Role at variance with Self
From the Treacherous Entertainment to the Noble Death. Further reflections on the "World as a Stage" theme, or the self-conscious depiction of the theatricality of self and social life in Renaissance drama:
From McAlindon, English Renaissance Tragedy (I.IV: "The Treacherous Entertainment: The Symbolism of Rite and Play"):
Any account of the core elements of Renaissance tragedy must necessarily inquire into the function and significance of its most characteristic and conventionalised scene, the Treacherous Entertainment (as I have called it). This scene may coincide with the major point of change near the centre of the action, but as a rule it forms the catastrophe. It may consist simply of a banquet or a game; more often it is a play or masque performed in conjunction with a marriage. But, whatever its position or form, it is always a ritual affirmation of love and union which turns out to be a monstrous negation of everything it affirms.
Fashioned by Thomas Kyd with great originality out of elements drawn from Seneca's Thyestes and Medea, the Treacherous Entertainment is a dramatic device whose popularity must be ascribed to its symbolic function as well as to its great theatrical potential. Every dramatist who uses it seeks to give it some original twist, but all follow Kyd in shaping it as an elaborate model of the play-world to which it belongs. Thus, however much it may differ in detail from play to play, its guiding principle is always a lightning confusion of opposites which summarises the essential nature of life in its tragic perspective. Hospitality and violence, love and hatred, marriage and mourning, play and earnest, and comedy and tragedy are all likely to be involved here in a sudden and 'huge eclipse'.
Although by far the most important, the Treacherous Entertainment is seldom if ever the only action of its kind in a tragedy. Usually there are two to three well-distributed ritual scenes, standing out clearly from the rest of the action and related to each other by analogy and contrast and sometimes cause and effect; indeed, it is difficult not to see in this pattern a basic constructional formula on which the dramatists are heavily dependent. Some ritual scenes exhibit an achieved order, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and even they are darkened by external threats or flawed by some subtle internal discord. The general impression given by ritual scenes, an impression which transfers to the tragedies built round them, is an impression of rite gone wrong: the pun, facilitated by interchangeable spelling in the seventeenth century, is ubiquitous.
it has been argued with great persuasiveness that the symbolic strategies of Renaissance drama, ritual and pageant serve to express two quite different conceptions of life. Whereas rite, cremony, and pageant, it is said, stand for the traditional view of the world as a stable and immutable order, play signifies the new and disturbing notion of life—embraced in their different ways by Promethean heroes and Machiavellian politicians—as a historical process in which nothing is stable and the individual is free to assume ever new identities.(97) I would suggest, however, that the operative distinction is not between rite and play (drama) but between the proper and the improper use of each. The Treacherous Entertainment in its most typical form exemplifies this point. Ritual and play are both presented in it as accepted signs and instruments of harmonious order, and both are either violently truncated or wilfully perverted for destructive ends. As in Renaissance tragedy generally, they function in this scene as symbolic partners.
The radical discrepancy between self and role (or style) which the villain cheerfully ignores becomes a source of painful self-consciousness, of division within and alientation without, in characters of tragic stature; and we may include in this category introspective 'tool villains' such as Webster's Bosola, specifically described as 'a good actor . . . playing a villain's part'.(115) Such characters come to adopt roles at variance with their true or better selves not knowingly and eagerly, like the villain, but blindly and in response to powerful compulsions. These compulsions may be objectifies in the figure of the tyrant or usurper, who characteristically redistributes roles at will, or the Machiavellian tempter, who would make a change of role seem no change at all.
Because conceptions of the self and its relation to society have changed enormously since the seventeenth century, and are much more variable today they were then, the significance of role as a metaphor in the characterisation of the Renaissance tragic hero and heroine seems bound to give rise to doubtful interpretations and critical dispute. I would draw attention here to two critical tendencies which, although obviously distinguishable, share the common assumption that the hero is presented as unable in the nature of things to find his personal identity in any one socially defined role. One of these approaches stems from romantic and existentialist positions suggesting that the individual life in in a developed community is necessarily inauthentic, and that social alienation is prerequisite for self-realisation: it encourages us to see the hero of Renaissance tragedy advencing towards self-discovery as a result of his refusal to play out a given role. The other approach stems from socioanthropological perceptions concerning the plasticity of human nature; it suggests that the hero discovers or uncovers the truth about his self—that it is multiple rather than single, artificial rather than innate—in the very process of acting out many roles. (116)
There is much in the texts to justify these critical perspectives. Moreover, they have the great virtue of highlighting the dramatists' often profound sense of the elusive complexity of the human personality, as well as their recognition of the multiple forces which continually threaten the integrity of the individual. But it may be that they help to conceal at least as much as they reveal. In the first place, it is surely incorrect to speak of the protagonist as moving out of role into character (or vice versa), since the dramatists and their contemporaries took it as axiomatic that charafter without role, like thought without language, is in practical terms non-existent. It is true that role-playing usually begins to catch attention when it is clear that the hero and his world are out of joint. But that is not because playing a part is in itself considered to be unnatural; it is because a part well played is felt to be a harmony of nature and art and so does not call attention to itself. We begin to reflect on the problems of 'acting' when characters have disqualified themselves from playing the part which is properly theirs (Richard II arbitrating in a dispute where he himself is the chief culprit, Beatrice-Joanna rebuking the insolence of a servant whom she has hired to commit murder); or when they assume an alien role in order to reassert themselves (Lear kneeling in mock petition to Goneril, the usurped Duke Altofronto disguised as a railing malcontent), or when their self-regard is ominously tainted with self-ignorance or pride (Othello affirming that Cupid's toys will not interfere with his martial duties, Bussy D'Ambois indulging in 'bravery'); or when self-will and desperation have compelled them along the path of deceit (Juliet playing the obedient daughter to Capulet, the Duchess of Malfi going through the charade of dismissing Antonio as a dishonest servant). Thus, instead of moving from role to character (or character to role), the tragic protagonist is more likely to be seen as exchanging of having to exchange a role which harmonises with the conditions of his nature for another or others which do not: so that in losing his original role he loses himself.
