Hamlet and Twelfth Night were made for each other. Probably written around the same time (yes, my 'probably' covers a multitude of scholarly sins, but let's leave the fraught matter of Shakespearean chronology aside for the length of this post), the two plays strangely and surprisingly complement each other, and could be fruitfully performed on alternating nights. If Hamlet is Shakespeare's greatest theatrically self-conscious work (the play within the play; Hamlet as an actor who performs madness so well that his own disbelief is at times suspended, etc.), Twelfth Night may be his greatest textually self-conscious work, frequently reflecting on problems of reading, writing, language, representation and (mis)interpretation. ("Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady's hand. These be her very c's, her u's, and her t's; and thus she makes her great P's." [insert groundlings' raucous laughter here]). And at the beginning of Act Three, Feste is a most Derridean clown (or should we think of Derrida as Feste translated into labyrinthine French?):
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them.
I am suggesting that each of these plays mirrors the other--or that we should make them mirrors in our minds. We should read Viola's performance through Hamlet's, and vice versa; read Malvolio's 'scene of reading' through Polonius's, and so on. This might be the best way to break down the thoroughly artificial historical barrier separating Shakespeare's raucous tragedies from his serious comedies. And this barrier must be laid low if we are to understand Shakespeare at all. "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" is the plea Shakespeare makes through Falstaff (playing Hal pleading for Falstaff in a typically mind-boggling bit of meta-theater), and too many critics and readers have been too quick to reply like Hal, "I do. I will." An important lesson of ALL of Shakespeare, though, is that any idea of tragedy that slights comedy cuts out its own heart before it has had a chance to start beating. Maybe we can't really understand Shakespeare unless and until we can see fat Jack Falstaff and melancholy Hamlet and tranvestite Viola as brothers.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
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"This might be the best way to break down the thoroughly artificial historical barrier separating Shakespeare's raucous tragedies from his serious comedies. And this barrier must be laid low if we are to understand Shakespeare at all."
Exactly! 'Measure For Measure' is easily just as grim as 'Macbeth' or 'King Lear', if not more so.
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