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Description de l’éditeur

1. Social hierarchies are by definition complex and rigid structures, and the pecking order of early modern England was no different. Movement between social classes was difficult, often impossible, and Shakespeare's contemporaries were adept at reading the clothing, gestures, and language (both oral and written) that determined where in the hierarchy any particular individual fell. Naturally, this sensitivity to social hierarchy is reflected in the drama of the period. An understanding of the performative nature of social class in the off-stage world is evident in dramatic costuming records that catalogue the clothing and props used to indicate the social positions of characters, and a quick scan of any few pages of Shakespeare's work reveals that some characters--or, more to the point, some classes of characters--simply speak differently than others. 2. One of the few social spaces in which the rigidity of this hierarchy slackens--both on-stage and off--is in the letter. Letters appear frequently in Shakespeare's plays, [1] but this is in and of itself no more unusual than the regular use of telephones or e-mail in modern movies and television. What is surprising about Shakespeare's dramatic letters, however, is the dramatic space generated by and in these letters in which the social hierarchy becomes fluid. In this paper, I argue that this fluidity lies behind three important characteristics of these letters. First, Shakespeare's letters provide opportunities for characters to destabilize social authority, and, at times, allow them to co-opt this authority for themselves. Second, plots involving letters are among the most elaborate in Shakespeare's plays, and often are the last to be untangled, in part because of the ambiguity inherent in the epistolary form. And finally, letters in Shakespeare's work have a dramatic agency unique to this form. Bound volumes are often impotent (note Hamlet's dismissal of his reading material as "words, words, words" [Hamlet 2.2.192] and Caliban's mistaken belief that the only difference between him and Prospero are his books, 'for without them / He's but a sot as I am' [Tempest 3.2.87 88]), but the handwritten letter is an active force both for and on the characters; Shakespeare's letters act upon the physical bodies of his characters, often altering them in ways that would not have been possible without the handwritten word. These three characteristics--the letters' fluid social space, their effects which last to and often after the play's end, and their ability to act on the characters who encounter them--can be seen most directly in Hamlet and Twelfth Night, two plays in which letters, and mistaken readings of them, are critical to the dramatic action.

1 janvier
Matthew Steggle

Plus de livres par Early Modern Literary Studies