Mutability and Division on Shakespeare's Stage

Mutability and Division on Shakespeare's Stage

Mutability and Division on Shakespeare's Stage

Mutability and Division on Shakespeare's Stage


This book explores how Shakespeare's plays dramatize the ways in which the struggle with mortality generates intractable divisions within human experience. The author illuminates how different plays uniquely illustrate, for example, the convergence in human affairs of political conflict and conflicting ways of answering life's finitude. Divisions within the self are further explored in relation to such dilemmas as conflicts between individual and collective ways of confronting death, or confusion between secular and sacred views of temporality. The cry of Remember Me from the Ghost of Hamlet's father, the melancholy Jacques' reflections on mortality, Leontes' fear of bodily corruption - they all under come under study to reveal how they express attitudes toward death that divide the self and the social order. The book is also rooted in the theater, and so relates the theatrical conventions of Shakespeare's time to the thematic matter of the book. The author demonstrates how the plays' divisions are related to stage practices and the mixing of illusionistic and nonillusionistic modes of acting. Yu Jin Ko is Associate Professor of English at Wellesley College.


To focus the conflict introduced in the preface, and as a way of preparing the theoretical framework for my later exploration of Shakespeare’s plays, I would like in the first part of this chapter to offer a Shakespearean reading of some aspects of modern culture. To start, I turn briefly to Hamlet, specifically to the Hamlet of act V. Criticism has long noticed a change in Hamlet after his aborted voyage to England, often to suggest a trajectory of development that leads from the self-engrossed antics of the previous acts to the calm of self-surrender that acknowledges “a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2.10). Hamlet is seen, that is, to move from asserting an autonomy that sets himself off from the dramatis personae of his world to aligning himself at an essential level with all God’s creatures and finding metaphysical comfort in larger belonging. His meditations on providence certainly point this way:

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not
to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will
come—the readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows
what is’t to leave betimes, let be.


Moreover, we might remember that Hamlet’s preceding discourse on Yorick and the overriding futility of all human aspirations is a recognition of his own mortality that aligns himself at the most fundamental level with the universal brotherhood of mortals (“To what base uses may we return, Horatio!” 5.1.202). Indeed, his question thereafter on seeing Ophelia’s funeral procession—“Who is this they follow?” (5.1.218)—might have been answered himself in the way that John Donne on his sick bed answered his own question of whom the bell was tolling for.

Yet Hamlet interrupts this funeral to claim that “[f]orty thousand . . .

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