|"Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies" - ISBN# 0838639712|
Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies is the first systematic and comprehensive account of the conventions governing soliloquies in Western drama from antiquity to the 20th century. What led you to this subject?
What led me to this subject was, first of all, a fascination with Shakespeare's artistic techniques, particularly his creative use of conventions. Shakespeare evidently regarded certain conventions not as restrictions on his artistic freedom but rather as devices that created opportunities that would not have existed in the absence of the conventions. When I began to consider Shakespeare's use of soliloquies, I noticed that post-Renaissance critical commonplaces about those soliloquies were contradicted by conspicuous evidence in the plays themselves. Curiosity about Shakespeare's practices was thus coupled with curiosity about the discrepancy between the evidence and the post-Renaissance commentary. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it provides the motivation for my life as a scholar.
Many have praised your work as revolutionary to the study and perception of soliloquies. What process did you go through to gather the information you needed to support your argument adequately?
The process was long-term and labor-intensive. In the 1970s, when I first became aware of discrepancies between the evidence and orthodox notions, I began to take detailed notes on every soliloquy in every play that I read or re-read. When I started out, I was particularly interested in whether a given soliloquy was designed to represent the speech of the character or an interior monologue. If a soliloquy is overheard by an eavesdropping character, for example, it clearly represents the speech of the character. At a later point I became interested in another issue regarding those soliloquies that represented speech: whether a particular soliloquy was designed to represent self-addressed speech or audience-addressed speech. I had to re-examine, with this new consideration in mind, all of the plays that I had already examined. At another point I realized that I had to consider in depth the relationship between soliloquies and asides. As a result, I had to examine once again all the plays I had already examined in detail at least twice.
One major discovery I made is that, although a particular soliloquy considered in isolation may seem ambiguous, very clear patterns emerge when one considers many soliloquies in many plays in each period of Western theatrical history. Conventions governing soliloquies have a recoverable history. They have changed in precise and discernible ways over the course of time. For example, although in both medieval and Renaissance drama plentiful evidence demonstrates that soliloquies represent the speech of characters, in other respects soliloquies in the two periods exhibit very different patterns. In medieval drama characters often explicitly address playgoers in the midst of the action and only occasionally address themselves explicitly. In Shakespeare's plays characters in the midst of the action often explicitly address themselves by name or by a pronoun or ask a question that would be ludicrous if addressed to playgoers. Many other kinds of evidence indicate that soliloquies in the midst of the action represent self-address. Explicit audience address is narrowly confined to a few specific circumstances, mainly to speeches by choral figures who do not participate in the fictional action and to epilogues by other characters only after the fictional action has been completed.
The more evidence I accumulated the more fascinated I became with the sometimes complex conventions governing soliloquies within each period of theatrical history and the sometimes radical changes in conventions from one period to the next. The more I analyzed the evidence the more I realized that, rather than a mere technical matter, these conventions and the changes they have undergone over the course of theatrical history have profound aesthetic and philosophical implications.
Although over the years I published a series of articles in which I presented some of my discoveries, the culmination of all this labor, the publication of Shakespeare and the History of Soliloquies did not occur until 2003, nearly thirty years after my investigation began. Considering this immense investment of time and effort required by this project, it is not surprising that no one had ever before undertaken a systematic and comprehensive account of soliloquies in Western drama. It is not surprising that this obsession is a unique affliction.
Why are dramatists, performers, and critics so eager to analyze past theatrical works (especially the "to be or not to be" speech in Hamlet) by their own periods aesthetic tastes and conventions rather than the original conventions of the piece?
Conventions frequently employed by dramatists in a particular time and place become so familiar to regular playgoers that these conventions seem natural. Conversely, conventions employed by dramatists working in one cultural context can seem bizarre to a reader or playgoer of a different time and place. Plentiful evidence in Shakespeare's plays and those of his contemporaries demonstrate that in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century the dominant kind of soliloquy was self-addressed speech. But by the late seventeenth century aesthetic tastes and canons of verisimilitude had radically changed. Self-addressed speech by a character was now regarded as ridiculous because, supposedly, only crazy people talk to themselves. This change in aesthetic taste retroactively changed the perception of soliloquies in Shakespeare's plays. In post-Renaissance productions of Shakespeare's plays, directors and performers have sought to prevent playgoers from regarding a character as crazy by staging the character's soliloquies as either interior monologues or audience addresses instead of self-addressed speeches. These performers, as well as critics, have failed to realize that these staging practices were in fact adaptations. Instead, performers and critics have convinced themselves that Shakespeare shared their own post-Renaissance aesthetic tastes. They have anachronistically projected their own tastes onto Shakespeare.
To maintain their belief that Shakespeare's soliloquies were designed to be interior monologues or audience addresses, performers and critics have had to disregard the conspicuous evidence in Shakespeare's plays themselves clearly demonstrating that soliloquies represented self-addressed speeches. Instead, performers and critics have relied on the fact that interior monologues or audience addresses seem natural to them and to their audiences. But such post-Renaissance evidence cannot be used to prove anything about the Renaissance theater. As noted above, what seems bizarre in one cultural context might seem natural in another. A comparison should make this clear. In countless post-Renaissance productions of Shakespeare's plays, women characters have been very successfully portrayed by actresses. As strange as it may seem, however, evidence from Shakespeare's age demonstrates that women characters were played by male actors. Similarly, as strange as it may seem, plentiful evidence from Shakespeare's plays demonstrates that soliloquies in the midst of the action represented self-addressed speeches. Indeed, the evidence for this is much more plentiful than evidence that women characters were played by male actors.
These factors are only a very small selection of the psychological and cultural forces that led to the establishment and maintenance of false conceptions about Shakespeare's soliloquies in general and the "To be, or not to be" passage in particular.
By the way, I do not argue nor do I believe that present-day performers should stage soliloquies as self-addressed speeches simply because that is what they represented in Shakespeare's theater. Artists should have the freedom to adapt earlier works to suit their own tastes and purposes. In creating his plays, Shakespeare himself adapted earlier works and thus provided a precedent for later artists to adapt his works. What I argue is merely that post-Renaissance stagings of Shakespeare's soliloquies as either interior monologues or audience addresses should be recognized as alterations of a feature of the original staging. Again, an analogy with the conventions of casting makes this point clear. A scholar who points out that women characters were performed by boy actors in Shakespeare's theater is not thereby implying that in present-day productions women's parts should necessarily be portrayed by boy actors.
How has your book been received? Do you think that you have changed the way we think about soliloquies in Shakespeare?
I am delighted by the responses the book has elicited. I am particularly delighted that it won the 2004 South Atlantic Modern Language Association Book Award. But whether the massive evidence presented in the book will ever persuade the scholarly community in general to abandon demonstrably false ideas about soliloquies is uncertain. Those false ideas have been and continue to be promoted in countless books, articles, films, stage productions, classroom lectures, and other media. It is unlikely that a single book could counteract such longstanding, deeply entrenched, widely dispersed, fondly cherished, and intensely reinforced assumptions. If the scholarly community could ignore the plentiful and conspicuous evidence itself for over three hundred years, it may well ignore a book that points out that inconvenient evidence. There is no professional advantage and some professional risk in publicly supporting a scholar who has had the effrontery to publish unwelcome news. I am all the more grateful to those distinguished scholars, including Harry Keyishian, Virginia Mason Vaughan, Thomas Moisan, Maurice Hunt, and Robert Evans, who have courageously gone on record in praise of the book.
--Lorna Marie McManus