As the “happy few” reading this blawg already know, several of Shakespeare’s plays feature plays-within-plays—The Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer, Hamlet.
I have been thinking that one could see this recurrent motif as Shakespeare's way of depicting people at work. Whether Shakespeare was the guy from Stratford or Edward de Vere or the village miscreant, the man’s principal work experience as an adult was in theater. Therefore, showing characters in the act of preparing plays was a way to dramatize lessons about the role of work in human lives.
At one extreme is Shrew where we see an example of work that becomes all-consuming, swallowing up underlying reality itself. Most people don’t realize this because the first two prefatory scenes are often cut from productions. But Shrew actually begins before Act I, scene 1, outside of a bar (aka an “alehouse”). A “Hostess” rails against a pitiful drunkard named “Christopher Sly,” who, presumably, in an advanced state of inebriation, has broken some glasses and has refused to pay for them. As a result, the Hostess threatens to call the cops; Sly merely gives her the finger and then promptly falls asleep on the curb. Along comes a “Lord” with his retinue, seeking some respite from his travels in the alehouse. But he spies Master Sly passed out on the street. The nobleman first marvels at Sly’s deplorable state; his disgust then turns to pity. He arranges to have one of his servants carry Sly off to bed down at the Lord’s own estate. Then, suddenly, some players appear on the scene, eager to perform for his Lordship. The players bring back happy memories of days gone by; so the Lord wants them to put on a big show—but not just for his benefit. He decides that the players shall exhibit their trade in a way that will also have a potentially transformative effect on the drunken Sly. The next morning, when Sly wakes up in the Lord’s house with a throbbing hangover, all of the Lord’s servants start treating Sly as if he himself were the Lord of the manor. Meanwhile, one of the Lord’s pages has dressed up in “women’s garb” and pretends to be the Lady of the House. She/he chides Sly-qua-Lord for wasting his life away. But the players arrive and Sly and “his lady” decide to cease arguing about what really has been going on and instead seize the opportunity to sit back and watch the itinerant players:
Well, well see't. Come, madam wife, sit by my side
and let the world slip: we shall ne'er be younger.
Then the play begins—the play everyone knows involving the feisty Katharina, her demure, long-suffering kid sister Bianca, their rich father Baptista, and Petruchio who comes “to wive it wealthily in Padua;/If wealthily, then happily in Padua.”
That play goes on for five more Acts until the shrew Kate is seemingly tamed.
But what about Master Sly? And the page in drag pretending to be his wife? And the Lord who set the whole charade in motion to try to work some magic upon the lost soul Christopher Sly? Shakespeare seems to have forgotten all about the frame that he took such pains to set up in the two opening scenes.
Was it just some ghastly accident? The product of shoddy editing?
Better, I think, to assume brilliant intent.
Perhaps Shakespeare intentionally failed to tie up the loose ends because the message is about how the play can become more real, more vital than life itself. And seeing the play as a metaphor for work, the message is about the danger of losing all sense of reality when work becomes more meaningful than life itself.
Lawyers, the good ones, know that this can happen with legal work. It can become all-consuming, more vivid than the rest of life. And thus a legal career can tempt people to lose all sense of balance such that they, like Petruchio, think they can control, with mighty roars, seductive charisma, and searing intellect, any and all persons operating within their sphere in the name of managing “legal matters.”
Next time I’ll take a look at how the plays-within-the-play in Midsummer and Hamlet depict rather different perspectives on work. Just for grins.