Saturday, July 17, 2010

RE: Twelfth Night - The Language of Love

Randall writes:

Hear me,

I’ve been thinking a bit about Gil’s argument that Orsino is a bad poet, and that Olivia loves language more than Cesario. The latter comment reminds me of Romeo, whom we frequently declaim in high school English classes for being in love with love rather than Juliet. Given the amazing words spilling from his heart to describe his love, we might argue that Romeo, too, is in love with language, for it is the words that create his passion. Or to put it another way, they are the food of his love.

So Orsino is wrong. It’s not music, it’s language, specifically Shakespeare’s language. Orsino’s mistake may confirm Gil’s point. As a bad poet (“most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty”), he finds no sustenance in love-language and so must turn to music. And certainly that’s no match for Shakespeare.

John Berryman is as impressed as Gil. In a section from Berryman’s Shakespeare, he calls Olivia’s response to Cesario’s delivery of Orsino’s overtures (“Your lord does know my mind, I cannot love him.”) an “utterance so perfect: it satisfies perfectly” (93). Looking at the sixteen lines that follow, including the “willow cabin” wooing, Berryman notes their intensity and concludes “Olivia falls in love upon her intuition that the person before her is capable of love” (94). Funny word, that: “intuition.” Of course, Berryman means it in its modern guise – implicit understanding without benefit of the five senses – but its closest usage to Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have associated it, according to the O.E.D., with spiritual insight. Do Cesario’s words penetrate to Olivia’s soul? Is that why she's so moved?

Again, this doesn’t reflect well on Orsino. After all, if Cesario’s capability for love is a revelation, then it would stand that Orsino, in Olivia’s eyes, is not so capable. No, that’s not quite right. I mean, in Olivia’s ears; in Shakespeare, lovers’ language does not enter through the eyes. Even Olivia gets this wrong: “Methinks,” she says, “I feel this youth’s perfections/ With an invisible and subtle stealth/ To creep in at mine eyes” (1.5.304-302). Notice the twin confusions, first that she feels (touch) that which enters through her eyes (sight) and second, that which is entering through her eyes is invisible. What’s more, her eyes are lying to her – she thinks she’s seeing a man. Berryman is right about intuition; the rest of her senses are pretty flummoxed.

Olivia repeats the mistake a few lines later: “I do I know not what, and fear to find/ Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind.” She continues to miss that her heart has been wooed and won through her ears. Interesting that she began the conversation with Cesario by saying: “Once more we will hear Orsino’s embassy.” And further she dismissed her attendants, saying “We will hear this divinity.”

Yes, she did. Cesario’s “willow cabin” lament is a feast for the ears: “call upon my soul,” “sing them loud,” “hallow your name,” “babbling gossip of the air,” and “cry out ‘Olivia!’” Cesario’s love-language is all sound.

But once Olivia hears this divinity, its power is too great; she requires intuition to recognize its effect. So, let’s get back to Gil’s point about Orsino’s poetry being bad, being “Petrarch turned to cliché.” Remember that eyes, especially as a path through which we are trapped by love (love at first sight?) are a persistent Petrarchan motif. We find, then, that Shakespeare once again has his way with his rivals, aligning Petrarch with Orsino (the bad poet), establishing the ears, not the eyes, as the true path of passion, and filling Gil’s, Berryman’s, and ours with perfect language, so that like Olivia we are won over. Completely.


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