Perception and Theatrical Embodiment

Title page of the First Folio, by William Shak...
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by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino

Once again, I am staring at a blank sheet of paper as I struggle with the topic I am working on–psychoanalysis and phenomenology. Neither of the two are my favorite. I certainly do not want to unearth the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, again. As an undergrad, encountering their perception of the world for the first time, I was very impressed. I found it fascinating to read. I was opening the world of psychoanalysis, something I have never encountered before. Familiar, in a way, of the story of Oedipus, and having Oedipus Rex as the first play I have watched by Dulaang UP, I was enthralled. I thought it was a viable theory and even fooled myself into believing that it was an explanation for sexuality, behavior and representation. I had feminist leanings as a teenager as well, so encountering Laura Mulvey‘s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was a revelation. I found myself writing more and more about psychoanalysis and visual perception, I even remember my paper on the image-formation of Filipino women in cinema using Mulvey’s paper as a theoretical framework. Fortunately, I outgrew that perception of the world.

As I grew up and grew more critical of what I am reading and writing, I find psychoanalytic theories too encompassing, without consideration for other people and other cultures. Certainly, not everyone in the world can be the same? As fascination for a new concept fades and criticality begins, Freud’s Oedipus Complex and Jung’s Electra Complex became more and more ridiculous. I now find the concept of a son hating his father and desiring his mother, and a daughter hating her mother and desiring her father, in the way of their psychosexual development, absurd. Of course, in time, I knew that various points of their arguments were also disproved. The five stages of psychosexual development is no longer accepted. Yet, these are the starting point in the discussion of psychoanalysis. Certain theoreticians still adapt and appropriate these theories in their analysis. It is also a good beginning in the discussion of consciousness, particularly of the concept of the sub-conscious. Still, I struggle with the fact that, I just don’t want to write about this again.

I watched PETA’s production of William last Saturday. I have to say that its a very good play, a combination of Shakespeare 101 for students and ‘identify the reference’ for Shakespeare fans. Its a different feeling when you get to witness a theatre-full of teenagers laugh and applaud a Shakespeare-inspired play. Looking at this from a psychoanalytical point of view, the play could go down the road of over-reading and absurdity. There are various parent-child relationships in the play, notable ones are the relationship of TJ Domingo and Estella Marie Carandang. Their relationship with their fathers (played by the same actor but with different characterizations) display more or less the Oedipal and Electra Complexes. TJ Domingo, the rebel, aggressive jock has a violent relationship with his father. His father, a dominant and aggressive man is abusive and tends to beat-up TJ, whenever TJ fucks up. TJ of course, resents his father. The absent mother is never mentioned, but he looks into Estella, the mature mother-image of the group, to help him out whenever he was in a bind. He also grew to love her in a romantic way. Sounds familiar? Looking into Estella’s parental relationship, on the other hand, she resents her mother greatly for leaving them and is very close to her father as a result. The father tends to be over-protective of Estella and Estella adores him greatly. Again, familiar right? So, maybe Laura Mulvey wasn’t too far off in her essay, even though the narrative here is in theatre form. If my main focus is on the psychoanalytic aspect of the play, it would focus in these two parent-child relationships and its representation. There are two other characters with fathers (again played the same actor) with the same dynamics. A little bit different, though, is Erwin Castro’s relationship with his father. Even though he is male, he has a good and gentle relationship with his father. But the thing is, though Erwin is not gay, he is, in a way, effeminate. He is very gentle and soft-spoken, almost the common characterization of a woman. He is not aggressive, so there is no competition for dominance or for being the alpha male of the family, unlike in TJ’s case. Here, there is no struggle for power. Erwin, to a certain point, is a mediocre push-over. Using the psychoanalytic perspective will go far in any narrative, but I have grown up enough to know that it is often not enough, that there is something more to the perception of the world than psychosexual and power relationships of gender and consciousness. Or more to the point of psychoanalysis—the sub-conscious. Though this theory does not lack in merit, I still feel that there is something else, something more.

This is where I see phenomenology coming in. Instead of just focusing on the universal sub-conscious that psychoanalysis seem to imply, I want to explore art as we experience them. I want to point out the self-consciousness of the audience rather than the psychoanalytical dispositions and secret sexual desires that the audience apparently has no control over. Looking into Merleau-Ponty, when we perceive something, we also perceive ourselves, that we are also visible. He says that, “The visible can… fill and occupy me only because I who see it do not see it from the midst of nothingness, but from the midst of itself; I the seer am also visible. What makes the weight, the thickness, the flesh of each color, of each sound, of each tacile texture, of the present, and of the world, is the fact that he who grasps them feels himself emerge from them by a sort of coiling up or redoubling, fundamentally homogenous with them, he feels that he is the sensible itself coming to itself” (113-14). When you watch a play, you do not just see the play, you also locate yourself in the play. Part the popularity of William is the easy self-identification with at least one of the characters and recognizing other characters as someone one have encountered in everyday life. Very suited to the teenagers as the characters are mostly teenagers themselves, most adults can also relate as they have played such roles earlier in their lives. Often, the tendency is to relate to one character and remember people encountered in life that embodies the other characters.

