a gloss on both this victory and the larger problem of unity-disunity by means of Talbot's interview with the Countess of Auvergne. Her trap for Talbot fails, as he points out, because she has only caught "Talbot's shadow," not his substance. The set of terms is repeated throughout the remainder of the scene (e.g., "No, no, I am but shadow of myself. / You are deceived, my substance is not here") and is explained by the appearance of his soldiers, at which point he points out: "Are you now persuaded / That Talbot is but a shadow of himself? / These are his substance, sinews, arms, and strength, / With which he yoketh your rebellious necks … " (2.3.46-66). The individual standing alone, no matter how heroic (one thinks of Coriolanus), is but a shadow without the substance of his supporters, his army, his country.11

This play, however (as two generations of critics have reminded us), is about division, not unity, a division that has already been displayed in the split between Winchester and Gloucester and widens in the Temple Garden scene (that immediately follows Talbot's lecture to the countess), with its symbolic plucking of red and white roses. The figures who had joined Talbot in the victory at Orleans, moreover, soon disappear (Bedford dies, Burgundy changes sides). Factionalism thrives, to the extent that the division between York and Somerset (unhistorically) undoes Talbot himself who, in the terms of 2.3, is denied his substance and must face death (along with his son) as a shadow of his heroic self. Sir William Lucy's listing of Talbot's titles (4.7.60-71) can then be mocked by Joan as "a silly stately style indeed," for "Him that thou magnifi'st with these titles, / Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet" (72, 75-6).

Joan's scene with her devils then follows less than a hundred lines after her exchange with Lucy. With the French forces fleeing the conquering York, all Joan can do is call upon her "speedy helpers" or "familiar spirits" to help with their "accustomed diligence," but neither the offer of her blood, with which she has fed them in the past, a member lopped off, her body, or even her soul will gain the needed support. She therefore concludes: "My ancient incantations are too weak, / And hell too strong for me to buckle with. / Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust" (5.3.1-29).

No one makes grandiose claims for the imagery of this sprawling play. But a verbal patterning involving shadow and substance is clearly set forth in Act 2 (and echoed thereafter—as in Alencon's speech 5.4.133-7); moreover, Talbot eventually falls (and France ultimately is lost to England) because of divisions whereby "substance" is denied and the hero must stand alone as shadow of himself. In her scene with the fiends, Joan too is deserted, denied by those who formerly supported her. Like Talbot, her heroic status cannot exist alone, so she becomes a mere shepherd's daughter, not the figure who raised the siege at Orleans and was a match for Talbot in battle. The denial by the fiends is here equivalent to the squabble between York and Somerset that undoes Talbot, a link that (as with Francis the drawer and Hotspur or Falstaff) can be reinforced through the staging. For example, what if the fiends' scripted reactions to Joan's offer echo similar walking apart, hanging and shaking of heads, and departures by York and Somerset in 4.3-4.4 in response to Lucy's pleas in behalf of Talbot? If so, the playgoer would see two or three parallel failures by first Lucy and then Joan, rejections that visibly set up the deaths of the two previously unbeatable or "heroic" figures. Just as Lucy fails to get the necessary support, a failure that means Talbot must give way to the new factions, so Joan fails to get the support she too desperately needs and must give way to the third Frenchwoman, Margaret (who appears immediately upon Joan's exit with York). However interpreted in theological or political terms, these highly visible fiends can function as part of an ongoing pattern of images or configurations linked to the central themes of the play.

These italicized moments from two early Shakespeare plays (scripts not prized for their complexity or artistry) call attention to themselves and in the process call attention to major thematic or imagistic strands. All four therefore function not as ends in themselves but as indices to a larger network, a network whose presence is heightened by the theatrical italicizing of these images. Such a technique, needless to say, need not be limited to plays from the outset of Shakespeare's career. For some provocative examples, let me now turn to several juxtapositions.

Consider first the question (that turns out to be much trickier than it sounds): when should Macbeth appear on the stage after the murder of Duncan (that occurs between 2.1 and 2.2)? The Pelican editor, like most modern editors, places Macbeth's first line in the scene ("Who's there? What, ho?"-2.2.8) "[within]" and then places the stage direction "Enter Macbeth" so as to break line 13, the end of Lady Macbeth's second speech (so after " … I had done't" and before "My husband!"). The Folio, however, provides a centered "Enter Macbeth" at line 8 (TLN 657) after Lady Macbeth's initial speech and before Macbeth's first line in the scene ("Who's there? what hoa?").

Although I have not done an exhaustive search, I have yet to find a modern edition that follows the Folio here. As with the placing of Cassandra within in the Trojan council scene (or the repositioning of Gloucester's entrance in 3.6 of the Folio Lear), note the logic of verisimilitude at work. How are we to imagine a Macbeth onstage but not noticed by his wife for five lines? In the frenzied dialogue that follows, moreover, she asks "Did you not speak?" and he queries in response "As I descended?" so that Macbeth's earlier half-line ("Who's there? … ") can, by this logic, be envisaged as part of an offstage sequence (or onstage in a production with a visible staircase) before his actual entrance signaled by "My husband!" (in the Folio, "My Husband?"). In modern productions, the playgoer often sees Lady Macbeth below and Macbeth above, backing out of Duncan's chamber, then either descending in our sight or reappearing below at the point marked in modern editions when she first sees him. Such an emendation or adjustment seems to fit with the dialogue ("As I descended?") and avoid any awkwardness with Lady Macbeth not seeing her husband for five lines. The Folio, in this instance, is deemed wrong—in a matter of relatively minor consequence.

But … the theatrical vocabulary of the 1590s and early 1600s may have included signifiers linked to onstage figures limited in their ability to "see" important things around them. One possible way to signal or heighten such "not-seeing" (as with Claudio-Don Pedro and Dogberry, Gadshill and the chamberlain, the Trojan council and Cassandra, or Macbeth and the ghost) is to use an early stage direction so as to have entering figures onstage (and seen by the playgoer) before those already onstage are aware of their presence. To change the placement of Macbeth's entrance in 2.2 is to produce a much tidier scene, but what about the potential losses? What happens when we stage or imagine the scene as scripted in the Folio?

In practical theatrical terms, the Folio scene can be staged with the two figures facing in opposite directions and therefore backing into each other so as to produce a jolt that fits well with the tensions of the moment. But in terms of my emphasis upon "not-seeing," consider as well the related problem (rarely cited by editors and never, to my knowledge, linked to the early entrance): why does it take so long for Lady Macbeth to notice the bloody daggers (not until line 47), even though Macbeth says "This is a sorry sight" as early as line 20, presumably referring to his bloody hands holding the daggers, and also refers to "these hangman's hands" in line 27? Admittedly, the daggers can be covered (as in the 1988-89 Royal Shakespeare Company production) or somehow hidden—again to satisfy the logic of verisimilitude—but if the daggers were visible to the playgoer but, for some time, were not seen by Lady Macbeth that playgoer witnessed not one but two striking examples of "not-seeing" in the Folio version of this scene. Remember, in a famous speech at the end of the previous scene, Macbeth had seen and described a dagger that was not there: "There's no such thing. / It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes" (2.1.47-9). In contrast, for a stretch of time in 2.2, Lady Macbeth does not see two bloody daggers that are there.

As already noted, an editor or a director can readily "solve" this problem, but what then is the price tag for such a "solution"? If twice in this short sequence Lady Macbeth does not see something that is there to be seen by the playgoer (first Macbeth, then the daggers), especially after the dagger speech of 2.1, what kind of "image" or effect is being set up or italicized? Given such a staging of the Folio signals, is not an audience better prepared for the sleep-walking (and her seeing or imagining there) or for the banquet scene when no one but Macbeth sees the ghost? Even here, playgoers may emerge from the Folio version with a different understanding of her "A little water clears us of this deed. / How easy is it then!" if, twice, she has not seen something they have seen. The scene and the tragedy as a whole are about darkness and blindness in various senses, so what happens if the editor, critic, or director trusts the Folio version that, in a curious but potentially telling fashion, italicizes (in symbolic or metaphoric terms) just such darkness and blindness? To filter out this effect is to produce a much tidier scene, especially in terms of verisimilitude, but, in doing so, an interpreter risks translating a rich moment into our (less metaphorical, less symbolic) theatrical language and losing something significant in the process.

