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  • Who Watches the Watchmen, Especially When They're on Edge?Liminal Spectatorship in Agamemnon and Macbeth
  • Eric Nicholson (bio)

By beginning tangentially, with citation of Romeo and Juliet, this essay on liminal phenomena does begin appropriately. When Mercutio protests that "Men's eyes were made to look, and let them gaze," he is also affirming his status as a theatrical performer, in a place—in representational terms, a piazza in Verona, but in presentational terms, the theatre—that is indeed a "public haunt of men" where "all eyes gaze on" him, Benvolio, Tybalt, the Capulets, et alia.1 A histrionic show-off and no pedant, Mercutio is hardly trying to make a phenomenological or etymological point, but he nonetheless invokes the root, ancient Greek sense of "theatre" ("theatron"), as above all "a seeing place," where citizens crowd together to become not only audiences who listen, but spectators who gaze. In keeping with the sonneteering script of Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio's words also deploy one of the poet's favorite loaded puns: like Sonnet 18's "eyes" that "can see" (13) or Sonnet 55's "lover's eyes" (14) where the Beloved Young Man will dwell, "Men's eyes" suggests that looking, gazing, observing, watching define an individual's very identity.2 Mercutio seems to emphasize this point with the first person pronoun insistently repeated in his following line, "I will not budge for no man's pleasure, I." Homo sapiens sapiens is a political animal, as well as a listening, laughing, and smiling one, but our species is just as much a watching animal, especially in the theatre.

In the following pages, I aim to give some nuance to this point, and ask what kind of watching theatre spectators—from ancient Attica to early modern England and beyond—tend to practice, especially when viewing [End Page 103] scenes of tragic, blood-spilling political violence. In tandem, I will ask: in what ways do playwrights like Aeschylus and Shakespeare call deliberate attention to "opsis," or the spectating dimension of theatre-going, and in particular, how do the scripts of Agamemnon and Macbeth connect what can be called "liminal spectatorship" to the staging of political behavior? For the purpose of this essay and the current special issue, my main focus will be on how this shared aspect of the two tragedies allows for skeptical questioning and even radical challenging of the tyrant, though with a recognition that audience members' viewpoints are themselves compromised ones. The Theatre of Dionysus was itself situated in a liminal position, on the border between the Acropolis and the lower city, and during the spring "Great Dionysia" it was dedicated to Dionysus of Eleutherae, a mountain village on the frontier between Attica and Boeotia. Imagine being one of the many thousands in attendance at the premiere of the Oresteia trilogy (plus Proteus satyr-play) in 458 BCE, enjoying the optimal sight lines as well as exceptionally fine acoustics of the space, witnessing—like Argive elders and then Athenian jury members—the suspenseful preambles to and aftermaths of lurid royal family murders, capped off by a fiercely debated trial featuring Olympian gods, chthonic Furies, and afflicted mortals. It is indeed the sort of material that would keep people on the edge of their seats! On the edge: exactly, because humans tend to be curious creatures, who need to get as close to the action as they can, to try to see and understand it as best they can. Similarly, Southwark theatres like the Rose and the Globe had stages which thrust outwards into narrow "yards," enabling both standing and seated viewers close proximity to the stage, and tantalizing near-contact with the players. In manipulation of this curiosity, the stagecraft of Aeschylus and Shakespeare is designed to insist on audiences' active gazing. At the same time, however, it also insists on their not being able to see the entire picture, as spectators become suspended "betwixt and between" partial visions of what transpires behind closed doors, and final onstage yet still uncertain revelations of what is to come in the afterlife of the show. In an essay in part 1 of this special issue, Susanne Wofford suggestively elucidates the...


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pp. 103-121
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