Shakespeare's Creation: The Language of Magic and Play

By Kirby Farrell | Go to book overview

VII. Fortune Shows Herself More Kind: Making Fortunes by Play in
The Merchant of Venice

As Shakespeare's art develops, his characters appear increasingly autonomous. In a Comedy of Errors or a Titus Andronicus the principals remain types, shaped by their Roman models. A Prince Hal or Hamlet, by comparison, may seem to be motivated from within. More than a creature of the plot, such a figure appears to be shaping the play's action and his own role from moment to moment. In the plays we have examined we have seen that illusion of personal creation taking form. And yet while these early plays are often about becoming autonomous, they tend to imply that goal without directly dramatizing it. Just as the characters begin to discover themselves, the scene closes or tragic misfortune intervenes. Like their counterparts in Navarre, for example, the Athenian lovers prepare themselves for greater creative freedom by mocking puppetlike styles of behavior in a play-within-the-play. But the epilogue abruptly follows, leaving the lovers' new lives an uncertain promise.

What does it mean that Shakespeare invokes autonomy as a problem? Any answer must take into account the equivocal attitude toward autonomy in Elizabethan drama. For even in Marlowe, notwithstanding his individualistic heroes, "the language of the dramatis personae is not yet in any consistent fashion determined by their characters; this is to be found for the first time in Shakespeare."1 For that matter, Shakespeare himself is by no means strictly consistent. Witness in Antony and Cleopatra the discrepancy between Enobarbus's usual bluntness and his fabulous praise of Cleopatra upon her barge, which serves the needs of the play at that point (2.2.195-209) but not the characterization of the Lieutenant. Which is to say that our expectations of autonomy must acknowledge the limitations of a highly stylized dramatic art.

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