Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Stage, Stake, and Scaffold

In his book, Stage, Stake, and Scaffold: Humans and Animals in Shakespeare's Theatre, Andreas Höfele explores the ways in which the early modern theatre, bear-garden (and site of other animal blood-sports such as bull-baiting and lion-fighting), and public execution scaffold exchange meaning, imagery, performative process, and emotional resonance by calling upon a common "semantic field." He argues that this exhange informs the way $hakespeare constructs and explores the "nature and workings of humanness."

We must first understand the connection between the playhouse and the bear-garden. Physically, they shared similarities--a round, open-air viewing space surrounded by seats on scaffolding. They also shared geography--bear-gardens and playhouses were in the same district and sometimes the same building performed both functions. Practically, they served a similar purpose--paid, trained entertainment.

We must also understand the connection between the playhouse and the executioner's scaffold--sites of ritualized public activity which provided the protagonist/antagonist an opportunity for a last glorious speech in front of the eyes of the watching crowd.

But what is the connection between the bear-garden and the stake? First of all, Höfele says, "corporal punishment itself entails an element of animalization" (9). The convict is reduced to a certain level of animality; it is the flesh that is ultimately being punished, not the soul or spirit. Public executions also involved "ceremonies of humiliation" like whipping or pillorying which highlight the convict's sub-human status. The bear-garden spectacle might have brought to mind the many-against-one nature of punishment; as Höfele says, "the bear would have been perceived as the more human-like creature, yet it fell to the dogs to execute the violent impulses of the human audience" (10).

He contends that the similarity between the theatre, stake, and scaffold created a well of common, easily-recognizable, and "powerfully affective images and meanings" from which a playwright could draw. And, although bestial imagery was often used to denote someone lower on a social or moral hierarchy, this was not always or even usually the case. He says that, through a process of "seeing double," one can see the animal image overlaid on the human, or vice versa, and analogize between animal and human. In the Renaissance, human nature was the object of intense scrutiny and deciding what a human was like and unlike was one way in which a person might negotiate the boundary of human/inhuman, even within one human subject such as Richard III or Bottom.

Furthermore, the term "animal" is not used often, although multiple kinds of animal creatures are mentioned with regularity in $hakespeare's works, an observation which undermines a Cartesian dualism of animal/human. "Pre-Cartesian man is animal, but never just animal," he says.

Important quotes:

"Each of the three forms of spectacular performativity confers on the others its affective energies, its capacity for signification" (13).
"This uniquely priveleged being [the human] is always in danger of lapsing from human to beast" (27).
"Shakespeare's zoomorphic blendings open up larger spaces of inclusion beyond the narrowly circumscribed 'borders of the human'" (38).
"There is a much greater variety of possible roles and zoomorphic blendings than merely those that register a downward mobility on a normative social and/or moral scale" (39).
"What is designated as 'animal,' 'brute,' or 'bestial' in Shakespeare's culture . . . is a sphere beyond the reach of rational control and discursive order, no less strange and unfathomable than the so-called supernatural, but perhaps even more uncanny because it is closer to us" (51).


I think it's interesting that I don't feel the need to create a "human" label for this post, even though it is just as much about defining human as animal. "Human" is the understood, the privileged, therefore the invisible, category.

Höfele says that "the conclusion of Macbeth kills and removes the bestial tyrant even it refuses to oust the beast" (67). I wonder what this understanding of a beast as a bad person, a tyrant, a "monster" would do to my paper about Moll Cutpurse as an "untameable monster" in The Roaring Girl.

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