An equally provocative juxtaposition is to be found in As You Like It where editors and critics continue to puzzle over Duke Senior's "banquet" that, according to the dialogue, is set up on stage in 2.5 (see lines 26-7, 55-6) and then enjoyed in 2.7 with no indication that it is removed for the brief 2.6 (the first appearance of Orlando and Adam in Arden). After reviewing various options (e.g., use of an "inner stage," transposition of scenes) the New Variorum editor (Richard Knowles) concludes: "the early setting of the table seems to me thoroughly puzzling; it is totally unnecessary, for the banquet could have been carried on, as banquets usually were, at the beginning of scene 7." Directors have therefore developed their own strategies for dealing with this anomaly: some transpose 2.5 and 2.6; some cut the offending lines in 2.5 so that the banquet first appears in 2.7; some play the Folio lines and sequence but darken the stage so that neither Orlando or the playgoer can "see" the banquet during 2.6.

As most editors and critics would agree, Shakespeare did not have to introduce a banquet into 2.5. Yet he did. The result, moreover, is a clear example of the kind of simultaneous staging often found in earlier English drama that yields for the playgoer a strong sense of overlapping images comparable to that produced by early entrances, by late departures, and by bodies, scrolls, or leavy screens not removed from the stage.12 What then are the advantages of having such a banquet in full view during the speeches that constitute 2.6?

As one possible answer, consider how the presence of such food affects our reaction to Adam's "O, I die for food" and Orlando's subsequent "if" clauses: "If this uncouth forest yield anything savage, I will either be food for it or bring it for food to thee … I will here be with thee presently, and if I bring thee not something to eat, I will give thee leave to die; but if thou diest before I come, thou art a mocker of my labor … thou shalt not die for lack of a dinner if there live anything in this desert." What is the effect of such speeches if the food Orlando eventually finds in 2.7 is indeed visible to us while we are hearing these words? What seems anomalous or unrealistic to a reader nurtured upon our theatrical idiom could, in their vocabulary, be one of the striking moments or images in the show (as perhaps with Francis's amazed state, the exeunt of the Andronici, Joan and the fiends, or Macbeth's early appearance) if the playgoer somehow gains from the juxtaposition an understanding of the distinctive nature of Arden . … To what extent has our sense of "forest" or our resistance to simultaneous staging eclipsed a major signifier in Shakespeare's theatrical vocabulary?

Here, moreover, is where a modern sense of variable lighting and "design" becomes especially important. If interpreters can transcend their theatrical reflexes, they may be able to imagine a Forest of Arden in this instance defined not by onstage greenery but by the presence of food in the background while two figures are starving. Through such juxtapositional staging or signifying, that sense of an option available to be exercised or a potential there (under the right circumstances) to be fulfilled could emerge as the point of the sequence and a major building block for the final three acts. A director in a modern theatre who does introduce the banquet in 2.5 and does not remove it during 2.6 may still be tempted to darken part of the stage and highlight Orlando and Adam, but in a 1590s theatre where that option was not available (and where controlling the playgoer's sense of events by means of variable lighting was impossible), the rationale behind this moment and its potential richness—in their terms—could (perhaps) be realized.

The same is true in King Lear where, at the end of 2.2, Kent is left alone in the stocks, Edgar enters for a speech of twenty-one lines, and, after his departure, Lear and his group arrive to find Kent. As with my other examples, this sequence has puzzled modern critics, editors, and directors who worry about "where" Edgar is to be "placed." In our vocabulary, the presence of the stocks and the recently completed action involving Oswald, Edmund, Cornwall, and others imply one locale (the courtyard of a castle), but that "place" proves incompatible with a fleeing Edgar (especially given a lapse of time and the pursuit through open country implied in an escape by means of "the happy hollow of a tree"—2.3.2). Editors therefore create a separate scene for Edgar's speech (2.3) and often provide a heading such as "the open country" or "a wood"; directors usually use a lighting change to black out Kent and highlight Edgar during his speech. Clearly, most interpreters would prefer not to have Kent and Edgar visible at the same time.

