Research Musings: Ghosting and Surrogation

I finished reading Marvin Carlson’s The Haunted Stage yesterday, and it provided some really interesting perspectives on my research so far and The Changeling in performance. Carlson never mentions Middleton, of course, but his examination of the ways in which the theatrical past inevitably haunts the theatrical present has raised several new questions for me. 

For example, Carlson uses Joseph Roach’s term ‘surrogation’ to talk about the ways in which the present fills in perceived gaps left by the past: ‘

Surrogation, suggest Roach, occurs when “survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates” into “the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure.” The fit, of course, can never be exact. “The intended substitute can either cannot fulfil expectations, creating a deficit, or actually exceeds them, creating a surplus.” A new actor attempting so haunted a role as Hamlet seems to me a particularly complex and interesting example of this process, since he’s attempting to act as surrogate for a whole host of departed predecessors, against whom he will inevitably be compared, to his advantage or disadvantage’ (80). 

When I read this, I immediately thought of the ways in which The Changeling and Middleton and/or Rowley’s work in general might sometimes function as a surrogate for Shakespeare(‘s plays).  Like the ‘new actor’ taking on Hamlet, early modern plays written by anyone besides Shakespeare are ‘inevitably’ compared to plays written by Shakespeare, to their ‘advantage or disadvantage’ (more often disadvantage, it seems). Since one of my research questions has to do with the reasons behind a company’s choice to produce The Changeling, I think that the idea of the play functioning as a surrogate and being compared to plays by Shakespeare is a relevant and interesting one.

It’s also a frustrating one, partly because it’s almost an apples-to-oranges comparison. In the same way that it doesn’t really make sense to compare, say, Jude Law and Laurence Olivier’s respective Hamlets, at least in terms of value judgements, it’s a bit tricky to compare a broad sense of what “Shakespeare” is (or should be) to the rest of the early modern theatrical repertoire. For one thing, styles of writing varied greatly among the different playwrights and over time. This is visible even with the Shakespearean canon: Titus Andronicus looks almost nothing like The Tempest, for example. I suspect it would come across as a bit silly to compare, say, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Jonson’s Epicoene. They’re completely different generically, not to mention chronologically.  So why is it that it’s  completely acceptable to compare Middleton and Rowley or anyone else to Shakespeare on the basis of his canonical status?

As usual with these posts, I don’t really have a conclusion about this. I’m told that this is symptomatic of first-year research, so I’m trying not to worry about it. I’m just letting things percolate and hoping that they eventually form into something coherent. But I do think I need to get out of this “why Shakespeare?” rut sometime soon.

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