Friday, June 29, 2012

If equal love there cannot be

What do we think of the convenient pairings in Shakespearean comedy. Shakespeare always loves to get more marriages into the end of a comedy than we expect: from The Comedy of Errors, when we find out who the Abbess is, to The Winter's Tale, when Leontes becomes again, at last, the impressario who can join the widowed Paulina to Camillo, Shakespeare aims almost always (and arguably there's no "almost" about it) at giving us more marriages than we're counting on, giving us an extra surprise.

And this isn't true only of his comedies. Such a dynamic may be found, perhaps surprisingly, true of the tragedies as well. There it tends to appear as friendship more than as the romantic love marriage ratifies. But think of the strange friendships that arise at the end of the tragedies, friendships in spite of all: Richard II and Bolingbroke, Hal and Hotspur, Edmund and Edgar, Hamlet and Laertes, Macbeth and Macduff. Macbeth and Macduff, yes, because once you recognize this dynamic you can see how it works in the subtlest and most unexpected contexts.

The tragic friendships and comic loves overlap as well, and it's worth noticing not only Dolabella and Cleopatra, but also Edmund, Regan and Goneril, "married in an instant," Gertrude and Claudius ("Oh--my good lord! What I have seen tonight!") since these unexpected moments of marital tenderness can make us see that Othello's and Desdemona's last scene also combines spousal conversation ("Husband and wife things" as Charlene [Ashley Judd] says in Heat) with the tragic violence that destroys them both. Othello almost misses it, almost blinds himself to it, but it's there in Desdemona's farewell and in Othello's inability to assimilate it to Iago's version of things. A stretch, I know, but that's the point of coming to see these subtle regularities and the subtle variations on a theme that Shakespeare plays throughout his career.

In Much Ado About Nothing Hero gets to marry the dreadful Claudio, after he apologizes: how happy are we about that? In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Helena gets to marry someone who only loves her because his vision is medicated; in Twelfth Night Olivia falls in love with Cesario (Viola), as do we all, but unknowingly marries her double, Sebastian; in As You Like It Phoebe marries Sylvius only because she's promised Ganymede (Rosalind) that she would if "he" were ever to marry a man.

In all these plays there is (for the audience) what in the brilliant vocabulary of the fan fiction universe is called the One True Pair (the OTP); sometimes also what's called the OTT, the One True Threesome. I think that in Shakespeare the odd numbers are what matters. Odd numbers because what's central to us in a romance will often be a single character (Viola, Rosalind, Helena, Hero, Beatrice, Portia, Jessica: in comedies they tend to be female, but one could add Petruchio, I suppose) whom we want to see happy; but sometimes that happiness will take the form of the happiness of those who had been their rivals or misunderstanders, so that the happy threesome, the OTTs in Much Ado are Beatrice, Benedick, and Hero; in Midsummer Night's Dream Hermia, Lysander, and Helena; in Twelfth Night Viola, Orsino, and Olivia: "A sister! You are she!" exclaims Olivia when she finds out that they are to be sisters-in-law happily ever after. (Sir Toby Belch, Maria, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek constitute another true threesome in the play.)

"You blessed winners all," Paulina calls her charges (before the surprise last marriage Leontes commands). So being part of the OTT, or the OT(2n+1), where n is a nonnegative integer) is in a sense what makes it okay for the Olivias, Paulinas, Heros, Helenas, and Phoebes of the plays.

But how is that? Well it's as though they too are part of the general good feeling that they see work out. They belong in part to the events, in part to the set of spectators to which we, the audience, also belong. The general good feeling at the end of a comedy is that we're all liking each other. We're happy that our neighbor in the next seat is happy. We don't need a laugh track: we're all laughing.

So something like a shared sociability is the achievement of comedy, and Shakespeare makes use of that to increase just that good feeling. Phoebe is happy, Olivia is, Nerissa is, and their happiness, like ours, generously assumes that those around them are generously assuming their happiness. Everyone becomes likable. Why not take up with this likable person who likes you too. It's fine. It's okay. It's good. It's the best kind of party.


  1. The end of Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story manages both to mystify and satisfy through pure form. The equally mystifying start of the movie is its immediate formal justification, but Shakespearean convention (particularly Twelfth Night) seems the ultimate cause, with the ultimate joke being the helpful third-wheels' bewilderment.

    Most movie comedies take the easier Malvolio way out, but it's true that the losers' fates can feel unpleasantly smug, particularly for those of us who weren't born rich or who like Ralph Bellamy. His Girl Friday and Private Lives and so forth handled it better, I think, by undercutting the victorious couple's happiness.

    1. Yes, that's great about The Palm Beach Story. Perfect, I's almost say.

      Doesn't Ralph Bellamy get Mother in His Girl Friday? (A movie in some ways like PBS: does Hildy Johnson turn out to be male or female? "I'm a newspaper man!") But of course the romance that doesn't come off (does it?) is between Earl Williams and sweet Molly Malloy.


    3. Beautiful set of shots. That door has closed on people so often already in the movie.

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