Not too long ago, I got to sit in on a staging conditions workshop at the American Shakespeare Center, and as it just so happened, I was in the midst of my most recent collation of Merry Devil at the time. It immediately occurred to me just how often the characters in that play refer to each other by name or relation to one another, as if to help the audience keep track of who's who, and who's related to who. I read this as an author's acknowledgement that the audience might be having a hard time keeping track of what's going on (the author, or more likely authors clearly were).
I'm trying to meditate on why that might be. The most obvious answers to me both relate to my theories of disguise play and multiple authorship that I've discussed before, which means I want to keep looking. Disguise play struck me as being a function of the characters who wear disguises, and while this revelation may support that theory, it comes after the fact. When an answer presents itself as being obvious, that usually means it needs a more dutiful interrogation.
This convention could just be the result of sloppy writing, after all. Maybe the device doesn't work, even when implementing the disguise play that I'll be employing in the production. Ultimately I won't know how audiences respond to it until after the production is over and done with, and even if I can determine their reactions to that specific devise, this would be a 21st century audience, so I still won't know how the constant name and relationship dropping would have worked 400 years ago.
Perhaps this is one of those moments where I simply need to make a choice, unburdened by some abstract notion of the truth. When we say we are re-creating Shakespeare's original staging conditions or using his original staging practices, we inevitably have to guess. None of us were there, after all.
As I get closer to finishing my critical text and start thinking of branching it off into a performance text, I'm having to decide what to keep and what to cut. While for a play this short I'm not cutting so much for length as I am for incompleteness -- that is, in order to preserve the sense of what is going on -- something tells me that these identifies need to stay put. Although, perhaps, as an experiment, I should try reading them and seeing if I can follow along. On second thought, I think I'm probably too familiar with the play by now.
Is anyone out there in Internet land interested in a little experiment?