There were five main characters in the play, the five students–TJ Domingo, the popular, basketball player, jock; Sophia Reyes, the nouveau riche, social climbing, beautiful, shallow, romantic girl; Richard Austria, the gay guy “outed” during the course of the play; Erwin Castro, the mediocre, push-over, quiet-type geek; and Estella Marie Carandang, the plain-looking, know-it-all nerd. These are the five stereotypes of the typical high school classroom translated into students learning about Shakespeare from their weird, passionate teacher Ms. Lutgarda Martinez. When viewing these characters, it is not a simple identification of the high school stereotypes but also self-identification with previous experiences informing and affecting the perception of the play. Paul Crowther further explores Merleau-Ponty:

“There are two aspects to this (though Merleau-Ponty does not always clearly separate them). First, as we have seen, things define themselves as styles brought about by our body’s modes of orientation towards the world. Our perceptual contact with the world is expressive, in so far as the body is constantly taking up new positions and launching itself into new projects. This means that the stylizing and expressive foundation of perception is of general validity. Each human has the same broad range of bodily capacities and will, therefore, tend to see and do much the same things (i.e. share the same styles of perception) as other human beings. However, it is also true that as individual embodied beings we each retain our particular view of the world” (108).

Aside from recognizing the Shakespearean motifs in William, the audience also recognize themselves as they experience the play. As Merleau-Ponty says in Eye and Mind, ” Things have an internal equivalent in me; they arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence. Why shouldn’t these (correspondences) in their turn give rise to some (external) visible shape in which anyone else recognize those motifs which support his own inspection of the world” (60). There are several layers of recognition that may happen. At first, the easiest one is the characterization of the high school stereotype that an audience may relate to. Next, is the Shakespearean references that such characters represent. Another layer is the Shakespearean play or sonnet that the character is acting out, whether straight-up recitation (Shylock’s monologue from The Merchant of Venice) or appropriated to a more Filipino context (Marc Anthony’s monologue from Marc Anthony and Cleopatra). Yet another layer that may affect this identification is the actual knowledge or experience the audience have of Shakespeare. Though some are easy to identify as it is explicitly stated in the performance, some are not, and only those who have some previous readings and knowledge of Shakespeare may recognize. Such identifications may happen in different layers within the embodiment of the play. Each person will have a different sense and layer of such embodiment. A necessary condition for such embodiment, is self-consciousness, as Crowther defines it, “To be self-conscious is to be able to ascribe experiences to oneself. It is to be a person” (150). In order to examine the consciousness and embodiment present in William, I want to go beyond the consciousness and sub-consciousness of Freud and consider the phenomenological proposition of Crowther in Art and Embodiment, from aesthetics to self-consciousness:

“The first of these I shall call attention. By this I mean our capacity to be receptive to sensory stimuli. It is a basic orientation or directness bound up with our body’s position in relation to that world of sensible items and events with which it is causally continuous. The second necessary capacity is that of comprehension. A self-conscious being in one who must be able to organize the stimuli received in perception by discriminating sameness and difference amongst them. This capacity is powerfully enhanced by the third necessary (and complex) feature, which I shall call projection. A being can only be self-conscious if it can posit situations other than those presented by the immediate perceptual field. The chief projective powers are memory and imagination; the former enables us to posit situations in which we have previously been, and the latter enables us to posit alternative possibilities of experience to those which are immediately accessible to us in perceptual terms. The projective powers, of course, are the very flesh of any sense of having a personal history” (150-51).

I will take into consideration, the most powerful performance delivered in William, the character of Richard Austria, the gay guy. His story embodies Shakespeare’s Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice. Richard was a closeted gay, “out” only to his closest friends. A fight with TJ caused him to be “outed” in his entire school, resulting to his persecution. Richard, the hard-working class representative was suddenly mistreated and harassed by his fellow classmates. Thus, he delivered Shylock’s speech, as they both embodied persecution, “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” (Act III, Scene 1).

