For over one hundred years, The British Academy’s annual (or occasionally semi-annual) Bard-based keynote lecture has been at the forefront of extensive research into the Shakespearean canon, ranging from ‘Shakespeare In America’ in the 1920s through to ‘Hamlet’s Two Fathers’ less than a decade ago. This year saw the turn of St Andrews’ Prof. Lorna Hutson who, embracing the creative flare and Mad Hatter-like eccentricities of Emma Rice’s 400th Anniversary ‘Wonder Season’, opted for ‘The Shakespearean Unscene’ in the Southbank’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. While the concept of the ‘unseen’ is as simple and familiar to British theatre-goers as a cup of tea or a jammy dodger, the ‘unscene’ challenges preconceptions regarding the entirety of Shakespearean performance, unveiling a deeper degree of concealed intention within the depths of four century-old verse.
At its core, ‘The Shakespearean Unscene’ is a simplistic theory. At a stretch, and with a leap of faith on the reader’s part, it’s the literary equivalent of Schrodinger’s Cat, the possibilities held by ambiguity expanding outwards to create a parallel universe of alternate scenes. For example, 1590s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – a notoriously marmite-like contemporary production is currently running in the Wanamaker’s sister theatre, The Globe, directed by the aforementioned genius of Rice – sees Hermia awaken in the woods to discover her beloved, the now bewitched Lysander, gone. In his place stands Demetrius, and Hermia leaps to a far-fetched and comic conclusion that Demetrius, Lysander’s rival in love, must have slain his enemy while the pair slept. Disbelieving Demetrius’ defence of himself, she conceives an entire hypothetical universe in which Lysander has been murdered solely for loving her, effectively romanticising this floating mental image of a chivalrous knight, slain in the name of his longings. Lysander being dead suddenly becomes the best case scenario, as if he turns up alive and well after all, Hermia’s fictional and idealised vision of him will crumble to dust.
‘If thou hast slain Lysander in his sleep,
Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep,
And kill me too.
The sun was not so true unto the day
As he to me: would he have stolen away
From sleeping Hermia?’
These final lines, in which she questions whether he truly would’ve abandoned her while she slept, creates a parodic and self-contrary politics, allowing only two possible events to have transpired: either Demetrius is lying and he has savagely dispatched his mortal enemy, somehow then disposing of the body in the middle of the night, or Lysander clearly doesn’t love Hermia to the extent that she thought he did. Like any distressed woman riding solo in a terrifying wood, she crosses her fingers that he no longer breathes.
This relatively small notion – a man has been killed – becomes a full-blown teenage melodramatic fantasy, in which Hermia begs to die herself before knowing any of the facts and calls upon the imagery of Greek tragedy as a metaphor for her adoration. An entire scene, a scene which never truly takes place, is created out of thin air, disappearing into fiction just as speedily as it was conceived: ‘You spend your passion on a misprised mood: I am not guilty of Lysander’s blood’. This is an unscene.
With numerous unseen scenes – or unscenes – cropping up headlong and centre throughout Shakespeare’s thirty seven histories, comedies and tragedies (eg. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, Hero’s supposed betrayal of Claudio), the ramifications for Shakespearean studies caused by the seismic quake of Horton’s unscene are yet to be realised.