The Northern Lights


Brandon Beach

Triangulating Shakespeare

I hardly see how one can begin to consider Shakespeare without finding some way to account for his pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or "spell of light," almost too vast to apprehend.

Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

I don’t expect this short paper to reach the northern lights. I don’t think my mind can travel that far, and a plane ticket is probably too expensive. After three months of study, Shakespeare has exhausted me. I realize many scholars spend their whole lives in libraries trying to reach the elusive bard. I’m either out of shape or lazy. I have learned one thing this quarter. I don’t have to travel to the northern lights to find Shakespeare. I discovered him one day in a play, within a small scene, as a character, in an illusion. This quarter I had the opportunity to perform Edgar in a small production of King Lear. I truly believe Edgar is the embodiment of Shakespeare. I just had to perform him to figure it out. Now, I must confess; I haven’t read every Shakespeare play twice, so I don’t know if other characters fit the mold better than Edgar. Also, I assure you I’m not losing my mind as I write this. I feel quite healthy. I just had one of those most rare visions. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be an ass to have this dream. On the Dover cliffs, under the hot sun, with a director screaming action, and a camera pointing towards me, I found Shakespeare.

This quarter I had the opportunity to experience Shakespeare everywhere at once. I read four plays: Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, and A Winter’s Tale. I sat through eight film productions of various plays and wore those blue library headphones each time. I read numerous sonnets. I attended a production of Romeo and Juliet performed by the Cal Poly Theater and Dance Department. I swore at countless critical essays. I watched the new movie "Shakespeare in Love" twice. I conversed with classmates about Shakespeare while drinking beer. But no experience allowed me access to Shakespeare better than when I became Edgar.

In Act 4 Scene 6 of King Lear, Edgar, as a beggar, leads blind Gloucester to Dover Cliff where Gloucester wishes to end his life. The cliff exists in Edgar’s imagination, and he presents it through language. He describes the steepness of the cliff, the crows that fly below, the fisherman that walk along the beach, and a boat "too small for sight" (197). Edgar creates the stage, and the action begins. Gloucester reads the illusion and attempts to topple down the cliff. The illusion appears real and depends on language.

Shortly after Gloucester’s fall, apparently in the place where he has landed, a man approaches him and says, "Ho you sir! Friend, hear you" (99). This man cannot believe that Gloucester has fallen from this "dread summit" and survived. He speaks in an energetic voice. The man is Edgar who is now disguised as another character. After lifting Gloucester to his feet, the man asks him, "what thing was that which parted from you?" (201). Gloucester responds, "a poor unfortunate beggar." Edgar proceeds to tell Gloucester that he saw a fiend on the cliff. This creature had eyes like "two full moons," "horns" in his head, and a face with a "thousand noses" (201). Edgar creates another illusion, and Gloucester believes him.

In this scene, Edgar is not a naive legitimate son, a poor unfortunate beggar, a perplexed fisherman walking along the beach, or a hero that re-establishes order in the end of the play; but rather, he is a storyteller. He invents illusions. He invents himself on countless occasions. He is the magician who pulls rabbits from an empty hat and leaves the audience scratching their heads. He is the noble liar blurring the distinction between reality and fiction.

In "Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation," Jonathan Goldberg describes Dover as a place of illusion. Though an illusion, Dover occupies a place in the text, and the play moves towards it. Goldberg writes, "The stage would be, whether we were at Dover Cliff or not, flat; language would tell us to see it otherwise" (148). Thus, Edgar invents this stage. The two protagonists, Lear and Gloucester, find themselves converging within this theatrical space. The space is real and, at the same time, not real. Here is the aurora borealis. In Act 4 Scene 6, Dover exists in Edgar’s imagination. He describes this environment to blind Gloucester who is positioned to have a false experience. Goldberg writes, "The illusion of continuous space rests upon what cannot be seen, on exhausting the limits of sight and arriving at what is ‘too small for sight’" (146). Thus, Dover is a space that moves outside human vision and, at the same time, within it.

Dover represents the world of the playwright. In this world, the playwright may invent anything he chooses: from steep cliffs to hideous fiends. Dover is an endless stage of possibilities, the writer’s imagination, and a place of creativity. Dover is the northern lights "almost too vast to apprehend" (Bloom 3) unless you suddenly find yourself there by some mistaken chance.

I stood in the sand surrounded by ice plants waiting nervously for my cue. I wore torn pants, a dirty shirt, and no shoes. I had a thick red beard, and my hair was knotted with bush stickers. I paced back and forth repeating lines in my head. I brushed my hair hard with my hands. Suddenly, the director counted down five, four, three, two, one and yelled action; the camera swept towards me. I held Gloucester by the arm, and we walked slowly across the sand. I said my lines smoothly, "Come on, sir. Here’s the place. Stand still" (197). But where were we exactly? We stood in the sand surrounded by ice plants. Soon, I would describe Dover and create the illusion. Through the eyes of the camera, the ocean was behind us surging onto the beach. The sky was overcast and gray. Sand slopes drifted south creating faint horizon lines in the distant. The scene had depth. This was not the place of illusion. I yelled stop and said we had to rethink this scene. Goldberg writes, "The scene. . . insists that it is an illusion, and what it offers is an anatomy of the techniques of illusion--verbal and pictorial--upon which Shakespearean theater depends" (155). Dover is in Gloucester’s mind, and Edgar is the great magician who creates the trick. We wanted to convey this trick through film.

After much discussion, our film crew decided to zoom into Gloucester’s face during Edgar’s description of Dover, pause momentarily, emphasizing the lack of eyes, and then, blur the image out, fading slowly to black. In the final production, for several seconds of black, the viewer is disoriented and only hears Edgar’s voice. This eerie blackness is soon replaced by sudden flashes of red and yellow light, and finally, by a series of images that correspond to Edgar’s description. This camera technique achieves the illusion of entering into Gloucester’s mind. The viewer can no longer see Edgar, and the actual scene slides away. Within his mind, Gloucester attempts to create details which is conveyed through the sudden flashes of color. In a sense, his mind is stirring and warming up. Next, his mind orients itself by creating mental representations of Edgar’s speech shown through the series of quick fragmented images: a bird in the sky, a fisherman on the beach, a boat at sea, and the ocean waves. In this scene, Gloucester imagines Dover, and the vehicle behind its existence is Edgar.

While Edgar invents illusions in the previous scene, he also eliminates them in the end. In Act 5 Scene 3, a herald enters the play and reads a message stating that if anyone will identify Edmund as a traitor he should appear by the third sound of the trumpet. Immediately, Edgar enters no longer a beggar as he was in the earlier scene. He has changed character once again. Here the naive son transforms into the bold hero. In this scene, he reveals truth and eliminates the illusion of Edmund, "thou art a traitor, False to the gods, thy brother, and thy father" (245). By combining these two scenes, I see that Edgar represents both fiction and reality. Similarly, the writer attempts to marry these two elements, and theater presents the two on stage. Shakespeare conveys the whole theatrical experience through the creation of Dover.

Similar to King Lear, Shakespeare discusses the theme of illusion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He draws attention to the illusory quality of theater with his creation of Snug the joiner. In the final act of this play, Snug feels compelled to declare his identity beneath a lion’s costume. Before Theseus’ court, Lion enters the play and declares, "Then know that I, as Snug the joiner, am A lion fell" (79). Snug is concerned that the audience will not recognize him as a man beneath a lion’s costume. He calls attention to his appearance as lion to clarify any misperception by the audience. Instead of blurring fiction and reality like Edgar, Snug shows their distinction and identifies the two elements.

After Snug’s revelation, Theseus responds, "A very gentle beast, and of good conscience" (79). In this passage, gentle means courteous. Here, Theseus thanks Snug, though very cynically, for Snug’s concern. Also important in Theseus’ response is his emphasis on Snug’s conscience. Snug shows an honest concern for his audience; whereas, Edgar is unconcerned. In theater, the illusion is real and drives the action forward, and the playwright is not uncourteous for creating it; rather, the deception is noble.

Shakespeare and Time: From Dover to Cal Poly

This quarter the Cal Poly Theater and Dance Department performed the play Romeo and Juliet. Upon entering the theater, I noticed the stage was cold and metallic. Two steel structures rolled around the stage representing various environments: Juliet’s bedroom, the balcony, and the tomb. The stage felt industrial and conveyed no feeling of romance. It lacked color except for a dark purple in the background canvas. It presented a feeling of blackness, linearity, and rigidity. Towards the middle of the play, Escalus, the Prince of Verona, is wheeled onto stage in a dark, iron wheelchair that serves as a throne. This prop was most disturbing for me. The stage presented no feeling of specific time or place.

When the opening act began, the two families, Montagues and Capulets, were engaged in a bitter fight: the blues against the oranges. The performers wore futuristic clothes. I had difficulty placing their costumes in any particular time period. Similar to Dover, they too seemed outside time. The performers wore silver and black kneepads. They walked in heavy, industrial, metallic shoes. They even wore Tupperware on their chests.

