Saturday, 30 July 2016

The play within a play from Hamlet

Two short critical excerpts on The Mousetrap in Hamlet, as ways of thinking about character and about the theme of performing. 

Terry Hawkes suggests the play scene in Hamlet is a key point at which we can consider the two characters of Hamlet and Claudius, and see the balance between them:
In short, The Mousetrap sets in motion a new and intricate see-saw. For if Hamlet shows us anything at this point, it shows us a highly complex villain whose corruption demands to be viewed in the light of, if not to be mitigated by, the pitiable human situation it generates: that of a man torn by the conflicting demands of criminal passion and remorse, and held to the flames by an obduracy that is also self-control. In addition, and by the same token, it presents us with a no less complex and increasingly reckless protagonist who, in the name of 'justice', will impulsively commit violent murder before our eyes: the same crime that he is dedicated to revenge. Hamlet's role as both killer and avenger, an identity clearly symbolised by the figure of Pyrrhus, cannot but complicate the play.[i]
Hawkes draws on the characterisation which appears in Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! of the play as a ‘battle of mighty opposites’,[ii] in which Claudius and Hamlet become a matched pair, balanced and ‘far from representing corruption on the one hand, and justice on the other.’[iii]  

Hamlet is a play which thematises performance and performativity, concerned with the play within the play - both the actual literal performance of the Players, but also Hamlet's own performance to the court around him, and to Claudius in particular, a focus on 'seeming' (the 'seeming virtuous Queen' (1.5.46); 'to be or not to be' and others). The performance of The Mousetrap/ Murder of Gonzago is the central part of this double playing, highlighting to us the audience as we watch the audience of another play, the double nature of the narrative. Kate Flaherty asserts that
As an  impromptu, the First Player's performance activates the manifold nature of play: 'play' as a game, 'play' as performance, and even 'play' in its technological meaning, as the space allowed for a moving part in machinery. It is a staged moment in which both the fiction and the power of performance can be acknowledged simultaneously.[iv]
She invokes W.B. Worthern's concept of 'double-vision' in 'theatrical seeing'[v] to see the character as both actor (within the play) and (secondary) character; the difficulty of the character of Hamlet is separating Hamlet-as-actor and Hamlet-as-character.

[i] Terry Hawkes (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[ii] Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge! , p. 61.
[iii] Terry Hawkes, (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[iv] Kate Flaherty, (2005) 'Theatre and metatheatre in Hamlet', Sydney Studies in English 31, 3–20, pp.3–4.
[v] W. B. Worthen, 'The Weight of Antony: Staging 'Character' in Antony and Cleopatra'Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 , 26 (1986), 295–308.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Aristotle on Crime Fiction, according to Dorothy L Sayers

I came across this brilliant essay by Dorothy L Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, one of the best detectives of all time, imho), in a collection of critical essays on detective fiction edited by Robin Winks and published in 1980. It was actually a reprint from her collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions. She certainly knew how to coin a title.
Now, to anyone who reads the Poetics with an unbiased mind, it is evident that Aristotle was not so much a student of his own literature as a prophet of the future. He criticised the contemporary Greek theatre because it was, at that time, the most readily available, widespread and democratic form of popular entertainment presented for his attention. But what, in his heart of hearts, he desired was a good detective story; and it was not his fault, poor man, that he lived some twenty centuries too early to revel in the Peripeties of Trent's Last Case or the Discoveries of The Hound of the Baskervilles. (p. 178)
Tongue firmly planted in cheek, Sayers goes on to treat detective fiction as if it were tragedy, according to Aristotle's Poetics. His definition of tragedy, she suggests, is very fitting for detective fiction:
"The imitation" (or presentment, or representation - we will not quarrel over the word) "of an action that is serious" - it will be admitted that murder is an action of a tolerably serious nature - "and also complete in itself" - that is highly important since a detective story that leaves any loose ends is no proper detective story at all - "with incidents arousing pity and fear, where with to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions." (pp. 179-80)
When she puts it like that, it seems perfectly reasonable to put tragedy and detective fiction in the same bracket (a useful link to bring in Hamlet to the genre, which I will probably talk about at some length in a future post). She raises several terms from tragedy which are useful for talking about detective fiction. Peripety - a reversal of fortune - can come in any number of cases, but often in the case of the victim, who is frequently someone very wealthy or or very important, who is 'reduced to the status of a mere dead body' (p. 184). Hamartia - the characteristic or failing that brings about tragedy - is often applicable either to the victim or indeed to the villain. One of Aristotle's final concepts is that of Discovery - the denouement of the story. Aristotle, says Sayers, has several types of discovery, but she is most interested in the fifth type.
He calls it discovery through bad reasoning by the other party. The instance he adduces is obscure, the text being apparently mutilated and referring to a play unknown. But I think he really means to describe the discovery by bluff. Thus, the detective shows the suspect a weapon saying, "If you are not the murder, how do you come to be in possession of this weapon?" The suspect replied: "But that is not the weapon with which the crime was committed." "Indeed?" says the detective, "and how do you know?" (p. 185)
This strikes me as a very useful concept for considering elements of crime writing. The other forms of discovery, which are fairly self explanatory, are: 1) discoveries made by the author himself (rather scathingly noted by Sayers and which we might refer to as a deus ex machina); 2) the discovery by signs and tokens (e.g. the discovery that someone is left handed leads to his being revealed as the murderer); 3) discovery through memory, when a detective's memory is finally jogged and he remembers a similar case that reveals all (Miss Marple's uncanny memory of parallel occurrences in St Mary Mead that suddenly make the case crystal clear, if only to her); and 4) discovery through reasoning.

In passing Sayers makes a good point about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of the set texts on Elements of Crime Writing (AQA B). 'Arguing from the particular to the general, we may be seduced into concluding that, because the original Dr. Watson was a good man, all Watsons are good in virtue of their Watsonity. But this is false reasoning, for moral worth and Watsonity are by no means inseparable' (p. 188). The narrator of TMofRA, the doctor, presents himself as playing Watson to Poirot's Holmes, and therefore we are led into not suspecting him.

A final quote, which delights me: 'few people can have been inspired to murder their uncles by the literary merits of Hamlet' (p. 180). It's the 'few' that gets me. Not none.

Sayers, D. L. (1946) 'Aristotle on Detective Fiction' in Unpopular Opinions (London: The Camelot Press), pp. 178–190.

A slight change of direction

I've recently been thinking a lot about the need for A level English teachers to have access to critical material on the texts they are teaching. The problem is, much of that critical material is behind the paywalls of academic journals.

This kind of material is helpful in all kinds of ways. It can be useful for getting to grips with a new text. It can be really useful on several specifications for fulfilling AO5: Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations. For those students who are applying to study English at Oxbridge, it is very necessary for that critical material to be from high quality academic sources. While quoting from Sparknotes in your coursework essay technically fulfills AO5, it puts students at a serious disadvantage when their writing samples are being assessed in order to decide if they should be invited to interview.

So what am I going to do about it? One thing I've already done. Every time I find an open access journal article of use to English teachers I'm tweeting it (@veldaelliott) with the hashtag #LitCritforTeachers. The second thing I'm going to do is resurrect this blog which I originally started back in 2006 for my A level language students and use it to write about critical material on useful texts. I imagine the formats will vary, but one of the things I will be doing is summarising articles and incorporating quotations from them, so that you can use some of the original words with your students, and discuss the overall interpretation. All blog posts will have the full reference to the original material so you can chase it up if you want to try, or so your students can quote and cite it appropriately.

First post: Dorothy L Sayers on Aristotle on Crime for the Elements of Crime Writing on AQA B. Coming shortly :)