Sunday, May 30, 2010

Twelfth Night - Sympathy for Malvolio

It's Shakespearean karma. I'm reading Twelfth Night again as I prepare for the Folger workshop. The play has now achieved "desert island" status in my life. I might as well have it tattooed on my person.

So I've been musing about Gil's question regarding the anagrammatic names (Viola, Olivia, Malvolio), but drawing a blank. If, for example, all the lovers' names are anagrams, why isn't Orsino included? One could joke that Orsino is an anagram of "orison," indicating that the duke can only pray for Olivia's love.

All this led me to consider another moment of word play -- Malvolio's comment about Maria's forgery:

"By my life, this is my lady's hand! These be here very c's, her u's, and her t's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand" (2.5.88-91).

The prevailing trend among my students is to assume that this passage is a dirty joke (especially if you gloss Malvolio's "and" as " 'n' "). And Andrew Aguecheek's repeating Malvolio's observation, because it's not clear what it means, enhances the idea that it's a dirty joke, as if he were saying "get it?" In addition, there is a homophonic echo a few words later: "contempt."

But here's the mystery. What is Malvolio reading? Ostensibly, it is the address on the exterior of the envelope or letter: "To the unknown beloved, this and my good wishes." Scanning this salutation, where do we find the letters "c" and "p"? Remember, the letter is sealed, and no names appear on it, or else Malvolio wouldn't be puzzling out who wrote it and to whom it is writ.

Chew on that for a bit. Next, let's assume that it is indeed a dirty joke, referring to a c-word or some Elizabethan variant. Malvolio does not make the joke; he's merely its conduit. His innocence rests on the apparent randomness of the key letters that identify Olivia's handwriting and on his established Puritanism. Such a joke wouldn't even occur to him. Thus the scene presents us with a brief comic duo in which Malvolio is the straight man or stooge and Shakespeare is the funny man, puncturing Malvolio's self-importance by getting him to mouth the lowest of low-brow humor. If it is dirty, we laugh both because its source is unexpected and at its unexpected source, the same way we laugh at Moe when Bart Simpson's prank phone call gets him to ask if "Jacques Strap" or "Mike Rotch" is in the bar.

So, when Cindy asks if it is possible for Malvolio's character to elicit sympathy, I think it is. Yes, we want him to fall. His self-importance, his pomposity, is irritating (although his attempt to move beyond his station, I think, no longer resonates with us), and we enjoy the comeuppance. But as with Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare has endowed the Malvolio story with moments that dissuade the audience from merely dismissing him as a villain and also from taking pure pleasure in his humiliation. He is more than just the butt of jokes. First, his captivity when he is accused of insanity has never seemed to me to be fair, a punishment that did not fit the crime. While Feste's Sir Topaz continues the mockery, the scene's emphasis seems to be on Malvolio's suffering.

Second, Shakespeare gives Malvolio a moment -- "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you" -- unusual in a comedy and for a character meant simply to suffer the slings and arrows of comedic characterization. Olivia nails home the point, commenting: "He has been most notoriously abused." The double adverb there is significant. I wonder if we hear both these moments differently than Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have. We are raised in a culture steeped in the traditions of Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie, one that suggests that nothing stands in our way as we climb whatever ladder we choose. We also believe in fair play (although we don't necessarily practice it). We are more than willing to watch pompous people get their just desserts, usually in the form of being laughed at, but we don't like abuse, in any form. In the mocking of Malvolio, Olivia's people go too far.

In his final words to them, Malvolio may merely confirm his name -- ill will. For the rest of us, he seems to have suffered the unkindest c-u-t in the Play.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

RE2: Edward III - Authorship

Derek writes:

You know, I just got back from Europe a couple of days ago, and am still fighting jet lag, and so am about to head to bed (at what continues to feel like 4:30 am), but just the briefest response: yes, there is something Shakespearean about Shakespeare, something in way the words sound together, the way the characters speak, that distances "his" works from those of his contemporaries. I remember reading Dr. Faustus for the first time a few years ago and being struck by how stilted much of the language sounded. I hadn't expected to be so struck. But the difference was unmistakable.

Claim 2: That said, I don't think we'll get anywhere, ever, by attempting to atomize the writing and explicate the origin of that difference. And I think that's what people in this situation are tempted to do -- to LOCATE and describe the source of the problem. But just in the way that an obviously brown desk will lose all its brownness as we peer into its atomic structure, so will that which makes Shakespeare's writing so particular to him vanish as we try to train our eyes upon it.

I mean, we can try. I just think that we won't succeed.

good night,

RE: Edward III - Authorship

Vere-ing off course,

I wish I'd included the small joke I'd intended about having a pool for how long it would be before one of us ripped into the authorship controversy. But I was thinking of an over/under number in terms of responses to my original e-mail. Not in terms of minutes. Derek wins.

I'm going to agree with Derek in principle, then explain why authorship matters. Ron Rosenbaum wrote, in his article "The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood," "The point is not who wrote Shakespeare (though I'm entirely convinced Shakespeare did) but what Shakespeare wrote, and what is falsely passed off as Shakespearean. The 'someone else wrote Shakespeare' types (and those who waste time arguing with them) are sad and pathetic because, frankly, life is short and if one has to choose between rereading King Lear or Othello and arguing about who wrote them, then one's priorities are profoundly misaligned. Any amount of time spent on the latter is subtracted from the former, alas."

