Beyond the Stage: Lobby Talks | Cuckold-what?

by Madeleine Brown

10:54 a.m. already? I grab my notebook and pencil case and dash down to the Festival Theatre lobby, leaving behind the comfort of my little desk in the Festival’s Advancement Office. Just as I approach the wooden stage opposite the Theatre Store kiosk, I slow my pace. I want to look cool and collected—not awkward. (This is a constant fear when you have assumed the title of “Summer Intern.”) Today I am covering my first Beyond the Stage event: Lobby Talks.

I’m surprised. The chairs arranged around the stage are completely filled with over 60 Festival goers of all ages (I counted). I take a spare chair in the back row. There is excited chatter. It is only the second Lobby Talks of the season and the first on Much Ado About Nothing. It feels like a family reunion: Festival lovers meeting with fellow Festival lovers. With the arrival of July and the opening of a new set of shows just days away, the 60th season is about to kick into high gear.

The audience hushes. David Prosser has arrived.

Mr. Prosser is the Director of Communications at the Festival, and also the presenter of Lobby Talks. He takes his place on the stage after a few moments. The grand piano for the Festival’s Night Music concerts has assumed its territory over the majority of the platform.  Mr. Prosser begins. He uses no notes.

I cannot write fast enough. I feel like I am back in one of the lecture halls at university—minus the feelings of lethargy and boredom.

“We would have heard a very different English to ours in Shakespeare’s day,” Mr. Prosser tells us. In Shakespeare’s English the word “nothing” (as in Much Ado About Nothing) would have sounded like the word “noting” (i.e. to take note of, to eavesdrop, or overhear, or a reference to musical notes). Each of these meanings of the word can be found in Much Ado. The title of the play, it would seem, is indicative of the wit that the audience will see from the famed lovers Beatrice and Benedick.

But of course, before their two hearts can be joined, they must confront their own distrust of marriage and love. Not an easy task in Shakespeare’s day.

“Deep-rooted male fear of marriage and cuckoldry—” Mr. Prosser starts.

Cuckoldry?

I look up from my notebook. He explains, “A cuckold refers to a man whose wife has been unfaithful.” The term, he continues, is symbolized by a set of horns upon the deceived husband’s head. Scholars do not understand the association. There are plenty of theories… with plenty of faults.

Cracks about cuckoldry would have left Shakespeare’s audiences howling; however, nowadays they often go unrecognized. The closest modern-day equivalent to these jokes, Mr. Prosser posits, is the classic prank of making bunny ears behind the head of an unsuspecting individual.

The audience is clearly taken with this topic. At the end of Mr. Prosser’s half-hour “ramble,” he invites us to ask questions; unsurprisingly, people want to talk more about cuckoldry. When the conversation wraps up at 11:45, I gather my belongings and begin to walk through the crowd of excited, chatty patrons back to the office. But before I get there, I pause and reflect. I now fully understand the play’s historical context, themes, plot, characters… and why Ben Carlson, our Benedick, ran rampant around the stage with his index fingers on either side of his head.

Cuckoldry!

Lobby Talks are free half-hour chats presented by David Prosser. They occur at 11:00 a.m. on a selection of weekdays between June and September. This year’s talks cover Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V.

Madeleine is a summer intern in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Advancement Office. She is a student at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College who will be blogging about the Festival’s Beyond the Stage events for the month of July.

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