Shakespeare’s Storytellers

“Ian considered O and Dee, holding hands under the trees as she fed him another strawberry, and Casper, watching Bianca with a proprietary air as she jumped Double Dutch. They were like characters in a play who needed an extra scene, a thread to pull them tight. And Ian held the thread” (p. 126). That’s from Tracy Chevalier’s novel New Boy, which is her retelling of Othello in the Hogarth Press series of modern Shakespeare. Ian is the Iago character, and I think Chevalier catches Iago’s sensibility as a storyteller: how Iago sees others as characters in a story that he writes, directs, and plays a leading role in. I follow Erving Goffman in believing that one part of the presentation of self in everyday life is the manipulation of others to play out a story in which that self can be what the storyteller imagines being, or perhaps discovers who they can be. Manipulation covers a wide range of actions, with Iago/Ian representing the worst. We recognize how stories are co-constructed. We acknowledge less often how enacting stories involves manipulations; there’s a fine line between these categories.

This blog is a much condensed version of what was planned to be plenary lecture I was scheduled to give at the Narrative Matters conference in Atlanta this May. That event, like everything else these days, won’t happen, and by the time of next year’s conference, I sincerely hope I’ll want to speak on something else–it’s depressing to think that a year from now, I might have the same thing to say. So this blog becomes a useful venue to set down a bit of what I would have said in Atlanta.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with characters who either overtly stage stories, as Hamlet does when he organizes the players to perform The Mousetrap, or like Iago/Ian, enrol others as the cast in a story the protagonist designs. In The Tempest, Prospero designs such a story with the goal of setting back in order what had been dislocated by his brother’s usurpation of his Dukedom. Prospero’s cause may be fundamentally just: usurping the rightful ruler is a bad thing, especially setting him and his child adrift in a leaky boat. But The Tempest is an edgy play because Prospero is–to use the key word again–manipulating everyone else. Miranda and Ferdinand may feel they are genuinely falling in love, and they may have a great future together, but we know that Prospero is setting them up. Social scientists, at their most annoying, like to point out that most choices we humans make are far more predictable, and easily manipulated, than we imagine. In Pierre Bourdieu’s monumental phrase, we make unchosen choices. In social science, the Prospero role is called society. What’s amazing is the pleasure with which we watch The Tempest, compared to the annoyance we feel when told our choices are less our own than we supposed.

So we might array Shakespeare’s storytellers into categories like the good, the bad, and the ugly. Iago is clearly the ugly. Who’s good and who’s bad gets complicated. Hamlet stages The Mousetrap for reasons that seem good–to determine whether the Ghost is honest by observing Claudio’s reaction to a murder that mirrors what the Ghost accuses Claudio of doing–but Hamlet is less in control of how he performs his “antic disposition”. His viciousness to Ophelia puts him in the bad category–he needs professional help, even if we think he’s aware of being watched an is performing for those spying on him.

My favourite, in the sense of most fascinating and perplexing, good/bad storyteller is the Duke in Measure for Measure. In a remarkably short first scene, he conscripts Angelo and Escalus to play his part, to be Duke, while he leaves town for unexplained reasons. The Duke doesn’t leave, but rather disguises himself as a Friar and plays that part in the story that he as Duke has instigated, but that Angelo proceeds to act out. The Duke thus acts closest to how I think people in so-called everyday life design stories. What makes Measure for Measure so engaging is the constant question how fully the Duke has predicted what would happen and remains in control, and when he’s genuinely surprised by his cast taking the story in directions he hadn’t anticipated. I find the Duke more interesting than Prospero because of his tenuous control–he has no Ariel to make him effectively omnipotent.

Measure for Measure is based on the old folktale of the evil judge who offers to release a woman’s loved one if she sleeps with him. In MfM, when Angelo acts this way–thus taking an established part in a story that precedes him–the Duke has matters in control; he might even have predicted Angelo’s behaviour. In the eventual assignation with Angelo, the part of Isabella is played by Mariana, who is (inexplicably) still in love with Angelo, despite his having jilted her over an unpaid dowry. Then comes the fascinating moment: Is the Duke surprised when he learns that Angelo has reneged on his bargain and despite believing he possessed Isabella, has ordered the execution of her brother, Claudio, to proceed? An actor can play the Duke’s reaction either way: has he suddenly lost control of the story, or did he anticipate even this turn of events?

The Duke will regain control in his endgame move of staging his own return, and that’s when he most blurs the good/bad line. Part of bringing down Angelo, before ultimately forgiving him, involves not telling Isabella that Claudio is alive (another head is sent to Angelo, in another deception). Then, having pushed Isabella to her limits, the Duke asks her to marry him, which is at least his idea of a happy ending to a story in which most of the people have been seriously unhappy. In what may be Shakespeare’s greatest silence, Isabella never gives him an answer, and different productions can cue the outcome in either direction with more or less certainty. I’m left with a question that’s a Shakespearean version of a Zen koan: Is the Duke’s proposal to Isabella honourable? And what counts, then, as an honourable proposal? What counts as honourable storytelling, with real life characters?

We tell stories not only at bedtimes and firesides, but also in how we enrol/enlist/conscript others into parts that set them acting out plot scenarios that we, the real life storyteller, have more or less in mind; that is, we expect and desire more or less specific outcomes. As the stories we have instigated play out, we watch, intervene, and maybe manipulate, accounting for that in different ways. We decide which characters need what extra scene, and we half believe we can hold the thread that pulls them; sometimes, we do hold that thread. Shakespeare shows us the continuum and complexity of what counts as manipulation, and how easily honourable manipulation turns creepy. Different periods of response to Shakespeare react differently to the protagonists’ manipulations. At the extreme, nobody has ever condoned Iago. But Prospero has been idealized and condemned, both. In MfM, Lucio describes the protagonist as “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.156), and I wonder how truthful that is. Which brings me back to my usual sort of questions: How much of ourselves does companionship with the Duke enable us to see? Into which of our own dark corners does MfM shine some light?

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