Moreover, rather than uncovering a suppressed identity, or creating a new one, the tragic character more probably acquires a new understanding of his lost self and of those elements in his own and other men's nature which separated him from it. This understanding is often embodied in what is arguably the only pefect piece of theatre and ritual in the Renaissance tragic world—the Noble Death, in which the protagonist is sublimely constant and true to himself. Despite the splendour of this final 'act', the new understanding which gives it moral substance embraces a recognition that the individual is bound and limited, not only self-made but shaped and help in being by a context of relationships—interpersonal, social, and cosmic. Thus the famous words uttered by Webster's heroine at death, 'I am Duchess of Malfi still', are not simply the triumphant assertion of an indestructible personal identity. They are also a reminder from the dramatist that, despite her marriage to her steward, this great lady will always find her identity in the name and duchy of her dead husband. And they are but a prelude to the complete revelation, which comes when the Duchess accepts—on bended knee— Bosola's suggestion that aristocratic pride debars her from self-knowledge and lasting glory. She dies 'like' the Duchess of Malfi indeed, but in a manner which shows what that means in terms of nobilty, frailty, and dependence.
One cannot, however, ascribe to the dramatists of this period any firm belief that the individual will be true to himself, or maintain a sense of his own identity, for very long. Because the self is an unstable synthesis of opposites, 'None can be always one' (117). The psychic life seems here to be a kind of continuing Fall: a banishment from the person one would and should be, and in some sense was; a restless search for self-realisation in roles which too often have the effect of making one feel 'cabin'd, cribb'd, confin'd, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears' (Macbeth, iii.iv.24-5). But however subtle and unremitting their sense of the strange mutations in man's character the tragedians stop short of abandoning the notion of psychic continuity and making metamorphosis a positive. Like Montaigne, who explores with such acuteness the mercuriality of the self, they 'Esteeme it a great matter, to play but one man' (118). In the closely related spheres of psychology and ethics, constancy —which presupposes unity and harmony—remains their primary value. (119)
(97) Alvin Kernan, "The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays", YR LIX (1969-70): 3-32, and in The Revels History of the Drama in English, Vol. III: 1576-1613, ed. J. Leeds Barroll, Alexander Leggatt, Richard Hosley and Alvin Kernan (London: Methuen, 1975) pp. 241ff. As Kernan notes, he is developing ideas suggested by C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy
(115) The Duchess of Malfi, IV.ii.289-90. Cf. V.v.85-6., where the dying Bosola refers to himself as 'an actor in the main of all / Much 'gainst mine own good nature'. The Duchess, too, sees herself as an unwilling performer: 'I do account this world a tedious theatre, / For I do play a part in't 'gainst my will' (VI.i.84-5).
(116) See, for instance, Kernan, in YR, LIX 3-32, and The Revels History of the Drama in English, IIII 241ff.; John Holloway, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959) pp. 193-5. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (London: Routledge, 1961) pp. 26-87, 35-6, 57; Hugh P. Richmond, "Personal Identity and Literary Personae: A Study in Historical Psychology", PMLA, LXXXX (1975): 209-21. Disagreement with Kernan's interpretation of the role metaphor in Shakespeare has been expressed by Philip Edwards in 'Person and Office in Shakespeare's Plays', PBA LVI (1970) 93-109; he does not find in Shakespeare a 'necessary disjunction between the inner self and the public self'.
(117) Bussy D'Ambois, IV.i.25.
(118) Montaigne, Essays, trs. Florio, II 15 (II.i) (Author's emphasis.)
(119) In Role Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), p. 180, Thomas Van Laan notes that in Shakespeare's tragedies, by contrast with the comedies, 'losing oneself' is not a necessary and ultimately beneficial stage in the progress towards final happiness. It is to lose all, to be torn loose and cast adrift in a void without dimensions . . . an experience that no one can survive.'
Out of Character