THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Archive for September 2011

Shakespeare’s Chicks and Rubber Ducks…

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So, rubber ducks…

At the beginning of August, I proposed a social experiment, noting my then 308 Facebook ‘friend’ count and wondering out loud how such relationships might translate into actual assistance. So I began to petition Facebook for help with something that’s been on my mind for some time… I really wanted a rubber duck.

Now, I’ll get to the rubber duck, but first, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know the experiment was a success. After twenty-eight days of much status update prompting, a former housemate mailed me a flock of varying sizes and styles (three traditional rubber ducks, one superhero-themed polymer drake). So for those hardened souls who declare online connectivity a synthetic façade on society, I now declare with full rational confidence and absolute empirical certainty that Facebook ‘friends’ are indeed, actual friends… now that I have a rubber duck, that is.

So why did I want a rubber duck? Well, let me explain: I have a pipe (see profile on right). Now I don’t use tobacco but the presence of a pipe in my hand lends a certain air of sophistication. In actual fact, the pipe has become incredibly useful when making important points in meetings or ending boring conversations (fish a pipe out of your pocket, poise it thoughtfully into your mouth and it instantly changes the topic). The rubber duck functions in a similar fashion, but where the pipe can be a point of confusion the duck has an altogether different effect.

It makes people laugh.

Indeed, generally people’s initial response to these objects is to smile, then laugh. The reason for a rubber duck’s inherent humour remains a mystery, but possessing them has ultimately given myself power over the cognitive state of almost any individual I encounter. In times of tired routine, terse debate and torpid traffic, I can make anyone happy at a moment’s notice… well at least that’s the ideal. I did present the rubber duck to one individual who immediately became quite uncomfortable, the toy being reminiscent of childhood and a related parental angst… and supposedly I can seem a little ‘creepy’ randomly offering rubber ducks in public (I don’t buy that at all!).

I recount this tale of humour in order to tease out some of the motifs presented in Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, namely the purpose, function and significance of humour in storytelling. Overall in Shakespeare’s work, the age-old maxim that the tragedies end in death but the comedies end in marriage is fairly accurate. So inevitably the laughs revolve around gender and courting as the plots skip towards the altar. Indeed, some of the earliest recorded jokes in history, including the lurid graffiti on the scorched walls of Pompeii, concern sexuality and relationships.

Now, many have offered grand theories on the significance of the common joke. Immanuel Kant, for instance, thought a joke was the process of transforming a familiar idea into nothing. Edward de Bono identified the alteration of familiar patterns also. Arthur Koestler agreed somewhat, suggesting that telling a joke is a form of intellectual slight of hand.

Typically this involves building a narrative framework for a listener before challenging the assumptions beneath it, which requires a swift shift in logic to comprehend. This urgent scramble in understanding creates a kind of cognitive anxiety and hormonal rush. In consequence, this anxiety is relieved through vocalized, abdominal convulsions, almost akin to weeping. For instance:

William Shakespeare walks into a bar. The playwright orders a drink but the bartender refuses to serve him. Shakespeare asks why he has been denied and the bartender curtly replies with the phrase ‘because you’re Bard!’

Now laugh… I concede that the delivery here is in the pronunciation, but hopefully you get the idea. The greatest playwright in history is unable to order a drink, highlighted by the audible similarity between a common expression of denial and an esteemed title of authorship. See, it’s funny.

Alternatively, Sigmund Freud theorised that jokes were frameworks for social critique and a form of voyeurism, involving a subject and an object. Generally, we can use jokes to challenge systems, people and ideas, relying on the façade of humour to soften our intent. So behind every gag and internet meme is some form of bias and anxiety, just begging to be psychoanalysed.

So in the case of the chicken crossing the road, or the cultural stereotype unable to change a light bulb or even a grown man publically brandishing an object intended for bathing children, an object is misrepresented to create an image of the absurd, which becomes a judgement on said object.

In the case of Shakespeare’s comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing, in which two couples flirt and trick their way to the altar, or Twelfth Night, a Yuletide tale which finds a shipwrecked girl Viola seeking refuge in the disguise of a page boy, or As You Like It, a road story where two cousins Celia and Rosalind adopt aliases as they escape political persecution, women require poses and alternative identities as a manner of survival. These narratives are inseparable from misrepresentations of female gender and romantic relations, particularly girls dressing as men. So, why would Shakespeare write plays repeatedly featuring women dressed as men?

Well, it makes people laugh.

Whether it is the Bard’s first work Two Gent’s, the legend of Pope Joan, figures like Charlie Chaplain, Laurel Hardy, Dame Edna, Bugs Bunny, the film Tootsie or any number of Monty Python skits, there is an historic tradition of cross-dressing in social satire. Viola and Rosalind are not innovative creations and they are hardly alone. In these comedies, gender is being misrepresented to seem absurd and it is the object being judged. In short, to be female is a joke.

