Dying Laughing: On the Death and Resurrection of the Clown in Shakespearean Drama
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“Dying Laughing” opens by positing that Hamlet’s resistance to the distracting nature and vulgar appeal of the improvisatory stage clown reflects not Shakespeare’s view, as it may have been informed by the work of Sir Philip Sidney, but rather offers a critique of such aesthetic elitism potentially blind to its own clownish antics. Shakespeare’s practice, deeply rooted in the English performance tradition, not only acknowledged the clown’s particular vitality as central to early modern theatre, but used it as a source of often radical theatrical innovation, not least in his history plays and tragic dramas. Collectively the four chapters of this study articulate a reading of Shakespeare’s developing use of the clown figure that resists and complicates, in ever more innovative ways, the prevailing devaluation of the popular forms it may otherwise seem to have epitomized. Beyond merely innovating, I argue, it is the figure of the clown that enables Shakespeare to allow indecorousness to work—dramatically and theatrically, but also epistemologically and philosophically, to unsettle often dangerous or harmful fictions of decorum that structure social relations and social roles. Thus “clowning around” means serious business. Furthermore, I argue that a pattern of banished (or disappearing) and resurrected clowns in the Shakespearean canon demonstrates the irrepressible and metamorphic powers of comedy and clowning. The return of the repressed or the resurrection of the newly dead in the form of the afterlife of the clown, moreover, speaks to Shakespeare’s longstanding commitment to a politics of inclusion. Chapter 1 demonstrates how the hugely popular stage clown Dick Tarlton, later indexed in the figure of Yorick in Hamlet, epitomized the theatre as a chaotic and productively disruptive form of popular entertainment. Specifically, I observe that Tarlton’s vitality and the connection between representation and reception that he facilitated was central to early modern performance: his presence and practice both the spark that animated performance and that drew people to it. I then argue that by bringing Tarlton’s successor, company clown Will Kemp, on stage with leading man Richard Burbage, Shakespeare invited and amplified the potentially disruptive, extra-textual elements of physical or verbal improvisation that were the habitual practice of the clown. While other critics have considered and explicated clown practice, my work builds on this as a point of departure to explicate the relationship between clown and lead-actor/hero, and how it was experienced in performance. What has not been fully considered previously is the peculiar tension and enormously generative, unstable and compelling relationship between the two actors - clown and hero - and how this expresses and echoes the page/stage dichotomy being contested at the time. Clowning in this context renders visible the class dynamics and the structures or hierarchies of authority at work. Moreover, in Shakespeare’s hands, the clown’s increasingly sophisticated deployment and absorption into his plays comments on and resists the transformation of the medium underway. The Kemp/Burbage exchanges and relationship, Chapter 2 argues, subvert the gravity of the tragic hero in Romeo and Juliet, and the political hero of 1 Henry IV. For Shakespeare, the dialectical tension between hero and clown, moreover, not only informed the genres of the tragic drama and the history play, but became constitutive of them. Hamlet takes the disruptive potential of the clown more seriously than scholars have fully contended. Chapter 3 argues that Burbage’s performance as the prince represents an absorption of the newly absent Kemp’s practice into his own. More than just exploring his performance of the ‘antic-disposition,’ I reconfigure the famous question of “delay” as a re-insertion of the disruptive and alternative temporality of the clown into the revenge mode. Here I argue, the clown’s famed capacity for direct addresses to the audience resurfaces functionally even it differs thematically in Hamlet’s extraordinary soliloquies. Finally, I argue that the clown in King Lear is drained of his very vitality and function even as his exilic condition is revealed as endemic to the play’s vision of humanity. The theme of exile, as The Odyssey attests, always encompasses the longed-for possibility of return. I contend that the Fool’s premature exit from the play mirrors the historical arc of the clown’s expulsion from the theatre, and that the 1623 Folio, rife with alterations to the 1608 Quarto that were, I argue, the result of Shakespeare’s collaboration with Armin, facilitates a conscious paean to the clown as well as a more nuanced tragic vision. When Shakespeare’s plays consider what is lost in the excision of the clown, what surfaces is not simply a recognition that the nature of theater is changing in and through a renegotiation of the stage-audience relationship, but that more than a few voices, bodies, and perspectives are being left behind in the process.