If Kent is eclipsed by modern lighting, neither Edgar nor the playgoer is conscious of the figure in the stocks (who also has lost his identity and been subjected to injustice). But what about the original production at the Globe where the King's Men had no way to black out Kent? Can the interpreter today at least entertain the possibility that Shakespeare, surveying the various options, chose to have these two figures visible simultaneously, not only making no effort to hide the juxtaposition but indeed encouraging a staging that would italicize it? On the unencumbered Globe stage with few distractions for the playgoer's eye, such a choice would yield a highly emphatic effect that would strongly enforce any interpretation based upon links between Kent and Edgar—again a form of theatrical italics that an attentive viewer would find hard to miss. The original audience would not have been troubled by the imaginary darkness in which Edgar failed to see Kent; indeed, Edgar's stage behavior in itself could have been a major signal for the existence of onstage night. The stocks would then signal not a courtyard or other specific public locale but rather a general sense of imprisonment or bondage (as in such moral plays as The Interlude of Youth and Hickscorner) or the perversion of an instrument of justice (as developed more fully, again with Cornwall and Regan, when Gloucester is bound to a chair in 3.7), just as Edgar would be assumed to be in flight, anywhere. The chameleon-like flexibility of the open stage here makes possible a juxtaposition rich with potential meanings, a juxtaposition that can easily be blurred or lost (as with Macbeth, 2.2 and As You Like It, 2.6) when an interpreter translates the scene into our theatrical vocabulary.

Such italicized juxtapositions and configurations that generate fruitful questions for the playgoer recur throughout the Shakespeare canon.13 In keeping with Armstrong's yardsticks, my purpose in singling out such moments and patterns is to isolate various hit-the-playgoer-over-the-head stage effects that would have been difficult to miss in the original productions but can readily be blurred or lost today. Such a gulf between what was obvious then but can be invisible now raises some troubling questions. What if, as part of an overall strategy, Shakespeare and his fellow players chose to italicize X but editors, directors, or critics today ignore or filter out that choice? What is the effect of such filtering upon our interpretations? Given the language barrier that separates us from the 1590s and early 1600s, how are we to recognize when their emphases or theatrical vocabulary diverge significantly from ours (so that a drumroll or look-at-me effect can be ignored or eclipsed)? Most troubling to me (as one sympathetic to various brands of historicism): are we inferring or creating our "meanings" from the same evidence that was available to the original playgoers? Again, how much is being lost in translation?


1 Paul Armstrong, Conflicting Readings: Variety and Validity in Interpretation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. ix, 13-16.

2 In his recent book, Robert Hapgood also raises this issue in the context of a performance-oriented approach to Shakespeare. Citing Stephen Booth's rejection of "either/or" interpretive choices in reading the sonnets, Hapgood suggests that "at an extreme, critical tolerance can mask a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to say: 'this is more likely than that', 'this is given greater emphasis than that', 'this is more central or better balanced than that'." Rather, for him even though Shakespeare's texts "do not provide hard and fast directions for their own interpretation," nonetheless they "do permit such discriminations," for "they do provide guidelines, do set limits to the latitudes they allow." Hapgood concludes that, "although no single reading is definitive, some are downright wrong and among the rest some are in certain respects to be preferred to others." See Shakespeare the Theatre-Poet (Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 13.

3 For example, see S. P. Zitner, "Anon, Anon: or, a Mirror for a Magistrate," Shakespeare Quarterly 19 (1968): 63-70. In his Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988, p. 43), Stephen Greenblatt treats the moment as one of "the play's acts of recording, that is, the moments in which we hear voices that seem to dwell outside the realms ruled by the potentates of the land."

4 So Greenblatt (p. 45) concludes his section: "The prince must sound the base-string of humility if he is to play all of the chords and hence be the master of the instrument, and his ability to conceal his motives and render opaque his language offers assurance that he himself will not be played on by another." For my own reading see Shakespeare and the Late Moral Plays (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), pp. 69-70.