When it comes to Edward III, I think we'll have a richer conversation if we focus on what is happening in the text or, by extension, what might happen on the stage. Every year that I teach Shakespeare, at least one student asks if Shakespeare actually wrote the plays attributed to him. And I give a version of Rosenbaum's response. Now, I'll add a bit of Derek's attitude as well.

But that said, I read Edward III with that question firmly in the back of my head: did Shakespeare write this? This is a question to which there is no definitive answer; asking it, though, leads us to an important form of assessment. Let's separate, for a moment, Shakespeare the man from Shakespeare the body of work. Then we must ask ourselves what makes the body of work unique? And finally are those attributes we've identified present in Edward III?

Why would we do this? Because to be able to do it means we recognize the essence of Shakespearean texts. Not the plot or the storylines or even the famous quotes, but something deeper -- the identity of the language. The question of whether Shakespeare might have written Edward III is the ultimate test of our familiarity with his work. By "familiarity" I don't mean that we have read it all and know it from memory; I mean that we have become familiar enough with the character of his writing that we know it from what it is not. Consider for a moment a more mundane version of this: the blind taste test. I have students who swear they can tell Pepsi from Coca-Cola. I like to pour a few colas (usually adding others like RC or Jones) into unmarked glasses and see. I'm impressed when they actually can. It means that they're familiar enough with the subtle differences in flavor that they "know" their colas. I want to know Shakespeare like that, because absent that familiarity, that understanding, I wonder if I really know "Shakespeare," as opposed to his fame. If I ripped a passage from a Shakespeare play you haven't read yet, maybe Coriolanus or Cymbeline, and one from Peele, one from Marlowe, and one from Fletcher, and sent them to you blind, could you tell who wrote which? Does it matter?


Edward III - Authorship

Derek writes:

Okay, having not posted a thing on Twelfth Night, I'm going to take a break from the ridiculous amount of reading, grading, writing, indexing, and teaching I'm doing over the summer and respond IMMEDIATELY to question 5.

Who wrote the play? It really does not matter, especially now. Arguments between the Oxfordians and the Baconians, or whatever, are all predicated upon the belief that the plays' authorship does something important for the meaning of the work, as though 400 years of theatrical tradition, summer Shakespeare festivals, and literally billions of student-hours have not entirely effaced whatever traces of authorial intention (if that's even a reasonable thing to point to anymore) once obtained in these works.

I've been reading Stephen Greenblatt this summer -- not the recent money-making Will in the World, but the original work of New Historicism, Shakespearean Negotiations. I expected to hate it, because I detest New Historicism generally, and particularly as it is applied to Shakespeare. Another scholar in this tradition, a guy named Kastan, who pretentiously titles his work Shakespeare After Theory (as though New Historicism does not have metaphysical commitments of its own), describes The Tempest like so: it is not a commentary on colonialism brought about by the recent discovery of the New World. No, it is rather best understood as pertaining to -- I'm not kidding -- protestant/catholic strife in southern Italy.

I'm not an expert on Early Modern Europe by any means, and I never have been, but I've enjoyed The Tempest when I've seen it. I have felt it speaking to me. While it would be easier to hear colonial undertones there, I certainly heard not the slightest suggestion of religious unrest, and yet the play filled my ears.

Whatever Shakespeare means, however we as a culture have come to value these plays, I am certain that searching back through 400 years of history, either to the genius of the Author himself or to the "energeia" out of which the plays emerged, will not help us answer these questions for ourselves. If what we hear now are but echoes of some original thing, the echoes remain what we hear, and they are enough. The original would not speak in a language we can understand anyway, the world in which it resounded having died away long ago. We should call off that particular search.

It does not matter who wrote the plays. The plays exist, and as much as we may hate on Joe Dowling for botching them, part of the reason it bothers us is because we recognize that every performance has, to some degree, a lasting impression on the content of the play. And because we paid money for our seats, of course.

That's enough of a rant for the time being. In the fall, I am off to the Eucor universities of the Rhein valley in order to start a second PhD at the universities where Heidegger and Nietzsche taught -- Shakespeare, obviously, will be the subject of the dissertation, but the broader project will be attempting to account for the way the plays interact with or have their being in our culture without resorting to either a claim to "universality," authorial intention, or historical context (that looks back to the originary period for meaning). I think in order to understand Shakespeare, we have to look at the way those plays exist now. I'm off now to downtown Iowa City, in fact, to read Julian Young's Heidegger's Philosophy of Art.

Ciao, as they for some reason say in Basel,

Edward III - Opening Thoughts


Welcome to our discussion of The Reign of King Edward III. Up to this point, we've read and discussed 21 of Shakespeare's plays, and we will be entering a stretch where many of the plays we read will be most familiar. I wonder if that doesn't have something to do our relative paucity of comment on Twelfth Night, for which I want to apologize to Cindy who got us started with some very good questions. Is there much left to say when we get to the Macbeths and the Hamlets? I hope so, and perhaps that will be a good discussion starter (when we get there): how does one continue a tradition of vital comment with a play about which there has already been so much?