Romeo and Juliet takes place in fifteenth century Verona, but the play seems quite distant from Verona. Shortly after the play ended, I had the opportunity to listen to the director, Professor Michael Malkin, and several performers discuss the decisions that led to the play’s creation. One student asked Juliet, played by Katy Wiley, why she slapped Friar Lawrence in the last act when he attempted to take her out of the tomb. The student felt that this resistance against the Friar portrayed Juliet as a strong modern woman. In this question, the student wanted to know if Katy tried to portray a 90’s Juliet as opposed to a more traditional interpretation. Katy answered by saying that she did not consciously try to modernize Juliet, but rather, felt that during this scene in the tomb, the intense emotions caused Juliet to lash out against the Friar.

Another student asked Professor Malkin what time period he was attempting to portray through his stage design. Malkin responded that he envisioned a play occupying no particular time or space. He believed Romeo and Juliet has grown tremendously since Shakespeare’s original vision, and the play has moved outside the city walls of Verona. Like Dover, Verona arrives at a space "too small for sight."

Professor’s Malkin’s response reveals Shakespeare’s pervasive presence. He transcends time. For Shakespeare, time is a silent thief in the night stealing away beauty while he quietly sleeps. Time is an "all eating shame" and a "glutton." Time leads "summer on to hideous winter" and leaves beauty "o’ersnow’d." Time digs deep trenches in beauty’s complexion (Sonnets 2 and 5). But time has had the opposite effect on Shakespeare. Instead of decaying, he continues to multiply. We label the writer with such words as: genius, immortal, God-like. But where is Shakespeare the man?

Bardolatry: From Cal Poly to Religion

In Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, I confront a book that is both fascinating and disturbing to me. Bloom writes, "Bardolatry, the worship of Shakespeare, ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is" (xvii). A line like that makes one pause for a moment. Through time, Shakespeare has turned into a religion, and the writer himself dissolves as his presence multiplies. Bloom later compares the works of Shakespeare with the Bible. The Bible is considered divinely inspired, the word of God, and "supernaturally composed." The center of the Bible is God. In Bloom’s comparison, Shakespeare’s works are the "fixed center of the Western Canon" (3). Within this center, Shakespeare no longer exists as a man but evolves into a God whose writing becomes scripture. In this sense, Shakespeare is too serious for me. I have no respect for fanaticism at this level especially by a well known literary critic. He is a senile man who makes Shakespeare unapproachable.

I believe this type of thinking creates a tremendous anxiety. Bloom’s Shakespeare is inaccessible. He is removed and distant, too enormous for one college class. This anxiety is not an anxiety of influence unless you’re a writer who is haunted by the notion that one can never be original. This anxiety is something else. We realize we can never reach Shakespeare, and our attempts appear futile. We shy away from anything that receives the label, God-like. We take tremendous risk when we attempt to interpret something sacred.

Today, this anxiety that exists from scholars who turn Shakespeare into a religion, has been replaced by playfulness. For example, in the 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet by Luhrman, we allow Juliet to wake up as Romeo is dying. We alter the play for our own amusement. We add guns and fast cars to the stage. We tease the sacred scripts.

In the current movie "Shakespeare in Love," we portray Shakespeare as a struggling writer who cannot seem to write. We laugh when he discusses his problems of creativity with his psychiatrist. He falls from castle balconies into the bushes below. He is superstitious. He is nervous before his production of Romeo and Juliet. We play with his elusive identity in an amusing way. Thus, the immortal Shakespeare becomes more human to us. He is accessible, and we can approach him.

In other ways, we take Shakespeare out of the classroom. This quarter I had the opportunity to travel to Santa Cruz and film a production of King Lear. Through this experience, a group of college students can have a good time with Shakespeare, laugh and joke at forgotten lines and missed cues. Shakespeare is less serious and far from religion.

This quarter I learned that I can approach Shakespeare. I have never had the opportunity to perform a role in any play. Before this experience, Shakespeare didn’t interest me too much. Acting is a new dimension that never existed in my previous Shakespeare studies. Edgar fascinated me the more and more I read. He is the great magician to me, the playwright with his bag of tricks. I saw theater in his illusions. I learned this quarter you don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to find Shakespeare. "How fearful and dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!"

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Goldberg, Jonathan. "Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Condition of Representation." King Lear, William Shakespeare. Ed. Kiernan Ryan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Pocket Books, 1993.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ed. Wolfgang Clemen. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Shakespeare, William. Complete Sonnets. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.

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