"World Shakespeare Congress Seminar: Messengers and Communication in Shakespearian and Renaissance Drama". Position paper, by Gabriel Egan
My seminar paper focusses upon the physical embodiment of messages rather than the bearers of these communications, so I wish to comment here on the messengers themselves. Shakespeare's works are typical of the period in having an entire subcategory of dramatic character called 'messenger'. Characters with personal names may also, of course, bear messages in the drama but those whose only or primary function is the transmission of others' words deserve special attention in their own right. Using the electronic text of the Oxford Shakespeare, I have extracted all the speech prefixes containing the word "messenger" and list them here by the usual (and of course problematic) generic categories:
It is clear that the comedies make least use of anonymous message bearers and that the English histories, in particular the ones written early in Shakespeare's career, are where anonymous messengers become so numerous that modern editors feel obliged to distinguish them by serial number. Arguably, the use of multiple messengers in one play is a clumsy expedient which the dramatist abandoned as his dramatic skills improved, but Antony and Cleopatra is anomalous in being relatively late (1606) yet calling for at least three messengers. In this play emerges a distinct theme about the treatment of messengers being an index of a character's civility. Those whose personal names are not mentioned in a play have a quite different status from those whose personal names are known (witness King Claudius in Hamlet and Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, who are only ever referred to as 'King' and 'Duke' respectively), and this naming-by-function happens at both ends of the social spectrum. In having Cleopatra ask and be told the name of Thidias, Shakespeare moved a messenger from the class of anonymous characters into the class of personally-named characters in order that his whipping--itself a message of defiance to Caesar--might be all the more shocking. (Caesar earlier mentioned Thidias's name and gave his eloquence free rein, but I think this prepares for rather than diminishes the shock of Cleopatra's treatment.)
I am more interested in the way that messengers disclose the drama's "complex array of social relations and modes of personal identity" than in the history of communication systems itself. Late in Shakespeare's career, Dion and Cleomenes in The Winter's Tale serve as message-bearers from the Delphic oracle but are allowed an entire, albeit short, scene (3.1) in which to discuss their impressions of the exotic location: for them, duty and cultural tourism conveniently coincide in the employment. As David Margolies pointed out, this is an expansion of a detail from Shakespeare's source, Robert Greene's Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588) in which six nobles "willing to fulfill the Kinges commaund, and desirous to see the situation and custome of the Iland" go to Delphos. Shakespeare's expansion of this idea marks a sophistication of the inherited tradition of functional message-bearers: their interiority and private motivations are explored.
In performance, the practice of doubling sometimes tempts directors to invest with thematic significance the pairing of major characters and minor ones such as messengers. An example is the doubling of Bolingbroke with the "poor groom" who succours the deposed king at the end of Richard 2, which suggests that the usurper is already feeling guilty for his actions, a theme more explored fully in 1 Henry 4 and 2 Henry 4 which continue the story. Richard Fotheringham made a convincing argument that we should, in exploring original staging practices, resist this temptation because anachronistic: they were more likely to pair major and minor roles in order to display an actor's virtuoso ability to play, in rapid succession, characters who are highly unalike. However, since messengers are almost inherently speaking characters, Fotheringham's argument that additional men were never hired for non-speaking roles (that is, the total number number of roles is limited by how many parts the speaking actors can, with doubling, take on) is significant. Doubling limits should bear upon our consideration of the dramatic necessity of a small speaking part since a dramatist or other theatre professional(s) might create a messenger to occupy an otherwise under-utilized actor or to stretch a scene in order to facilitate another's doubling. This is an area in which accurate reconstruction of certain aspects of original performance conditions (I am thinking here particularly of company size and age/gender composition) could usefully yield new knowledge about small parts such as messengers in the drama.