5 The Wells-Taylor old-spelling version reads: "And Lauinia thou shalt be imployde, / Beare thou my hand sweet wench betweene thine Armes" (The Complete Works: Original Spelling Edition [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986], lines 1296-7). In their textual note Wells and Taylor build upon an earlier editor's conjecture that someone made the correction "to soften what must have been ludicrous in representation," a correction that in turn led to an error in QI; according to this reconstruction, a scribe then "made sense of the passage by substituting 'things' for 'Armes'" (William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987], p. 212). "To soften" a "ludicrous" moment, a series of editors have therefore closed down a meaningful option present in the quartos and the Folio. One of these emended editions, moreover (volume 34 in the New Temple Shakespeare, ed. M. R. Ridley [London and New York, 1934]), served as the basis for two landmark productions of this script (Peter Brook's in Stratford-upon-Avon 1955, Gerald Freedman's for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1967), so that both of these directors could sidestep the problem completely.

6 For my own treatment of parts of the body in this tragedy, see Titus Andronicus (Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 86-9.

7 For example, in a dramatic romance published at about the same time as Titus (A Knack to Know an Honest Man) a banished figure in disguise as a hermit announces his name to be Penitential Experience. In the early 1590s such mixing of allegorical nomenclature and "literal" action, if not widespread, was at least possible. See also

8 Most editors gloss "her" in line 45 as "Justice," but equally likely is a confusion between Justice-heaven and Revenge-Acheron-hell, a confusion that feeds into Tamora's appearance in disguise with her request for Titus to "come down." The link, moreover, can be enforced in the theatre. For example, in the 1988 Shakespeare Santa Cruz production Tamora-Revenge entered bearing an arrow with the message still attached, thereby suggesting that her appearance was in response to his quest in 4.3.

9 David Danieli, "Opening up the text: Shakespeare's Henry VI plays in performance," Themes in Drama 1 (1979): 257.

10 For some recent revisionist interpretations of Joan, however, see Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare (Bereley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 51-96; Gabriele Bernhard Jackson, "Topical Ideology: Witches, Amazons, and Shakespeare's Joan of Arc," English Literary Renaissance 18 (1988): 40-65; and Nancy A. Gutierrez, "Gender and Value in I Henry VI: The Role of Joan de Pucelle," Theatre Journal 42 (1990): 183-93.

11 For treatments of 2.3, see especially Edward I. Berry, Patterns of Decay: Shakespeare's Early Histories (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), pp. 1-28; James A. Riddell, "Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne," Shakespeare Quarterly 28 (1977): 51-7; and Alexander Leggati, Shakespeare's Political Drama (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 1-8.

12 For the reader skeptical about the juxtaposition of onstage food with starving figures I can offer two comparable examples from plays that antedate As You Like It in the 1590s. First, in Locrine, with a starving Humber onstage, Strambo the clown enters saying "it is now breakfast time, you shall see what meat I have here for my breakfast" (1626-8); the stage direction reads: "Let him sit down and pull out his vittles" (1629-30). Humber (like Orlando) then has a speech on the fruitless land but does not see the clown or his food; rather, "Strumbo hearing his voice shall start up and put meat in his pocket, seeking to hide himself" (1648-9). Eventually, a Humber near death sees Strumbo, asks for meat, and threatens the clown: "Let him make as though he would give him some, and as he putteth out his hand, enter the ghost of Albanact, and strike him on the hand, and so Strumbo runs out, Humber following him" (1669-73). Similarly, in King Leir "Enter the Gallian King and Queen, and Mumford, with a basket, disguised like Country folk" (2091-2); then "Enter Leir and Perillus very faintly" (2109-11) to talk of starving (Perillus goes so far as to offer his own blood to his master, Leir—2128-9). After a long sequence, Perillus calls on God for help (2166-7) and at last sees the food ("Oh comfort, comfort! yonder is a banquet"—2168). Both Humber and Perillus (unlike Adam and Orlando during their brief scene) eventually do see the onstage food, but not until after they have spoken at length about their plight.

13 Such thought-provoking italicized moments are common in the romances, most notably in Cymbeline, 4.2 where Fidele-Imogen awakens next to the headless Cloten whom she mistakes for Posthumus.

Source: "Theatrical Italics," in Recovering Shakespeare's Theatrical Vocabulary, pp. 88-108. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 88-108.


The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets