Performing Others’ Scripts

I continue to be fascinated by how literary criticism about Shakespeare restates issues that I have been worrying about with respect to illness and the work of healthcare professionals. My most recent example comes from Shakespeare’s Lyric Stage: Myth, Music, and Poetry in the Last Plays, by Seth Leher of the University of San Diego. I hope to return to the issue of music in a later post. For today, I want to share two of Leher’s observations.

Some of Shakespeare’s late plays, especially Henry VIII which was included in the First Folio of 1623, are clearly collaborations, and scholars argue which parts can be attributed to Shakespeare. Leher frames the issue otherwise: “I am not interested in statistical variations to determine which lines are Shakespeare’s and which are Fletcher’s,” he writes. He’s on to something more relevant to most of us who are not textualists: “What I am interested in is how the play raises authorship and individuality, collaboration and response, as themes.”

My thinking moves laterally to consider how health care involves themes of authorship and individuality, collaboration and response. In any healthcare dyad–physician/patient, nurse/patient, physician/nurse, administrator/clinician–each must collaborate with and respond to the other. Yet each engages with a particular other while keeping in mind that they are enmeshed in relationships of collaboration and response with others who are not in the room but who will hear about what happens and react to it. For patients, these others begin with their families and loved ones. For professionals, the others proliferate from colleagues down the hallway to persons in distant offices who exercise authority. What might constitute either authorship or individuality in health care is not easy to think about. Yet because the stakes on what happens are existential–what’s at issue is who a person is, as a soul that is answerable for what it does and leaves undone–questions of authorship and individuality cannot be dismissed.

Leher continues: “Characters like Ariel [the spirit who serves Prospero in The Tempest] and Autolycus [the con man who sells ballads in The Winter’s Tale] … dramatize the challenges of performing the scripts of others while attempting to take on an individual identity.” Health care is hardly the only venue that requires performing the scripts of others, but doing so seems a particular challenge in health care for at least two reasons. One, as I just said, is that the stakes are high; actions count and people remember for the rest of their lives. Another reason is that healthcare institutions are especially saturated with scripts of others, again for both professionals and patients. If I were writing a book about healthcare institutions, The Scripts of Others would make a good working title.

In my 2004 book The Renewal of Generosity I dealt with this problem at the end, when I talked about healthcare professionals as a species of artificial persons. That term was coined a generation after Shakespeare by Thomas Hobbes; it’s late Jacobean period, whereas Shakespeare was writing during the ascendency of James I. But artificial persons comes from a world that’s still recognizably Shakespearean and it remains recognizably our world. In this world, people are called upon to act in consequential ways not on their own moral judgment but according to some script of others. The physician has to follow a standard of practice or an institutional protocol. The patient feels required to do what is indicated by her family, or her religion, or her health insurer, or the medical team whom she doesn’t want to alienate. Yet as the stories of healthcare professionals and ill people eloquently testify, these people still feel an individual responsibility, as well they should.

In the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays, the First Folio, the last play is Cymberline. Leher discusses whether its placement reflects a considered choice by the editors or various contingencies of publication, including when the printers received the text. I love that controversy: it’s life, all over. Cymberline has one of the most convoluted plots of any of Shakespeare’s plays; every twist and confusion found in other plays is somehow reenacted in Cymberline. Leher offers a wonderfully generous interpretation, again making this confusion into the topic that the play seeks to explore. He summarizes: “Telling its own story is difficult: for us, for its history of audiences, and for its characters.” And that, again, is a concise statement of the work I’ve been doing ever since I starting struggling to tell the story of my own illnesses back in the 1980s.

Vulnerable reading offers help to those for whom telling their own story is difficult, especially because their story is always-already full of stock phrases, motives, and plots from scripts of others. When people most need to be individual, and responsible in their individuality, they find their words are not their own. Especially Shakespeare’s late plays offer the consolation of sharing that trouble with characters whose struggles are contained in ways that real life troubles are not. Their difficulty is our difficulty. What resolution those characters find does not solve our difficulties, because troubles like these do not resolve. But the solace of a story against which we can measure our own is a form of solution. With the story as a companion, we persevere not better but perhaps more content.

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