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Sign Theory and Shakespeare

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Stanley Wells
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

You will follow my proposals more easily if you begin by acting one line of Shakespeare. You can do it sitting down. The line is Ophelia’s. Women readers will do it naturally; and men can remember that only they would have been allowed to act the part in Shakespeare’s time.

Ophelia, deeply troubled, rushes to her father, to describe Hamlet’s silent, distracted visit to her closet:

He took me by the wrist, and held me hard;

Then goes he to the length of all his arm,

And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,

He falls to such perusal of my face

As ’a would draw it.

(2.1.87-91)

The line I am after is: 'And with his other hand thus o'er his brow .. . ' How 'o'er his brow'? What did he do with his hand? Think about this for a moment, be the distraught Ophelia. Then, please, say the line with accompanying action:

And with his other hand thus o'er his brow . . . .

What you do, of course, is make a sign - a sign Shakespeare required to give an idea of Ophelia's image of Hamlet's distraction. Your sign will be your unique reflection of an emotional state. In a search among the reviews at the Colindale library, my wife, Mary, and I found Tom Taylor's observation of 1873 that Ophelia's usual gesture in the theatre was 'as if to shade the eyes from the light'. Taylor preferred the hand 'pressed hard on the forehead' - a considerable difference: one gesture directed mainly outward, the other inward.

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Information
Shakespeare Survey , pp. 33 - 40
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1988

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