“Exit, pursued by a bear”

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What do you see in your mind’s eye when you read the following stage directions from Shakespeare’s plays?

• Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches. (‘Macbeth’)

• Enter [Bottom] with the ass-head (’A Midsummer Night’s Dream’)

• Enter Titus like a cook, placing the dishes (‘Titus Andronicus’)

• Enter the Ghost (‘Hamlet’)

• They heave Antony aloft to Cleopatra (‘Antony and Cleopatra’)

• Enter Richard Duke of Gloucester (‘Richard III’)

• [He] holds her by the hand, silent (‘Coriolanus’)

• Enter Ophelia distracted, playing on a lute, and her hair down, singing (‘Hamlet’)

• They stab Caesar (‘Julius Caesar’)

• Romeo begins to open the tomb (‘Romeo and Juliet’)

Is it a stage production that jumps to mind or a film version? Is there a particular performer that you associate with the role? If you do not know the plays – what do you imagine is going on that calls for stage directions such as these?

I’m fascinated by the fact that we will all be seeing very different things in our minds as we read through this list. As I put the list together I found myself thinking of – the witches in Fuseli’s painting – Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’ – Antony Hopkins’s Titus – Greg Hicks’s ghost –Jane Lapotaire’s BBC Cleopatra – Laurence Olivier’s Richard III – Toby Stephens’s Coriolanus – Kate Winslet’s Ophelia – John Gielgud’s Caesar dripping with blood – and Leonardo DiCaprio entering a candlelit cathedral.

I’m struck by the fact that some of these things have stuck in my mind because I liked them very much – others because I found them unusual – and some because they made me think about the play or a particular moment in a different way. Either way – these are now the things that are triggered in my memory when I think of these moments – these are my Shakespearian ‘knee-jerk’ responses if you will. If you’ve just experienced a Shakespearian ‘knee jerk’ reaction of your own on reading this – first of all make sure you are sitting down! – and second, please share.

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Author:Nick Walton

Nick Walton is a Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this Christian. When I read your description of Richard III on crutches I thought immediately of Antony Sher’s performance here in Stratford in the ’80s – another string of associations. I find your use of Freud and Marx really helpful here. Context(s) is always going to be a key to shaping audience response.

  • Christian Smith

    “Enter Richard Duke of Gloucester” – a darkened stage in Ashland, Oregon. A single spotlight illuminates Richard, centre stage, hunched over a pair of crutches (the sort used by people with polio). He begins his lines, “Now is the winter of…” Sitting in the audience, seeing this play for the first time, I wondered why he was using crutches. Then I remembered that he is ‘rudely stamp’d’. I had read the play but never seen it acted. The sight at centre stage brought a flood of emotions to my heart. His villainy was now set in an empathic context for me.

    Freud and his followers would say that our reactions are determined (I do not use this word lightly when speaking of Freud) by the connections that can be made between the stimulus (reading the stage direction or seeing it played) and the certain issues/images/wishes in our unconscious. For me, my unconscious directs the memory of the disabled Richard to the stage direction that you (Nick) listed.

    Marx tells us that our minds (the mechanism that makes the link of this ‘knee-jerk’ response) are socially constructed. If this is so then, it would have been my experience studying special education and working with disabled (and sometimes violent) youngsters that constructed the link. Maybe our birth in the West makes us vulnerable to impression by Tim Supple’s Indian Dream, and the social construction of beauty causes many to call up Kate Winslet’s Ophelia when presented, “Enter Ophelia, distracted, playing on a lute, her hair down, singing…”

  • Christian Smith

    “Enter Richard Duke of Gloucester” – a darkened stage in Ashland, Oregon. A single spotlight illuminates Richard, centre stage, hunched over a pair of crutches (the sort used by people with polio). He begins his lines, “Now is the winter of…” Sitting in the audience, seeing this play for the first time, I wondered why he was using crutches. Then I remembered that he is ‘rudely stamp’d’. I had read the play but never seen it acted. The sight at centre stage brought a flood of emotions to my heart. His villainy was now set in an empathic context for me.

    Freud and his followers would say that our reactions are determined (I do not use this word lightly when speaking of Freud) by the connections that can be made between the stimulus (reading the stage direction or seeing it played) and the certain issues/images/wishes in our unconscious. For me, my unconscious directs the memory of the disabled Richard to the stage direction that you (Nick) listed.

    Marx tells us that our minds (the mechanism that makes the link of this ‘knee-jerk’ response) are socially constructed. If this is so then, it would have been my experience studying special education and working with disabled (and sometimes violent) youngsters that constructed the link. Maybe our birth in the West makes us vulnerable to impression by Tim Supple’s Indian Dream, and the social construction of beauty causes many to call up Kate Winslet’s Ophelia when presented, “Enter Ophelia, distracted, playing on a lute, her hair down, singing…”

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for sharing Robbie – I knew that there would be some great ‘knee-jerk’ responses out there. I love your description of the witches as “poisonous chocolates in a beautiful box” – that’s fantastic – it captures the lure of the weird sisters so well. It is so different also from the Fuseli image that jumped into my mind.

  • Nick Walton

    Thanks for sharing Robbie – I knew that there would be some great ‘knee-jerk’ responses out there. I love your description of the witches as “poisonous chocolates in a beautiful box” – that’s fantastic – it captures the lure of the weird sisters so well. It is so different also from the Fuseli image that jumped into my mind.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LVUJIGS66KPT3TC7B7KCR6AWWQ Robbie

    I am reminded of a production of Macbeth I saw where the witches entered as lovely young women in long, flowing, diaphanous gowns. They were like poisonous chocolates in a beautiful box, their venom not obvious at first glance. I was also struck by the recent production in Regent's Park where the evil trio was represented by swan puppets that turned into hideous birds of prey. Quite memorable.

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