In space no one can hear you explode, Or, Teaching literary convention in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies

I don’t lecture much. Boring to do, boring to be done to. Conversation’s far more fun. But two or one times a quarter I talk for around ten minutes from prepared notes. (Which in practice takes most of an hour because we break to chat.) Here’s one such set I range from, on why what seems odd in Shakespeare’s plays, ain’t half so strange as stuff we take for bread and butter. And why artmaking is worldfashioning.

My notes are kind of telegraphic, but I’ll try to flesh out, and put interpolations in

italics

and texts we go to in

block quotes.


To start, we read Twelfth Night 2.4.79-124. Viola, a young woman recently shipwrecked, has disguised herself as a young man, Cesario, and entered the service of one Count Orsino, with whom she has fallen in love. Orsino, however, is infatuated with Olivia, whom he sends Cesario to woo on his behalf.

ORSINO   Once more, Cesario,
Get thee to yond same sovereign cruelty:
Tell her, my love, more noble than the world,
Prizes not quantity of dirty lands;
The parts that fortune hath bestow’d upon her,
Tell her, I hold as giddily as fortune;
But ’tis that miracle and queen of gems
That nature pranks her in attracts my soul.

VIOLA   But if she cannot love you, sir?

ORSINO   I cannot be so answer’d.

VIOLA                                                   Sooth, but you must.
Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love a great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not then be answer’d?

ORSINO   There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention
Alas, their love may be call’d appetite,
No motion of the liver, but the palate,
That suffer surfeit, cloyment and revolt;
But mine is all as hungry as the sea,
And can digest as much: make no compare
Between that love a woman can bear me
And that I owe Olivia.

VIOLA                             Ay, but I know—

ORSINO   What dost thou know?

VIOLA   Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

ORSINO                           And what’s her history?

VIOLA   A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but indeed
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

ORSINO   But died thy sister of her love, my boy?

VIOLA   I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too: and yet I know not.
Sir, shall I to this lady?

ORSINO                           Ay, that’s the theme.
To her in haste; give her this jewel; say,
My love can give no place, bide no denay.

Viola’s love for Orsino is clear. But on the page, is Orsino in love with Viola, yet?

We decide he’s not. Maybe dawning interest, and maybe hesitation in “Ay, that’s the theme,” but on the page, that’s about it.

So what do we make of it, that in Act 5, as soon as she’s revealed to be a she, he falls for her, asks her to marry him? Unrealistic, right?

This group had a ready explanation: Orsino’s actually gay, and was attracted to “him” all along, but couldn’t express that or admit it, till the “boy” was revealed to be the woman.

That reading anticipates Trevor Nunn’s in his production – not “Orsino is gay,” but, desire for a man that leaves him confused and divided. This clip will do for illustration:

So there’s one way to make the speed of Orsino’s love for Viola psychologically plausible: it wasn’t fast, it was slow, and held secret. Here’s another way, in SparkNotes:

[T]he play repeatedly raises the question of whether romantic love has more to do with the person who is loved or with the lover’s own imagination—whether love is real or merely something that the human mind creates for the sake of entertainment and delight. In the case of Orsino, the latter seems to be true, as he is less in love with Olivia herself than he is with the idea of being in love with Olivia. He claims to be devastated because she will not have him, but as the audience watches him wallow in his seeming misery, it is difficult to escape the impression that he is enjoying himself—flopping about on rose-covered beds, listening to music, and waxing eloquent about Olivia’s beauty to his servants. The genuineness of Orsino’s emotions comes into question even further when he later switches his affections from Olivia to Viola without a second thought; the audience then suspects that he does not care whom he is in love with, as long as he can be in love.

What do you think?

They generally like it. This is a setup. I’m a bastard.

So, two ways to explain something that looks wildly unrealistic. One says, seems sudden but isn’t sudden, he was falling in love over a period of time, we just didn’t see it.

Other says, he’s in love not with a person, but with an idea. When he switches from Olivia to Viola, the love object stays the same. Only the occasion, the excuse, changes.


Notice, with both, we’re trying to make the change psychologically realistic, and to resolve an unease that way. Here’s a third way of addressing the question, one that doesn’t try for psychological plausibility, and that may not resolve our unease.

It means appealing to literary convention. A shared understanding of what’s plausible within the imaginal world of the text – the play or novel or poem or movie – even if it’s unrealistic outside that imaginal world.

A literary convention of the 19th century novel – a minor one – is that no one ever goes to the bathroom. For over a hundred years everyone held it in. Unrealistic? Sure. Does it bother you? Probably not. Reading Jane Eyre or Middlemarch, you probably don’t even notice it.

A literary convention of science fiction movies – again, a minor one – is that sound travels in the vacuum of space. Another is that faster-than-light drive is possible. Another, that all the species of the galaxy speak middle-American English, or can be got to easily. Not all science fiction movies hold to all of these, but when one departs from one of them, it’s noteworthy, as an exception.

You can check your own adherence to a literary convention by whether you notice it or not. If you read the whole of Jane Eyre and never notice that no one once goes to the bathroom – you’ve probably bought into the conventions of the 19th century novel.

But if you go to The Force Awakens and can’t get past the fact that the laser canons of the star destroyers can be heard across the vacuum of space – “that’s just not realistic!” – then you haven’t bought into the conventions of the contemporary science fiction movie.

Note that The Last Jedi intervened in that convention …

The ensuing conversation got to some of what’s in the notes following.


Shakespeare’s plays depend on literary conventions also. One convention of his romantic comedies – a major one – is that characters fall in and out of love with remarkable speed and ease.

