How Doubling Can Add Irony & Change Meaning

I wasn’t going to talk about the other use for doubling (it’s even less about playwriting and more about interpretation – and the fierceness of some of the online arguments is kind of scary), but I think the idea of the technique is interesting.

Sometimes, doubling is used to change the meaning of a play, or it can be written into the play deliberately to affect the meaning. This can be used to add dramatic irony to scenes (for example, if Character A makes fun of Character B, it’s ironic if Sue plays both roles, and audience knows.). It can also emphasize similarities/differences between characters, and, especially in more serious works, it can change nuances of motivation and character interaction.

The most intriguing example of the change in meaning that I have seen is double-casting King Hamlet and Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Apparently, this has been done fairly regularly over the years, but the first time I saw it was in Gregory Doran’s version of Hamlet with Patrick Stewart and David Tennant. In this production, Patrick Stewart played both King Hamlet (the Ghost) and King Claudius (his murderous brother).

(At this point, I ask that you set aside your feelings about whether that particular interpretation of Shakespeare is justified so that we can consider it as a writing technique. If you want to argue about it, I suggest you try another site like the Shakespeare Geek.)

Now, take that doubling choice, and think about the level of complication that simple act of doubling adds to the play. Look at the nuances of characterization through relationships and motivation. In many ways, it complicates an already complex situation and makes foul deeds somehow more twisted and sick.

By having the same actor play both parts, you make them identical twins. That means that not only did Claudius kill his brother, he killed his twin. Not only did Gertrude marry her brother-in-law, she married her husband’s twin. Not only was Hamlet supposed to kill his uncle, he was supposed to kill a man who looked exactly like his father. The subtleties of lines shift. Character motivation changes. Scenes can have a totally different feel.

All because of 1 doubling choice.

Regardless of whether you’re in favor of this particular example or not, the technique clearly has the power to influence meaning. As a director, it might be interesting to look at different plays and consider how doubling could change them. But what about as a playwright?

To be perfectly frank, writing that sort of opportunity in deliberately could be very hard. It’s easier to design doubling with meaning in comedies (because it’s more about timing and irony than depth). It’s definitely easier to find doubling opportunities in something that’s already written. But I’m still throwing the idea out there because the result could be extraordinary if you succeeded. If one of you out there can write in that depth of doubling, I want to see it.

Anyone up for a challenge?

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