John Fletcher succeeded William Shakespeare as chief dramatist for the King’s Men. For reasons too numerous to list in this post (but which I promise to enumerate and summarize in a future sequence), I find the following a useful critical approach to the plays of Shakespeare:
– Regard the plays of Fletcher as the first and most informed critical response to the plays of Shakespeare. –
Here’s one example of putting this approach into practice.
In Act I of ‘The Laws of Candy’, Cassilanes and Antinous each state their case to the Senate. Candy, like Venice, was a city-state with a Senate that sat in governance and judgment. In the scene, Cassilanes pleads his case with rhetorical clumsiness, while Antinous pleads his with rhetorical expertise. Antinous wins.
I’ll support my reading above in my next post, but for now let’s posit that Antinous does indeed make a rhetorical display in his scene before the Senate.
The point, then, is that a scene set before an Italian Senate affords a playwright, actors, and theatrical audience a setting for an advanced rhetorical display. Fletcher, like Shakespeare, chose this setting in order to display some rhetorical excellence and by doing so, entertain the audience. In contrast, a play set in an English or Scottish early monarchical period tends to focus on characters speaking one-on-one or in a small group to counselors, bishops, courtiers, etc. There is no large public body before which a character can make a grand display. Compare speaking to Lear, enthroned, to speaking to a Duke and Senate. The first audience is unlikely to listen to or be swayed by long argument. The second is more accommodating.
This point prompts a reading of Othello that places the interaction between the playwright, actors, and audience above a Bradleyan character-centric reading of the play. Many critics since Bradley have worked on this, but it isn’t an easy way to read.
In this reading, the setting before the Duke and Senate is inserted by the playwright to give his actor(s) and audience an opportunity to share a rhetorical display. In this reading, the actors playing Othello and Desdemona speak magnificent speeches and the actor playing Brabantio gives a flawed speech because that is the opportunity and convention of the setting. Othello does not rise to the occasion; Desdemona does not demonstrate wisdom beyond her years. Instead, the play is formed to deliver a rhetorical display to an appreciative audience early in its action.
This reading is not easy to accept. It de-romanticizes the characters and takes away their autonomy as thinking, feeling, planning agents. It instead places causes and effects in the playwright, actor, and audience.
It is an approach I prefer (as do many others), but it isn’t easy to put into practice. Using Fletcher as a counterpoint facilitates the exercise.