Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Pastoral Romance in Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, written around 1600, is the last of the great romantic comedies of Shakespeare's early maturity (e.g., Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It), immediately preceding the period of the so-called Problem Plays and the great tragedies. Like these other comedies, Twelfth Night is written in the pastoral tradition and explores, as its central concern, the nature of love between men and women as a preparation for marriage and integration into a richer and fuller social existence.

Twelfth Night is clearly part of the same tradition as As You Like It, and many of the dramatic elements are very similar. In both plays, the main plot features a young, intelligent female faced with the task of negotiating her way through a courtship with a man who needs to be educated into an understanding of what it means to love intelligently (rather than sentimentally). To carry out this task, she adopts a disguise as a young man and improvises her way through a series of meetings and conversations with a wide variety of people (prominent among them the young man who is the object of her affections), until, through a series of circumstances the complexities are happily (and somewhat implausibly) resolved. Part of the plot clearly raises gender issues and explore homoerotic possibilities in much the same way as in As You Like It.

All of this takes place in an environment far away from the realities of urban political life, in a never-never land, so to speak, not quite as rustic as the Forest of Ardenne, perhaps, but divorced from the immediate demands of normal social living, a place where no one seems to do any work or to answer to the demands of significant social responsibilities, at least not as an immediately urgent priority. The country estate of Olivia and the court of Orsino are places almost exclusively devoted to leisure, music, love, and much fun—in that sense, they are removed from the practical realities of urban life and continue the pastoral tradition. At the same time, they both contain structures of authority, so that we do not have here the sort of freedom Rosalind enjoys in the Forest of Ardenne (more about that later).

[Parenthetically, we might observe here the absence in Twelfth Night of parents, a feature of the play which confers upon the participants a greater sense of freedom than in other Shakespearean comedies. Here the lovers are free to shape their lives without answering to the most obviously controlling features of the social tradition into which they are born]

The central issue in the courtship of Viola and Orsino, as in the courtship of Rosalind and Orlando, is the need to educate the man out of his excessively sentimental vision of love, a wallowing in the conventional literary emotions appropriate to love, so that he reaches a sharper, more intelligent and aware vision of the reality of the experience. By the end of the process, the man has learned to alter the language with which he expresses his feelings, the most immediately indication of a transformed understanding of his own feelings.

Parenthetically, it is worth stressing here the importance in all these comedies of what I call emotional intelligence. Shakespeare's main point here seems to be that the powerful and important feelings of love can be easily corrupted by a false appreciation for the experience, especially as that corruption manifests itself in sentimentality and posing, a tendency not to confront the experience directly and honestly but to wrap oneself up in the conventional language of love and to adopt the conventional poses of the distraught lover. It's as if these plays are, in part, a warning about the dangers of falling in love with love or with the conventions of love rather than looking directly at or listening clearly to the object of one's love. Such tendencies are dangerous because they cloud people's perceptions and blunt their feelings. The continuing attention in As You Like It and Twelfth Night to the language of love, therefore, is clearly linked to an important moral issue: those who describe their highly charged emotional states in conventional terms or who adopt conventional ways of describing their emotional state are, in a sense, corrupting the experience. They are being unintelligently sentimental and therefore dishonest (to themselves and to others).

However, Twelfth Night is, in some ways, somewhat different from the other plays mentioned. In the first place, it incorporates in its sub-plot a style of comedy derived from a different tradition from pastoral, namely, the comedy of manners, something which gives the play a sharper cutting edge in so far as attention to social issues is concerned. Coming to this work directly from the much more robust world of As You Like It or Much Ado About Nothing, we cannot help being struck by the ways in which, for all their clear similarities, Twelfth Night raises ironic questions about the ways in which the difficulties of young love are resolved.

1 comment:

  1. oye!! psot the short qns and the literary terms!!