In the manner of Crowther’s self-consciousness, the layers are attention, comprehension and projection. In Richard’s arch and almost every other performance, the most obvious part in experiencing it is by paying attention, in order to be receptive of the performance. Next is to organize the stimuli received and basically understand the performance–what is happening, why it is happening, what are the the Shakespearean references made, what is the plot, what does the plot pertain to in Shakespearean plays, etc. But the most notable part in Crowther’s self-consciousness is projection, the actual embodiment. The relationship of Richard’s character and performance and the memory or imagination of the audience will come in to play. Do you need to be gay to be able to feel for or project the performance of Richard’s character? Not necessarily. Because even though you do not have the memory of being a discriminated gay student, you still have the memory of others as well as your own imagination that enables you to project yourself into the performance. Through an effective performance, one can project the self into it through memories and imagination–feel the frustration, the pain of betrayal, the hate of discrimination and the release into freedom after the resolution. The phenomenology in experiencing and projecting into a performance could be achieved in that manner. This projection will also have another layer, as the audience will not only project themselves into Richard, but also into Shylock as he is embodied by Richard. The pain of persecution and the desire for revenge is something that would be powerful in the memory and imagination of the audience. The layers of embodiment enriches each other, as the character (Richard), the character reference (Shylock) and the audience affect each other and enrich each other in the phenomenological and aesthetic experience, and transcend this relationship into the projection of the self.

Another interesting character is TJ. He is initially presented as a stupid jock, a bully and a villain. As the narrative goes further, he was humanized as his relationship with his father was explored. He was also redeemed towards the end as he apologized publicly to Richard. Again, looking at it from Crowther’s self-consciousness and embodiment, one does not necessarily need be in TJ’s situation or have a memory of experiencing such event. The imagination of the audience will help transcend the performance from attention and comprehension, well into projection. With such imagination, the audience may project on to the humanization of TJ, his reasons for being a bully, his eventual redemption. The viewer may not only comprehend the meaning of redemption but also characterize and embody the feeling of being redeemed. This gives the ephemeral character of a performance lasts in the imagination of the audience. Just like in Richard and Shylock, the layers of embodiment is also there. This time, the relationship is between TJ, Claudius and the audience. One does not necessarily be a betrayer to feel the pain of betrayal. The use and enhancement of memory and imagination will come into play as the humanization and pain of the villain is represented. The viewer transcends into the character of TJ and into the the character of Claudius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but ’tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe! All may be well.”
(Act 1, Scene 3)

This is the aspect that William does well in terms of engaging the audience. The main intention of the play is to enrich the knowledge of the audience, particularly the high school students, of Shakespeare. They do this, phenomenologically. The audience are given so many layers in the engagement, depending on the depth of their self-consciousness. As mentioned earlier, the easiest to identify with is the high school students. At one point or another in the audience’s high school and teenage life, they embodied a form of these stereotypes. Next is the embodiment of the character of another characters, those of Shakespeare’s. They transcend space and time as they bring to life characters hundreds of years old and embody them in their characters. The audience then, is given another layer of story and characterization to project themselves into. While all these is going on, the audience are projecting both their memories and imagination into the complexities of the characters performing. These workings on the aesthetic experience and the embodiment of the self into the artistic production enriches the performance as well as the viewing of the performance. It does not work in one way. There is the interchange of the phenomenological experiences between the audience and the performers as they project their own uniques selves—previous experiences, memories and imagination, into each other.

This dynamics in the art, not just in the theatrical performance, needs to be further explored, rather that being stuck in the rut of the sub-conscious. The theory of the sub-conscious, at least for me, is imaginative, too imaginative that the theory robs the imagination from the audience and the viewer. It is in the psychological couch that all imaginations are sucked in, never to be shared into the world. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, is far richer than the sub-conscious that the conscious realm cannot control. Self-consciousness, at least can be enriched. A person, through their own choosing, may enrich their own experiences, dig deeper into their memories and use their creative imagination as they experience things around them—particularly art, such as the theater. It has become so easy to rely into more “scientific” theories that the realm of imagination has become limited. The audience have the option, the choice, in using their memories and imagination—they become the proactive actors, rather than being mere victims of the psychosexual development and sub-conscious desires. Self-consciousness and the embodiment of aesthetics may evolve, develop and may enrich—it does not limit a passive recipient. Instead, aesthetic embodiment, in a phenomenological sense, may enrich, both the audience and the performance. It is a consistent transcendence of memories and more importantly, of the imagination. It is not just the artist who may imagine, but the audience and the viewer as well.


Crowther, Paul. Art and Embodiment, From Aesthetics to Self-Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Legarda, Maribel, dir. William. Philippine Educational Theater Association, September 2011.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception trans. Colin Smith with revisions by Forrest Williams. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible trans. Alphonse Lingis. Evanston: North-western University Press, 1968.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, ed. Terry Eagleton, 1985. 158-166.

Shakespeare, William, Hamlet. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2008.

Shakespeare, William, The Merchant of Venice. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2008.


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