This summer my wife and I took a month-long trip during which we attended four weddings. We were relieved that the trip didn’t include a funeral.
But I did cry at all the weddings. We concluded our trip by attending four plays at the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival, where I found myself crying once again.
Not during the rampages of “Richard III,” focused on the various ego-maniacal acts of the villainous title character who, among other things, arranges the famous brutal murder of the two young princes in the Tower. (The lead male part was played very effectively by a woman— the first time I’ve ever seen or even read about this substitution.)
Nor during “Titus Andronicus,” the most notoriously violent of all Shakespeare plays. (Among other things, the young Lavinia has her tongue cut out so that she can’t tell who has raped her and cut off her hands. A few years ago I impersonated the lead character Titus at a Luther English Department Halloween costume party, which meant tearing up my daughters’ Barbie dolls and serving the pieces to our students in a casserole dish.)
No, my tears came at the end of “Twelfth Night,” one of those wildly romantic comedies that ends with three marriages. When I teach Twelfth Night, I tend to emphasize the beauty of these improbable marriages. Yes, Olivia thought she was marrying her male servant Cesario, but Cesario turned out to be a woman and it was actually Cesario’s twin brother who she married when they met for the first time. Yes, Orsino does marry his servant Cesario (Viola) just minutes after threatening to kill him (her). But because of Cesario’s disguise, I have argued, these relationships are better than they would have otherwise been: many of the rituals and obstacles of heterosexual courtship are avoided because Olivia first reveals her love to a (disguised) female companion, and Orsino learns about love in the unthreatening atmosphere of guy- talk (carried on by a gal).
So why my tears?
The beauty of weddings is the extremity of the promise. To have and to hold until death do us part. There are a lot of marriages, alas, that don’t survive until death. A bridal gown salesperson proudly told our daughter that she had spent two full years planning her wedding (thus chastise our daughter for looking at gowns only six months before her July wedding), and then admitted that her marriage had failed in less than a year. The recent marriage of one of our daughter’s friends has crashed after less than two years.
But even marriages that survive until death are filled with broken promises. Not one of us loves and honors and cherishes as much as we promise that we will. How’s that for a dark view of life: even the promises we keep are to some degree broken before our lips have even lost their ruby color after the wedding kiss.
That’s the amazement of Shakespeare’s art. For all of its artificiality, it is so much like life that on different occasions a scene can evoke very different responses. On one day giddy laughter; on another, sad tears. The words are the same, and in some sense the meaning is the same, but our response to it is as different as our reaction to a friend’s comment on Monday and to the same comment on Friday.
Marriage is as brittle as glass. Long live marriage!
If you don’t have time to read “Twelfth Night” aloud with a group of friends right now - a great way to experience Shakespeare - how about joining the “Our Shakespeare” project for a viewing of a wonderful Twelfth Night film this Friday, September 23?
Watch for posters of other upcoming film showings.
And a reminder that “Sounding the Sonnets” continues every weekday on Bentdahl Commons from 12:05-12:09 p.m. Four minutes, two Shakespeare sonnets and an injection of beauty that might carry through your whole day.