Our Shakespeare

By: Mark Z. Muggli, Professor of English
Thursday, November 29, 2012

If you attended the Luther theatre program’s October “Much Ado About Nothing” and were considering attending the dance program’s November “A Tragedy Like Macbeth,” you could have been pretty sure about the differences between the two. Besides the fact that the second one was a dance, and included the world’s first knock-knock jokes, you would know that “Macbeth’s” deaths (fine rhyme, no?) were for real and were accompanied not only by remorse — remorse is actually common to both plays — but blood.

It’s easier to think that “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Twelfth Night,” (to be performed this weekend) and “As You Like It” (part of the spring Center Stage Series) are closer to being interchangeable.

It’s partly those flip, flighty names. And “Twelfth Night” has a subtitle — “What You Will” — that’s even more like the other two names.

But in fact these plays — and all of Shakespeare’s — are quite different from one another in both tone and content. I’ve often had this experience with non-specialists: I’ll mention a Shakespeare comedy, they’ll admit being confused about which play it is, I’ll give one small detail, and, Bang!, they know which one I’m talking about.

The Experimental Wrighter

Because Shakespeare has for over 250 years been institutionalized as “the great writer,” our culture tends to think of him as a stodgy, conservative figure. A kind of Elizabeth II/Prince Charles combo standing as a representative of all that is good and true and past, and therefore endlessly repetitious.

But Shakespeare is startingly experimental in his approach to playwrighting (Notice that the word is “wright = make,” not “write = to form letters with a pen.”). True, his plays can be categorized by genre (comedy, tragedy, history), but even those categories overlap wildly in their content. “Hamlet” may be Shakespeare’s funniest play.

Even plays that do have some common structural features vary dramatically. Romantic comedies, for example, typically begin with figures who seem to be destined for each other. Then stuff gets in the way (“stuff” like fathers, lies, sexual temptation, greed, class consciousness). Then the stuff is overcome and the couple comes together in a happy ending. But Shakespeare always works with multiple couples as a way of introducing contrasts between individual personalities and, more importantly, between types of relationships. Thus the so-called happy ending is actually a series of endings with varying degrees of happiness.

Degrees of Love

In the Sept. 22, 2011 Chips I wrote briefly about the two happiest “Twelfth Night” marriages. My claim was that the two central marriages are likely to be successful because the couples developed their relationships as same-sex acquaintances before they became engaged as opposite-sex lovers (Shakespeare loves disguises because they provide alternative realities, kind of like science fiction without the science) (For that earlier column, see http://www.luther.edu/english/ourshakespeare/newsstories.)

The “Twelfth Night” marriage least likely to succeed is between the lush Sir Toby Belch and the gentlewoman Maria, no matter how attractive the two characters may be individually. The tip-off to the problems are these two lines:

•When Maria proposes an elaborate revenge plot against the household’s steward Malvolio, Toby says this about Maria: “She’s a beagle, true-bred, and one that adores me.”

•At the end of the play, another character announces how successful the revenge plot has been and announces, “In recompense whereof [Toby] hath married her.”

We now have three marriages. But just as illuminating are the figures who don’t marry, and the reasons that they don’t.

•There’s the selfless sailor Antonio, who serves his friend Sebastian in extravagant language suited to a lover. He may be a model of generosity, but he becomes a bit of a fool in that nobody even bothers to think of him when the final couplings are announced and celebrated.

•There’s the foolishly ambitious Malvolio, who imagines marriage with his lady because it offers him a path toward wealth and power.

•There’s the foolish knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who although he claims “I was adored once” in response to the first of Toby’s bulleted lines above, is so completely, unredeemably foolish that Shakespeare doesn’t even provide a potential spouse.

•And there’s the actual fool, Feste (as in “Festival”), a man who is wise for our good, and for the good of the other “Twelfth Night” characters, but who is perhaps too wise for his own good and who is left to his cynical self at the play’s end.

All this range gives us audience members a lot to choose from. Not because we can model ourselves after any individual character, but because we can sift through all these characters’ qualities and values and to some degree, perhaps, reshape ourselves. “Twelfth Night” is a load of fun, one of the funniest plays you’ll ever see. But lurking within its mountain of pleasures is another mountain of useful life-lessons. That’s our Shakespeare.