Thursday, June 9, 2011

Shakespeare's craft: Othello and Twelfth Night

In Shakespeare, as in history, everything happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce, sometimes, but sometimes vice versa. Consider Twelfth Night (1602) and Othello (1603).

I've long insisted that Dan Decker's great how-to book for writing for Hollywood, Anatomy of the Screenplay, is the best single book on Shakespeare that I've ever read, despite the fact that Decker never mentions him. What I learned from that book is the sublimity of Shakespeare's construction, of his skill.

I was thinking about that today - well this week actually, since I went to see Derek Jacobi's Lear at BAM on Saturday. What I saw there, on that bare stage, was how perfectly the director, Michael Grandage, had blocked the play, from start to finish. I'd never really noticed the obvious fact that one reason for the contest among the daughters is to establish those three characters (Grandage properly brings out the differences between Goneril and Regan, so that we don't, as in so many other performances, just lump them together as evil step-sister-types). The play has a lot of important parts for an audience to keep track of: Lear and his three daughters and Kent and the Fool (6); the elder daughters' husbands (2 more); Goneril's servant Oswald (+1); Gloucester and his two sons (another 3): that's a total of twelve important roles. I think the general rule is that without famous actors (or famous characters) an audience can't keep control of who's who if there are more than eight people in a movie, but Shakespeare pushes well beyond that (off hand I think only Hamlet rivals Lear in the number of important figures). So part of his craftsmanship is telling us who's who at every moment, and the contest does that with very great economy and skill.

It also makes it clear whose side we're on: Cordelia's and not her sisters'. This is so obvious as not to warrant a mention, but it got me thinking about how we know whose side to be on in other plays. Why Othello's and not Roderigo's? Again, easy. Still the point is that (as Decker says) every scene consists of people talking to each other who want things from each other and don't want to keep things from each other. Everyone wants something. How do we decide whom we want to get what they want, and whom we don't?

Twelfth Night, for example, might be a little harder. The very first speech establishes a love-lorn figure (like Roderigo in Othello) who loves a woman who doesn't love him back. This being romantic comedy, it seems significant that she doesn't love another. In romantic comedies in general, if the obstacle to mutual love is misunderstanding or misapplication of one's energies or talents, the story will show how that obstacle may be overcome. If the obstacle is true-love for another person, well, the protagonist's gain comes at the expense of that other person, at the expense true-love, and the result is at best bittersweet. Ilsa must go with Victor Lazlo; whereas Ginger Rogers may be engaged to others, but never loves anyone but Fred Astaire.

But here Orsino loves Olivia, and she, for her part, is just making excuses. Defeasible excuses. Excuses that the story can overcome, or so it would seem.

But then there's Viola. She loves Orsino, but he loves another. Structurally, she's in more or less the same position as Malvolio. (Olivia is somewhat different: Malvolio doubles and so serves as a foil for Viola; whereas Olivia, willing to marry someone like but not identical to the person she thought he was, doubles and serves as a foil for Orsino. Malvolio and Olivia are possibilities that bring out some less satisfying routes Orsino and Viola's characters could have taken.) Why do we root for her and not for him?

The answer illuminates the very fact that we do root for one and not the other. Why do we root at all? Rooting for a preferred romantic outcome in a play is a type of prosocial behavior. We like someone - Orsino or Viola or Hermia or Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire - and we have an interestingly unselfish reaction to liking them. We want to see them happy. They don't have to like us or know us or notice us. In plays they don't; in novels still less; in movies least of all, perhaps. We're lookers on, but we look on with good will, not Malvolio's malevolence.

What we feel good will for, in the virtuous circle of prosocial interaction, are those with good will. Audiences feel unified when we all root for the same thing, especially when we root for those who are similarly good-natured. That's what it means to see a feel-good movie or play. Everybody's happy because everybody's happy.

So we root for Viola because she's rooting for Orsino. She tries to help him. She loves him, but her love is sufficiently unselfish, sufficiently like an audience's, that she works to bring him a happy ending to which she'll be a spectator. See, too, the melancholy joy with which Paulina congratulates "you precious winners, all" in The Winter's Tale. Paulina, Beatrice, Viola, Theseus, Hippolyta: they root for the happiness of those they love, even love erotically. So (in the same way) we root for theirs, and so (therefore) we root for theirs.

Shakespeare makes us like those generous-hearted characters who don't stand too squarely in the way of what other generous-hearted characters want. That's Viola. She's helpful, against her own interests. Whereas Malvalio isn't. That's (strangely enough) Helena. But she's helping, against her own interests, a character who isn't generous-hearted (Demetrius), so we are more ambivalent about her. (Shakespeare experiments with every combination, and the comparison of Helena to Viola is extremely useful.)

And if Viola were playing for herself and not for Orsino? If she were strategizing to get her man by interfering with the love she's supposed to be trying to forward? Well, she'd be the villain, and the story would be a tragedy, and her name would be Iago.

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