We also have put the bulk of Shakespeare's history plays behind us. Which is too bad. I found Talbot, the Richards, Henry IV, Hotspur, and Hal to be fascinating characters, great fun to read about as characters as much as historical figures. Edward III gives us the opportunity to have another conversation about history as drama and the stageability of English monarchical myth building; Elizabethan attitudes toward honor, chivalry, leadership, political expediency, their own past, their neighbors, and warfare; the value, joy, and disadvantages of teaching lesser known works; and the beauty of English language from this period.

Edward III was printed in 1596 by London bookseller and publisher Cuthbert Burby, although it was probably written earlier; the title page, which includes no author's name, declares "As it hath bin sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London." I want to set aside, for the moment, the lurking question of authorship (did he, or didn't he?) and focus on some qualities of the play.

First, you put the play down, and you are struck by the clear division that seems to split it into two parts. Acts 1 and 2 present a King Edward on the brink of scuttling his continental ambitions in favor of a rather squalid attempt to seduce the Countess of Salisbury. Acts 3, 4, and 5 present the heroism of Edward the Black Prince and the fall of France. You wonder: have I seen this sort of bifurcation before? Is there some theme or characteristic that joins the two parts, unifying them? Is this "bad" playwriting?

Second, upon reflection you might recall that on a number of occasions we've commented on the chivalric values present in Shakespeare's history plays, and how they have seemed to fare in the presence of an edgier, distinctly Tudor, realpolitik. Talbot fell, Falstaff mocked honor, Hal manipulated his own image in order to create a certain impression of leadership, the war of the roses foregrounded political intrigue over "precedents" (or the rules of chivalry). Edward III seems to uphold chivalry and honor. How does it fit into the historical attitudes we've already discussed?

Third, Henry V came off as a fairly patriotic hagiography at times. Edward III? Even more so? Less? What takes precedence here: history, the English myth, drama?

Fourth, one night, over a couple drinks, you have a brilliant idea for staging this sucker. Your producing director thinks you're nuts and willfully seeking the financial ruin of your theater. What argument do you make to convince her otherwise? (And what is your brilliant idea?)

Fifth, who wrote this play? How do we know? Does it matter? I assume this is a question about language. Is it?

So, colleagues, invocate some golden Muse
to bring hither a discussion bedeck'd
with jewels of wit and sparkling intellect.


Monday, May 17, 2010

The Loneliness of Shakespeare Apocrypha

It occurred to me that we could have played our Shakespeare Apocrypha game with a number of plays, including Thomas of Woodstock, which Ernst and I discussed a couple years ago. There's also things like Yorkshire Tragedy, Locrine, and The Second Maiden's Tragedy. A little research suggests that scholars before us have pretty much settled the authorship of these. (It's surprising how often the answer seems to be a committee.) Not that that would have reduced the enjoyment of rooting around in the periphery of the Shakespearean experience.

As we begin Edward III, where I'm less interested in an authorship debate than I am in exploring stylistics, I thought I'd share Ron Rosenbaum's latest for, a heap of righteous indignation aimed at Arden's attempt to "extend the brand" to a play Rosenbaum considers laughably undeserving:

The Double Falsehood of "Double Falsehood."


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Twelfth Night - More on the Language of Love

The Will Experience is theoretically a discussion, but forgive me if I talk to myself for a bit. I’m still thinking of the language of love (obsessively thinking, perhaps—please read the revised last two paragraphs of my last post, because I tinkered with the conclusion; now I think it actually says what I intended.)

After the “willow cabin” declaration, the scene moves on to the ever-inebriated Sir Toby who gives the Clown a sixpence for a love song. What to expect?

What is love: ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure. (II.3.48-52)

Sir Andrew has chosen a love song rather than a song conducive to virtue, yet it is quite sobering in its warning to these aging knights that love belongs to the young and youth’s a stuff will not endure. It articulates a version of the warning to Viola and Olivia that it is their duty to marry and perpetuate their beauty before it is marred by age: “For women are as roses, whose fair flow’r/ Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour” (II.4.38-39). Do you remember Findlay’s Comic Flaw: we are mortal? We are back to language about love.

Switch to besmitten (besotted?) Orsino who also commands from Feste an old and antique song, “that dallies with the innocence of love.” Did you expect this:

Come away, come away, death,
And in sad Cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it. (II.4.51-58)

The fair cruel maid and even the sad cypress return to Orsino’s Petrarchan romanticism, yet I find this truly melancholy, a foreshadow of the unsentimental realism of Feste’s epilogue, “When I was and a little tiny boy … For the rain it raineth every day.” Once again Shakespeare arcs from the Romantic (If music be the food of love) to the Realistic (the rain it raineth every day), from Hotspur to Henry V, from golden Duncan to black Macbeth, and soon from Ophelia and Laertes to Hamlet, though in Twelfth Night the arc soars first between the elements of air and earth.