Shakespeare’s Professional Guilt: Acting, Monstrosity and the Devil

Naylor, Ben (2018) Shakespeare’s Professional Guilt: Acting, Monstrosity and the Devil. In: Perdition Catch My Soul: Shakespeare, Hell and Damnation, 8/12/2018, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. (Unpublished)


In recent years, neuroscientific studies into cerebral activity during performance have thrown up fascinating results across a number of very different artistic styles, from Noh to naturalism. Pretty much regardless of the style or medium, electrical activity in performers’ brains is concentrated in the same places: areas of the brain related to sense of self; visualisation; motor function; and empathy.

In his famous speech about acting, Hamlet is using EM language to describe precisely this process. To “force the soul” means to change the sense of self. “Conceit” – visualisation – is the “working” part: the effort made to envisage how the changed self changes the appearance of the extrinsic world. From this “working” springs observable physical change; and its cause is the imaginative empathetic association made with the character – “for nothing. For Hecuba!”.

But what’s “monstrous” about it?

‘Monstrous’, like most words Shakespeare chooses so carefully, is an interesting word. It ultimately derives from Latin monere, meaning ‘to warn’; a monster is something ominous. Shakespeare likes the word and uses it and its associated forms liberally: monstrous appears 64 times in 28 of his 38 plays, and monster 87 times in 27 plays. It’s never really morally neutral except as an occasional expression of scale (“most monstrous size”). The vast majority of Shakespeare’s uses of the word have clear moral connotation: to be ‘monstrous’ is to be associated either actually or rhetorically with the abstract and inchoate forces of evil, if one were to think in classically-educated EM terms; if one were to think in terms of the prevailing religious dogma of Shakespeare’s society, to be ‘monstrous’ is to be engaged willingly or unwillingly in the Devil’s work.

Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, there were a lot of people, especially religious Puritans, who did genuinely believe that acting was the work of the Devil. They did so, no doubt, in part because of an intrinsic and subconscious resistance to certain forms of art or thought, just as some naturally small-minded people do today. But they also believed it in specific intellectual terms. The Ten Commandments instruct us not to bear false witness, not to lie. When an actor assumes the person of someone they are not, they are lying. Therefore acting is the work of the Devil. Monstrous.

If one looks to the primordial roots of performance – which might be perceived better through non-Western cultures – there is a strong connection between notions of possession and acting, which has been extensively described in anthropological terms. In some cultures ideas of ‘possession,’ in the sense of being under external control, have been associated with positive notions of moral elevation. But in the Manichaean intellectual landscape of EM society, possession was also the work of the Devil. Monstrous.

Contemporary psychology tells us much more nuanced things about truth, subjectivity, and our capacity to believe things conditionally than were available to most EM thinkers. While some in modern Western society may be upset by some of the things that can be said in narrative drama, few are disturbed by the idea of acting per se. Yet in Shakespeare’s day, even actors had to ask themselves that question, is it not monstrous?, since many in society fervently believed it was. The moral uncertainty that is part of every considered life in the context of its own environment led Shakespeare to consider extensively the idea of monstrousness. One might say now that Shakespeare had a subconscious anxiety about his work, which he worked through in part by making conscious and considered the moral implications of his craft. It was a mindset foisted upon him by his cultural moment. In legal terms actors were rogues and vagabonds, but in religious terms they were corrupters of mankind.

This paper discusses how Shakespeare’s understanding of his own craft as an actor and theatre-maker relates to his ideas about monstrosity and the devilish, and how we might perceive and understand this cognitive dissonance in his writing.


Accepted Version - Microsoft Word (Paper delivered at Shakespeare's Globe, 2018)

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