Characters falling in and out of love with each other makes romantic comedies work. In the same way that faster-than-light drive makes science fiction movies work. You can do a lot more fun stuff on stage if characters keep changing love interests. You can do a lot more cool stuff on different planets if characters can actually get to different planets. By the same token, space explosions are more cool if they make noise – until they’re not.

So it’s not surprising that these became conventions of their genres. Unrealistic, implausible, outside their fictive worlds, but taken as givens within those worlds.

Watching science fiction, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about faster-than-light-drive – or the sound explosions make in space, or the convenient fact that everyone speaks English.

Watching a romantic comedy, if you buy into the world, you stop thinking about how fast people fall into and out of love. Within that world it’s perfectly realistic.

Here’s the thing though. Genre conventions evolve. So what was perfectly realistic 350 years ago, within these fictive worlds, now seems implausible. We still have romantic comedies, sure, and they still have genre conventions, absolutely, but they’re somewhat different than those Shakespeare worked with.

The small change from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is a moment of such evolution. Someone said, what happens if we do silent space explosions, and make that cool?


One thing that happens is, folks think the theatre has effed up. Can’t find a bootleg clip of the scene itself, but here’s an account of the confusion the moment – a ship colliding with another – caused by not being usual.

Many fans will report hearing gasps during this moment (that’s how effective the smash cut to silence is), but apparently some fans have been complaining and blaming the theater for a sound issue. Complains were apparently so consistent that an AMC Theater decided to print out and post signs warning fans in advance about the moment, saying the silence is very much an intentional creative decision made by director Rian Johnson. (Insider)

I’m curious whether the director’s intervention will stick, and how the genre will alter. It struck me as the one original moment in the movie.


Coming back to our first two accounts for why Orsino falls in love so fast.

When we hit Shakespearean conventions that are over with, we kind of go for them, and we kind of don’t. To the extent that we don’t, we try to resolve the dissonance in terms of the conventions we have on hand. Which are generally those of psychological realism – conventions established by movies and TV.

A plausible theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s been falling for her for quite some time (Nunn).

A bullshit theory that psychological realism can produce: he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes)

Why bullshit? Because it smushes every lover in every romantic comedy Shakespeare wrote into an undifferentiated porridge. You can say that of all of them. It’s just part of Shakespeare’s vision of romantic love that love loves to love itself. You can take it as a starting point, but if that’s as far as you can get with psychological realism, psychological realism is about worthless. Especially since said realism is about individuality, and with that outcome, it’s totally failed to individuate anyone.

Too, the theory fails to notice that Sebastian and Olivia (twice) fall in love with equal speed and for equally shallow reasons. The only ones who’ve been nursing love for an “appropriately” long duration are Orsino and – Malvolio. Yeah, ugh.

Must also note my ulterior motive, steer them away from SparkNotes, at least one of them, maybe forever. So bad, terrible, that these pre-digested sources are so readily available. Their readings may be rougher but they are smarter. The questions they’ve been asking! V. good.


So, to sum up, three ways of accounting for the speed with which Orsino falls for Viola once she’s revealed as Viola. (1) It wasn’t fast, he was falling for her all along (Nunn). (2) He’s not falling for her, he’s just “in love with love” (SparkNotes). (3) It’s realistic within the conventions of Shakespearean romantic comedy, because quick moves in and out of love are, for these plays, a condition of the real.

The first is quite reasonable though it denatures, modernizes, Shakespeare’s play somewhat. The second is unfortunate – it pounds all the romantic comedies into a homogeneous love-mush Shakespeare would ne’er recognize. The third is easy to ignore because to stand there means discomfort; we have to abide in understandings of the text, which in turn are understandings of the world, that are not ours, though they underwrite ours.

So they are uncanny, intimate to us, unknown to us. At a wonderful dinner last night with friends, Lunar New Year, we touched briefly on the profundity and/or banality of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Ironic the know-it-all missed the fourth category, the unknown knownthe uncanny.

Be careful about projecting 21st century expectations – psychological realism – onto 17th century plays. Our literary conventions have descended from Shakespeare’s, he’s had a major part in creating the conventions we hold to, but also they’ve changed over time. Don’t be too quick to erase the strangeness of these that ours came from, their uncanniness.


Addendum. I’m writing this up a couple weeks after the fact – and am v. glad to report, they’re putting this convention notion to work. I asked, last class, how we could make sense of Iago’s evil, when it seems to far exceed all its possible grounds. (It may be as much a problem for Othello as Hamlet’s boundless nausea is, by Eliot’s account, for Hamlet.) Here the bullshit psychological realist accounts are internal to the play, offered by Iago himself. The Moor slept with my wife, or I’ve heard maybe he did, and I’ll take it for hard fact, and burn him down. The Moor passed me over for promotion, and for that I’ll burn him down, and all he loves. Yeah, whatever it is, it ain’t that.

There’s a plausible psychological story, that he’s a sociopath, and it works to account for him, but at the cost of a modern imposition, smothering the mystery he poses. There are also plausible sociological accounts – that Iago is the diffused racism of Venetian society, or Shakespeare’s English imagination of it, concentrated to a dagger point. We touched on all these and did good work with them. But the point that delighted me the most, in a class that delights me lots and often, not because it’s more right than the others but because it’s harder to get to, and it shows they’re thinking and feeling the plays as formally deliberately made things, with their own felt conditions arranged in a coherence, is that Iago is as evil as the play needs him to be. The play needs a villain sufficient to its hero if it’s to be a tragedy. The plot and the moral balance of the play make Iago what he is. In other words, literary convention, as it belongs to genre, form, and ethos. These kids, they doing it.

 

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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