Sunday, July 7, 2013

Question: The Ploy's the Thing

Two of Shakespeare's most memorable and popular plays begin with questions.

Hamlet begins with the sentry, Bernardo, asking "Who's there?"  Even if you were coming to this play for the first time, the setting and the question would be intriguing.  What purpose would a sentry on the battlements of a castle, late at night, have purpose to question anyone?  And who--or in this case what--would that presence be?  Why of course, it is a ghost, a royal ghost, impatient to talk to his son.  To what purpose?  Watch the play unfold to find out.

 Even though you've read and see the play in many versions, and now intend no pun with your observation, the question is a haunting one, causing you to fit yourself into a questioning frame of mind as you settle yourself into the familiar events and circumstances that are to envelop you, raising questions of your own as you become a by no means passive audience, rather you feel parts of yourself being haunted, tugged at, involved.  And you are left with a question, How many times will you have to experience this play to understand it.

This is not a question you can answer with any sense of ease.  Not yet.

Macbeth begins with the appearance of three witches on an open field, against a background of thunder and rain.  The first witch speaks.  "When shall we three meet again?"  Here we are, seeing them straight off, already knowing they will meet again soon, after a battle that has yet to be fought will be completed and the winner decided. A few slight exchanges and we are presented with a number of establishing facts.  They are indeed witches.  There will be a battle.  They will meet at sundown, after the battle.  They will meet Macbeth.

Why will they meet Macbeth?  Once again, you can suppose coming to this remarkable drama for the first time, with no clue of what is to come.  You have no reason, when the three exchange their lines, to suspect that they are witches, not, that is until the seventh line, from the first witch, who is answering to her familiar,"I come, Graymalkin!"  Lines eight and nine confirm our awareness; the other two respond to calls from their familiars, whom we cannot see.

By the time they reassemble to meet Macbeth, have they got news for him.  And because they are witches, whether we believe in witchery or not is no longer a matter.  We are in the story.  We see the conversation between them and Macbeth; we see its effect on Macbeth.  We are in, in, in.

Once again, you are left with a question, How many times will you have to experience this play in order to understand it?  Given you've done your work in interpreting its implications for yourself, how much more is there for you to unravel.  All this time it's taken you to "get" the image of Macbeth, having decided to kill King Malcolm, now sees the servant carrying Malcolm's dinner to him, interrupting Macbeth's famed soliloquy of "If it is to be done, better it is done quickly," the "it" being the murder.  Macbeth is conflating the servant carrying Malcolm's supper with The Last Supper, and thus,
 Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air.

Macbeth is hit with a blast of conscience, forestalling his resolve.  We know what that's going to mean; Macbeth, getting worked over by his wife for not having the courage to do what they'd agreed upon.

Here you are, four hundred years later, pondering the effects of starting with questions, first as they relate to one of the major storytellers of the culture, wondering about how effective actual questions as dialogue or in narrative as interior monologue can be helpful in setting story in motion while at the same time causing the reader to say, yes, this is story and I am in it.

The question does not have to be as direct as "Who's there?" or "When shall we three meet again?" It could be a lingering, hovering decision a character has to make and may require the balance of the story to reach.  It may be the question that arose within your own curiosity, wondering what characters would do in such a situation as you are about to set in motion, already beginning to gnaw at you because you'll have wondered how you'd respond under similar circumstances.

All this leaves you feeling a connection between story and question you've been visiting ever since you began trying to learn how to relate a story.

This is not a question you can answer with any sense of ease.  Not yet.

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