Thursday, March 4, 2010

Twelfth Night - Dramatic Irony

Dear souls,

Cindy asked, long ago, for Twelfth Night teaching moments, and though this is far too late, let me at least try to contribute something for her teaching folder for the next time the play appears in her syllabus (I’m soooo sorry, Cindy.)

For me, I think the most profitable focus in Twelfth Night might be on dramatic irony, when the audience is in possession of information which is unknown or unperceived by one or more of the characters. We know from the opening scenes that Viola is disguised as a man, Cesario: Orsino, who takes “him” on as a courtier; then Olivia, who falls in love with “him” when he appears as Orsino’s messenger; then Sir Andrew, who is goaded into challenging “him” to a duel, do not know. Thus, all three say foolish things or take foolish actions that they would not if they were more fully informed of the facts. For instance, we, the audience, can evaluate, seeing through, how foolish Orsino’s patriarchal commonplaces seem when we recognize it is a woman who is listening. (“For women are as roses, whose fair flow’r,/ Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour,” II.iv.38-9.)

There is the same dramatic irony when Sebastian makes landfall—we know there are now “identical” twins in Illyria, but mistaken identity is inevitable for everyone else. There has been the same “error” in Plautus’s Menaechmi, then in Comedy of Errors. In Twelfth Night it is insisted on in I.ii (Viola’s arrival and her gender disguise—a reasonable protection for a woman in a strange land), then in II.i (Sebastian’s arrival), together with Viola’s frequent imparting of her deepest hopes, fears, and perplexities in soliloquy proper (an audience can always take soliloquy as unalloyed communication) or utterances whose full meaning is a secret to all but ourselves.

OK, but dramatic irony is not just a literary-critical term. The power of the audience in possession of full knowledge when the characters are not emerges because we can then see into and see why “what fools these mortals be.” That is, outside the theater none of us ever knows everything, yet we speak and act based on the best of our knowledge. Orsino can talk pompously of love to his young boy-courtier freely, but would not to a woman, and especially not to a woman who loves him. We are always alazons (someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is, a self-deceived character—thank you Northrop Frye); dramatic irony makes us, as audience, eirons (someone who sees through self-deceptions or pretensions; akin to irony itself). Thus, reading/seeing Twelfth Night sets your students up to see into an essential element of human discourse. We make mistakes hourly based on only partial perception. But seeing or reading the play, we are in on the secrets, so we are in a perfect position to evaluate the flawed nature of human communication.

The punch line of all this is the Viola/ Sebastian denouement, where even "ocular proof” is no longer trusted. In Comedy of Errors, all the “facts” are so inexplicable that one explanation is magic or enchantment. In Twelfth Night, Antonio is a fact, so when the Illyrians see him, they arrest him. But Sebastian is not perceived as a “fact” so when Sir Andrew sees someone he presumes is the pusillanimous Cesario, Sebastian breaks his pate. POW! Probably all comedy is an exercise in dramatic irony (tragedy is, of course, too, but it is not THE point of tragedy, where misalliance with the pure laws of the universe is).

Same, same for Malvolio [I hope to return to Cindy’s initial query about him soon]. Maria’s “practice” (the forged letter) manipulates Malvolio into exhibiting his day-dreams (fantasies) to the cruel light of public scorn. They can practice on Malvolio because they know exactly what he wants [I have been reading Stevie Davies’s Penguin Critical Studies here]. We can easily be influenced by what we want desperately to believe. CL Barber uses the box-hedge scene as a central example to define his “Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy,” with its saturnalian play and its festive Lord of Misrule (now, of course, think of Falstaff and all the shows he puts on for Hal—13 men in buckram or killing Hotspur with a thrust to the groin, etc.) Davies refers to the Malvolio plot as a play-within-a-play, complete with on-stage audience selling the house audience on the joke, watching Malvolio acting out his fantasy life (dramatic irony: we know the letter is forged, so we can see how he makes a fool of himself as he lusts to believe in it; like Othello, innocence has no defense against being gulled, even if the gull somehow “deserves” it). Then the letter becomes an acting script for the yellow-stocking scene (III.iv) and the persecution of Malvolio (IV.iv).

Yes, he is tricked; however, ask your students how many believe in “personality,” then remind them the term comes from persona, Greek for “mask,” and note that almost all of our perceived “personality” is taken from others’ observations of our play-acting, role-playing, living according to a received script.

Olivia and Orsino, however ‘genuine’ their claims of feelings may be, are both characters who perform their aloof (grieving) or love-sick states as theatrical scripts from which their actions must never deviate. For me, both are doomed because of unnatural excess: Orsino’s amorous binge-and-purge—“if music be the food of love, give me excess of it that surfeiting the appetite may sicken and so die” (“hurl” won’t scan here)—while Olivia, the most eligible, fertile, naturally sexual damsel in Illyria has taken an unnatural vow of seven years of chastity. The audience has to know that both unnatural vows are doomed from the moment we hear of them, but we can enjoy how each is hoist on inevitable disillusionment, though as the aristocrats, neither is punished for such folly, unlike poor Aguecheek.

Ah aristocrats. At the end of the Helena Bonham Carter Twelfth Night, directed by Trevor Nunn, all dance, as in a “good comedy.” No, wait. No Aguecheek, no Malvolio, no Antonio, no Feste, all outside the dazzling crystal-lit ballroom, outside the castle. So the happily ever after is exclusive to those who are back in the illusion of romance. Inability to play the game (Sir Andrew) or clear, disillusioning, rational understanding (Antonio or especially Feste) are dangers to the romantic illusion we all thrive on.

Think of Hamlet, the only person in Denmark unable to belong to the fourteenth-century script, must at last be borne away by flights of angels. In Twelfth Night, even the seeming outsider, Sebastian, is now part of the dance (because, apparently, he has good abs—what more could a girl ask for?). Now the irony is on us, we who wistfully lust after happy endings.

My favorite class would be a tight exploration of I.v, “Cesario’s” embassy to Olivia that produces the “Make me a willow cabin at your gate” declaration, a scene overflowing with dramatic irony, but I’ll save that for a post on love poetry, unless Cindy has a moment and can tell us in advance what she knows I am going to say.

The castaway,

No comments: