Theory and Performance


For my inaugural blog post on my lovely new site, I wanted to talk a little bit about performance.  As many of you know (and many of you will come to know), I am a big proponent of Shakespeare in performance. What we do in a course like Shakespeare in Theory, is think about the different readings we can give of a text – that is to say, how changing the focus of our critical thinking to foreground a methodology that yields a different set of interpretive results that challenges our previously held view of a text.  Often, in undergraduate work, we approach texts thematically, which can lead us into the trap of thinking that there’s a “right” way to read a text, and what theory can do is open up our minds to the myriad of possibilities we can find in the text.

So, where does performance come in?  Simply put, this is what a director and an actor does every time they put up a Shakespearean production.  They make choices that will render the play more accessible,  more relevant to its audience, or simply more hard-hitting.  What we can learn by watching performance is that the instability of the text is part of the joy of studying Shakespeare.  Take, for example, the Taming of the Shrew, act 2, scene 1 (the wooing scene).

Exhibit A:

This is straight out of the Burton/Taylor tradition, in which a slightly foolish Petruchio is no match for Katherine, and presumably, later,  love softens them both to the point where they live in happy subservience to one another.  Such a reading validates Katherine’s speech at the end, and softens the brutality of the treatment of Katherine – Petruchio must be cruel to be kind.
Exhibit B:

This is an RSC version from a year or two ago.  The aggression is amped up, as is the sexuality there, but the pleasure, and joy is lacking (a point accentuated by the starkness of the setting and light).  This Petruchio is confident, sexually aggressive, and rough around the edges – when he threatens to cuff her, I believe him.  This allows us to challenge the notion that the play offers us a happy ending, and I suspect, lacks many of the comedic elements that characterize the first example.  It simply isn’t funny.
So, which one is “right”?  The answer is both.  They both follow the text, and offer an interpretation of the words that reflects the ambiguity of the play.  For each reading, there will be lines, or moments that jar with the overall tone, and moments that work very well.  Moreover, that I personally prefer the second one doesn’t make it any more valid.  Instead, it speaks to my subjectivity and cultural predilections – we live in an era that loves darkness in our culture, and to butcher the words of Nick Bottom, sex and love keep little company nowadays.

What theory offers us is a literary perspective on what performance offers us.  It offers us ways of thinking about the text that can unpack seemingly random moments, and give them significance.  It can help us relate the text to our cultural milieu, and it can encourage us to step out of ourselves, and consider what shapes our own responses.