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Shakespeare the Actor and the Purposes of Playing.

This book is a bold, fascinating look at the psychological contradictions that define the actor's life. Skura applies the wisdom of contemporary psychoanalytic theory to the professional actor's condition in the sixteenth century. In so doing she rewrites Shakespearean criticism and biography in a fresh and imaginative way, and creates an innovative beginning for recasting theatrical history as well. It is a book that not only makes intriguing reading, but one that ought to be insistent in its claims on future scholarly arguments, whether or not readers agree or disagree with the author's conclusions.

The opening chapters reconstruct the "mental climate in which Shakespeare's plays were written, particularly those aspects affecting and affected by his experience as an actor" (ix). As Skura explains, these aspects frequently (although not always) include some violation of intimate space, the territory between the private and the public. An absent father, the need for escape, the insecurity of narcissism, the impulse to masochism and self-castration - all are shaping influences if we look carefully at how modern actors describe their experiences. The result is the "juggler-cum-prize-fighter," a profession in which what is reinforcing is also destructive, an existence in which what appears to some to be no more than rank exhibitionism masks a process in which a performer is necessarily consumed - both in pleasure and in pain. Throughout Skura's opening chapters, confessions by Laurence Olivier, Simon Callow, Henry Irving, and others describe the seductive horror that lies at the heart of the player's profession.

Central chapters explore how the psychological conflict plays itself out in the public/private roles performed by Shakespeare's characters. These are loosely categorized as the beggar-king (Richard II, Lear), the hunted player (Sly, Falstaff in Merry Wives of Windsor), the player as clown, boy, and dog (Armado, Costard, Bottom, Falstaff in the Henry IV plays), and the great man as player (Caesar, Hamlet).

Yet Skura's insights into Shakespeare's plays provide only part of the interest of this book. The possibilities she envisions for constructing a psychological portrait of Shakespeare himself is equally intriguing. If, in the foundation chapters, she asks implicitly why Shakespeare would have been immune from the psychological profile outlined by so many actors, in chapter three ("Richard III: Shakespeare's 'False Glass'") she hypothesizes that John Shakespeare's personal weakness and social decline, the death of Shakespeare's sister, and his socially formidable mother were the early influences that set William on the psychological path to playing. "From the beginning there were losses that might have intervened in Shakespeare's development and predisposed him towards the self-denial that hones an actor's skills" (79). The predictable outcome, Skura posits, encompasses fratricidal rage and competition. Thus, Richard III's hatred is a "natural" outgrowth of the playwright's domestic situation, and rival pairings based on the Cain and Abel story are common throughout his plays.

Finally, two chapters are devoted to the "reflecting glass" (personal identity and "theatrical optics") and a "cluster" of images identified by Caroline Spurgeon as "dogs, licking, candy, melting." To some degree these chapters resonate back and forth as Skura analyzes the potential danger that players were thought to exhibit (players as "monsters and freaks") and, alternatively, a similar potential projected by the audience, which is always ready to mock, ridicule, and eviscerate. The ways in which actor and audience are affected by their mutual exchange redefines theatricality and leads back to the actor's psyche, a flatterer himself and the object of flattery, but always - as so many of Shakespeare's characters - the sad celebrity and the parasite rolled into one.

Additional discussions, such as those involving the circular playhouse and the enclosed garden, enrich Skura's analysis with original, often exciting insights. They are too complex to describe here; however, what begins as a study of the ways in which Shakespeare's plays answer cultural and individual needs ultimately bears significant implications for our assessment of all aspects of Shakespeare's plays and theatrical experience, both in his own terms as a player-dramatist and in his audiences.

S. P. CERASANO Colgate University
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cerasano, S.P.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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