Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"Painting of a Sorrow": Visual Culture and the Performance of Stasis in David Garrick's Hamlet

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"Painting of a Sorrow": Visual Culture and the Performance of Stasis in David Garrick's Hamlet

Article excerpt

And how did Garrick speak the soliloquy last night?--Oh, against all rule, my Lord, most ungrammatically! Betwixt the substantive and the adjective, which should agree together in number, case and gender, he made a breach thus--stopping as if the point wanted settling;--and betwixt the nominative case, which your lordship knows should govern the verb, he suspended his voice in the epilogue a dozen times, three seconds and three-fifths by a stopwatch, my Lord, each time.--Admirable grammarian!--But in suspending his voice--was the sense suspended likewise? Did no expression of attitude or countenance fill up the chasm?--Was the eye silent? Did you narrowly look?--I looked only at the stop-watch my Lord.--Excellent observer! (Sterne 143-4)

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In this passage from Tristram Shandy, Lawrence Sterne satirizes persnickety critics baffted by the innovative delivery of the Shakespearean actor David Garrick. Garrick's legendary performances at the Drury Lane theatre, beginning with Richard III in 1741, are often hailed as signaling a transition from an emphasis on declamation to a more kinetic style of acting. Vowing "to shake off the Fetters of Numbers," Garrick experimented with dynamic pacing, even going so far as to insert his own caesuras mid-sentence, creating dramatic pauses that positively shook the London theatre world (Letters 1:92). In a letter to a critic, Garrick defended the technique by citing an example from Hamlet (Letters 1:350-1). When the Prince surmises the real reason for Horatio's return to Elsinore, he would utter only the first hall of the sentence: "I think it was to see ..." At this point he would stop, lift his hand to his forehead, sigh pitifully, collect himself, and then conclude with a slight tremble in his voice, "my mother's wedding." The breach here lends weight to the second half of the phrase, insinuating that Gertrude's "o'erhasty marriage" is a leading cause of Hamlet's despondency. Bur beyond this insinuation, the upshot of this method is that Garrick manages to separate what Hamlet says about his feelings from the visual spectacle of pure feeling itself.

This moment presents a textbook example of the "open silences" that Philip McGuire detects in Shakespeare's plays--measures in the score in which an actor can purposefully rest before beginning or completing a phrase. At certain moments Shakespeare seems to invite actors to do precisely this, as in The Winter's Tale when the First Gentleman tells Autolycus of the stunned reactions to the news of Perdita's survival: "there was speech in their dumbness" (5.2.13). These "open silences" provide a rich field for performance criticism to till since, as McGuire observes, "the freedom they generate poses epistemological and ontological problems that defy the methods and assumptions of textual or literary analysis" (xx). Like descendents of Sterne's grammarian who stares only at his stopwatch, critics focusing exclusively on Shakespeare's playtext have sometimes failed to appreciate how performance enables a collaborative negotiation of meaning between the script, the actor, and the audience. Silence not only lends emphasis to the proceeding speech, it shifts the audience's attention from the aural to the visual aspects of drama and the actor's concentration from the verbal to the physical demands of performance.

While records of Elizabethan performances are scarce, those that survive suggest that Burbage and his colleagues took the liberty of silence only rarely, pronouncing their speeches, as Hamlet counsels, "trippingly on the tongue" (3.2.2). None of the accounts refers to an actor's experimental pacing of a speech and mention stillness only when the text clearly demands it, such as after a character has died on stage. One such report comes from the diary of an Oxford student who, after seeing Othello in 1610, noted that although Desdemona "pleaded her cause superbly throughout, nevertheless she moved [us] more after she had been murdered, when, lying upon her bed, her face itself implored pity from the onlookers. …

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