Monday, February 25, 2013

Being, Seeming, Acting, Performing in Hamlet


Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’. ’Tis not alone my inky coat, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show — These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

(1. 2. 72-86)
Here Hamlet’s ‘actions that a man might play’ subtly insinuate the whole issue of performance, the distinction itself (between seeming and being) coming from a consummate actor who cannot act to revenge his father. How are we to interpret what L. C. Knights calls ‘Hamlet’s habitual tendency to make everything, even what he deeply feels, into a matter of play-acting’? ‘Again and again’, explains Knights, ‘intrinsic values, direct relations, are neglected whilst he tries out various roles before a real or imagined audience’.16 Indeed, so consummate an actor is Hamlet that to this day criticism remains unable to settle the issue of his most challenging and provoking role—his madness—a challenge as much to our understanding of madness itself, it should be said, as it is to our understanding of the character. How far is madness an escape from the burden of expectation into self-protective ‘play-acting’? 

‘An act hath three branches’: Being and Acting in Hamlet

Monday, February 18, 2013

Comparing Hamlets


Hamlet: "I know not 'seems!'"

Methinks Hamlet does know "seems," and very well.  What about being?

There is so much in this play--revenge, sanity and insanity, the genre of tragedy, family relationships, surveillance and privacy, doing and thinking, corruption and decay- but we are going to focus on how Shakespeare's play sheds light on our enduring questions about the complex relationships between being and seeming--in everyday life, in performance, and as we consider the contemporary film interpretations of Hamlet, in media representations.


Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. Act 1, Scene 2

Shakespeare, and the directors of the film interpretations, contrast Laertes with Hamlet.  We pick up at around the 3:20 minute mark, in this clip from the Royal Shakespeare Company film:

and at 4:20 in the Branagh film


O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

Laurence Olivier's 1948 performance of Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 1, scene 2

Ethan Hawke's 2000 performance:

In this clip, Patrick Stewart discusses setting Shakespeare in a contemporary or historical context, acting for stage and film, and some issues about performance that are central to our discussions.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Seeming and Being in Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato, to make an understatement, comes down on the side of being over seeming. But what can be known, and what is real in this world were questions he explored. One way he approached these ideas was through the story of the prisoners in the cave, and the one who is freed, dragged out into the sunlight and the physical world, and then returns to the cave to try to tell the others that what they think is the world is actually illusion, seeming, not being.

Who was Plato?

The Allegory of the Cave, from Book VII (7) of The Republic

Excellent lecture on The Allegory of the Cave (and more) with creative and animated lecture whiteboard, like an animated "For Beginners" kind of comic.

by Tim Wilson,

Claymation film of the Allegory of the Cave--with lovely voice over narration reading the text

Some of this sound familiar from other things you've read or seen in movies?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Is Being?

LHUM-P410 What Is Being?

Dr. Lori Landay

Ever wonder, "what IS being?"  Then this course might be for you!

This course, "What Is Being?" is a special opportunity for Berklee students to explore an age-old question in multiple ways: through reading touchstone texts of philosophy, literature, psychology, and other disciplines; through exploring of how the subtleties of being and seeming play out in performance; and by considering what is being in contemporary culture. The development of the course was funded by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and in Spring 2013 we'll experiment with some new ways of working on projects together in class. The class size is small (12) and the level of discussion is intense and interesting. We read into things. We look deeply. We keep asking questions and probably never really answer them fully, but instead come up with even more questions

We'll read whole books and also parts of books, including a few choice sections from thinkers like Machiavelli, Jean-Paul Sartre, Erving Goffman, Heidegger, and Jean Baudrillard. We'll delve into Hamlet so you'll know what that famous "To be or not to be?" line can mean, in Shakespeare's play and film versions of it.  You'll understand some basic concepts in the history of philosophy, and you can choose to work with them more fully.  We'll read some literature together, but you'll also be able to make your own choices.  You can shape your multimedia projects about topics that interest you, and we'll work together in class on the projects.  If you think you are interested in taking this course this semester, keep reading.  You can also scroll through this blog from the Spring 2012 semester to see some (not all) of the topics, which will give you an idea of what we'll do this year.

Course Description

The motto of Berklee College of Music is Esse quam videri, a phrase from Cicero’s essay “On Friendship,” which translates as “to be, rather than to seem.” The course “What is Being?” gives you the opportunity to focus and reflect upon the differences between seeming and being, and think deeply about existence, self, and image. Organized around three interrelated themes: seeming vs. being; performance on stage and in everyday life; and the power of images and illusion in contemporary culture, the seminar requires students to consider realworld issues by exploring in depth the great works of philosophy, literature and psychology. The course includes the reading and discussion of Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Enduring Questions grant, “What Is Being?” is a unique opportunity for serious seminar-style exploration of a foundational issue in human thought.

This course requires a commitment from the participants to:

attend class,

read the assigned material,

engage with the questions and ideas in multimedia and written assignments &

participate fully in class discussion and activities.


Mondays 10-10:50 & Thursdays 2-3:50 

Email with any questions