Sunday, June 1, 2014



Reading the Unseen (Offstage) Hamlet by Stephen Ratcliffe
(Counterpath Press, Denver, CO, 2010)

Hearsay or See: Ratcliffe’s Questioning Shakespeare

On page 3 of this book, we get to wrestle with Gertrude Stein’s minimized punctuation to get an important idea: “does as the scene in the theater proceeds does the hearing take the place of seeing as perhaps it does when something real is being most exciting, or does seeing take the place of hearing as perhaps it does when anything real is happening or does the mixture get to be more mixed seeing and hearing as perhaps it does when anything really exciting is really happening.” Though he makes copious use in his notes of great literary scholars like Harry Berger or Stephen Greenblatt, Stephen Ratcliffe briefly and effectively uses Stein’s lecture on “Plays” to focus on his point in Reading the Unseen. This book is a close reading, a very close reading, of several key speeches in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It focuses on words and the work they do to show actions and images that are not seen on stage but are important to the play and its story. Ratcliffe’s repeated contention is that these are not just ways of forwarding the plot or giving depth to characters but “in effect Shakespeare’s way in Hamlet of calling into question how it is that we know what we know” (62).

In looking at what we hear in Queen Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia’s drowning, for instance, Ratcliffe raises the question of how the Queen knows the things she says. This echoes and accentuates our own dilemma in the audience as we take the Queen’s word for what happened, and may hear in it many things that might either accuse or excuse Ophelia. Her accident or suicide is perhaps undecidably both and all we know about it for sure is that we heard about it in Queen Gertrude’s words. The way we picture it to ourselves from those words is part of Ratcliffe’s focus. He reminds us to look again at how we almost tend to think we have seen it because we can picture it. As his preface puts it, “those scenes work to make physically absent things imaginatively ‘present’” (xi).

Ratcliffe’s thinking in this book works with “the materialities both of language and of physical action performed on a stage” in the “seamlessness” of the play, and with how the meanings of either may be “multiple or unclear” (xii). This is poets’ stuff. Ratcliffe permits himself the readerly focus that he says Shakespeare’s writing usually does not get from us in the quick pace of a stage performance, but he is also implying that even then we are affected by what the words themselves perform (xiii). He slows down this effect and works to help us see more of what the words perform and how they do it, sound by sound and meaning by meaning or nuance by nuance.

Those of us who practice poetry as writers or readers or both will benefit from Ratcliffe’s approach. His approach to his own poetry these days seems very much caught up in related questions. Counterpath has also published Selected Days (2012). Recalling Whitman’s Specimen Days of Civil War times in its title and presentations of observed images, that book collects selections from six day-book works Ratcliffe has written in recent years. At the heart of each of them is the faith that the reader can and will build images from the words and take them as specimens of what the writer has observed. Specimen, evidence, testimony, observation, all are in play here. In the play Hamlet, Ratcliffe shows us, Shakespeare worked to use this sensibility by going inside it. He went even further than Ratcliffe’s own poems do by using the device of plot to frame the undecidable nature of testimony. This nature is located in us, in our hearing, in the “ear” and the “mind’s eye.” “Hear-say” is used both to help the audience to get all the pieces of a story too difficult to stage in all its parts, and to help the audience to question the nature of knowing.

What’s interesting about following Ratcliffe into this split is that it reveals the nature of theater as poetry. The old narrative bardic function of poetry is probably the root of theater after all, along with the ritual re-enactment of the hunt and other stories. These depend on a story that is already somewhat known by the audience being re-created by narrators who tell what we trust them to know. As Robin Blaser used to say narr = gna = know, and his etymologies were usually trustworthy. What Ratcliffe wants us to notice and focus upon in his close reading is how we picture to ourselves what we hear, and then we tend to believe it. He even goes to the level of sound play, where the “sound effects” of speeches like Queen Gertrude’s “simply happen too quickly and too constantly for us to notice that they are happening.” His reading links those effects to the way we “see” what we are told but not shown, and he says that “:is why they are so aesthetically effective” (66). He works toward the point that what happens in words has its own location apart from “the world” (68).

Ratcliffe’s suggestion that the playwright “could have chosen to show that scene” in the world onstage seems to bring in a modern sensibility from film or video (76). This weakens the point even as it helps to make it; such an enactment is not a likely subject for the stage of Shakespeare’s day and would deny the history of the audience’s imaginative place in theater and poetry. We enter the play’s themes of “uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unknowableness of death” through our part in their indirect representation by words (76), just as we have done through the millennia of poetry’s presentations.

Ratcliffe’s book investigates several other speeches from Hamlet along with Gertrude’s. He does this job very ably through looking closely at “the verbal action in  the speech” and “the physical action described by it” (77). The scenes presented all are ones unlikely for representation on the boards at the Globe (though Tom Stoppard took a crack at Hamlet’s voyage in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). Reading the Unseen’s poetic emphasis on “how words work to enact a world whose meaning cannot be seen or heard” in any direct simple way brings its well-wrought weight to bear on “a world whose performance in theater becomes” (in Hamlet’s own words) “what thinking makes … so” (2.2.250).

It is our thinking that is emphasized here; in modern terms, Hamlet is “interactive.” In age-old terms, it operates by audience participation in everything from sexual innuendo to intrigue and on to imaginatively supplying scenes that are not likely for staging. Ratcliffe’s point that “we are never going to know for sure what exactly ‘happened’” in these scenes is well argued and should be well taken. Still, it seems to discount our part and our tendency to play it. We do imagine and thereby know; we are never entirely “left in the dark” We who do enjoy plays like this do “keep coming back to it, wanting more” (103), but what we want is more opportunity to play our part and have our hours upon the stage of our own engaged minds in more than the strutting and fretting of “a poor player” (MacBeth 5.5.24-25). This focus seems to be missed by Ratcliffe’s closing “Afterword.” There he focuses on Shakespeare and all the mystery about who he was and what he meant.

The sharper contribution of this book is in a sentence halfway through: “What is not shown physically cannot ever be known, yet (mysteriously) is wholly imaginable once it enters opur ears” (55). That is the great mystery, and Stephen Ratcliffe has done a great job of showing us the minute ins and outs of it in Hamlet as a play for audiences and readers. The play, and Ratcliffe’s very engaging recent poetry,“ invite us to ‘see’ things with our ears because we cannot see them with our eyes.” These are  the substance of our root role as audience because they are “things we can therefore only speculate about from the words used to ‘perform’ them—words that are in interaction with one another themselves like actors in a text (Hamlet) that itself is to the theater as theater is to that text” (51). To focus on the many things that do not “happen except in words” (43) is to return the theater to its poetry. Ratcliffe returns us to that in this brief and lively book.


T.C. Marshall has been publishing poems, critical work, and literary theory ever since his “Skyscraper” was selected for a mimeographed poetry anthology when he was in first grade. Recently, he has gone beyond paper into publishing blogbooks. One is called "Post Language" becuase it is composed of poems that incorporate picture that were all posted first on FaceBook as interventions in the photo-sharing expectations there. Tom has also begun Maize Poem, a blogged composition in progress that displays the evolution of his self-education about corn. Another focuses on education and is called "Mister Ed." They all can be found on blogspot along with other thoughts of his and ones he has borrowed from his teachers. He himself has enjoyed teaching for over twenty years in the community and at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz County, California.

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