Monday, October 5, 2009

Chalance through Nonchalance?

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night mirrors Aristophanes’ Lysistrata in its moments of shocking lewdness and crudeness, though they appear more artfully veiled in poetry in the Bard’s play than they do in that of the Greek dramatist.  Sir Andrew and Sir Toby Belch converse freely with one another on the delicate subject of Sir Andrew’s ‘private hair;’ Sir Belch answers his query about how well it becomes him with a crass analogy to plant fibers spun from a long pole and an admonition that alludes to contraction of venereal disease that will cause this hair to fall out: “I hope to see a housewife take thee between her legs and spin it off,” (I, 3).  The two men channel Lysistrata again at the end of the scene, discussing the implications of the astrological sign of Taurus under which they are both born.  Sir Belch’s cavalier remark about Taurus ruling the legs and thighs would not likely have gone over well if it had been viewed by a pagan, ancient Greek, god(s)-fearing audience (in Greek tradition, it was held that the sign of Taurus governed the body parts of the neck and throat. Sir Andrew doesn’t get it quite right either in his confident claim of it ruling the sides and heart).  The original Elizabethan audience may have derived amusement from this bawdy scene, but it is difficult to imagine this amusement being purely organic.  It seems far likelier that much of the laughter evoked would have come largely from immediate shock and consequent discomfort at the crassness of the subject matter.

As the play progresses, the crudeness persists, and boundaries of decency are pushed even further, with discussion of male endowment (“a good hanging”) as safeguard against marital unhappiness (I, 5) and sex as currency in the unromantic score-chart of the sexes (Viola: “Too well what love women to men may owe,” II, 4).  Though these subjects also loudly echo Lysistrata, several devices are used to mask them more effectively.  In the veil of poetic language, frank or cynical discussion of ‘touchy’ subjects almost always comes from expected characters: lewd Sir Belch, the ever-in-jest Feste, and the disenchanted, jaded Viola.  True to form, the play closes with a merry song, which appropriately seems to dismiss the act of indulging in foolishness in a light, devil-may-care aplomb.  The moral axiom by Quinapalus, stated by Feste in the last scene of the first act, is befitting to the play in that it captures its spirit: “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.”  It seems that through wit, there is no subject that is off-limits.  When I think about it, such unbounded freedom of speech is daunting and even dangerous.  After reading Twelfth Night, it seems that Shakespeare would encourage me lightly not to overanalyze potential dangers.  But even in my amusement, that nagging conscience of mine refuses to stay quiet, conscious of the less than hilarious potential consequences of subverting address of weighty matters by way of sarcasm or deliberate nonchalance.

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