Monday, December 16, 2013

Ring Form Opportunity No. 3: Shakespeare

One book I discovered in R. G. Peterson’s “Critical Calculations: Measure and Symmetry in Literature” (PMLA, 91, 3, 1976, 367-375) is Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Harvard 1972). From Rose’s preface (p. viii): “My primary interest, however, is not in offering new readings of the plays but in describing the way they are organized.” And that, of course, is a matter of form.

On the next page Rose tells us that he does not cover all of Shakespeare’s plays – at 190 pages including notes the book is short – and that he has passed over the comedies “in favor of the histories and tragedies, which are, from my point of view, more interesting.” That’s very interesting, why should that be?

The comedies have “happy” endings, with He and She destined to get married. The tragedies do not end so well, & the histories are a bit different from both. Is it that the lack of an end-of-play marriage cascades through the whole play and forces certain designs on the playwright, the kind of designs that interest Rose? That is, is ring form a thematically neutral form in which one can tell any kind of story, a frame any kind of lyric (remember “Kubla Khan”) or does it have an affinity for certain kinds of material?

For Rose also suggests that Shakespeare’s principles of form, of design and construction, “are not unique.” He finds them throughout Elizabethan drama, but (p. ix) “no one before Shakespeare appears to have been sufficiently in control of the overall structure of his plays to apply the principles of scene design to the play as a whole.”

And that’s where Hamlet comes in, for Rose devotes a whole chapter to the play, analyzing it in terms of units he calls scenes, which don’t necessarily line up the units marked off as scenes in Shakespeare’s texts. But those texts, he reminds us, aren’t really Shakespeare’s. The earliest texts we’ve got have already been edited from whatever Shakespeare himself put on paper, in particular, we have no reason to believe that Shakespeare divided his plays into five acts.

Anyhow, to Hamlet. This is what Peterson says about Rose’s discussion (p. 372):
There is, I believe, a possibility that all of Rose’s eighteen scenes in Hamlet form a concentric pattern over the whole, with a center, significantly empty, between the prayer scene (III.iii) and the closet scene (III.iv-IV.i); but whatever the modifications occurring to different readers, Rose has illustrated the value of looking for symmetrical patterns and midpoints, and his suggestion that Shakespeare may have built his plays around them is at least plausible (p. 126).
The play within the play is 8th in Rose’s 18 scene analysis. Was Shakespeare a master of ring form, or of center point construction?

Rose sees Hamlet as being composed of two movements, roughly equal in length, with the play-within-the-play, the mousetrap scene, between them. That is the scene, of course, that tells all – which is what the central unit in ring form, or center point, does. Here’s how it lays out (p. 125: the numbers in parentheses are line counts Rose took from Harbage’s Complete Pelican Shakespeare):
Initial movement (1748)
     Mousetrap scene (348)
Latter movement (1644)
But that’s not all, of course. Rose gives an analysis of each of his eighteen scenes, and many of them are rings. I’m not going to discuss them, but I’ll simply present summary “rings” from three of them. Again, the numbers in parentheses are line counts.

First scene: Prologue (I.i.), p. 97:
Arrival of the Watch (39)
     Ghost (12)
          King Hamlet and King Fortinbras (74)
     Ghost (17)
Departure of the Watch (33)
Sixth scene: Claudius vs. Hamlet (II.ii.), p. 108:
Claudius and Instruments (169)
     Hamlet Partying: Polonius (50)
          Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (151)
     Hamlet Partying: Polonius (40)
Hamlet and Instruments (181)
Tenth scene: The Closet Scene (III.iv-IV.i), 117:
Claudius and Instruments (169)
     Hamlet Partying: Polonius (50)
          Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (151)
     Hamlet Partying: Polonius (40)
Hamlet and Instruments (181)
I’ve not had a chance to re-read Hamlet against Rose’s analytical and descriptive work, but his approach, obviously enough, is attractive.

Let me move toward a close by quoting some remarks Rose made about The Winter’s Tale (p. 20):
The balanced structure of The Winter’s Tale has often been examined and, although there may be disagreement about how certain details are to be interpreted, the general organization is clear. The key to the design…is the Chorus, Time, who enters in the middle to divide the play into two parts separated by the gap of sixteen years. The two parts are roughly equal in length, the first running about 1,370 and the second 1,550 lines…

The two halves of The Winter’s Tale correspond to each other in an elaborate system of parallels and contrasts. Each opens with a brief “prologue” in prose…In each case the dialogue introduces a harmonious relationship soon to be disrupted, the friendship between kings in the first half and the love between their children, Florizel and Perdita, in the second.
And so forth.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, Rose’s work has been without issue. It is, after all, about literary form, and form has not been of much interest to critics. Further, it came out in 1972 just as the post-structuralist wave was beginning to roll through the profession, reinforcing our concern with meaning over form.

For that matter, Rose never uses the term ring form seems to have been unaware of that literature. But he did make a loose connection between Shakespeare’s dramaturgy and, wouldn’t you know it? “Kubla Khan”, asserting that his plays “probably seem to us in organization not entirely unlike certain romantic poems, “Kubla Khan” perhaps, or Keats’ odes” (p. 2).

So much work to do, so few interested in doing it…

* * * * *

BTW, Shakespeare has 986 writer credits at the Internet Movie Database. There's one version of Hamlet in pre-production, one in post-production, and about 150 completed. He's got writer credit on roughly 120 versions of Romeo and Juliet, one filming and two in post-production. The same for Macbeth, with one in pre-production. I'm guessing those are the most popular plays for film adaptation, but I didn't try to check the whole list. At a total of roughly 390 credits, those three plays account for over a third of Shakespeare's films, at least those listed in IMDB.

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