Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Shakespearean Silences and Ambiguous Endings

September 16, 2012 § 11 Comments

In graduate school during the early 80s I stage-managed a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that exploited the now notorious silence of Isabella in the face of the Duke’s proposal of marriage at the end of the play in what was then a novel way.

The director (Jack Clay) allowed the actress playing Isabella to either accept or reject the offer nightly at her own whim. Two entirely different endings employing elaborate stagings – one that suggested a return to the nunnery and the other preparation for a wedding – using alternative lighting cues, separate blocking, and even different supporting characters, were prepared. It was my duty nightly to coordinate with Isabella (via a secretive signal delivered from the stage about five minutes from the last lines of the show) and then get the entire technical crew and waiting cast prepared to execute the chosen ending, which was not divulged to the Duke or other onstage characters in advance. The dramatic tension was quite real as they awaited her decision.

Thus did I learn in a stunningly concrete way how ambiguous such endings are. Before the advent of computer boards, the five minutes of mad scrambling to warn a supporting cast and repatch a new set of lighting cues for the nights on which she rejected the Duke remind me that very different readings are possible even if they are unconventional.

Since those days the exploration of alternative readings of female silences in the ending of Shakespearean drama has become commonplace in criticism, and even in production – although rarely in the performance-by-performance mode Clay’s production employed.

Convention is very powerful, however. Thirty years later, I was still not prepared when viewing a recent production of Othello* directed by Steve Bologna for a radical re-reading of the ending of the play which explored male, specifically Iago’s, silence. In the text, after his capture Othello stabs him in revenge, but Iago tells us he is merely wounded. “I bleed, sir, but not killed.” A dozen or so lines later, lest we miss that his silence is intentional, the playwright give him this last line: “Demand me nothing. What you know you know./From this time forth I never will speak word.”

This production marched through the 70 lines of the play following Iago’s speech orthodoxly, including Othello’s death, up to and including the final instruction that the Lord Governor may “censure this hellish villain” when and as he pleases. The stage cleared leaving Iago alone with his two (sadistic-looking) guards.

To my surprise, he calmly rose and removed from his pocket a small volume of Machiavelli that he had carried (and frequently referenced) throughout the night. Opening it, in what was surely intended to be read metaphorically as well as literally, we saw that the middle of the book had been hollowed out and was now stuffed with gold coins from which he coolly bribed his guards – who took their money and departed, leaving him a free man. He began to walk away, but after a brief pause, he turned back and crossed to the bed where the bodies of Emilia, Desdemona and Othello had been covered with a large crimson sheet. The actor playing Iago picked up the corner of the covering, and wrapped himself luxuriously in it as he fully exited, slowly revealing the hideously distorted corpses left behind beginning to stiffen with rigor mortis.

This was a modern-dress production that suggested the warfare in the play is an analogy for current class warfare, with more than a little suspicion that the disproportional ill effects on a younger generation are intentional. (It is probably worth noting that the recent economic crisis has hit California, and particularly its higher education systems, especially hard.) With a grim pessimism, the last image implied that contemporary Machiavellians are “winning,” ruthlessly stripping everything (even life) from women and ethnic “others,” and getting away with it.

My intent is neither to defend nor attack this reading, but to remember that most Shakespearean plays have endings with less closure than is conventionally believed. (I’m no exception. So strongly did I believe that Iago dies, I had to recheck my handy Norton to be sure that no textual manipulation was involved. I’ve certainly never seen another production that did not at least imply his imminent execution.)

My take-away: Much as I love Shakespeare’s words, interpreting his silences is still also a fascinating, and rewarding, exercise.

*Disclaimer: Although I had no direct connection with this production, it was a thesis project at the university where I now teach. My comments are meant to capture the intellectual stimulation of the specific reading of Iago’s silence without implying critical judgment about the production in any manner.

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