Here, the female gender is Shakespeare’s rubber duck. Of course, as Ben pointed out, we now see these parts performed by women, but this was not originally the case. Such characters were played by men, dressed as women who then dressed as men. With this in mind, we see such events as Viola mistaken for her twin brother whilst in drag or Rosalind disguised as a man whilst vying Orlando’s affections in a particularly absurd light. Quite frankly, in this context, gender does become absurd.

The possible implication in these plays is that the female gender is a fragile and ridiculous thing, to be mocked and only secure in identification with the male gender through disguise or the institution of marriage. This may indeed have been the common assertion of the plays’ period (though I doubt Liz the 1st agreed at the time). I will let the politics of this implication rest, for they are well-trodden and tiresome in and of themselves.

Recently, I attended a wedding as a friend’s groomsman in my hometown of Adelaide. With the remains of these plays in my mind, the girls’ luxurious flowers and dresses and the boys’ stoic stances and suits did indeed seem to imply that much is funny about gender. In a wedding, all involved adopt the one-dimensional gender trappings they usually eschew in everyday life. Girls become especially painted, feline and virginal, and boys in turn become groomed, Byronic and chivalrous, no matter how unconventional their personalities may otherwise be.

For a day at least, the age-old architecture of patriarchy is invoked in broad fairytale strokes. Our Father in heaven ordains romance, chapels host ritual, males escort females, there are holy vows, kissing and dancing. Suddenly, the myriad mores of a bygone era are molded onto the morass of mundane, modern culture, rich with both Biblical and Shakespearean imagery.

It wasn’t until the reception, crammed into a local coffee bar, where I began to mull over all this. As individuals, we all come coded with the biological instincts that have helped form gender roles over the millennia (men hunt, women gather, etc). Then, we must each match our mosaic personalities to the parameters pop culture throws at us. Male or female, we all feel like cross-dressers from time to time. For the bride and groom, both good friends, they are unique and brilliant individuals who fit gender stereotypes poorly and to their credit. Together, they are a testament to the true diversity of gender and the rich blessings inherent in our God-given identities.

After the speeches (during which I may have utilised a rubber duck) the tone of the event shifted. The ties were loosened and high heels slipped off, the marriage jokes were trotted out, waitresses spilled drinks (mostly on my pants) and the lovely couple robot danced to Skrillex. It occurred to me that the expectations and disguises of gender are indeed resolved in marriage to a degree. Male or female, husband and wife, our individual gender identities are committed to co-operation for better or worse. Considering this trio of rom-coms, Shakespeare, and Anne at home presumably, understood this well enough.

So at the plays’ conclusions, Viola and Rosalind remove their pageboy disguises, Beatrice puts away her double-talk and pride, and all three heroines find a happy ending in marriage. There, the laughs end and we leave William Shakespeare’s comedies for now, rubber ducks notwithstanding…




September 29, 2011 at 2:50 am

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Much Ado About Liking What You Will

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Comedy can be tough.

While there are certain genres like musicals or horror, or certain mediums like poetry, that people either love or loathe, I think it’s safe to say we all like comedy in some shape or form. I mean, we all like to laugh sometimes, right? (if you don’t, you might wanna see a doctor)

But when it comes to sifting through those individual shapes and forms, and individual comic texts, things can get divisive. In fact, I can think of few genres so widely beloved whose output is quite so divisive and subject to each and every person’s individual comic wiring. Obviously there are some touchstones that simply can’t be debated: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bringing up Baby, Duck Soup, Fawlty Towers, and Some Like it Hot are genius no matter which way you cut it (and seriously, if you don’t appreciate Some Like it Hot, you are dead inside). But then there’s Monty Python, or Saturday Night Live, or Mr Bean, or Airplane: all touchstones, all influential, all brilliant in their own way, and comic gold to some, but dreadfully unfunny to others.

Last year I fell head over heels for the TV series Community. I promptly encouraged several friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to seek it out, and even put some episodes on USBs for a few people. Some of them really took to the show, others… not so much. Perhaps I need new friends, but more realistically, that’s just how comedy works: some people’s treasure will be other people’s trash.

My partner and I share a lot of interests, but we don’t watch many comedies together, and I’d say it’s one of those genres where our wiring simply differs. There are people we both admire – Woody Allen, Bill Murray etc – but just as many that we differ on. For instance, she’s somewhat fond of Adam Sandler and Jack Black, while I find them the comic equivalents of nails on a chalkboard. Meanwhile, I find Seth Rogen fairly funny, but my girlfriend finds him a black hole of mediocrity. She also finds Dan Aykroyd a sell-out whore, whereas I love and will always love the man, in spite of his increasingly mercenary ways. Hell, I’m sure I’ll watch Yogi Bear at some point in my life, simply because the sound of Dan Aykroyd’s voice coming out of Yogi Bear’s mouth makes me smile.

