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A Call to Act: Witness, Testimony, and Political Renewal in Shakespeare's Plays

  • Author(s): Cummings, Tracy Clare
  • Advisor(s): Lupton, Julia R.
  • et al.

A phenomenological analysis of Shakespeare’s plays suggests that characters who testify after having witnessed intolerable conditions cause significant change by interrupting the actions of other characters and thereby enhancing the possibilities for egalitarian practices in the world of the play. The desire to testify is great enough that when public realms do not permit open disclosures, characters invent methods to give accounts of themselves or to bring their knowledge into discussion, either in soliloquy or through prompts to other characters. When possible, characters offer their personal narratives. With each divulgence, characters create greater access to information and present possibilities for alternate choices to participate in their communities, including deliberation and mutual disclosure, making it possible for others to see and recognize them, strengthening their public realms by rendering them more inclusive, and creating the potential for further disclosures. In III Henry VI, King Henry is brought to awareness of his role in England’s civil war by the anonymous testimony of two soldiers and attempts to rule wisely thereafter. In Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry employs the speech tools of the disenfranchised to disempower the homosocial and intolerant nobility without calling attention to himself. In Pericles, Marina deliberates with her interlocutors so they can understand their actions from her point of view. When she is prompted to share her personal narrative, she and her father, Pericles, understand that their isolated views of their lives were mistaken; they are characters in a single story that binds them to one another. The characters thereby uncover the meaning-giving nature of narrative: It enables a person to recognize what she or he has never known. The role of Gower augments the performative effect of wonder aroused by the reunion of Marina and Pericles by wielding the tools of narrative, which include imagining, predicting, and wishing.

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