Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

The Absent Elegy: Performing Trauma in the Winter's Tale

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

The Absent Elegy: Performing Trauma in the Winter's Tale

Article excerpt

I

One of the more salient debates in the literary and cultural historicism of Shakespeare's work is whether to examine it as primarily textual or performance-based. Should the text be viewed as the primary object, from which the performance springs? Or should critics attune their scrutiny to close reading each theatrical event as the construction of a new entity that opens up interpretive possibilities independent of the printed word? Of late we seem to be in a richly ambiguous middle ground, where we allow performativity to worry its way into intended objects of inquiry, but not name it as such; rather, theatre enters the critical scene in the Trojan horse of temporality. Scholars as differently positioned as Jonathan Gil Harris and Leah Marcus have incorporated this unmarked performative dimension by challenging the perceived chronological fixation of Renaissance texts, and locating a palimpsest of meanings and operations that reorient the object in different historical contexts. For Harris, the aftermath of cultural materialism, and its concomitant focus on objects, has drawn attention to a new "dynamic, diachronic dimension" of study (484). Objects, in Harris's view, oscillate between being fixed "form" and malleable "matter," that is, they become "staged" in the sense of being both performative and sequenced (491). His concerns echo longstanding debates in cultural studies and literary theory on the relationship between oral and literary modes of referentiality. (1) The interface of these two modes has been examined by Marcus's paradigmatic work in Unediting the Renaissance, which prefigures elements of Harris's dynamism in studying the transformations of texts. She calls attention to "the echoes and transformations from one early printed text to another" and outlines the role of taste in constantly shaping these changes (135). Marcus seeks to alienate our current belief in the fixed, canonized status of literary passages--Hamlet's "To be or not be," for instance--and remind us of the constant waves of textual change, attendant to cultural context, that affect them. In short, both theorists remind us that objects become enmeshed in multiple historical interpretations, resisting a singular chronological referent. They always seemingly transform themselves.

We can see that renewed interest in temporality and dynamism leads to a renewed interest in privileging the theatre; we might even say, in this regard, that historical objects perform themselves. Of course, the obdurate physical presence of the thing in question gains no sentience, but in removing the tether of fixed meaning, the fluctuations of signification operate as a sort of constant process of acting. In the face of this material performance, scholar-audiences attune themselves to the indexes of theatricality that traditionally resist the literary. There is an interesting symmetry in this trend. On the one hand, Renaissance scholarship has not yet wholly adopted the practice of privileging a performance as an entirely new site of study, with greater authority than its associated scriptural source--the performance has not become a text. (2) On the other, the discipline, it seems, has allowed the texts themselves, as things, to gain a dimension of performance. Harris summarizes the renewed interest in object studies by cleverly changing Hamlet's maxim of "the play's the thing" to "the thing is the thing;" by injecting performativity into the proceedings, we might flip the prince's metaphor entirely: the thing's the play (480). (3)

This paper reads Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale as a complex and profound exploration of the interplay, and possible incommensurability, of performance and text. My hope is that, by attending to the play's porous border between the theatrical and literary event, my reading will double as commentary on the selfsame border within Renaissance scholarship. The play affords connections to such a metacritique: like many scholars, Leontes, the king of Sicilia, is a troubled audience member and critic who becomes flummoxed in finding the line between the two modes of meaning. …

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