We’ll also disagree on individual films. When I first saw The Hangover I completely flipped for it, and it’s one of the few comedies made in the last decade which I’ve felt compelled to revisit, which says a lot. In addition to finding it pretty damn funny, I loved that it felt genuinely cinematic, where most mainstream US comedies go for a bland, flat aesthetic: every Kevin James movie looks like every Steve Carrell movie looks like every Paul Rudd movie and so on. My partner, though, found it fairly slight and unengaging. Just recently we locked horns over Blazing Saddles: I said it was subversive and hilarious and an affectionate riff on the Western, she said it was stupid and puerile. That’s life…

Like I said, whether someone enjoys a comedy or not will often come down to their individual comic wiring, regardless of the craft or lack thereof evident in the text. I believe I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog that I’ve had a troublesome history with Shakespeare’s comedies. Back at university in 2001, I mentioned somewhere in an essay on  A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I found the tragedies preferable to the comedies, and in his feedback my tutor called me ignorant (as indeed have many anti-Stratfordians on this blog). That certainly disciplined me into not being so dismissive of one type of play in favour of another, but even over the next few years, as I became an aficionado and eventually a scholar of the Bard, the comedies remained a blind spot. I appreciated them but didn’t necessarily like them. Again, that’s comedy for you.

So it’s been interesting revisiting, and in some cases reading for the first time, many of Shakespeare’s comedies over the course of this reading/blogging project. Some plays have more or less conformed to my expectations and assumptions, while others have exceeded them. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew got things off to a dodgy start, but I quite enjoyed The Comedy of Errors. Love’s Labour’s Lost didn’t do much for me, nor did The Merry Wives of Windsor, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice, both of which I’d studied academically, rang all the right bells. And now with the trio of As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night (which, incidentally, was one of the primary texts of my Honours thesis), my irrational prejudices about Shakespeare’s comedies have been trumped once again.

It was always gonna be inevitable with these ones though. After all, they’re rightly beloved and hailed as comic masterworks. A big part of their appeal is of course their smart, savvy female leads. Rosalind, Beatrice, and Viola are pretty damn awesome protagonists, flipping gender and/or language on their head with wit and dexterity. Much Ado About Nothing reads like the original screwball comedy, with Beatrice & Benedick the original Hepburn & Tracey (no wonder then that Kenneth Branagh went for this particular vibe in his film of Much Ado). Beatrice is every bit Benedick’s equal in smarts and sass and smugness, matching him witticism for witticism throughout the play. Meanwhile, both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, like The Merchant of Venice, feature cross-dressing gender-bending hijinks. Rosalind and Viola disguise themselves as young men – Ganymede and Cesario respectively – to escape persecution and survive in their patriarchal societies. Viola’s survival instinct sets in pretty quickly: after being shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, she proclaims:

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid for such disguise as haply shall become the form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke; thou shalt present me as a eunuch to him. It may be worth thy pains, for I can sing, and speak to him in many sorts of music, that will allow me very worth his service (1.2.53-59).

When people advocate for Shakespeare as a feminist author, these are the plays that supply the strongest ammunition, though it’s worth noting that each routinely restores the patriarchal status quo at the end by absorbing the female leads into matrimony and subservience. I think it’d be pretty neat if Shakespeare went a bit Dolls House on his audience, and had the characters give their future/prospective husbands the bird at play’s end. Of course, given some of the grief Ibsen endured in the late 1800s, one could only imagine how a late 1500s/early 1600s audience would’ve reacted.

Watching or reading Shakespeare today is of course quite different from watching the plays when they were first performed, and one significant difference is that we’ve both gained and lost a key ingredient. In Shakespeare’s time women were not permitted to act on stage. The first woman to grace the British stage, Margaret Hughes, did so in 1660, abot 60 years after Twelfth Night was first performed. While theatre has obviously benefited, our understanding of how the humour works in Twelfth Night or As You Like It has been decreased slightly by this reconfiguration of stage convention. For the most part when we read these plays we see a woman pretending to be a boy. That’s also usually the case in productions we watch. But on the Renaissance stage, these parts were played by boys playing women playing boys. That’s a whole layer of comedy and subversion we’ve lost or become alienated from.

Even so, good characterisation and comedy transcend shifting stage conventions, and these three plays remain entertaining. I’m not sure how much more comic gold is left to mine in the canon, but whatever the case, it’s been nice to have my more unfounded assumptions about the comedies remedied time and again.

PS Anthony: no rubber ducks were harmed in the composition of this blog post.



September 1, 2011 at 11:41 pm

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