First lets recap: In Persuasion, Austen positions a scene of shame at the center of the novel’s plot. RR readers fluent in subtext understand that all along what Anne really wants to do is grab Wentworth and scream, “So what if Louisa never recovers from her cracked head, and yes, becomes a country idiot. You love me! Forego your obligation to marry her!” But instead Austen buries the schtick and gives us a tableau of shame and refinement.
Now I want to contrast this scene in Austen with a comparable scene of shame in Shakespeare. No play furnishes me with a better one than 12th Night: the gulling of Malvolio. What does the countess Olivia say, “Why this is very midsummer madness!” At that moment in the play, Malvolio, her steward, is stamped as the emblem of this ailment. And from what does Malvolio suffer? From being made the object of a ruthless prank. Maria forges a letter in the hand of her gentlewoman Olivia in which she pleads with her Stewart to woo her. The resulting spectacle is the blot of shame at the center of what to me is Shakespeare’s best comedy.
Now lets work Austen back in: both authors explore shame in rich ways that connect characters, writers, readers, not to mention teachers and students. Perhaps it is too easy to say that Shakespeare literally acts out in BROAD COMEDY what in Austen lives wryly in the margins. Maybe that has everything to do with the difference between a play and a novel and nothing to do with Shakespeare and Austen. Perhaps. So instead lets go at it by way of plot. Because there I know one thing for certain and that is that Austen would never make the mistake of lavishing this sort of attention on a minor character. In Persuasion when we read of “poor Richard”--that he was a “troublesome, hopeless son” – “stupid and unmanageable” and that with his death the Musgrove family was visited with “good fortune” we can close the book and fall asleep confident that Richard is not going to rise from the dead and steal the story right as the curtain falls. Truth be told, Austen isn't inclined to extend this sort of sympathy even to Mrs. Musgrove, who is a very palpable presence in the book. And all I can say is that is an artist who serves a stern god.
But not Shakespeare. At almost every turn he is willing to give actors with smaller parts the green light to steal the limelight. (What competition that most have provoked). As a result, Malvolio emerges as the surprise plum role, and it is this fantastic inversion that becomes Shakespeare’s signature, his dynamic music. Typically then, Shakespeare conceives of a comedy as having a tripartite structure. Clearly he stayed in school long enough to absorb that message from the schoolmasters he was later to parody so effectively. In 12th Night, the main plot involves the twin lovers, in the second plot Antonio repeatedly rescues Sebastian only to lose him to Olivia, and last, we have the gulling of Malvolio. Then as in baroque Italian painting, you get a powerful diagonal line of narrative momentum (as Malvolio's abuse rises to the top).
And I hear this music too: for example, in a midtempo rock song that fades out with a loop on the chorus. Listen for example to the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” (at about 2:20 on)
Got To Roll Me
Keep on Rolling
To me the structure of call and response (of rounds) pulsates through 12th Night, making it a dream of endless revelry in the face of sure knowledge that pleasure is fleeting. (It is a clear improvement over the Merchant of Venice, though now that play’s ashes float through 12th night.)
But where I am now with this speculation--and where I will now end--is that it is in attempting to milk shame as a dramatic effect that Shakespeare stumbles upon his best method for creating deep characterization. It occurs most dramatically with the secondary and even tertiary characters and that may be his mode’s limitation. Consider how Trevor Nunn chooses to end his film adaptation of 12th Night.
Feste sings a folk song: “For the rain it rainth every day” while we watch various characters make their leave, all in one way, shut out from the festive wedding within. (Where already those happy souls, washed free from shame, flatten into a minor distraction.) And in every case, you can imagine a future for the "minor" characters after they exit. The characterization is that good. And Shakespeare doesn’t always cross that bar.
I am going to turn now in my next blog to some preliminary thoughts that bridge 12th Night with King Lear.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports